The Deputy of Maryam – The Mystic Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya in Light of the Qur’anic Mary

Discussions of the Islamic Mary or Maryam frequently engage the Qur’an, especially the chapter that is named after her (Surat Maryam).  However, it is important to point out that Maryam exists throughout Islamic literature and Muslim memory and her name appears across various texts of exegesis (tafsīr), hadith, and theology. Likewise in Islamic mystical literature, often referred to as Sufism, she plays a prominent role. There, Maryam is treated as a model for Muslim mystics, ascetics and saints seeking to foster an intimate relationship with God. In particular, her legacy serves as a template for female spiritual figures to follow and for Muslim historians to analyze.

The Feminine Branch of Islam? – Sufism and Women

While women contributed to the full range of the various Islamic sciences, there is a strand of scholarship which argues that Sufism was a particularly welcoming branch of study for women. The Sufis “were well aware of the positive aspects of womanhood” and many Sufis did not regard femininity as negative but rather emphasized the praiseworthiness of certain feminine attributes.[1] Shrines of female scholars, Sufis and saints exist throughout Muslim lands and this is reflected in modern times, with many of Sufism’s teachers and community leaders being women.[2] It can be even said that “Sufism was more favorable to the development of feminine activities than were other branches of Islam.”[3] In contrast to other disciplines, “many women found the Sufi path to be a realm in which their participation and even original contributions were eventu­ally validated, if not always immediately accepted.”[4]

Furthermore, the Sufis “particularly loved Mary, Maryam, the immaculate mother who gave birth to the spiritual child Jesus.[5] She is often taken as the symbol of the spirit that receives divine inspiration and thus becomes pregnant with the divine light.”[6] Sufis generally celebrate the angelic touch that led to her pregnancy and the eventual birth of a righteous prophet and message bearer. Thus, for Maryam, her “spiritual role of the female receptacle is fully accepted” and her pregnancy and birth are seen as part of her divine struggle.[7] Unlike other Near Eastern philosophies, many Sufis held that motherhood and its various struggles, from the pregnancy to labor, were part of a spiritual journey.[8] Maryam would thus become an exemplar “of the nature of the feminine ideal”[9] which was further connected to the so called “feminine” aspects of God such as mercy (raḥma).[10] The story of Maryam provides ample material for those of the mystical and Sufi persuasion as her story is full of miracles, angels and the divine. As the Qur’an explains, Maryam is provided provisions out of season, is approached by an angel, gives birth as a virgin, and has her infant son speak in her defense.

Figure 1 Annemarie Schimmel’s famous book “Mystical Dimensions of Islam” laid the framework for future studies on Sufism and women.  In particular, she highlights the role of Maryam and states that “she is often taken as the symbol of the spirit that receives divine inspiration and thus becomes pregnant with the divine light.”

The Deputy of Maryam – Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya

Because of Maryam’s spiritual role, she became a model for female spiritual figures and Sufis in general who were drawn to her mystical and miraculous nature. Arguably the most famous of these is Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 185/801), the renowned female mystic who is frequently depicted in the light of Maryam.[11] She is described as the “one accepted by men,[12] as the second spotless Maryam.”[13] Similar to Maryam, Rābi‘a did not have any mentioned spouse and devoted herself to piety and worship. She fits the model of a celibate women whose only care and concern is the love, grace and mercy of God.[14] For instance, in the streets of Basra, she was asked why she was carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, and she most famously said, “I want to throw fire into Paradise and pour water into Hell so that these two veils disappear, and it becomes clear who worships God out of love, not out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise.”[15]

Rābi‘a is further described as “lost in love-union, deputy of Maryam, the pure, accepted among men, Rābi‘a ‘Adawiya – the mercy of God Most High upon her.”[16] Here the writer sees Rābi‘a in the model of Maryam and even as her “deputy.” Rābi‘a is absorbed in the love of God and was even accepted among men, similar to how Maryam was accepted by Zechariah/ Zakariyya. For instance, just like Maryam taught Zechariah/ Zakariyya a lesson regarding reliance on God, Rābi‘a teaches the men around her spiritual lessons that were then narrated and transmitted to others. In the Qur’an, Zechariah/Zakariyya approaches Maryam in the sanctuary and he finds her with provisions and food out of season. He then asks, “Maryam, how is it you have these provisions?” and she responds, “They are from God: God provides limitlessly for whoever He will” (3:37). Zechariah/Zakariyya heeds this lesson and then prays for a righteous child to which God provides him with John/Yaḥya, even though is wife was older and barren.

