THE NEAR EAST
an 8th Century Islamic Saint
(From a 10th - 16th century Persian Dictionary)
Superluminal Cookbook and Gallary
15 January 2003:
As the situation continues to worsen between the United States and Iraq, many people feel increasingly helpless. Lately, I have found myself wondering about those Holy Ones in the Other Realms who might be willing to help avert a looming tragedy. My thoughts keep turning to a very early Islamic saint -- an 8th century woman who had a profound influence upon Islam in general but also upon generations of Sufis. Could she be invoked today? Would she help?
On the one hand, she was totally focused upon God, her Beloved, and she walked such an austere path that she even denied herself the pleasure of sweet Iraqi dates. Would such a detached saint have any feelings of tenderness for today's world? Perhaps not. Yet, she lived in southern Iraq twelve centuries ago so she certainly knows the region. She shunned the traditional trappings of religion, devoid of genuine depth and spirit, which means she would be a thoughtful, powerful ally against the rampant fundamentalism in Washington and the Islamic world. Although she seems to have had little interest in the politics of her day, her reaction to a weathy merchant who offered her a bag of gold is surely instructive about her views on economics and ethics: "How should I take the wealth of someone of whom I do not know whether he acquired it lawfully or not?" This indicates that she would have little patience for today's poisonous behind-the-scenes dealings in oil and arms. The focused clarity of her views on Satan and, by extension, evil, are also relevant. Finally, according to legend, her family was very poor and she spent much of her youth as a slave, which suggests that she would have deep empathy for today's lower class unfortunates who have been steadfastly ignored by the powerful. When a situation is grave enough to make many long for a miracle, who better to address than such an Islamic saint, a sensible woman who was no stranger to miracles?
With this in mind, I offer the following notes (followed by annotated links) to help make this remarkable woman better known in the West. She knew how to make a humane commitment to love and service, and she knew how to keep her priorities straight -- that combination is exceedingly rare today -- and tragically non-existent among the world's leaders. Thus, she is worth being added to our lists of Saints, Holy Ones, Invisibles, and Sacred Archetypes, whose aid might be of current relevance for our troubled 21st century world.
an 8th Century Islamic Saint from Iraq
By Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
One of the most famous Islamic mystics was a woman: Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya (c.717-801). This 8th century saint was an early Sufi who had a profound influence on later Sufis, who in turn deeply influenced the European mystical love and troubadour traditions. Rabi'a was a woman of Basra, a seaport in southern Iraq. She was born around 717 and died in 801 (185-186). Her biographer, the great medieval poet Attar, tells us that she was "on fire with love and longing" and that men accepted her "as a second spotless Mary" (186). She was, he continues, “an unquestioned authority to her contemporaries" (218).[Citations and data are from Margaret Smith, The Way of the Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978. See the Islamic Bookstore for sample pages. I strongly recommend her book].
As Cambridge professor Margaret Smith explains, Rabi'a began her ascetic life in a small desert cell near Basra, where she lost herself in prayer and went straight to God for teaching. As far as is known, she never studied under any master or spiritual director. She was one of the first of the Sufis to teach that Love alone was the guide on the mystic path (222). A later Sufi taught that there were two classes of "true believers": one class sought a master as an intermediary between them and God -- unless they could see the footsteps of the Prophet on the path before them, they would not accept the path as valid. The second class “...did not look before them for the footprint of any of God's creatures, for they had removed all thought of what He had created from their hearts, and concerned themselves solely with God. (218)
Rabi'a was of this second kind. She felt no reverence even for the House of God in Mecca: "It is the Lord of the house Whom I need; what have I to do with the house?" (219) One lovely spring morning a friend asked her to come outside to see the works of God. She replied, "Come you inside that you may behold their Maker. Contemplation of the Maker has turned me aside from what He has made" (219). During an illness, a friend asked this woman if she desired anything."...[H]ow can you ask me such a question as 'What do I desire?' I swear by the glory of God that for twelve years I have desired fresh dates, and you know that in Basra dates are plentiful, and I have not yet tasted them. I am a servant (of God), and what has a servant to do with desire?" (162)
When a male friend once suggested she should pray for relief from a debilitating illness, she said,"O Sufyan, do you not know Who it is that wills this suffering for me? Is it not God Who wills it? When you know this, why do you bid me ask for what is contrary to His will? It is not well to oppose one's Beloved." (221)She was an ascetic. It was her custom to pray all night, sleep briefly just before dawn, and then rise again just as dawn "tinged the sky with gold" (187). She lived in celibacy and poverty, having renounced the world. A friend visited her in old age and found that all she owned were a reed mat, screen, a pottery jug, and a bed of felt which doubled as her prayer-rug (186), for where she prayed all night, she also slept briefly in the pre-dawn chill. Once her friends offered to get her a servant; she replied,"I should be ashamed to ask for the things of this world from Him to Whom the world belongs, and how should I ask for them from those to whom it does not belong?" (186-7)
A wealthy merchant once wanted to give her a purse of gold. She refused it, saying that God, who sustains even those who dishonor Him, would surely sustain her, "whose soul is overflowing with love" for Him. And she added an ethical concern as well:"...How should I take the wealth of someone of whom I do not know whether he acquired it lawfully or not?" (187)She taught that repentance was a gift from God because no one could repent unless God had already accepted him and given him this gift of repentance. She taught that sinners must fear the punishment they deserved for their sins, but she also offered such sinners far more hope of Paradise than most other ascetics did. For herself, she held to a higher ideal, worshipping God neither from fear of Hell nor from hope of Paradise, for she saw such self-interest as unworthy of God's servants; emotions like fear and hope were like veils -- i.e., hindrances to the vision of God Himself. The story is told that once a number of Sufis saw her hurrying on her way with water in one hand and a burning torch in the other. When they asked her to explain, she said:"I am going to light a fire in Paradise and to pour water on to Hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether from before the pilgrims and their purpose may be sure..." (187-188)
She was once asked where she came from. "From that other world," she said. "And where are you going?" she was asked. "To that other world," she replied (219). She taught that the spirit originated with God in "that other world" and had to return to Him in the end. Yet if the soul were sufficiently purified, even on earth, it could look upon God unveiled in all His glory and unite with him in love. In this quest, logic and reason were powerless. Instead, she speaks of the "eye" of her heart which alone could apprehend Him and His mysteries (220).
