Rabi'a (c. 714–801)

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Rabi'a (c. 714–801)

Eighth-century mystic and saint of Islam who was known for her asceticism, miracles, and focus on God as love. Name variations: Rabia; Rabi'a the Mystic; Rabiah of Basra; Rabiah al-Adawiyah or Adawiyya; Rabi'ah, Rabe'a. Pronunciation: ra-be-a. Rabi'a was a renowned holy woman and mystic of Islam. Born Rabi'a al-Adawiya al-Kaisiya in Basra (modern-day Iraq) in 714 or 717 (some sources cite 712); died in 801; daughter of Isma'il; mother's name unknown.

Islam developed in Arabia beginning in 610, and, along with Judaism and Christianity, claims the prophet Abraham as its forefather. The earliest imperative of the fledgling sect was to ensure its own survival and the physical safety of its handful of adherents. By 632, Islam was securely established in Mecca and Medina, and the attention of the new faith turned first to matters of expansion and governance, and then to the task of refining its own ethics and theology. It was not until the 2nd century of Islam (or the 8th century of the common era), that the religion began to articulate and openly embrace its mystical dimension. Rabi'a, a young girl living in Basra, born destitute to a life of seeming obscurity, played a pivotal role in the development of Islamic transcendentalism.

The historical events of Rabi'a's life, recorded principally in Memoir of the Saints by Attar, are so overlaid with legend that it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Her biography, therefore, is a pastiche of stories told about her over the centuries by her co-religionists. Rabi'a was born in Basra, the fourth daughter (judging by her name which means "the fourth") of penurious parents. On the day the infant entered the world, her family lacked even the resources to anoint her navel with oil or swaddle her in cloth. Rabi'a's mother asked her husband, Isma'il, to go to the neighbors and request a little oil for the lamp so that the family could care for the child during the night. Isma'il went out, but only pretended to knock on the neighbor's door. He could not bring himself to beg because he had taken a personal vow never to ask for anything from others. Isma'il returned empty handed to his wife saying, "They will not open the door." This story introduces two motifs that continue to be significant in Rabi'a's biography. Many of her miracles involved lamps—a symbol of the illumination she sought and achieved through love. Also, like her father, Rabi'a would eventually be dogmatic about relying for her needs, both physical and spiritual, not on her neighbors, but on God alone.

During that first night of Rabi'a's life, the Prophet Muhammad appeared to Isma'il in a dream, assuring him that his daughter was a queen among women and that her intercession would be desired by 70,000 in the Muslim community. Muhammad instructed Rabi'a's father to go to the governor of Basra and request 400 dinars. The righteous governor recognized that the request had been inspired by the Prophet and gave Rabi'a's family all the gold and silver they needed. When Rabi'a was still a child, however, her parents died, a famine hit the land, and she and her sisters, destitute once more, were separated. Rabi'a turned to begging (and, according to some sources, prostitution) to sustain herself. One day, she was seized in the street and sold into slavery for six dirhams.

Rabi'a's life became almost intolerable. She was put to hard labor, but even more grievous was the fact that because of her duties she was unable to devote her days to an activity which would come to consume her: contemplation of God. Each night, she spent hours in prayer lamenting, "O God if I could I would not rest one hour from serving Thee, but you have set me under the hand of a creature." At one point when the young girl was performing an errand for her master, an ominous stranger (who was not permitted to look upon her unveiled) approached her in the street; she fled, fell, and broke her hand. In despair, Rabi'a cried out, "Lord God, I am a stranger, orphaned of mother and father, a helpless prisoner fallen into captivity, my hand broken. Yet for all this I do not grieve; all I need is Thy good pleasure, to know whether Thou art well-pleased or not." She was reassured by a disembodied voice which promised her she would come to occupy a station that even the angels in Heaven would envy.

It was due to her scrupulous piety that Rabi'a finally obtained release from servitude. She was in the habit of standing in prayer through the nighttime hours. One evening, her master awoke and saw Rabi'a praying; a lantern was suspended over her head which put out a brilliant light irradiating the entire house. The light formed a type of halo called sakina or cloud of glory. Frightened by this woman's spiritual power, her master manumitted her.

According to one legend, after her release from bondage Rabi'a became a flute player for a while, but most accounts indicate that the emotionally bruised young woman retired to a life of seclusion and celibacy in the deserts near Basra. After living alone in a hermitage for some time, Rabi'a resolved to fulfill the responsibility incumbent on all faithful Muslims of performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon completing the pilgrimage, Rabi'a returned to Basra where she lived out the rest of her days committed to chastity and the adoration of Allah.

