If it had to be summarized in a single sentence who Rabi‘a al-Basri was, the following statement would come quite close: Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, a woman from Basra who rejected worship motivated by the desire for heavenly reward or the fear of punishment and insisted on the love of God as the sole valid form of adoration. But this statement, although accurate and precise, would not do justice to the life of such a prominent Muslim Sufi woman from early Islamic history. Because she was born in an era when history was not recorded as a norm, some fictions revolve around her life story. Nonetheless, the facts presented in this article are taken from the popular historical account known about her.
It is said that Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, or Rabi‘a al-Qaysiyya, was born in Basra (modern day Iraq) between the years 95-99 AH (around 717CE). Her father’s name was Ismail (of Syria), who after getting married, went to live with his wife on the edge of the desert not far from the town of Basra. After a while, Allah Almighty blessed them with a daughter and the father named her Rabi‘a. Then they had another daughter whom he also named Rabi‘a al-thaniya (Rabi‘a the Second), and a third daughter as well was named Rabi‘a al-thalitha (Rabi‘a the Third), and yet again another daughter whom he named Rabi‘a al-rabi’a a (Rabi‘a the Fourth), who was to become the beloved Saint of Allah.
Although she belonged to one of the noble families of Basra, she was born in the poorest of homes and her father was a humble servant of God. The family faced much hardship and when Rabi’a was a little older, her mother and father died and she was left an orphan. A famine occurred in Basra and the sisters were scattered. One day when Rabi’a was walking abroad, and evil-minded man saw her and seized upon her and sold her as a slave for six dirhams and the man who bought her made her work hard. Rabi‘a’s master took her to Baghdad where he immediately set about using her in the way that was most profitable for himself. She was very beautiful and she also had a lovely voice, so her master taught her how to sing and play the Oud (‘Uwd; pear-shaped stringed instrument), made her dance and entertain people, and above all, to make money for himself. He sent her to weddings and celebrations where she would dance and sing, and the people would give her money for whatever they wanted from her. In this way she came to have many bad habits and ways, living a very low life amongst all sorts of people and not caring about anything that she did.
This continued until she was about thirty-six years old, when one day as she was singing at a wedding she found herself singing in a different way. Songs were coming from her heart for her Beloved Who was her true Love because now Allah, the All-Mighty, had awakened Rabi‘a. From that moment she left everything that she had been doing before, and she refused to sing or dance, or play any music for anyone except for her Beloved God. This made her master very angry because he could no longer use her to make money for himself. He began to chastise her hoping that this would frighten her into returning to her former ways. But she refused. She had begun to pray all through the night, crying to her Beloved God to help her in her desperate state. Rabi’a carried out her appointed tasks and in the service of God she was standing on her feet from night until dawn. Rabi’a’s master decided to sell her. So he put a cord around her neck and took her to the slave market of Baghdad. There a holy man took Rabi‘a to his home, gave her food and simple clothes, and told her that he did not want anything from her, except that she could pray and be free in his house. Rabi‘a thanked him with all her heart and said:
“If you want anything from me for the Face of Allah, He will give you your reward, but if you want anything from me for yourself only, I have nothing to give you. I have everything that I need from my Beloved God and I do not need anything from any human being.”
The holy man replied that he would like to marry her, and to free her from being a slave, but that he did not ask anything from her except what she wanted to give. Rabi‘a thanked him for his kindness and consideration, and she said that she did not want to marry anyone, but was grateful for the way that he cared for her in her deep need. For Rabi‘a‘s case was that she had heard the Voice of her Beloved Who was Allah and none other than He, and she had no need for any earthly husband.
Like many of the ascetic Sufis, Rabi‘a made no separation in her love between man and woman if they loved her Beloved God. Many people loved her and needed her and wanted to take from her something of the special Gift which she had been given from Allah. She had many followers who yearned to feed themselves from her Love which she gave to all those whom she loved. She never married nor did she have any children but as she said:
“My peace is in solitude but my Beloved is always with me. Whenever I witness His Beauty He is my prayer niche (mihrab); toward Him is my qibla. Oh Healer of souls, the heart feeds upon its desire and its striving towards Union with You has healed my soul. You are my Joy and my Life to Eternity. You were the Source of my life; from You came my ecstasy. I have separated myself from all created beings, for my hope is for Union with You; for that is the Goal of my searching.”