Similarly, Rābi‘a fits the trope of a “teacher,” specifically a teacher to older men who were religious authorities. For instance, classical scholars described Rābi‘a as “endowed with reason and possessed [of a] unique ability to conceptualize and express important truths.”[17] She was known to say words of wisdom or aphorisms “in which ethical and theological principles are expressed in short, pithy sayings.”[18]  Each saying was meant to challenge the listener and push them to think in deeper and more spiritual terms. Her statements were not overly theoretical or abstract but built on a classical Islamic culture of teaching morals and practical wisdom.

“Similar to Maryam, Rābi‘a teaches Sufyān a spiritual lesson: to find safety in the world is in fact to abandon it and to not give it more focus than it deserves.”
For instance, a story is related that two religious dignitaries came to pay their respects to Rābi‘a. She served them two loaves of bread but then a beggar cried out so she gave the bread to the one in need. The dignitaries were “dumbfounded” but immediately a servant came in carrying many more warm loaves of bread. Rābi‘a counted the loaves and found that there were 18 and said to the servant “You’ve made a mistake,” and told her “take them back.”[19] The servant girl replied that there was nothing wrong but Rābi‘a insisted that there was something missing. The servant returned back to her mistress, who added two more loaves and sent them back. Rābi‘a then counted and saw now that there were 20 and she then served them to her guests. They ate them and “marveled” and asked, “What’s the secret behind this?”[20]

Rābi‘a explained that when she saw the two great men she realized that they were hungry and felt bad putting only two loaves in front of them. When the beggar came, she gave the loaves to him and prayed “O my God, you have said [in th Qur’an], ‘For each thing given, I will return ten-fold.’… I have given away two loaves to please you, so that you would give back ten-fold.”  Based on this prayer, she knew that God would multiply the two that she had given by ten and give her twenty. Thus, when the servant girl initially broug

Figure 2 Scholarship on Islamic mysticism focuses on the connections between Qur’anic teachings and early seekers of the Divine.

ht only 18 loaves she knew that there was a mistake.[21] Similar to Maryam, Rābi‘a teaches male religious authority (who were most likely older than her) a spiritual lesson in that God can multiply food and provisions and provide in unexpected ways. Rābi‘a was confident in her prayer and had a deep trust in God (tawakkul), akin to that of Maryam. She knew that God would provide and had the power to multiply and reward her charity.[22]

Moreover, while Maryam taught Zechariah/Zakariyya, Rābi‘a also taught the older religious authorities such as the famous Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/778 ). Sufyān met Rābi‘a at the end of this life and was a noted traditionalist who had spent decades collecting and disseminating traditions of the Prophet. Sufyān accompanied Rābi‘a when he was an older disillusioned man who had political trouble with the authorities and suffered from various physical ailments.[23] Similar to Zechariah/Zakariyya, who had given up hope in having a son and having progeny, Sufyān had given up hope on finding peace and security.  Furthermore, Zechariah/Zakariyya and Sufyān both spoke from a position of scholarship and religious authority while Maryam and Rābi‘a spoke from direct experience of faith, spirituality and mysticism. In one story, Sufyān raises his hands and prays, “Oh God, grant me safety!” However, after he makes this prayer, Rābi‘a weeps leading him to ask her why she cries.  She responds that he makes her weep making Sufyān defensive a

Figure 3 New scholarship seeks to better understand the role of narratives and myths around Rābi‘a and how they fit within Islamic literature as a whole. The work is part of a movement to recover voices and memories of Muslim women throughout Islamic history.

nd asking how. She then responds, “Have you not learned that true safety from the world is to abandon all that is in it? So how can you ask for such a thing while you are still soiled with the world?”[24] Similar to Maryam, Rābi‘a teaches Sufyān a spiritual lesson: to find safety in the world is in fact to abandon it and to not give it more focus than it deserves.  The safety that Sufyan so much desires is not in his physical surroundings but rather his mental state that gives the world more than it warrants.  Like other mystical women, Rābi‘a was a “mentor” (mu‘addiba)  to men and women and part of a group of specialized teachers in the various Islamic sciences (ustādha) who addressed mixed audiences.[25]


The Qur’anic Mary provided a model for future Muslim mystics, especially women, in interacting with the Divine, their communities and religious clerics. Specifically, it gives credence to personal spiritual experience which at times can be as relevant or even more important than textual knowledge and religious authorities. The story of Maryam teaching Zechariah/Zakariyya that the provisions “are from God” and that “God provides limitlessly for whoever He will” (3:38) taught future Muslims how to embody true reliance on God (tawwakul) and seek out divine blessings (baraka). Rābi‘a and the Islamic literature that surrounded her followed the Qur’anic model of Mary, providing additional examples of how to live Qur’anic teachings and values.

