Born c. 717
"O God, if I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting beauty."
Prayer attributed to Rabia
A mystic is someone who seeks direct contact with God through meditation or special insight. Mystics believe this is possible—indeed, only possible—outside the context of formal religion. But this unorthodox approach does not mean that mystics expect a "shortcut," as the life and teachings of an extraordinary woman named Rabia al-Adawiyya illustrate.
Founder of the Sufis, a sect of Islamic mystics, Rabia was sold into slavery; she gained her freedom, according to some legends, because her master was awed by a miraculous light shining above her head. She devoted her life to a quest for direct contact with Allah, or God.
The Middle Ages was a time when mysticism proliferated in lands influenced by the great religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some of these mystics would be judged insane if they lived in modern times; others were fanatics of one kind or another who used mysticism as a mask for darker urges within themselves. Then there were the genuine seekers, among them Rabia al-Adawiyya (rah-BEE-ah al-ah-dah-WEE-ah).
Rabia is generally credited as the founder of the Sufis, whose name comes from a word meaning "wool." They reacted to the political turmoil of their times, an age when the Abbasid caliphate was extending its power throughout the Muslim world, by retreating to an inner search for God. A principal belief of the Sufis was that one should not worship Allah out of fear of Hell, or hope of Heaven; rather, love for God should be an end in itself.
The daughter of Ismail
The details of Rabia's life are sketchy, though it appears she was born in about 717. Her mother and her father, Ismail (EES-my-el), a holy man committed to a life of poverty, lived on the edge of the desert near the town of Basra in what is now Iraq. They had four daughters, each of whom they named Rabia, with an additional name to distinguish them; the famous Rabia was the fourth.
The "facts" of Rabia's biography are generally no more than legends, an example of which is a story surrounding her birth. Due to their poverty, the parents had no oil in their house on the night she was born, which meant that they could not anoint (pour oil on) the navel of their newborn child, as was the custom. Ismail refused to beg from his neighbors, and this caused his wife to weep. Upset, the father knelt in the darkness and fell asleep, whereupon he had a dream in which the prophet Muhammad (see entry) told him: "Do not be sad. The girl child who has just been born is a queen amongst women." He was told that his faith would be rewarded, and soon afterward, the governor of the region gave him money for the raising of his daughter.
Sold into slavery
When Rabia was about eleven years old, Ismail died, and the mother, hoping to find a better life for her children, took them to Basra. On the way, however, bandits attacked
them, killing the mother and kidnapping the girls. Rabia, along with her sisters, was sold into slavery.
Eventually she wound up in Baghdad, a great city of the Islamic world that is today the capital of Iraq. There a man bought her, and proceeded to exploit her talents. Not only was she beautiful—she would receive many proposals of marriage in her life, each of which she refused—but she was a talented singer. Therefore he put her to work entertaining people, and he lived well off the money she earned.
The song changes
It was said that during this time, Rabia became affected by the world around her, and adopted loose ways. Then one day when she was about thirty-six, she was singing before a wedding party when suddenly, the song inside of her changed. Instead of singing to the wedding guests, she found herself singing to Allah.
From then on, she refused to sing for anyone but God, and this angered her master. He began to abuse her, but still she refused to resume her old life. At this point the legends about Rabia differ. Some say that her master was over-whelmed by a light shining above her head, which illuminated his whole house, and therefore he freed her. Others maintain that he grew so frustrated with her that he sold her at a market, where a holy man bought her.
Only one love
Whatever the case, it was said that the holy man took her to his home and treated her with kindness. He did not expect her to be his slave, he explained, but if she would be his wife, he would marry her. She thanked him, but said that she had no desire to marry anyone.
Legends maintain that Rabia soon came in contact with Hasan al-Basri (bahs-REE; 642–728), a noted Islamic leader. This is difficult to accommodate with the few known facts about her, since when Hasan died she would have only been thirty-seven, and tales of their conversations suggest that they knew each other for a long time. Regardless of the details, the distinguished Hasan came into her life, and like the holy man before him, asked her to marry him. Again she refused him, explaining that her only love was Allah.
A woman in a world of men
Another story about Rabia and Hasan is that one day when she was sitting by a lake, he spread his prayer mat on the surface of the water, where it floated miraculously. She had a prayer mat too, as did all Muslims, for the purpose of praying toward the holy city of Mecca five times a day, and she caused her mat to rise into the air with her on it. Then she told Hasan that "the real business is outside these tricks. One must apply oneself to the real business."
The "real business" was a quest for the direct knowledge of God, and it is a testament to Rabia's reputation that legends of her—whether or not they were true—depict her as giving religious teaching to the esteemed Hasan. Women were second-class citizens in most parts of the medieval world, and this was certainly true in Islam. Thus it was later said of Rabia, "When a woman walks in the ways of Allah like a man she cannot be called a woman." Other admirers compared her to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ.