Not only did Rabi‘a never marry but she also never had a Shaykh (spiritual guide) to guide and instruct her. She received everything that she knew directly from Allah without the intermediary of any Shaykh. At about this time she left Baghdad and returned to Basra where she remained for many years. Rabi‘a once said that there are three kinds of men: The first believes that his hands and his sons’ hands are all that is necessary to succeed in the only world they know: the material world. The second kind prays with his hands so that a reward will be earned in the next life. The third kind has his hands tied at the wrist, bound with love to serve without thought of return. Her life and sayings became a source of deep inspiration and yearning for many who came after her. Her life gave life to the hearts of those beloved people of Allah who followed after her in the same Line of the Love of God, as she had done. Particularly, this was the case later for Abu Bayazid al-Bistami, Abu’l-Husayn al-Nuri, Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, and Abu Bakr al-Shibli, who, around their leader and Master al-Junayd, came to be known as The Baghdad School.
Once Rabi‘a fasted for a whole week, neither eating nor sleeping. All night she prayed and became very hungry. Then a visitor came bringing her a bowl of food. She accepted it and went to fetch a lamp. When she returned, she found that a cat had overturned the bowl of food. She then said to herself: “I will fetch a jug of water and break my fast by drinking.” But by the time she had fetched the jug, the lamp had gone out. She then tried to drink the water in the dark, but the jug slipped from her hand and broke into pieces. She lamented and sighed so much, “that it was to be feared that the whole house would be consumed with fire!” “O Allah!” she cried, “What is this that You are doing with this helpless slave?” Then she heard a voice say, “Be careful lest you desire Me to bestow on you all worldly blessings, but take away from your heart the caring for Me, for care for Me and worldly blessings can never be together in a single heart. Rabi‘a, you desire one thing and I desire another. My desire and your desire can never be joined in one heart.” She said then, “When I heard this admonition I so cut off my heart from the world and curtailed my desires that whenever I have prayed during the last thirty years I have thought it to be my last prayer.” Rabi‘a said:
“Everyone prays to You from fear of the Fire; And if You do not put them in the Fire, This is their reward. Or they pray to You for the Garden, Full of fruits and flowers. And that is their prize.
But I do not pray to You like this, For I am not afraid of the Fire, And I do not ask You for the Garden. But all I want is the Essence of Your Love, And to return to be One with You, And to become Your Face.”
It was told of Rabi‘a that she was seen one day carrying a brand of fire in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other, and that she was running very fast. When they asked her what she was doing and where she was going, she said:
“I am going to light a fire in the Garden and pour water onto Hell so that both these veils may disappear from the seekers, and that their purpose may be sure, and that the slaves of Allah may see Him, without any object of hope or motive of fear. What if the Hope for the Garden and the Fear of the Fire did not exist? Not one would worship his Lord, nor obey Him. But He is worthy of worship without any immediate motive or need.”
One of her companions, Sufyan al-Thawri, asked her, “What is the best thing for the servant to do who desires proximity to his Lord?” She said, “That the servant should possess nothing in this world for the Next, save Him.”
Rabi‘a never had any doubts about her Beloved being present or absent, because she was not concerned only to have His good pleasure and bounties. She lived for a Love which does not seek for any answer, reward or reciprocity. It was related how one day one of her followers said in her presence, “Oh Allah, may You be satisfied with us!” Whereupon Rabi‘a said, “Are you not ashamed before Him to ask Him to be satisfied with you, when you are not satisfied with Him?” By this she meant that first we must be truly satisfied with Allah, Most High, before we can ask Him to be satisfied with us. Then this was followed by the question to her, “When then is the servant satisfied with Allah Most High?” She replied, “When his pleasure in misfortune is equal to his pleasure in prosperity.”
