AÏsha Al-Manoubya (Arabic: عائشة المنوبية, ʿĀʾisha al-Mannūbiyya), also known by the honorific Al-Saida (‘saint’) or Lella (‘the Lady’) (1199–1267 CE), is one of the most famous women in Tunisia, and a prominent figure in Islam.
Souk Al Saida Al-Manoubya
ʿĀʾisha was known for her Sufism and good deeds. She was the supporter and student of Sidi Bousaid al-Baji and Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili. Her presence as a woman on the high level of education and advocacy activity and charity event was very unusual in her time.
Dates given for ʿĀʾisha’s life vary slightly, but scholarly sources give 1199–1267 CE (595–665 AH).
According to her hagiography, ʿĀʾisha was born in the village of La Manouba (al-Manūba), near Tunis, and showed signs of her saintliness already in childhood, challenging social norms and effecting miraculous deeds (karamāt). In portraying ʿĀʾisha’s socially transgressive behaviour, her saint’s life ‘aligns her with the Ṣūfī model of the “blamable ones” (ahl al-malāma), those who went about transgressing social norms on purpose’. Among her most famous deeds, ‘after her father had slaughtered a bull at her request, she cooked it, distributed its meat to villagers, and brought it back to life in order to reveal her sainthood. This event is regularly commemorated in song during rituals held at her shrines’.
ʿĀʾisha studied in Tunis with Shādhiliyya Ṣūfīs, moving back and forth between her rural home and urban Tunis. Prominent influences were the female mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya (c. 95/714–185/801); Abū l-Ḥassan al-Shādhilī (c. 593–656/1196–1258), who founded the Shādhilī Ṣūfī order; the Baghdadi ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (470–561/1077 or 1078–1166, of Baghdad, namesake and patron of the Qādiriyya); and al-Junayd (d. 297/910), a Shāfiʿī scholar associated with Baghdad but of Persian origin.
ʿĀʾisha is one of the few women to have been the subject of a written saint’s life (manāqib) in the Islamic world of her time, and ‘represents a leading figure of women’s sainthood in Islam’. Whereas it was customary for female saints in her region to be recluses, ʿĀʾisha mixed with male society, whether the poor; Sūfī scholars; or even the Ḥafṣīd sultan. She had two shrines dedicated to her, one in La Manouba (destroyed in 2012) and the other in the Gorjani district of Tunis.
The neighbourhood Saida Al Manoubya in Tunis
In popular memory, ʿĀʾisha represents a powerful and respected saint. One of the souks of the Medina of Tunis, “Souk Al-Saida Al-Manoubya”, was named after her.
A few kilometres from the Medina, a popular neighbourhood, Gourbivilles, takes her name. Al-Manoubya used to retire to pray in that neighbourhood.
The inhabitants of Manouba built a second mausoleum to commemorate ʿĀʾisha under the name of “The Mausoleum of Al-Saida Al-Manoubya” in her birthplace area. That mausoleum is very famous and has a big value in the Tunisian national heritage and history. It was vandalised and burned after the Tunisian Revolution, on 16 October 2012.
Manâqib al-Sayyida ‘Â’isha al-Mannûbiyya (Tunis 1344/1925)
Nelly Amri, La sainte de Tunis: Présentation et traduction de l’hagiographie de ‘Â’isha al-Mannûbiyya (m. 665/1267) (Arles: Sindbad-Actes Sud, 2008)
‘‘Âisha al-Mannûbiyya (v. 1198-1267)’, in Audrey Fella, Femmes en quête d’absolu: Anthologie de la mystique au féminin (Michel, 2016)
Many books and studies have discussed ʿĀʾisha’s history. So too have cinema and Sufi songs and performances.The main scholarly studies of ʿĀʾisha are:
Amri, Nelly, ‘Femmes, sainteté et discours hagiographique au Maghreb médiéval: Naissance à la sainteté, naissance à l’histoire; Le case d’une sainte de Tunis, ‘Â’isha al-Mannûbiyya (m. 665/1267)’, in Histoire des femmes au Maghreb: Réponses à l’exclusion, ed. by Mohamed Monkachi (Morocco: Faculté des Lettres de Kénitra, 1999), 253-74. Amri, Nelly, Les Femmes soufies ou la passion de Dieu (St-Jean-de-Bray: Dangles, 1992)
Abū ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī, Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’abbidat as-Sufiyyat, trans. by Rkia Cornell (1999)
Katia Boissevain, Sainte parmi les saints. Sayyida Mannūbiya ou les recompositions cultuelles dans la Tunisie contemporaine (2006)
After her father had slaughtered a bull at her request, she cooked it, distributed its meat to villagers, and brought it back to life. This is one of her most famous deeds which is regularly commemorated in song during rituals held at her shrine. She is one of the famous figures in Tunisia and a major figure in Islam. She was the student of Imam Abu Hassan ash-Shādhilī ق. She is Lella ‘Ā’isha al-Manoubya ash-Shādhilī (1199-1267 CE) ق known by the honorific al-Saida [Saint] or Lella [The Lady].