Younus Y. Mirza is a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University and Director of the Barzinji Institute for Global Virtual Learning at Shenandoah University which seeks to improve America’s relationship with Muslim-majority countries.  He is currently writing a book about the Islamic Mary and won a 2023 Luce-AAR Advancing Public Scholarship Grant to promote the book project.  To learn more about his scholarship, teaching and speaking, please visit his website 

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 435.

[2] Schimmel 435. As Schimmel states, “It is remarkable that in modern times Sufi teaching is, to a large extent, carried on by women again. Not only does the interest in the mystical path—modernized as it may be—apparently appeal more to women, who hope to find a more ‘romantic’  or poetic expression of religious feeling than that offered by traditional religious forms, but some of the most genuine representatives of mystical tradition, directors of souls, in Istanbul an d Delhi (and probably in other places as well) are women, who exert a remarkable influence upon smaller or larger groups of seekers who find consolation and spiritual help in their presence”; Schimmel 435.  Similarly, Margaret Smith begins her essay on “Rabi’a the Mystic” by stating, “In the history of Islam, the woman saint made her appearance at a very early period, and in the evolution of the cult of saints by Muslims, the dignity of saintship was conferred on women as much as on men.  As far as rank among the ‘friends of God’ was concerned, there was complete equality between the sexes”; Margaret Smith, “Rabi’a the Mystic,” in Middle Eastern Women Speak, eds. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), 37.  For more on women and Sufi shrines and singers see Shemeem Burney Abbas, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2002). As she concludes her book speaking about Muslim societies, she writes, “These societies can return to their own roots and strengthen their heritage through building the traditional creative Islamic sources of the female images. They can use poetry and the creative arts in educational and social programs. There is much that can be done, and women scholars can move these efforts forward. They will have to empower themselves by looking into Islamic sources, both written and oral, for their work. They will have to go into the field and network with scholars, professionals, and grassroots women in Muslim societies. They will need the support of males willing to support women’s perspectives. And last but not the least, they will have to rely on their courage and conviction”; Abbas 145.

[3] Schimmel 426. This theme is echoed in literature on Sufism and women which views Sufism as one of the few strands of Islam that retains equality and respect for women. As Camille Helminski states, “We must recognize, though, that women in general around the world have often faced prejudicial treatment because of their gender.  Within Islamic society as well as within our own, difficult treatment of women has occurred – in some cases obvious, in some cases insidious. Though local cultural overlays and male-dominated jurisprudence may have increased restrictions on women in various areas, the Qur’an basically enjoins mutual respect and valuation of the human being regardless of sex of social situation. Within Sufism, this more essential Qur’anic attitude has prevailed”; Camille Adams Helminski, Women of Sufism: a Hidden Treasure: Writings and Stories of Mystic Poets, Scholars & Saints (Boston : Shambhala, 2003), xxiii. However, for a counter view to this arguments see, Codou Bop, “Roles and the Position of Women in Sufi Brotherhoods in Senegal,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 4 (Dec., 2005): 1099-1119. As Bop states, there is a school that suggests “that Sufi brotherhoods provide contexts for women’s advancement. In contrast to these claims, I would argue that a closer examination of the brotherhoods as systems reveals that the large majority of women are actually marginalized. Although I agree with Christian Coulon that women are able to ‘participate in their own way in Islam, manipulating it and accommodating it to their needs’ (1988: 115) I would contend that women continue to be mere disciples rather than equal religious leaders. Through the ideological construction of notions of divine grace or baraka, of impurity, and of the image of the ideal Sufi woman, most women remain in unequal positions of power. Moreover, woman by necessity will remain as mere disciples because the tariqas (brotherhoods) so far have not provided them with the knowledge of Islamic texts that is central for being respected as learned persons”; Bop 1102. In her article, Bop speaks primarily about the Sufi tariqa system rather than the Sufi mystical path in general. For more on women in Sufi orders see Marta Dominguez Diaz, Women in Sufism: Female Religiosities in a Transnational Order (Abingdon, Oxon, UK ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2015). Rkia Cornell also argues that classical Sufism was often more egalitarian than modern forms: “The continued mistrust of women and their spirituality among many Sufis is a major reason why as-Sulamī’s book of Sufi women is so important to the study of both Sufism and Islam today. It is the earliest extant work to give a sense of identity to the numerous Sufi women who served their male brethren, studied with them, supported them financially, and even, at times, surpassed them in their knowledge. As-Sulamī’s book of Sufi women challenges the legitimacy of modern restrictions on women’s participation in Sufism by demonstrating that in Sufism’s formative period, women were not so often excluded from the public aspects of spiritual life. As-Sulamī portrays Sufi women as full equals of their male counterparts in religion and intellect, as well as in their knowledge of Sufi doctrines and practices. Unlike al-Kalabadhi, who preferred to keep the contributions of Sufi women hidden, as-Sulamī insists on revealing both their identities and the content of their teachings”; Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥusayn Sulamī, Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-niswa al-mutaʻabbidāt aṣ-Ṣūfiyyāt, trans. Rkia Cornell (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 20.

