Sufism is often taken to be the form of Islamic practice that was most welcoming to women. Similarly, Southeast Asia is commonly said to be characterized by unusually high levels of female autonomy, relative to the surrounding regions. This article discusses for the first time a Malay text, the Hikayat Rabiʿah, about the most famous female Sufi in Islamic history, Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawīyya, and suggests that these assumptions regarding Sufi women in Southeast Asia may require revision. The Hikayat Rabiʿah presents a version of Rabiʿah’s life that is not found in Arabo-Persian models. Here, the Sufi female saint usually known for her celibacy marries and is widowed, then bests four suitors in trials of mystical prowess, before agreeing to marriage to the sultan, himself a Sufi adept, and achieving through him an ecstatic ascent to heaven. The text is compared with two other Malay Islamic genres, didactic literature for women and esoteric Sufi treatises on ritualized sexual intercourse, to illustrate why it was not possible to imagine a celibate Rabiʿah in the Malay world.
This article investigates European collecting of Malay manuscripts during the colonial era to address two inter-related questions: was this collecting instrumental in destroying the Malay manuscript tradition, and are colonial collections accurate representations of Malay manuscript culture? It makes the case that while European intervention was certainly destructive, in fact the majority of Malay-language literary texts survive only in colonial-era collections. It also considers whether colonial collections, precisely because they are high in Malay literary texts and low in Arabic religious texts (known as kitab), are unrepresentative of Malay manuscript culture in the nineteenth century and earlier. Taking Marsden’s seminal collection of Malay manuscripts as its case study, the article provides a fuller account of how this collection was assembled, and traces the individuals known to have acquired manuscripts for Marsden. Newly documented manuscript collections that remain in situ in Indonesia and in Malaysian institutions are discussed as a counterpoint.