Sufi Master of the Shadhili Path
Lella ʿĀʾisha ق is one of the few women to have a manāqib [written biography of a saint’s life] in the Islamic world of her time, and represents a leading figure of women’s sainthood in Islam. Whereas it was customary for female saints in her region to be recluses, LellaʿĀʾisha ق mixed with society, the poor and rich; the unlearned and scholars; the laymen and the Ḥafṣīd sultan of her time. Biographies have described her as having a high level of education, engaged in much advocacy and charitable activities, performing a large number of miracles and being among the awliya [righteous saints].
LellaʿĀʾisha ق was born in the village of La Manouba, near Tunis, and showed signs of her saintliness already in childhood, challenging social norms and effecting karamāh [miraculous deeds]. Her life aligns with the Ṣūfī model of the ahl al-malāmah [blamable ones], those who went about transgressing social norms on purpose.
Growing up in the 13th century Hafsid era in Tunis, LellaʿĀʾisha ق exhibited exceptional intelligence and great intuition. Her father was a teacher of the Quran encouraging her in her education. She was clearly different and not abiding by the constraints imposed on women in her time. When she was informed that she was going to be married to a relative, she refused and decided to move out, an option that is still frowned upon in present-day Tunisia, let alone back in the 1200s. By leaving Manouba for Tunis and sacrificing her family life, she was not only leaving behind the confines of a loveless marriage and traditional social constraints, but also seeking freedom, financial independence and education. According to historians, education during that period was only available to certain women: foreigners coming from the Mashreq, Al-Andalus or to the elite women of the ruling family. She was neither of those.
LellaʿĀʾisha ق continued to defy the social standards of her time. Settling down in Montfleury, she started knitting and spinning wool to support herself. She studied the Quran, mindfully interpret it to understand its meanings, choosing questioning as a path towards faith. She would leave her house and meet with men in order to preach and debate. She quickly rose from student to teacher and soon became a student of the great Imam Abu Hassan ash-Shadhili ق. Her debates with her mentor, Imam ash-Shadhili ق, became an attraction for Sufi scholars and rulers. Pursuing her education at that time was an impressive feat by itself. But pursuing and teaching Islamic studies and religion, a field that is mostly dominated by men, was an even greater achievement.
LellaʿĀʾisha ق took her rightful place as a leading religious figure in Tunis, with access to the highest religious circles. She would accompany her mentor to different prayer locations situated on tops of mountains and hills, considered as a privilege in Sufi circles. She became close to prince Abou Mouhamad Abdel Wahed and subsequently to Sultan Abou Zakariyah, gaining access to prayer areas that were previously restricted to men, like Mousalla Al-Idayn, built by Abou Zakariya in 1229 CE. Preaching in the Mosque of Safsafa (the location is now the shrine of Abdallah Chrif), she shocked and amazed people, as her eloquent style and sophisticated language skills were then only expected of distinguished male scholars.
When LellaʿĀʾisha’s ق mentor, Imam ash-Shādhili ق was leaving Tunisia, he gave her his cloak, ring and the title of Qutb [pole] in an official ceremony, calling her an “imam of men”. She was indeed a pole of knowledge and religion in her lifetime and beyond.
In addition to her scholarly and religious attributes, Lella Aisha ق was a communal leader in the 12th century. She paid special attention to women in her community. She was known for being generous to the poor, being a philanthropist, using her income to survive and giving away the rest to them. She would provide poor women with jobs and help widows financially. There is also some historical evidence that she bought several Tunisian slaves that were being sent to Italy only to set them free, six centuries before slavery was officially abolished in Tunisia in 1846.
Places built in her name
In popular memory, Lella ʿĀʾisha ق represents a powerful and respected saint. One of the markets in the City of Tunis, “Souk Al-Saida Al-Manoubya”, was named after her. A few kilometres from the city, a neighbourhood where she used to retire to pray in that neighbourhood takes her name.
In the governorate of Manouba, west of Tunis, her shrine stands as a historical and cultural landmark of the city commemorating her under the name of “The Mausoleum of Al-Saida Al-Manoubya” in her birthplace area. Her shrine is famous and is in the Tunisian national heritage and history. Many women went to her shrine to participate in gatherings. Poor and homeless women find refuge in the chambers of the shrine which are always open to the public. It is a place for local gatherings and musical celebrations. Visitors join in eating, chatting and enjoying the folk songs praising the saint and singing her qualities. Gatherings of remembrance are conducted by the shrine’s female congregants on every Monday.