[4] Maria Dakake, “Walking upon the Path of God Like Men?: Women and the Feminine in the Islamic Mystical Tradition,” in Sophia: A Journal of Traditional Studies 8, no. 2 (2002): 132. Nonetheless, Laury Silvers emphasizes that Muslim women spirituality operated within patriarchal norms. She concludes her article on early mystical women noting “That women were widely integrated into these circles or paths as leaders and followers should not be taken as proof that the pious and mystical paths were free of patriarchal assumptions or restrictions such as sexual availability in marriage and social hierarchies such as slavery, nor should they support an essentialized notion of ‘women’s spirituality’. On the contrary, I have argued that such women lived in complex social networks and that their experience and articulation of their relationship with God, and their transmitters’ reworking of it, was profoundly shaped by their socio-historical circumstances. Women’s lives were impacted by egalitarian impulses, but those impulses were formed within a patriarchal system of values, gender norms, social hierarchies, and structures of authority”; Laury Silvers, “Early Pious, Mystic Sufi Women,” in The Cambridge Companion to Sufism, ed. Lloyd Ridgeon (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 52.

[5] Schimmel 429.

[6] Schimmel 429.  Schimmel notes in a later work that “The Quran mentions only one woman by her actual name.  This is Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, who is highly revered in Islam. As one tradition has it, she will be the first to enter paradise. It was for her that the dried up palm tree bore sweet dates as she clung to it during the labors of childbirth, and her newborn infant testified to her purity. She is the silent, humble soul who would deserve special and extensive study”; Annemarie Schimmel, My Soul is a Woman: the Feminine in Islam (New York: Continuum, 1997), 55.

[7] Schimmel 429. As Jamal Elias states, “Maryam, the immaculate virgin giving birth to the spirit-child Jesus, is a favorite of Muslim mystics. She is a perfect example of the human spirit being filled with divine light (al-nūr al-ilāhī) after receipt of divine inspiration. Her importance in Islamic spirituality is attested to by the number of Muslims who visit her shrine near Selpk (Ephesus) in Turkey, and by the pious references to her in mystical poetry”; Jamal Elias, “The Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism,” The Muslim World (1988): 209-224.

[8] As Helminski further states, “Sufism also connects with the maternal or the ‘womb’ which carries and creates.  Maryam embodies this spiritual womb as her maternal struggles are explained in detail in the Qur’an and with reverence.” She later explains that “As women, we come from the womb and carry the womb. We give birth from the womb and can find ourselves born into the womb of Being. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is very much revered in Sufism and Islam as an example of one who continually took refuge with the Divine and opened to receive divine inspiration within the womb of her being. Women have a great capacity for patience, for nurturing, for love.  A contemporary male Sufi teacher once described an ideal guide as one who is like a mother – who is always there for her child, not demanding, though willing to instruct and set limits, but also ready to stay up all night or rise at any hour to nurse a suffering child”; Helminski XXVI.    

[9] Merin Shobhana Xavier, “Gendering the Divine: Women, Femininity, and Queer Identities on the Sufi Path,” in The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender, ed. Justine Howe (London: Routledge 2020), 166. Muslim theologians would generally hold that God does not have a gender even though the masculine pronoun is used to describe God in sacred texts.

[10] Dakake 132.

