She’s the Most Famous Sufi Woman In The World: Meet Rabia al-Adawiyya

Praying, fasting or paying alms to the poor. These are religious practices that a lot of religious people do. However, it would be wrong to assume that simply carrying out these religious practices is the sole purpose of the life of a believing person. All the things that people do serve a higher purpose, namely allowing spiritual growth and developing closeness to God.

In Islam, this is the point where one can refer to ‘Islamic Mysticism’ or ‘Sufism’. Sufism is a way of understanding religion rather than a ‘sect’ or a distinct way of thought belonging to a restricted group. Sufism is focused on raising the nafs, the breaking of the individual ego, and being in a state of full consciousness and abidance in God forever. Therefore one’s existence completely dissolves in acknowledgement and recognition of the existence of God. Many works of famous Sufi mystics such as Rumi, Hafez and Shams Tabrizi describe how one can grow closer to God through His remembrance and working on the inner self. There is however one woman who is particularly known for representing the status and power of believing women. She is the first female Sufi Saint of Islam, Rabia al-Adawiyya, also known as Rabia Basri.

I am going to light fire in Paradise and to pour water on to Hell so that both veils (…) may completely disappear (…) and the servants of God may see Him, without any object of hope or motive of fear. What if the hope of Paradise and the fear of Hell did not exist? – Rabia al Adawiyya

The story behind a great woman

According to the Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar, Rabia came from a poor family of four from Basra, Iraq. When her father died, she was auctioned as a slave for a few dirhams. Despite all, this she said:

O God, I am a stranger, without father or mother; I have been sold in bondage, and now my wrist is broken. But despite all this, I am not distressed about anything that has befallen me. I only wish you to be content, so that I might know if I have gained your satisfaction or not.

She remained completely devoted to God through prayer and complete remembrance through the difficult time of enslavement and poverty. It is said that when her master saw light around her during prayer, he could not confine her to slavery and set her free. Rabi’a withdrew herself from her previous life to go to the desert and become devoted to works of piety. Her complete affection for her religion and meditation, piety and patience is what she is remembered for today through sayings such as:

Oh 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.

The independent, strong woman Rabi’a was

Through her way of life, traditional gender roles and the status of wealth in society were being questioned. Her life as an independent, influential and intellectual woman showed that wealth and status are not acquired through financial resources, but rather through richness in spiritual value and control of the ego. One needs not to be a man or rich to therefore have a higher status in the eyes of God. Rabi’a led a life in which she had completely detached herself from all other desires but the love for God. She showed in this way that having this personal bond was something that both men and women are capable of striving for and that any man and woman can live this free path of life. It was her high-spiritedness with which she put man around her in her place, among which by rejecting many marriage proposals she received:

God can give me all you offer and even double it. It does not please me to be distracted from Him for a single moment. So farewell.

She emphasized that, in order to be completely devoted to God, one needs to understand that the relationship between man and God is a personal and unselfish one, not bound to any traditions. She is an example of one, who left no room in her heart for any love or hatred for anything or anybody else but God:

My God and my Lord: Eyes are at rest

The stars are setting, hushed are the movements of birds in their nests

of monsters in the deep.

And you are the Just Who knows no change, the Equity that does not swerve

the Everlasting that never passes away.

The doors of kings are locked and guarded by their henchmen, but Your door is open to those who call upon You.

My Lord, each lover is now alone with his beloved, and I am alone with You.