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A woman, Pole of poles

· Al-Sayyida al-Mannubiyya ·

God made me the diadem of saints, the Pole of poles.

I received a pact from God that none of the people of my century would go to hell if God so pleased; for those among them who would have deserved fire and brimstone I will say to God: take me in his place and may God not wish to disappoint me.

I am the vicar of God on earth.

God gave me gold, silver and rubies. I said to him: “Your face, Lord, is better than all this”.

Medina, portrayed on a ceramic tile

Aisha al-Mannubiyya (d. 1267), this woman “enraptured” in God and today the saint most widely venerated in Tunisia, is a paradoxical figure of holiness. In her life she roused the disapproval of jurists and risked being condemned for her transgression of social norms, her celibacy and her frequentation of men. Sanctified by some, reviled by others, from the 14th century Aisha was nevertheless to know notoriety and then a cult no longer denied to our day; the two sanctuaries (zâwiya) dedicated to her (one in Tunis, the other in Manouba, where she was born, a few kilometres to the west of Tunis), continue to attract the faithful, devotees and passers-by. Called al-Sayyida (the Lady), without any other designation, Aisha, in the image of saints, was “head over heels in love with God”, resistant to every attempt to enclose her in a biographical account, or a linear and recognizable trajectory of life. Moreover as a historical figure she has little consistency. We know this saint, venerated by both the common people and the elite of power and learning, thanks to a hagiography (manaqib, literally “qualities, virtues, praiseworthy actions”). The anonymous author of the text, in all likelihood written in the 14th century, was an imam of the mosque in Manouba and, like many authors of works of manaqib, was equally versed in the exoteric and esoteric sciences. Since the 14th century, this hagiography, whose text over the course of the centuries has retained a certain stability, has not ceased to be copied. Because of their number, because of the acts of donation to the great al-Zaytuna Mosque, many of them by the Beys of Tunis and by the highest State dignitaries, because of the accurate and often unique character of the manuscript tradition relative to the saint, the copies which have come down to us testify to the great veneration given to her.

Interior of the Sanctuary of al-Sayyida al-Mannubiyya in Manouba

Aisha was about 20 years old when the Hafsids began to govern Ifriqiya independently and she died ten years before the end of the Kingdom of al-Mustansir (1249-1277), who officially assumed the title of Caliph and prolonged the period of peace, security and economic development inaugurated by his father Abu Zakariyya. At the religious level Sufism and Malikism were being increasingly affirmed. Born in about 1198-1199 in Manouba, Aisha was considered to be out of her mind and attracted the anger and contempt of those who surrounded her. When she was 12 years old she had a vision of Al-Khadir (the initiator of the saints and prophets, who is generally recognized as the Qur’anic figure of surah 18, 65.82 which presents him with the features of a young man): “You are enrolled in my 3,000-year-old records”, he told her. The little girl was frightened. To put an end to the gossip, her father decided to give her in marriage to a cousin: Aisha refused and left the place of her birth to settle in Tunis, the capital of the Hafsids, in a sort of caravanserai near one of the city gates, Bâb al-Fallâq, in the southern suburbs. When her hagiography recalls her pious retreats in Jebel Zaghouan (south of Tunis, along the road that connects it with Kairouan), in the company above all of Uthman al-Haddad, the disciple most frequently mentioned in her manaqib, or tells of her wandering among the tombs, what is shown to us in any case is a holy woman who lived among men and women, listening to their sufferings, and visited the most important places of Tunisian Sufism of the time. She does not seem to have practised any activity to earn a living; she must have lived on donations from her contemporaries which she redistributed as alms to the poorest people. We do not know whether there was any teacher on her path; her manaqib nevertheless endowed her with a spiritual genealogy in which Junayd (d. 910), Jilani (d. 1165), Ibn al-Farid (d. 1234-1235) and al-Shadhili (d. 1258) feature, saints whom Aisha “saw” in her visions, who passed on to her their path and transmitted to her the authorization to fill the role of spiritual guide. Might there have been an attempt to see a connection between a holy woman strongly contested in her lifetime with older and already consecrated saints? In any case, if her initiation by Shadhili, the eponymous founder of the Sufi order of Shadhiliyya, so often asserted, lacks historical consistency, Aisha had been in contact with companions of the teacher, some of whom are mentioned in her hagiography. She died at the age of 70 in 1267 and was buried in Tunis in the Sharaf cemetery that no longer exists (today Gorjani Square), which dominates the Sabkha Sijoumi.

