Sexual Trauma and the Spiritual Experience: Rabiʿa al-A’dawiyya and Margery Kempe

Document Type : Research Papers


Department of English and Rhetoric, Georgia College and State University


Rabiʿa al-Aʿdawiyya (717-801 A.D.) the first female Sufi in the Muslim world, who introduced the concept of ‘love’ into mysticism, was popular for her witticism, sharp reprimands of her contemporary male Sufis and her gender-bending practices. In ʿAttar’s Tadhkirat al-Awliya, Rabiʿa is portrayed as a challenger of the established gender norms of her day. Rabiʿa’s crossing of gender boundaries and her mysticism presented in ʿAttar’s works can be regarded as defense mechanisms employed against her experience of exploitation as a slave and for the sake of necessity to transcend her limited gender identity and feminine sexuality as well as her inability to reach liberation that she longed for. In order to get a more nuanced view of female mystics’ gender transgression, I will also examine similar gender transgression in Rabiʿa’s Christian counterpart, the English Margery Kempe (1373-1438). Margery is known for having written The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery’s public expression of spirituality as a laywoman was unusual compared to the more traditional holy exemplars of her time. Margery’s spiritual career began past her traumatic childbirth experience which resulted in her developing abject feelings about femininity and motherhood. The book shows Margery, like Rabiʿa in her days, crossing gender boundaries of her time and reshaping her identity so as to re-enter the world as a new subject. I argue that the power of divine love and the encounter with the divine Other allowed these two women to transgress gender boundaries, de- and reconstruct their identities through annihilation of their self, rediscover the ultimate Reality, and unite with the divine.


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