[11] In her book, Rabi‘a from Narrative to Myth, Rkia Cornell tries to strike a balance between understanding Rabi‘a as simply a mythical figure and an individual who continues to have cultural and religious significance.  She writes, “As she is known today, Rabi‘a is mostly a figure of literature and all the information that is known about her comes through literature. Thus, to write about her one must make use of literature and take literary forms of representations into account”; Rkia Cornell, Rabi’a from Narrative to Myth: the Many Faces of Islam’s Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (London : Oneworld Academic, 2019), 4. Nonetheless, she continues to explain that even though we lack strong historical data around her existence, her narrative and historical memory continue to be important: “By trying to treat Rabi ‘a in a purely empirical manner, [skeptics] diminish her as a religious and cultural figure by either dismissing her as a legitimate subject of history altogether or by ignoring the levels of symbolic meaning that have made her an important part of Islamic cultural memory”; Cornell, 5. Similar arguments could be made about Maryam – even  though there is not strong historical data around Mary’s life, her cultural and religious memory continue to be significant in two of the largest religions of the world Christianity and Islam. Understanding the different ways that Mary continues to motivate, inspire and move people is one of the essential aspects of this book. Similar to Rābi‘a, certain tropes of Maryam continue to be influential: the celibate lover of God, religious teacher, ascetic, mystic and icon. Maryam’s presentation in both the Qur’an and hadith literature provide the framework, narratives and tropes that continue throughout Islamic literature and influence how various righteous men and women are remembered and understood, influencing Muslim behavior and action to this day.

[12] Dakake explains that Sufi women were frequently understood to be like “men” in that they encompassed both male and female attributes. As she further explains, “Another answer, and one that would solve, in a sense, the above problem, is the widely expressed Sufi idea that ‘every woman is a man on the path.’ That is, every woman actively journeying on the path is necessarily ‘a man’ in a symbolic—perhaps even an exis­tential—sense, since she is ‘active’ (as opposed to passive) in her journeying, and insofar as journeying requires the intellect as its guid­ing force, every woman actively journeying on the mystical path is identified directly with the masculine element of the ‘intellect or ‘spirit,’ having subdued her ego to a sufficient extent”; Dakake 138.

[13] Schimmel 38.  For more on the connection between Rabi‘a and Maryam see Xavier 166. As she states, “Many women in classical periods aspired to the ideal state of Maryam or were associated with her, especially as seen in portrayals of Rābiʿa, who is mentioned by Aṭṭār as the ‘one accepted by men as a second spotless Mary’”; Xavier 167.

[14] Dakake writes, “However, the rejection of offers of marriage and male sexual attention—particularly from prominent male spiritual authorities—is a significant theme in the Sufi literature pertaining to women”; Dakake 143.

[15]  Schimmel 39. The Sufis particularly loved Mary, Maryam, the immaculate mother who gave birth to the spiritual child Jesus. She is often taken as the symbol of the spirit that receives divine inspiration and thus becomes pregnant with the divine light. Here the purely spiritual role of the female receptacle is fully accepted, and few stories can compete in tenderness with Rumi’s description of the annunciation as told in the Mathnawl (M 3:3700-85). The veneration shown to Mary’s alleged tomb near Ephesus proves that the deep love for the model of purity who is so often invoked in mystical poetry is still a living force in Islamic countries; Schimmel 429.  Similarly, in relation to this point, Xavier notes that, “Many traditions developed, particularly in esoteric Islamic traditions, that portrayed Maryam as the soul in complete submission to Allah; for similar reasons Maryam has also been given the status of a saint. Though these theological debates about the exact nature of the status of Maryam persist in Islamic theology, in some Islamic mystical traditions, Maryam was distinctively married within a cosmological and metaphysical discourse. She became one of the exemplars of the nature of the feminine ideal”; Xavier 166. Later Xavier notes, “Maryam’s perfected status (kamāl) is dependent on her being the fulfillment of the necessary creative feminine that God needs to complete creation”; Xavier 167.

[16] Michael Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 155.

[17] Cornell 56.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sells 155.

[20] Sells 155.

[21] Sells 159.

[22] Cornell explains that some early Sufis followed Mary’s path of entrustment to God (tawakkul) and refused to earn a living because, like Mary, they “depended on God to provide for all of their needs”; Cornell 154.  For more about Rabi‘a in Arabic literature see ʻAbd al-Munʻim Ḥifnī,  al-ʻĀbida al-khāshiʻa Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya: imāmat al-ʻāshiqīn wa’l-maḥzūnīn (Cairo: Dār al-Rashād 1991)].

[23] Cornell 63.

[24] Cornell 67.

[25] As Cornell notes, “The fact that such women transcended the social limitations of their femininity is revealed in as-Sulamī’s use of the masculine term ustādh when referring to their teaching roles”; Cornell, Early Sufi Women, 59.