“O God, whatsoever You have apportioned to me of worldly things, Give that to Your enemies, And what You have apportioned to me in the Hereafter, Give that to Your Friends, For You suffice me.”
She also said:
“O God, if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, And if I worship You in hope of Paradise, Exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, Grudge me not Your Everlasting Beauty.”
When Rabi‘a was urged to speak, her words perfectly manifested her love, her belief and her faith, for she was so totally immersed in her Lord that she became a shining Light which attracted many people to her presence to drink from the same Spring from which she drank. She said, “If I will a thing and my Lord does not will it, I shall be guilty of unbelief.” So that her faith came from her total surrender to her Beloved God, as she said, “I have fled from the world and all that is in it. My prayer is for Union with You; that is the goal of my desire.”
The sole object of Rabi‘a’s life was in her yearning and passionate love for her Beloved, which meant not merely the destruction of her self (nafs) but surrender to Allah every moment in the perfect Union in which there is no Lord and slave, no Creator and created being, only He in Himself. In that state she came to realize that she existed in Him without any possibility of separation from His indivisible Oneness.
Her attraction to a life of poverty was also part of her need not to be distracted from her inner journey by the necessity for material considerations. There is a story about this poverty of hers, as one of her companions said, “I went to visit Rabi`a and saw her in her house with nothing but a broken water pitcher out of which she drank and made her ablution. There was also an old reed mat and a brick which she sometimes used as a pillow. When I saw this, I felt very sad and I said to her, ‘I have rich friends. If you wish I will get something from them for you.’ She said, ‘You have committed a grievous error. Is not my Provider and theirs one and the same?’ I replied, ‘Yes.’ Then she said, ‘And has the Provider of the poor forgotten the poor on account of their poverty? And does He remember the rich because of their riches?’ I replied, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Then since He knows of my state, how should I remind Him? Such is His Will and I too wish what He wills.’”
Rabi‘a’s love, which was passionate and all-consuming was also full of humility, fear and reverence (taqwa) for her Beloved, and when she was asked about how she had such a degree of intimacy, she said, “By constantly saying: I take refuge in You from everything which has distracted me from You and from every hindrance which has hindered me from You.” She also said, “You must conceal your good deeds as you conceal your evil deeds.” In the same way, she said, “What appears of any (good) works, I count as nothing at all.”
The key to Rabi‘a’s reaching and living in the loving Presence of her Lord was her constant praying, remembrance and asking for forgiveness for all her shortcomings, and a knowing that her Union with her Beloved God could not come in the way that she desired, but only in the way that He desired for her. She was also well aware that her remembrance and repentance did not come from herself, but from Him, her Beloved God. It is said that someone once said to her, “I have committed many sins; if I turn in repentance toward Allah, will He turn in His Mercy toward me?” She said, “No, but if He will turn toward you, you will turn toward Him.” For Rabi‘a, repentance was a Gift from Allah. As she said, “Seeking forgiveness with the tongue is the sin of lying. If I seek repentance of myself, I shall have need of repentance again.” Or as she also said, “Our asking for forgiveness of Allah itself needs forgiveness.”
She was blessed with a long life during which she continued, to her last days, to give of everything that Allah inspired her to give to all who loved her, because she was His special Light for them all. She is often referred to as the first true Saint (waliyya) of Islam and was praised, not because she in any way represented womankind, but because as Attar (another famous Sufi) said, “When a woman walks in the Way of Allah like a man she cannot be called a woman.” Attar also said that Rabi`a was “That one set apart in the seclusion of holiness; that woman veiled with the veil of sincerity; that one enflamed by love and longing, lost in union with God; that one accepted as a second spotless Mary.” Although, as she said herself, she was always busy with her Beloved God all the time and she did not have any moment for anybody or anything else but Him, she also knew the meaning of what she said, for her Beloved Allah revealed Himself to her in every face around her. She said, “The groaning and yearning of the lover of Allah will not be satisfied until it is satisfied in the Beloved.” And Rabi`a was, for many people, that Beloved.
Originally published in the Muslim Sunrise, Spring 2009, pp. 15-17.