A Great Woman Saint . Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyyah, also known as Rabi’ah al-Qaysiyyah, was born in the second decade of the eighth century and died in her native city of Basrah in 801. Along with the well-known female ascetics and hadith transmitters Mu’adhah al-’Adawiyyah and Umm al-Darda’, Rabi’ah was one of the three great woman saints of Basrah. Her tomb on the outskirts of Basrah was revered as a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Little objective information is available about Rabi’ah’s life. She was a client (mawlat) of the Arab tribe of Adiyy ibn Qays, which adopted her and allowed her to use its name. In the Umayyad period, every convert to Islam had to be adopted by a member of an Arab tribe, which served as the convert’s patron. Thus, Rabi’ah’s relationship of clientage to this Arab tribe indicates that either she, or perhaps her father, was a convert. She may also have been a freed slave, but this information is found only in later sources.
Career . Rabi’ah was a noted ascetic and teacher. Her best-known students were the jurist Sufyan al-Thawri (715-778) and the hadith transmitter Shu’bah ibn al-Haj-jaj (dietd 782). Sufyan relied on Rabi’ah extensively for her knowledge offiqh al-’ibadat, the Islamic rules pertaining to worship. As a follower of the Basrah tradition of women’s asceticism started by Mu’adhah al-’Adawiyyah, Rabi’ah practiced a spiritual method that stressed detachment from the world, absorption in the love of God, and inward and outward sincerity. She appears to have shared the Murjiite beliefs of Hasan al-Basri. Some of her statements can be read with more than one meaning. When asked whether she loved the Prophet Muhammad, she replied: “Truly I love him. But love for the Creator has turned me away from love for created things.” This comment may mean that nothing came between Rabi’ah and her love for God, but it may also mean that the words of God in the Qur’an are more important than the words of the Prophet in the hadiths. Because Hanbali scholar Jamal al-Din ibn al-Jawzi (died 1201) wrote a book about Rabi’ah, now lost, entitled Rabiah al-Mutazila. This title may indicate that she withdrew from the world or that Ibn al-Jawzi thought she had Mu’tazilite sympathies.
Legendary Reputation . There are as many versions of Rabi’ah’s legendary persona as there are accounts attributed to her. These accounts appear in the most-influential collections of Sufi biography. Farid al-Din al-’Attar (died 1220) portrayed her as a second Mary. Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (died 988) highlighted her as a model of Sufi knowledge. Abu Talib al-Makki (died 996) credited her with introducing the concept of divine love into Islamic asceticism. Hanbali scholars such as Ibn al-Jawzi accepted her because of her asceticism and otherworldliness. Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (died 1021) was the first to portray her as the quintessential Sufi woman and female saint. Some biographers, such as Ibn al-Jawzi, portrayed Rabi’ah as an antisocial recluse whose reactions bordered on hysteria. Others, such as al-Sulami, portrayed her as a perceptive and somewhat cynical critic of the world and human weakness. When Sufyan al-Thawri complained to Rabi’ah of his sorrows, she replied: “Do not lie! Say instead, ‘How little is my sorrow!’ If you were truly sorrowful, life itself would not please you.” Accounts about Rabi’ah often confuse her with other Sufi women with similar names or from the same region. Some of her statements on love mysticism may actually have have been made by her servant and student, Maryam of Basrah, who died of a ruptured spleen while listening to a sermon on love. Rabi’ah is often confused with another Sufi woman, Rabi’ah bint Isma’il, who lived in Damascus and died about fifty years after Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyyah. Rabi’ah bint Isma’il’s tomb in Jerusalem is still thought to be that of Rabi’ah al-Adawiyyah, and many of her poems have been attributed to her Basran predecessor.
Abu ‘Abel al-Rahman al-Sulami, Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-niswa al-mutaabbidat as-sufiyyat, translated by Rkia Elaroui Cornell (Louisville, Ky.: Fons Vitae, 1999).