Saida Manoubia, Tunisia’s only female Sufi saint, attracts followers
Tunis - A few kilometres from the old city of Tunis, the shrine of Saida Manoubia rests on a hill overlooking the western part of the Tunisian capital. The shrine is the home of Tunisia’s only female Sufi saint, Saida Manoubia or Lella Manoubia.
The Shrine of Saida Manoubia has special significance for Tunisian women, who constitute the majority of the hundreds of visitors seeking blessings and the soothing peace of the shrine.
In 2012, the shrine was burned by radical Salafists sparking outrage among the many Tunisians who venerate the place. The shrine, which dates to the 13th century, is open again to visitors.
“The shrine is of a unique importance for many Tunisians who consider Saida Manoubia, a mother figure to her followers, to be one of the four saints believed to be overseeing and guarding the city of Tunis,” said Lotfi Aissa, a Tunisian historian.
Many women go to the shrine to participate in religious chanting circles and to write their names on the walls asking for Saida Manoubia’s blessing. Poor and homeless women find refuge in the chambers of the shrine, which are always open to the public. Sufi dance and rituals are performed there by the shrine’s female Sufi order on Mondays.
“Lella Manoubia was a saint who paid special attention to women in her community. She was known for being generous by lending them a helping hand. She would provide poor women with jobs, help widows financially,” said Saida Belrayen, a member of the quranic association of Saida Manoubia.
A number of Tunisians consider Saida Manoubia a revolutionary woman who defied tradition to become a leading religious figure of her community in the 12th century.
Born in 1180 to a conservative rural family, Saida Manoubia, whose real name was Aisha Manoubia, was given a religious education by her father. She showed exceptional competence in learning and an unusual interest in spirituality for which she was treated with suspicion among villagers.
She attended the circles of Abul Hassan al-Chadli, an influential Sufi who became her spiritual mentor.
“The father of Saida Manoubia is an important character as he adheres to the profile of a religious man steeped in theology. Was he conservative or not? We are not to judge. We can say his relationship with his daughter is quite interesting as he encouraged her to pursue education at the time when patriarchy prohibited women from getting such an education,” Aissa explained.
Saida Manoubia’s education was controversial, especially that it involved a field of study — religion and Sufism — restricted to men. She left her hometown seeking a sanctuary to devote her time to meditation and settled in Tunis.
Saida Manoubia taught Islamic studies and Sufism in the circles of her mentor Abul Hassan al-Chadli. She was the first woman to have access to such religious circles and she brought in women from urban and rural areas. She died in 1267.
After her death, her house in the western suburbs of Tunis became a mausoleum displaying unique architecture of the Andalusian era. The Shrine of Saida Manoubia was venerated by influential families of Tunis. The Beys of Tunis visited it on religious occasions.
Aissa noted that Saida Manoubia “introduced the Sufi notions of a loving God and of faith as a source of spiritual pleasure. She was known for believing that she has a spiritual relationship with God and that she saw God with her heart.”
Aissa said the shrine reminds people of the exceptional life of the woman saint who chose the place as her home.
“The shrine emphasised the sanctity of the space. The neighbourhood is marginalised as it is in the popular neighbourhood of the old city of Tunis,” Aissa said. “Yet, the shrine adds to it sacredness. The whole path is sacred as it is a reflection for the expansion of city and a reminder to people of the sanctity of worship.”
He added: “She often thought of the community as a ship for faith-seekers. Her teachings emphasised faith as liberation from guilt. The conservative society accepted her preaching for freedom and respect. She even had male companions, which was unusual, but she managed to set a relationship based on respect with her followers.”