Welcome To the Tuesday Installment. Today’s entry is devoted to Rabi’a Al-’Adawiyya, a Sufi Saint and Poet from Basra, Iraq. She is reverred throughout the middle east. I hope you enjoy this one!
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Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, an 8th Century Islamic Saint from Iraq (an extraction from a larger article)
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”. She was, he continues, an unquestioned authority to her contemporaries”.
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. 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.
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?” 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”. 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?”
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.”
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?”
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?”
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…”
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. 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.
Above all, she was a lover, a bhakti, like one of Krishnas 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.”
Another: “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.”
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.”
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.”
To such lovers, she taught, God unveiled himself in all his beauty and re-vealed the Beatific Vision. 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.”
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”.
Poetry: Rabi’a Al-’Adawiyya
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,
Therein I occupy myself with Thee,
to the exclusion of all others.
But in the love which is worthy of Thee,
Thou dost raise the veil that I may see Thee.
Yet is the praise not mine in this or that,
But the praise is to Thee in both that and this.
My joy –
My Hunger –
My Shelter –
My Friend –
My Food for the journey –
My journey’s End –
You are my breath,
My abundant wealth.
Without You — my Life, my Love –
I would never have wandered across these endless countries.
You have poured out so much grace for me,
Done me so many favors, given me so many gifts –
I look everywhere for Your love –
Then suddenly I am filled with it.
O Captain of my Heart
Radiant Eye of Yearning in my breast,
I will never be free from You
As long as I live.
Be satisfied with me, Love,
And I am satisfied.
O my Lord, the stars glitter
O my Lord,
the stars glitter
and the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors
and each lover is alone with his love.
Here, I am alone with you.
O God, Another Night is passing away
O God, Another Night is passing away,
Another Day is rising –
Tell me that I have spent the Night well so I can be at peace,
Or that I have wasted it, so I can mourn for what is lost.
I swear that ever since the first day You brought me back to life,
The day You became my Friend,
I have not slept –
And even if You drive me from your door,
I swear again that we will never be separated.
Because You are alive in my heart.
Brothers, my peace is in my aloneness.
Brothers, my peace is in my aloneness.
My Beloved is alone with me there, always.
I have found nothing in all the worlds
That could match His love,
This love that harrows the sands of my desert.
If I come to die of desire
And my Beloved is still not satisfied,
I would live in eternal despair.
To abandon all that He has fashioned
And hold in the palm of my hand
Certain proof that He loves me—
That is the name and the goal of my search.
I carry a torch in one hand
I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water in the other:
With these things I am going to set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that voyagers to God can rip the veils
And see the real goal.
I have two ways of loving You:
I have two ways of loving You:
A selfish one
And another way that is worthy of You.
In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone.
In that other love, You lift the veil
And let me feast my eyes on Your Living Face.
Rabia, sometimes called Rabia of Basra or Rabia al Basri, was born to a poor family in Basra in what is now Iraq. Her parents died of famine and she was eventually sold into slavery.
The story is told that her master one night woke up and saw a light shining above her head while she was praying. Stunned, he freed her the next morning.
Rabia chose a solitary life of prayer, living much of her life in desert seclusion.
Her fame as a Sufi holy woman spread and people began to journey to her retreat, to ask advice, to study, to learn.
Today she is greatly revered by devout Muslims and mystics throughout the world.