Sunday, October 24, 2010

Museum lectures, part two

The second lecture at the Museum of Islamic Art, on great Arab thinkers, was on a Sufi aesthetic from the eighth century -- Rabia al-Adawiyya

She was born in Basra (Iraq), so unlike the subject of the previous lecture she could definitely be considered an Arab and probably spoke Arabic.

Now Sufism is a type of Islam that tends to be along the more mystic/ascetic lines of spirituality (Whirling Dervishes, who spin around as a form of meditation, are Sufis). A Qatari friend of mine who had experiences with Sufis during his time abroad considered them odd and certainly different from the Wahhabist-Sunni Islam that he followed. I'm not entirely sure of the differences between the different groups, I'll consider researching that further sometime.

What was unusual about this lecture was that it seemed to be more of a hagiography, focusing on details of the lady’s miracles and manifestations of devoutness rather than solid historical facts about her (given that she was born in the eighth century perhaps maybe there wasn't much).

What I found interesting is that all of these tales and stories about Rabia struck me as being very similar to the tales of Christian saints propagated by Catholicism. Miracles, stories of her floating in the air, making lanterns blaze with light, seem to be most of the information about her, not unlike many Catholic saints. It makes me wonder whether the Christian tradition of hagiography had somehow permeated the early Islamic followers who looked for and emulated saints. In fact, until I attended this lecture I didn't realize there was any such thing as an Islamic saint, though it is apparently common in Sufiism.

The lecturer did touch on many of the stories that are indeed linked with Wikipedia article but there were a few differences. Her father did not relate that the Prophet had asked the Amir to give him 400 dinars, that was simply a reward that the Amir gave him for the vision. Apparently no one knew that the Amir observed Darooud so her father telling the Amir that he had missed it last Thursday (the lecturer said it was a Friday, which makes a little more sense since that is a holy day) was all the proof that he needed to know that her father was telling the truth about the vision.

Even more unusual was that she remained celibate throughout her life and rejected many marriage proposals. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not generally consider chastity as being more "pure" or innocent -- the Prophet Mohammed had many wives and since he is considered an exemplary human being in Islam (he is a Prophet of Allah, duh), marriage is considered acceptable for anyone. As far as I know no sect in Islam promotes celibacy for its imams/religious scholars (go on, Google any fundamentalist Muslim you can think of, chances are they were all married. Ayatollah Khameini was married and fathered seven children).

The lecturer then showed us numerous pictures or paintings of Rabia. One of her favorites was one made in India depicting a marriage proposal from a very wealthy and powerful suitor. I found the picture to be really weird -- I guess because she was an aesthetic and the painter was Indian, the painter depicted her amongst a lush forest with peacocks and various birds (certainly not what the Arabian Peninsula looks like) with her head shaved and wearing robes not unlike a Hare Krishna! Even weirder her robes were not covering her upper body so her breasts were visible!! Clearly that Indian painter took her to be an anesthetic in the Buddhist tradition -- and had never been to Arabia either. I'm sorry, I can't believe for a minute that any Muslim woman would be thrilled to be depicted topless with a shaved head! The lecturer said it was her favorite painting and that it sort of had a "21st century" look (??). I thought it looked really weird and out of place. For the life of me I can't see Ms. Rabia thinking it was a wonderful depiction and I'm pretty sure she never sat in the jungle with a shaved head, topless, with a sitar when someone came by with a marriage proposal – c’mon! I Googled to try to find the painting but unfortunately couldn't find it. Shame, it would have been interesting to post.

None of her writings survive but she is credited for promoting the Divine Love of Allah and her miracles and accomplishments are still known in the Islamic world today.

Anyway, it was an okay lecture. I liked the lecture on Buruni better because it seemed to be more grounded in fact and scientific achievement rather than a hagiography of a mystic. I guess her accomplishments were more on the religious side rather than achievements in a scientific field but it was difficult for me to ascertain how much of her teachings actually permeated throughout the Islamic world and influence current views on Islam. She was definitely well-known enough to have a couple of films made about her life, and there are numerous books that discuss her, so for all of us non-Muslim layman she's probably on the same level of fame as Joan of Arc.


Anonymous said...

Is this the painting you're talking about?

Turns out, following her dad's death and some famine in Basra, she was captured as a youngster and sold into slavery. As a beautiful young girl she was an entertainer for her master and his guests, drank heavily, etc. until "she found her path" and was set free. Hence the painting as a topless entertainer.

Glen McKay said...

For some reason the link wouldn't work but given your description I'm pretty sure it's not the painting. In the painting I was mentioning she was painted like a Buddhist aesthetic, with a shaved head and Buddhist-like robes sitting crosslegged under a tree, only her robes had fallen off her shoulder.

I recall the professor giving the lecture mentioning the stories of her being an entertainer but I think she said that Rabia would've likely been too young at the time to be a topless dancer/entertainer. Unfortunately when all you have is hagiography it is difficult to tell what ultimately is or is not the truth.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly the painting you're describing. I tried looking for an e-mail address on your site to send it to but couldn't find one. I just copied the entire link from h to g in my browser again and it worked.