Aisha’s hagiography is strewn with ecstatic speeches in which clearly appears the cosmic and eschatological function attributed to the saint in an epoch in which the walâya (a generic term which designates holiness in Islam) is more important than ever, especially with the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), the heir of prophecy and the saints the heirs of the prophets, and in particular of the Prophet Muhammad. In the daring, boastful words which her hagiography attributes to her, the saint declares she learned the Qur’an from God himself; in Islamic hagiography many saints see the revealed text “descend” into their hearts, in the image of the Prophet, without ever having learned it from a teacher. Aisha likewise declares that she received from the Archangel Michael and from al-Khadir a heavenly drink, thanks to which new virtues were conferred upon her: knowledge, forbearance, certainty, concentration, humility, blessing, tenderness of heart, chastity and preservation (from sin). Mary, the Qur’anic female archetype of holiness par excellence, is very present in Aisha’s hagiography, which claims a triple Marian legacy of reward, purification and election. Like Mary, God chose her and she was visited by the Spirit of holiness recognized in exegesis as the mysterious initiator of Moses (Qur’an 18,65) As for her prophetic heredity, for every prophet mentioned (Noah, Adam, Seth, Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses, Jesus and Shu’ayb), Aisha claims “the totality of her inheritance”, imitating in this the Prophet Muhammad who contained in himself the totality of the prophetic types and integrated in himself the specific virtues of each one of them (Ibn ‘Arabi). With regard to Muhammad’s inheritance in the strict sense, the saint declares that she has received it from the Prophet himself, in what is very like a scene of investiture together with its ritual of initiation, in which Muhammad takes on the role of spiritual teacher. Aisha proclaims herself over and over again “Pole of poles” (qutbat al-aqtâb); note, among other things, the feminization of the word) and “vicar of God” (khalîfat Allâh). The hagiography even offers us a scene of enthronement in this quality of “pole” during which the Lady Aisha receives a covenant of fidelity from an assembly of saints. Now, in Ibn al-Farid (d. 1234-1235), the pole of poles (the highest degree of holiness in Islam), this axis mundi around which rotate all existential realities and all poles and which is sent as mercy for the universes, is the reality or essence of Muhammad; lieutenancy (khilâfa) is one of the other names of the qutb and one of its main functions. The recognition, in the 14th century, of this dignity in a woman is a strong sign, even though Ibn ‘Arabi in his Futûhât (The Meccan Revelations) had already become an apostle of perfect equality at this level among both men and women, “who take part at all the levels, including that of the function of pole”.

The religious and social practices attributed to Aisha bring her close to “those that are blameworthy”, the ahl al-malâma, whose state is hidden. The saints who are enraptured, literally “carried away”, in the image of the Prophet whom God caused to travel by night, have their being completely absorbed in love which removes from them any will of their own: “For 70 years my heart has been absent in God”, Aisha said. The enraptured person is completely dead to him- or herself, lost in the divine presence. In Sufism, these holy people are protected by the veil of madness (junûn): God keeps them jealously for himself as he reserves a servant for himself, and thus they are “ignorant among creatures”. But they are also a representation of divine mercy. If the Lady of Tunis boasts of having reached the station of closeness to God, her hagiography also exalts her compassion for her contemporaries, to whose aid she would go and whose requests, thanks to her intercession, were granted. Thus the 52 miracles in vita and post mortem are recounted. Among themappear healings, the release of prisoners, beneficial rainfalls, help in material poverty, the protection of travellers and of refugees, predictions, the restoration of mental faculties and yet other things. She is called upon by people of every condition, even by scholars, jurists and senior officials. The soteriological dimension is also present in this holiness. In addition, the author of the manaqib attributes to the saint a certain number of sentences and exhortations: the ideal of holiness which emanates from this spiritual teaching is made up of renunciation of the world, of humility and of ascesis, constantly inhabited by recollection, the permanent remembrance of God, which practice is strongly recommended. It is a holiness of scrupulous observance in which the debasement of the carnal being, the fight against vain desires, the death of the senses, the invitation to prayer on the Prophet and to respect for his sunna (deeds, attitudes and sayings) occupy a central place.

However luminous, and in many aspects unusual, the holiness of Aisha al-Mannubiya was in the hagiological pantheon of Ifriqiya, the Lady of Tunis was not the only woman in whom her contemporaries recognized the virtues of holiness. Of course, the female saints of Islam have not had the benefit of the same interest that is reserved for male saints; yet the production of biographies causes great figures of female holiness to emerge and testifies to a recognition of these holy women, venerated in the same way as holy men, over and above the tensions inherent in their condition as women or arising from sometimes bewildering forms of holiness. That a woman, what is more one who is enraptured in God, should embody in the eyes of her contemporaries and under the pen of a jurist and imam the highest levels in the spiritual hierarchy will not fail to call into question all those who wonder about the place of women in Islam, and more generally, in universal spirituality. 

Nelly Amri




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 26, 2020