Most people encounter Rabi‘a through poetic aphorisms such as the following: “I carry a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other: with these things I am going to set fire to Heaven and put out the flames in Hell so that voyagers to God can rip the veils and see the real goal,” (Charles Upton, Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi‘a, Pir Press, 2004).
In Rabi‘a From Narrative to Myth: The Many Faces of Islam’s Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, Rkia Elaroui Cornell seeks to disentangle centuries of constructed identities surrounding the renowned yet elusive 8th century Sufi saint and her teachings. Given the dearth of primary sources related to Rabi‘a—also known as Rabi‘a of Basra—conflicting accounts that have emerged from oral tradition, Islamic literature, and academic scholarship tell divergent stories about her. In the absence of original manuscripts, she can only be known in retelling, narratives, aphoristic teachings, and poems credited to her name; even her appellation itself has many variations.
Widad El Sakkakini writes, “I see Rabi‘a as an apparition, shimmering like a wave,” which can serve to illustrate the opacity of the figure of Rabi‘a (First among Sufis, Octagon Press, 1982). Rabi‘a From Narrative to Myth is a uniquely comprehensive inquiry into the fluid historical memory of this multi-faceted woman of antiquity. Cornell presents a number of possible personas for Rabi‘a: Teacher, Ascetic, Lover, Sufi, Sufi Image, and Secular Image, exhaustively locating each in the broader historical and ideological context. This book opens a rich discussion of narrative and mythical truth, searching for the authentic Rabi‘a, with research that not only probes what may be known of her life, but also focuses on her varied representations transformed by those who carried on her legacy.
This review was first published in Reading Religion www.readingreligion.org
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Elisabeth Mehl Greene is a Visiting Researcher at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.