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Rabi'a Basri

I have loved Thee with two loves, a selfish love and a love that is worthy (of Thee).
As for the love which is selfish, I occupy myself therein with remembrance of Thee to the exclusion of all others,
As for that which is worthy of Thee, therien Thou raisest the veil that I may see Thee.
Yet is there no praise to me in this or that,
But the praise is to Thee, whether in that or this

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.

It was the development of mysticism (Sufism) within Islam, which gave women their great opportunity to attain the rank of sainthood. The goal of the Sufi quest was union with the Divine, and the Sufi seeker after God, having renounced this world and its attraction being purged of Self and its desires, inflamed with a passion of love of God, journeyed ever onward, looking toward the final purpose, through the life of illumination, with its ecstasies and raptures, and the higher life of contemplation, until at last he achieved the heavenly gnosis and attained to the Vision of God, in which the lover might become one with the Beloved, and abide in Him for ever.

Such a conception of the relations between the saint and his Lord left no room for the distinction of sex. In the spiritual life there could be 'neither male nor female'. All whom God had called to be saints could attain, by following the Path, to union with Himself, and all who attained, would have their royal rank, as spiritual beings, in the world to come.

Attar, to prove that saintship may be found in woman as naturally as in a man, says:

The holy prophets have laid it down that 'God does not look upon your outward forms'. It is not the outward form that matters, but the inner purpose of the heart, as the Prophet said, 'The people are assembled (on the day of Judgement) according to the purposes of their hearts' … So also Abbas of Tus said that when on the Day of Resurrection the summons goes forth, 'O men', the first person to set foot in that class of men (i.e. those who are the enter Paradise) will be Mary, upon whom be peace… The true explanation of this fact (that women count for as much as men among the saints) is that wherever these people, the Sufis, are, they have no separate existence in the Unity of God. In the Unity, what remains of the existence of 'I' or 'thou'? So how can 'man' or 'women' continue to be? So too, Abu Ali Farmadhi said, 'Prophecy is the essence, the very being of power and sublimity. Superiority and inferiority do not exist in it. Undoubtedly saintship is of the same type'.

So the title of saint was bestowed upon women equally with men, and since Islam has no order of priesthood and no priestly caste, there was nothing to prevent a woman from reaching the highest religious rank in the hierarchy of Muslim saints. Some theologians even name the Lady Fatima daughter of the Prophet, as the first Qutb or spiritual head of the Sufi fellowship. Below the Qutb were four 'Awtad', from whose ranks his success was chosen, and below them, in the next rank of the hierarchy, were forty 'Abdal' or Substitutes, who are described as being the pivot of the world and the foundation and support of the affairs of men. Jami relates how someone was asked, 'How may are the Abdal'? and he answered, 'Forty souls', and when asked why he did not say 'Forty men', his reply was, 'There have been women among them'. The biographies of the Muslim saints, such as tose compiled by Abu Nu'aym, Farid al-Din Attar, Ibn al-Jawzi, Jami and Ibn Khallikan and many others, are full of the mention of women Sufis, their saintly lives, their good deeds, and their miracles. The influence which these women saints exercised both during their lives and after their deaths, is perhaps best proved by the fact that Muslim theologians, opposed to the Sufi movement, denounce also these women saints and the worship known to be given to them.

The high position attained by the women Sufis is attested further by the fact that the Sufis themselves give to a woman the first place among the earliest Muhammadan mystics and have chosen her to be the representative of the first development of mysticism in Islam.

This was the saintly Rabi'a, a freedwoman of the Al-Atik, a tribe of Qays b. Adi, from which she was known as al-Adawiyya or al-Qaysiyya, and also as al-Basriyya, from her birth-place: of whom a modern writer says 'Rabi'a is the saint par excellence of Sunnite hagiography'. Her biographer Attar speaks of her as

That one set apart in the seclusion of holiness, that woman veiled with the veil of religious sincerity, that one on fire with love and longing, that one enamoured of the desire to approach her Lord and be consumed in His glory, that woman who lost herself in union with the Divine, that one accepted by men as a second spotless Mary - Rabi'a al-Adawiyya, may God have mercy upon her. If anyone were to say, 'Why have you made mention of her in the class of men?', I should say … God does not look upon the outward forms… if it is allowable to accept two thirds of our faith form Aisha the trustworthy, it is also allowable to accept religious benefit from one of her handmaids (i.e. Rabi'a). when a woman walks in the way of God like a man, she cannot be called a woman'.