In the late 8th century, Basra was active in the development of Islamic thought. Hasan of Basra (642–728), often called the forefather of Islamic mysticism, was an older contemporary of Rabi'a and, as his name indicates, he lived and taught in Basra. He is best known for ascetic observance of ritual and his thorough distrust of the material world. Hasan's instinctual dread of the immensity and power of God kept him in continual awe of judgment day and often caused him to weep profusely in public. He felt that to laugh or talk lightheartedly was frivolous for those, such as himself, who were truly cognizant of the magnitude of the Creator. In fact, when he first undertook his mystical mission he vowed never to laugh again in this world. Hasan advised his followers to avoid all corrupting influences of the profane, sensual, physical world, and, especially, to eschew contact with women. This admonition to shun women does not seem to have applied, however, to all females; association with Rabi'a was anything but polluting. In fact, according to some sources, Hasan refused to remain at any public gathering at which Rabi'a was not present.

Although the Quran establishes succinct and contrasting roles for men and women, among saints, or the "friends of god," there is no division by gender. The objectives and methods of the Muslim mystic are not dissimilar from those of mystics in numerous other sects: to seek union with the Beloved Divine by renouncing the world, purging the self of selfness, and journeying towards ecstatic illumination. It is because the Muslim mystic (also called a Sufi) seeks to extricate himself from the material—from the flesh—that enlightenment is thought to be equally possible for men and women. Whereas the Muslim woman is largely defined by the body due to her role as bearer and nurturer of children, the female mystic is, in a sense, sexless because her physicality is irrelevant. It is the mind and soul of the mystic that leads her to her goal: union with that Divine Essence which is itself non-material and sexless. In the spiritual life, there is "neither male nor female." The Prophet himself said, "God does not regard your outward forms…. Mankind will be raised up according to their intentions." The Muslim theologian Abbas of Tus claimed that on the Day of Resurrection the first person to enter Paradise will be Mary the Virgin , mother of Jesus, and some thinkers claim that Fatimah , daughter of Muhammad, was the first qutb, or spiritual mother of Sufism.

Mystical thinking was well developed in 8th century Basra, particularly the principle of annihilation of the self and union with God, but Rabi'a furthered and deepened Islamic spiritualism by her development of the doctrine of Pure Love and fellowship with God. That love is suggested in the Quranic verse, "He loves them and they love him" (Sura 5.59). Rabi'a's relationship with God was not intellectual, but it was both gnostic and visceral at the same time, both spiritual and corporeal. She loved God for himself alone and not, like Hasan, out of fear of punishment. One legend of Rabi'a has her walking the streets of Basra, a flaming torch in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other. When asked why, she explained that this symbolic act meant that she would set Paradise on fire and drown Hell "so that these two veils may disappear and nobody may worship God out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise, but solely for his own beauty."

Rabi'a expressed her feeling in poems and prayers, and she had long intimate conversations with her Beloved, the Lord. The passion of this woman's commitment is felt in her words, "O 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 am I alone with Thee…. Thou art my intimate, and longing for Thee sustains me…. I have none be side Thee…. Thou art my job, firmly established within me. If Thou art satisfied with me, then O desire of my heart, my happiness has appeared."

A woman who walks in the path of God cannot be called merely woman.


Rabi'a wanted nothing more than to think of God without ceasing, and she felt remorse when the exigencies of daily life forced her to turn her attention from the divine to the mundane. She lamented the necessity of sleeping, and frequently prayed all night, resting only at dawn, and even then regretfully. Once when the saint had abstained from food and drink for seven days and seven nights, she decided to break her fast with a little water, but she heard the voice of God warning, "Concern for me and the pleasures of the world cannot dwell together in one heart." The fear of losing her Beloved, which this incident provoked, led Rabi'a to cut herself off from any real involvement in the world. One of the most famous stories of this holy woman tells of an exquisitely beautiful spring day when she refused to leave her home because she preferred to remain in a dark house, adoring the creator, rather than to go outside and admire the created order which was pale by comparison. She also eschewed the investigation of theological questions which took her attention away from the pristine and manifest perfection of her Beloved.

Rabi'a's biographers are unambiguous as to the superiority of Rabi'a's form of passionate mystical expression over the labored and mechanical rites of other Sufis. Rabi'a was critical of Sufyan al-Thawri (713–778), an authority on the fine points of Islamic law and praxis, because of his over-confidence in the power of ritual observance and his lack of simple, unmediated devotion. At one point, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Rabi'a's student and a famous Sufi, was on a pilgrimage to worship at the Qa'ba. It took him 14 years to reach Mecca, because five times a day he stopped to perform two prostrations while he prayed. When Ibrahim arrived at Mecca, the sacred Qa'ba was gone. He was appalled and shocked, but reassured by a voice which said, "No harm has befallen your eyes, but the Qa'ba has gone to meet a woman who is approaching this place." That woman was, of course, Rabi'a. When she arrived at Mecca, the Qa'ba returned safely to its place. Ibrahim reproached Rabi'a for disturbing the world order, and she replied, "You traversed [the desert] in ritual prayer (namaz) but I with personal supplication (niyaz)." In other words, Allah had shown favor to the simple woman whose heart was pure over the highly ritualized devotions of Ibrahim.

