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Rabi’a al-Basri, poet and Sufi (mystic), was the first woman Sufi-Saint in Islam and is very respectfully referred to as “Hazrat Rabi’a al-Basri. Her actual date of birth is not known. However, it is speculated that she was born in Basra, Iraq, between 710/713 A.D. in an extremely poor family. As her name, Rabi’a, suggests, she was daughter number four in her family and her parents justly called her that: ‘Rabia’, which, in fact, means ‘fourth’ in the Arabic language. However, she lost her father early in life and she and her sisters suffered terrible hardships specially during the famine that followed in Basra at the time. Eventually, Rabi’a, who already had an inborn love for Allah (God), was caught by thieves and sold as a slave. Her master made her work all day. But she never complained. Her only interest in life was her faith and love for Allah. In fact, she was ever filled with love – ‘divine love’ – which became her ‘doctrine’ of and motive in life. All through her life, she would be consumed by that ‘divine love.’
She would work for her master during the day and pray at night. One night, it so happened that her master saw light in her room and he was intrigued because the light was all around Rabi’a. He came out to check and was deeply moved to see Rabi’a deep in prayer and her body wrapped in ‘light’. The master was touched; he was so smitten by Rabi’a’s intense piety that he freed her immediately and opted, instead, to serve her. Rabi’a would live at the master’s house for a while and then she would leave for the desert where she would live the life of an ascetic – spending her time in prayers and meditation.
In fact, the only thing that mattered to Rabi’a was her love for Allah and she led a deeply pious life, devoting herself to Allah totally. She got several offers of marriage but would decline them all. Marriage, she said, would be a distraction to her faith in and devotion to Allah. Little wonder then, that she came to inspire enormous respect and reverence for herself not only among the people of Basra but also among people beyond Basra – indeed, the world over, and it would not be long before she had followers across the world. Indeed, she was revered as a (Sufi) Saint and a mystic.
Throughout her life, Rabi’a would live a simple life of poverty and abnegation. She never asked for anything from anyone – not even from Allah. Yet, it was well known that she always did favours to many around her. Today, the name – Rabi’a – has come to symbolize women of “the highest type of spirituality” and she is regarded as one of the most revered Sufi-Saints in Islam.
Rabi’a would not leave any writings per se but her teachings came down through the oral tradition, common at the time in the East. And most of what we know of her poetry and (sufi) teachings have come down to us through other Sufis, namely: Farid ud-Din Attar, who would himself become a great Sufi master later; and another great Sufi-Teacher, Hassen al-Basri. They both wrote about Rabi’a al-Basri, whom they hailed as a teacher of both women and men and who enjoyed enormous respect among the people of Basra.
In the Islamic world, Rabi’a is also known as Hazrat Rabi’a al-Basri or Hazrat Rabi’a al-Adawyyai. Her poetry is intensely inspiring because of the manner she voices her unfailing love for God; it well reflects the beauty and selfless devotion to her Maker. Her sincerity rings in every verse. Indeed, reading Rabi’a is a spiritual treat in itself. It is invigorating and inwardly fulfilling. Her use of imagery in describing her faith in Allah is riveting, moving and spiritually elevating.
Indeed, some of the quotes from Rabi’a are just mesmerizing. For example, she declares without any angst how she felt about that love for Allah:
“If I adore You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell!
If I adore You out of desire for Paradise, lock me out of Paradise.
But if I adore You for Yourself alone,
Do not deny me Your eternal beauty!”
She was ever imbued with love and charity in her heart for Allah.
“I love Allah: I have no time left in which to hate the devil”
Or proclaim the universality of Love loud and clear to the world:
“In my soul
There is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
That dissolve in …God!”
Rabi’a al-Basri, who lived a simple earthly life, saw (spiritual) grace in everything. Life, to her, was beauty and devotion was worship… It was all a fulfilling feeling that is given to only a few chosen ones to experience, to explore and to teach …others. The world is not just what we see around us. It is much more. There is more to it — which only a few blessed ones are privileged to see, to live, to experience … like Rabi’a did.
Little wonder then that Rabi’a al-Basri was reported to have lived through many sufi experiences or what others call ‘miracles.’ Her life’s story is replete with stories of the ‘unreal’… Sufi Masters of her generation, namely: Hasan al-Basri or Farid-ud Din Attar held her in awe and great reverence. Hazrat Rabia al-Basri is a household name not just in Iraq but all over the Middle East. Her birth came about in sad circumstances. Her folks were destitute… so poor that there was no cloth to even wrap the baby and no oil in the house to light a lamp. As a matter of fact, Rabi’a’s mother asked her dad to go to the neighbour’s house to borrow some oil. But the dad, who had sworn not to ask for anything from anybody, did not go. However, it is related that the same night he had a dream in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) appeared to him and urged him to go the Emir of Basra with a letter that read thus: “Your newly-born daughter is a favourite of the Lord, and shall lead many Muslims to the right path. You should approach the Emir of Basra and present him with a letter in which should be written this message:
‘You offer Durood to the Holy Prophet one hundred times every night and four hundred times every Thursday night. However, since you failed to observe the rule last Thursday, as a penalty, you must pay the bearer four hundred dinars.’”
Rabi’a’s dad got up, prepared ‘the Message’ and literally rushed to the Emir’s with tears streaming down his eyes to present ‘the Message’. The Emir was, indeed, delighted to know that he was well-liked by the Prophet (pbuh). He immediately had 1,000 dinars distributed to the poor and, because he had missed one Thursday, he paid a penalty of 400 dinars, which he remitted to Rabi’a’s father, who was elated. He thanked the Emir and praised Allah for his daughter Rabi’a. Moreover, the Emir even asked Rabi’a’s father to come to him whenever he needed anything. Indeed, the Emir felt blessed by the visit of one whose daughter’s “soul was dear to the Lord.”
Rabi’a al-Basri would live to be past eighty years of age and she was mourned by thousands on her passing and till to-day her graveside in Mount Olives in Jerusalem, is a favoured site of visits and prayers by her countless followers, to whom she was a Sufi and a Saint – the first woman Sufi-Saint in Islam. She was a true beloved of Allah, Who, she ever said, “is always with me!”