Above all, she was a lover, a bhakti, like one of Krishna’s Goptis in the Hindu tradition. Her hours of prayer were not so much devoted to intercession as to communion with her Beloved. Through this communion, she could discover His will for her. Many of her prayers have come down to us:
"I have made Thee the Companion of my heart,
But my body is available for those who seek its company,
And my body is friendly towards its guests,
But the Beloved of my heart is the Guest of my soul." 
"O my Joy and my Desire, my Life and my Friend. If Thou art satisfied with me, then, O Desire of my heart, my happiness is attained." (222)At night, as Smith, writes, "alone upon her roof under the eastern sky, she used to pray":"O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here I am alone with Thee." (222)
She was asked once if she hated Satan."My love to God has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him." (222)To such lovers, she taught, God unveiled himself in all his beauty and re-vealed the Beatific Vision (223). For this vision, she willingly gave up all lesser joys."O my Lord," she prayed, "if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty." (224)
Rabi'a was in her early to mid eighties when she died, having followed the mystic Way to the end. By then, she was continually united with her Beloved. As she told her Sufi friends, "My Beloved is always with me" (224).
Links to Rabi´a al-Adawiyya
Also see my ISLAM page
for general links to Sufism
and Women in Islam
[FYI: some of those links also include Rabi'a]
[Added 1 December 2001]: This is "Islamic Mysticism and Gender Identity," an excellent, lengthy, footnoted paper by Leonard E. Hudson. The author begins with a famous and beautiful passage from the earliest Sufi woman-saint, Rabi'a, and then comments:http://www.digiserve.com/mystic/Muslim/Rabia/index.html...The Sufis pursue the love of God in the same manner that one person, enflamed with the fires of passion, pursues another. It is therefore of no great surprise that Sufi literature often takes the form of love poems. What is surprising, however, is the fact that--despite the mysogynistic tradition of orthodox Islam, and the typical attitude of Muslim theologians that women possess, "little capacity for thought, and less for religion" --many of the greatest Islamic mystics have been women....After a brief discussion of Sufi tenets (including a lack of gender distinctions since gender is burned away in the love of God), the author turns to the life of Rabi'a:...Little is known of her early years, save that she was born sometime between 712-717 to a poor family in the city of Basra (located in what is now Iraq), spent her youth as a slave, and was later freed. What we do know of her, however, is that throughout her life, her asceticism was absolute and unwavering, as was her Love of God. Poverty and self-denial were Rabi'a's constant companions. For example, her typical possessions are said to have been a broken jug from which she drank, an old rush mat to sit upon, and a brick for a pillow. She spent each night in prayer and often chided herself for sleeping, as it prevented her constant contemplation and active Love of God. She rebuked all offers of marriage--of which there were many --because she had no room for anything in her life that might distract her from complete devotion to God. Indeed, in this same manner she "rebuffed anything that could distract her" from the Beloved, i.e., God. More interesting than her absolute asceticism, however, is the actual concept of Divine Love that Rabi'a introduced. She was the first to introduce the idea that God should be loved for God's own sake, not out of fear--as earlier Sufis had done. For example, she is reported to have walked the streets of Basra, a flaming torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other. When her intentions were questioned, Rabi'a replied: I want to pour water into Hell and set fire to Paradise so that these two veils disappear and nobody worships God out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise, but only for the sake of His eternal beauty....Moving beyond Rabi'a's life, the author considers such difficult issues as the gender-transcendent ideal of Sufism, today's Islamic feminists and their criticism of Sufis, and "homosocial" relationships (which touch upon Rumi's life). I found it a literate, well-researched paper.
