Rabi'a From Narrative to Myth

The Many Faces of Islam's Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Rkia Elaroui Cornell
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.

Even readers with more limited knowledge of Rabi‘a will be interested in the Cornell’s treatment of familiar narratives, frequently presented in contrast with received history about Rabi‘a. For example, well-known stories of dialogue between an ancient Rabi‘a and a young Hasan of Basra (al-Hasan al-Basri) are found to be anachronistic, given Hasan’s death seventy years before Rabi‘a’s (43). The author problematizes traditional approaches to Rabi‘a’s teachings, reframing the woman best known as a Sufi saint instead as a proto-Sufi (219). Furthermore, Cornell compares Rabi‘a’s sayings with the mystical sayings of others in her tribe, casting doubt on her ascribed traditional role as an important Sufi love mystic (160). Cornell suggests that stories about other women ascetics in the Basra region have been conflated with Rabi‘a stories, a contemporary’s experience as a slave folded into Rabi‘a’s biography (162). Hagiographies of Rabi‘a—reputedly faithful renderings—are often comprised of tropes and amalgams, and do not conform to Western notions of historical accuracy (263).

Cornell finds that the image of Rabi‘a was frequently appropriated for a later male author’s own purposes, but argues that it is possible to find aspects of the authentic Rabi‘a via the interrogation of gender and mythic representation. Indeed, the framework the author provides for discerning a “real” female voice within a male myth retelling is a highlight of the work. Among other evidence comparisons, she points to a hierarchy of Rabi‘a source material, marking a distinction between aphorisms based in oral tradition, and later accounts of Rabi‘a that show evidence of bias or embellishment (218). Cornell bases her analysis in solid scholarship with extensive references in Arabic and Persian as well as European languages, utilizing well-respected sources in the field such as Widad El Sakkakini, Margaret Smith, and others. The work also frequently references Cornell’s 1999 translation of Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-niswa al-muta‘abbidat as-sufiyyat (Fons Vitae) by Persian Sufi Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami.

Graduate students and religious studies scholars will benefit from the well-documented research, while scholars of narratology and myth may find Cornell’s investigation of myth-building instructive. Students of Proto-Sufism will also find the chapters on Sufism of interest. At times, the book’s six-fold structure investigating overlapping faces of Rabi‘a often retreads the same ground in successive chapters; for example, by repeatedly referencing the same limitations about Rabi‘a’s historicity. Readers without a deep grounding in Rabi‘a’s life and times may find the prose and exposition challenging. The work is not suitable for a general introduction to the life and teachings of Rabi‘a due to its depth and approach. Despite these concerns, the expert reader is sure to find Cornell’s robust research a useful addition to the literature. Rabi‘a From Narrative to Myth is a vital contribution to Rabi‘a scholarship, propelling future studies of this important female Muslim figure to new insights.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elisabeth Mehl Greene is Visiting Researcher at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rkia Elaroui Cornell is Professor of Pedagogy and Coordinator of the Arabic Program at Emory University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.