Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya

[RābiꜤa al-ꜤAdawiyya] (c. 717–801)

Over the centuries, RābiꜤa, perhaps the most important female saint in Islam, became the subject of numerous tales and legends. She lives on in modern times in films and novelistic portrayals. Rkia Elaroui Cornell’s recent study RābiꜤa From Narrative to Myth (Oneworld, London, 2019) provides a welcome guide to the many facets of this emblematic figure. Of the historical RābiꜤa very little can be said with any certainty, though Cornell distills from the earliest sources the image of a woman of high standing and virtuous conduct who was sought out for her eloquence and wisdom. In later accounts of her life provided by Sufi authors such as Abū Ṭālib al-Makī and Farīd ud-Dīn ꜤAṭṭār she is portrayed as the chief exemplar of divine love in such a way as to recall the figure of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. As Cornell points out, both Diotima and RābiꜤa were women teachers who charted the path of ascent from physical to spiritual love. While no Arabic translation of the Symposium has come down to us, Cornell among others has identified a number of passages in the accounts of RābiꜤa and in other Arabic sources which appear to suggest that the Platonic text was known and found to be congenial, and hence lived on incognito in Islamic garb. 

‘I love you with two loves’

Unlike Diotima, RābiꜤa was credited with poetic talents, though the authorship of the verses attributed to her remains open to question. This applies also to the much cited ‘poem of the two loves’ with which RābiꜤa is proverbially associated. Viewed within the wider panorama of the history of Middle Eastern spirituality, this poetic miniature appears like a seed fallen from a giant tree which would give rise to another no less majestic progeny. It encapsulates in simplest form the Platonic and Neoplatonic theory of love as a single force manifest in ascending stages that appear to differ, but are in truth all searching for, and brought into being by, the highest goal. Attributed to RābiꜤa as the progenitor of divine love in Islam, the verses encapsulate in turn the extensive poetic musings composed on this very topic in ensuing centuries by masters such as Ibn ꜤArabī (d. 1240) and Hafez (d. 1390).

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Arabic text from Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (1310 / 1893), Qūt al-Qulūb (Cairo), vol. 2, 57.

English translation by © Rkia Elaroui Cornell reproduced by kind permission of the author from Rkia Elaroui Cornell (2019), RābiꜤa From Narrative to Myth, The Many Faces of Islam’s Most Famous Woman Saint, RābiꜤa al-‘Adawiyya (Oneworld Publications, London), 197-8. For other versions and translations of this poem see Cornell (2019: 196-208).