[Added 1 December 2001]: From D. Platt comes "About Rabi´a al-Adawiyya," a brief essay on Rabi's' life. (Note: if you click on "Select A New Mystic" from the site's lefthand menu, you'll find a good choice of other Islamic mystics and scholars.)http://sufimaster.org/adawiyya.htm
Also included is a section explaining how Charles Upton, author of Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi´a, worked with English translations of traditional sayings from Rabi'a. From the menu on the left, you can select from some of these sayings -- they read beautifully, but for a non-Islamicist to re-work these passages, based only on English translations (literal or otherwise), and following his own muse, makes me nervous. Still, the underlying fervour feels accurate enough. [Note: for more of Upton's excerpts, see: http://www.sufism.org/books/rabiaex.html; and for a page on the slim, 56 page book itself, see: http://www.sufism.org/books/rabia.html.]
[Added 1 December 2001]:This is a lengthy, devotional page filled with sayings and legendary tales about Rabi'a. Are such legends "true"? Well, yes and no. In a sense, it doesn't matter since these are "teaching stories." Regardless, they are often lovely and evocative -- and interspersed among them I found some especially interesting pieces. For example, here's a sad one -- but please don't use this as an excuse to condemn Islam -- unfortunately, nearly identical sentiments have been expressed by Christian males about saintly Christian females. In other words, this is a patriarchal bias, not a spiritual one:http://www.islamicresources.com/Prominent_Muslims/Others/rabiah_basri_mystic.htm...She is often referred to as the first true Saint (waliya) of Islam and was praised, not because she in any way represented womankind, but because as someone said, "When a woman walks in the Way of Allah like a man she cannot be called a woman"....This one has the earthy practicality, humor, and compassion of a Teresa of Avila:...Another story tells of how one day Hasan al-Basri saw Rabi`a near a lake. Throwing his prayer rug on top of the water, he said, "Rabi`a come! Let us pray two ruk`u here." She replied, "Hasan, when you are showing off your spiritual goods in the worldly market, it should be things which your fellow men cannot display." Then she threw her prayer rug into the air and flew up onto it. "Come up here, Hasan, where people can see us," she cried. But seeing his sadness Rabi`a sought to console him, so she said, "Hasan, what you did fishes can do, and what I did flies can do. But the real business is outside these tricks. One must apply oneself to the real business"....And this one relates to the Mecca story to which I refer below:...There is a story that Rabi`a was once on her way to Mecca. When she was 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: 'Whoso 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 does the Ka`ba bring to me?" ....
[Added 1 December 2001]:This is a brief, no frills page on the life and sayings of Rabi'a. You will have read much of this elsewhere in other links on my site but some of the sayings are new -- and worthwhile.http://www.maryams.net/text/biog.html
[Added 1 December 2001]:From Maryams.net come biographical sketches of Muslim women -- this one's on Rabi'a, brief but useful and with good resources (print and web) listed at the end. Here is how it opens:http://www.clearlight.com/~sufi/fiam1.htmLittle is known for sure about Rabi`a al-'Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (known as Rabi`a of Basra), revered as one of the earliest and greatest Sufi mystic ascetics in Islam.If you're interested in contemporary Muslim women's issues, or in other Muslim women mystics and leaders (including contemporary author and activist, Margret Marcus, the first American Jewish woman to convert to Islam), this is a great place for browsing. Most of the entries are relatively brief, so they won't demand too much of a busy schedule.
She was born into poverty: the fourth girl (hence her name Rabi`a meaning "fourth") around 95-99 A.H. in Basra. It is thought she was captured after being orphaned and sold into slavery, becoming a flautist.
Rabi`a was freed by her owner after an event in which he was startled by observing an enveloping radiance (sakina) around her whilst she was rapt in prayer. It is said that she retreated into the desert and began occupying herself with a life of worship....
[Added 1 December 2001]: This is another brief publisher's page promoting First among Sufis: The Life & Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya by Widad El Sakkakini. I haven't read it so you'll have to judge for yourself if it's worth your time.http://www.siddhayoga.org/community/families/tales_2000/rabia/
[Added 28 November 2001]: This is The Golden Tales: The Life of Rabi'a, a children's book (also available as a video). From the video description, at least one obvious liberty has been taken with history: Rabi'a is said to have lived her ascetic life in Mecca, not Basra, which is a significant error, especially since we know her thoughts on Mecca -- it was, she said, the Lord of the house who interested her, not his house. She certainly never spent her life in Mecca. The book and/or video might, however, be evocative and engaging enough to appeal to children who really wouldn't care where she lived.
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New page specifically on Rabi'a created & written 15 January 2003
with annotated links transplanted from my Islam page.
Launched this page 16 January 2003, 2am in memory of my sister, Anne.
17 September 2009: updated Nedstat/Motigo.
Note: Bar-separators are a detail cropped from a 14th
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