A later biographer, al-Munawi, says of her:

Rabi'a al-Adawiyya al Qaysiyya of Basra, was at the head of the women disciples and the chief of the women ascetics, of those who observed the sacred law, who were God-fearing and zealous… and she was one of those who were pre-eminent and experience in grace and goodness.

He gives the names of several well-known women saints and goes onto say, 'She was the most famous among them, of great devotion and conspicuous in worship, and perfect in purity and asceticism'.

Unfortunately there is no writer very near her own time to give us her biography, and of an account of her early life we can find material only in the Memoir of the Saints of Attar, already mentioned, who lived more than four hundred years after Rabi'a. Much of what he tells of her must be regarded as purely legendary. Yet though the legends which surrounds Rabi'a's name may not, and in many cases certainly do not, correspond to historic facts, at least they give some idea of her personality and shew the estimation in which she was held by those who lived after her and had heard of her fame.

She was born probably about A.H. 95 or 99 (=A.D. 717) in Basra, where she spent the greater part of her life.

Born in the poorest of homes, according to Attar (though a modern writer says she belonged to one of the noble families of Basra), miraculous events were reputed to have taken place even at the time of her birth. Attar tells us that on that on the night of her birth there was no oil on the house, no lamp nor swaddling clothes in which to rap the newborn child. Her father already had three daughters, and so she was called Rabi'a (= the fourth). The mother asked her husband to go and ask for oil for the lamp from a neighbour, but he had made a vow that he would never ask anything of a creature (i.e. as a true Sufi he would depend only upon God to supply his needs), and so he came back without it. Having fallen asleep in great distress at the lack of provision for the child, he dreamt that the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him in his sleep and said, 'Do not be sorrowful, for this daughter who is born is a great saint, whose intercession will be desired by seventy thousand of my community'. The Prophet said further:

To-morrow send a letter to Isa Zadhan, Amir of Basra, reminding him that every night he is wont to pray one hundred prayers to me and on Friday night four hundred, but this Friday night he has neglected me, and as a penance (tell him) that he must give you four hundred dinars, lawfully acquired.

Rabi'a's father awoke, weeping: he rose up, wrote the letter as directed and sent it to the Amir through the latter's chamberlain. The Amir, when he had read the letter said:

"Give two thousand dinars to the poor as a thank-offering, because the prophet had me in mi, and four hundred dinars to that Shaykh and say to him that I desire that he should come before me that I may see him, but it is not fitting that such a person as he is should come to me, but I will come and rub my beard on his threshold".

But in spite of this event of good augury, Attar elated that misfortunes fell upon the family, 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 ho bought her made her work hard. One day a stranger (one who might not look at her unveiled) approached her. Rabi'a fled to avoid him and slipped on the road and dislocated her writs. She bowed her faced in the dust, and said, 'O Lord, I am a stranger an without mother or father, an orphan and a slave and I have fallen into bondage and my writs is injured, (yet) I am not grieved by this, only (I desire) to satisfy Thee. I would fain know if Thou art satisfied (with me) or not'. She heard of voice saying, 'Be not sorrowful, fir on the day of Resurrection they rank shall be such that those who are nearest to God in Heaven shall envy thee'.

After this Rabi'a returned to her master's house and continually fasted in the daytime and carried out her appointed tasks and in the service of God she was standing on her feet till the day. One night her master awoke from sleep and looked down through a window of the house and saw Rabi'a, whose head was bowed in worship, and she was saying, 'O my Lord, Thou knowest that the desire of my heart is to obey Thee, and that ht e light of my eye is in the service of Thy court. If the matter rested with me, I should not cease for one hour from Thy service, but Thou hast made me subject to a creature'. While she was still praying, he saw a lap above her had, suspended without a chain, and the whole house was illuminated by the rays from that light. This enveloping radiance or sakina (derived from the Hebrew Shekina = the cloud of glory indicating the presence of God) of the Muslim saint, corresponding to the halo of the Christian saint, it frequently mentioned in the biographies of the Sufis.