In the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, it was highly unusual that a woman would become an influential religious leader, as Rabia al-Adawiyya did. It was hardly less remarkable, in that day and age, that a woman in England would become respected as a mystic visionary; but that was the case with Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1420), author of the first writings in English by a woman.
Julian is a man's name; as for the real name of "Julian of Norwich," which came from the fact that she lived in a cell attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England, it will probably never be known. She was an anchorite, a term for a type of nun or monk who lives completely alone.
It was said that when she was about thirty, Julian very nearly died, and indeed a priest was prepared to administer the last rites to her. On her deathbed, she looked up at a crucifix, a cross bearing a representation of the dying Jesus, and suddenly the cross began to glow. Julian was revived, and lived another four decades.
During that time, she underwent a great deal of physical hardship, as befit her chosen life of self-denial. She wrote down her revelations, or "showings," which were much more optimistic than those of most medieval mystics. Typically mystics tended to write about hellfire and judgment, but Julian's most famous statement was "All shall be well." In the twentieth century, the highly acclaimed poet T. S. Eliot adapted this line in one of his poems.
Rabia was speaking of both men and women when she said that there were three kinds of men: one who uses his hands to gain wealth in this world, one who uses his hands to pray for rewards in the afterlife, and one who allows his hands to be tied by God—to serve without expecting anything in return.
This was the essence of the Sufi teaching, which she expressed in a famous prayer quoted in a variety of forms. One version was: "O 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." Another time, she explained that both fire, or Hell, and the Garden, or Heaven, were "veils" that kept the seeker from a true knowledge of God.
A life of self-denial
In line with her belief that the seeker should not expect anything in return, Rabia, like many other mystics, lived a life of self-denial. She would often fast, or go without food, for long periods of time, and she lived in poverty. She welcomed misfortune, she said, because it was no better than blessings: all things were from Allah, and therefore they were good.
One legend told that while making the pilgrimage to Mecca, an act to which Muslims were called, her donkey died in the middle of the desert. The people on the caravan she was with offered to help her, but she refused, saying she would stay in the desert and trust in Allah. It was said that after she nearly died, she prayed to God, and he restored the donkey's life.
A woman of faith
Whatever the truth of the many legends ascribed to her, there is no doubt that Rabia was a woman of powerful faith, and that her influence spread far beyond her lifetime. The Sufis remained an influential sect throughout the Middle Ages, and continue to flourish today.
From the few remaining details of her life, it appears that Rabia left Baghdad at some point and settled in Basra again. She lived there for many years, then journeyed to Jerusalem, another holy city in the Muslim world. She died and was buried there.
Few medieval mystics influenced modern thinking as much as Joachim of Fiore (y'wah-KEEM, FYOHR-ay; c. 1130–c.1202), an Italian monk of the Cistercian (sis-TUR-shun) order. In 1185, he began writing a commentary on the biblical book of Revelation, which describes the end of the world. To do his writing, he had separated himself even from other monks, but he soon attracted followers, and in 1196 they were recognized as a Cistercian order known as the Florensians.
Late in life, Joachim began to believe that he had been given special insights on history, and began writing these down just before his death in 1202. Though his ideas were radical, and would lead to a number of interpretations that later troubled church leaders, they received the approval of Pope Innocent III.
Joachim's ideas were based on the Christian concept of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Later followers interpreted his view of history to suggest that there were three ages, each consisting of forty-two generations. They were living, they believed, in the Age of the Son, and in about 1260, the world would enter the Age of the Spirit, when love and freedom would reign.
No serious student of the Middle Ages would accept the idea that love and freedom became universal at any point during that era, or at any time since. However, the idea of three ages seeped into the popular consciousness, and is the source of the prevailing notion of three historical ages: ancient, medieval, and modern.
For More Information
Arvey, Michael. The End of the World: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1992.
Muhaiyaddeen, M. R. Bawa. Sufi Stories for Young Children. Philadelphia, PA: Fellowship Press, 1992.
Stewart, Desmond. Early Islam. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.
Denlinger, Gretchen. "Julian of Norwich's Revelations." [Online] Available http://www.millersv.edu/~english/homepage/duncan/medfem/julian1.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Joachimites." [Online] Available http://topaz.kenyon.edu/projects/margin/joachim.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Julian of Norwich (1342–ca. 1416)." [Online] Available http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/julian.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Julian of Norwich Shrine." [Online] Available http://home.clara.net/clara.net/f/r/m/frmartinsmith/webspace/julian/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Sufism/Islamic Mysticism. [Online] Available http://www.digiserve.com/mystic/Muslim/F_start.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).