Rabi'a's master, when he saw that strange sight, was afraid and rose up and returned to his own place and sat pondering until day came. When the day dawned, he called Rabi'a and spoke kindly to her and set her free. Rabi'a asked for leave to go away; so he gave her leave, and she left that place and journeyed into the desert. Afterwards she let the desert and obtained for herself a cell and for a time was engaged in devotional worship there. According to one account, Rabi'a at first followed the calling of a flute player, which would be consistent with a state of slavery. Then she became concerted and built a place of retreat, where she occupied herself with works of piety.

Among other stories related of this period of her life is one telling how she purposed performing the pilgrimage to Mekkah and set her face towards the desert; she had an ass with her to carry her baggage', and in the heart of the desert the ass died. Some people (in the caravan) said to her, 'Let us carry thy baggage'. She said,' Go on your way, for I am not dependent upon you for (for help)', i.e. she placed her trust in God and not in His creatures.

So the people went on and Rabi'a remained alone, and bowing her had, she said, 'O my God, do kings deal thus with a woman, a stranger and weak? Thou art calling me to Thine own house (the Ka'ba), but in the midst of the way Thou hast suffered mine ass to die and Thou hast left me alone in the desert'.

She had hardly completed her prayer, when the ass stirred got up. Rabi'a put her baggage on it and went on her way. The narrator of this story said that some time afterwards he saw that same little ass being sold in the bazaar.

Another story tells us how she want into the desert for a few days and prayed, 'O my Lord, my heart is perpelexed, whither shall I go? I am not but a clod or earth and that house (the Ka'ba) in only a stone to me. Shew Thyself (to me) in this very place'. So she prayed until God Most High, without any medium, spoke directly within her heart, saying 'O Rabi'a… when Moses desired to see My Face, I cast a few particles of My Glory upon the mountain (Sinai) and it was rent into forty pieces. Be content here with My Name'.

It is told how another time she was on her way to Makkah, and when half-way there she saw the Ka'ba coming to meet her and she said, 'It is the Lord of the house whom I need, what have I to do with the house? I need to meet with Him Who said, 'Whose approaches Me by a span's length I will approach him by the length of a cubit.' The Ka'ba which I see has no power over me; what joy does the beauty of the Ka'ba bring to me?'

In connection with this legend, which indicates how highly favoured by God Rabi'a was, in the eyese o her biographers, it is related that Ibrahim b. Adham spent fourteen yars making his way to the Ka'ba, because in every place of prayer her performed two raka's, and at last when he arrived at the Ka'ba, he did not see it.

He said, 'Alas, what has happened? It maybe that some injure has overtaken my eyes'. An unseen voice said, 'No harm has befallen your eyes, but the Ka'ba has gone to meet a woman, who is approaching this place'. Ibrahim was seized with jealousy, and said, 'O indeed, who is this?' He ran saw Rabi'a arriving and the Ka'ba was back in its own place when Ibrahim saw that, he said, 'O Rabi'a, what is this disturbance and trouble and burden which thou hast brought into the world?' She said, 'I have not brought disturbance intot he world, it is you who have disturbed the world, because you delayed fourtenen years in arriving at the Ka'ba'. He said, 'Yes I have spent fourteen years in crossing the desert (because I was engaged) in prayer'. Rabi'a said, 'You traversed it in ritual prayer (namaz) but with personal supplication (niyaz). Then, having performed the pilgrimage, she returned to Basra and occupied herself with works of devotion.

For these early years only legends are available, but they give us a clear idea of a woman renouncing this world and it attractions and giving up her life to the service of God, the first step on the mystic Way to be trodden by the Sufi saint.

Last updated: May 9, 2004