The linkage of Rabi'a and Hasan of Basra is meaningful in that underlying their fictive relationship is an implicit judgment on the element of mysticism with which each is associated. One day Rabi'a was walking under Hasan's window, and she felt teardrops fall on her head. When she realized they had come from Hasan she reproved him saying, "O teacher, this weeping is from pride of self," at which he was silenced. Rabi'a's biographer, Attar, records that after a compelling religious discussion of the Truth and the Way, Hasan reflected that compared to Rabi'a, with her simple, sincere faith, he was spiritually bankrupt. Even the deer, gazelle and mountain goat, sensing her oneness with God, were attracted to Rabi'a, but they fled when Hasan approached.

Islamic theology is very insistent on the oneness of God. God is unassociated in his splendor with any other being. For that reason, although Muslims honor Jesus Christ as a great prophet, they do not consider him co-existent with God. By the same token, sainthood as conceived in the Christian scheme is abhorrent to Islam. There are no intermediaries between God and his creation—between God and humanity. Although this principle has undergone some interpretation and variation over time, generally speaking, in Islam the term saint does not imply that a human being has the power to intercede with God. Rather, a saint is a person of special purity and insight. Saints are, however, able to perform miracles, and Rabi'a was credited with many. Or rather, many miracles occurred in her presence. In the Islamic tradition, miracles are always the work of God, not humans. Rabi'a herself rejected the common belief that she was capable of performing miracles and thought that miracles were Satanic temptations to pride and vainglory.

Despite her reluctance, however, Rabi'a's life was suffused with the miraculous. For example, although Rabi'a would not ask God to relieve her poverty, Allah provided food for her table when she had guests or when she was in danger of starvation. When she was on her pilgrimage to Mecca, Rabi'a's camel died (some sources say donkey), but it was miraculously restored to life so that she could finish her journey. Another legend relates that one evening Rabi'a's lantern was broken and dysfunctional, but nonetheless, her abode was illuminated by the light that shone around her person, or, in a similar story, from her fingers. When one of her guests protested that only Moses could set his fingers alight, Rabi'a replied that whoever follows in the footsteps of the prophets can "possess a grain of prophethood." According to al-Munawi, once a thief broke into Rabi'a's cell and tried to steal her veil. When the thief had it in his hands, he was suddenly unable to find the door to leave. He put the veil down and could at once see the door, but when he once more picked up the veil, again the exit was obscured. A voice chided the thief assuring him that Rabi'a was under divine protection. The same author tells of a competition of spiritual powers between Hasan of Basra and Rabi'a. Hasan attempted to keep a prayer mat floating on the surface of the water while he was praying on it, but Rabi'a was able to throw her prayer mat into the air and fly up onto it. Ultimately, however, despite her superior powers, Rabi'a scolded Hasan who had initiated the contest, saying that fish can float and birds fly; "the real work for saints lies beyond both of these."

Rabi'a lived in absolute poverty and practiced a life of extreme denial, so much so that she has been criticized by later Muslim writers because Islam has not traditionally favored radical asceticism, and celibacy has never been an exalted ideal in the Muslim community for men or for women. Although her friends would have willingly satisfied Rabi'a's material needs, she refused aid saying, "I should be ashamed to ask for this world's goods from Him to whom they belong, and how should I seek them from those to whom they do not belong?" Many men wanted to marry her, but she refused, saying she belonged entirely to God. One of her suitors was supposedly Hasan of Basra, although the difference in their ages makes this seem unlikely. Supposedly, when Hasan requested Rabi'a's hand, she insisted that she no longer existed except "in the shadow of [God's] command" so that she was not free to give herself in marriage to a mortal man. She also posed to the holy man a riddle in four parts which dealt with God and judgment day. When Hasan confessed that he could not provide her the answers she sought, Rabi'a responded that with this riddle to solve, she had no time for a husband. So disinterested was she in earthly marriage that she even refused the proposal of the Abbasid Amir of Basra, Muhammad ben Sulayman al-Hashimi, who offered her not only his hand, but an enormous income which would assure her a life of wealth and leisure. She responded to the Amir, "It does not please me … that you should distract me from God for a single moment, so farewell."

Although the saint wanted nothing more than to be left in solitude to contemplate her Maker, Rabi'a's reputation for sanctity and miracles attracted disciples to her. Men and women came for prayers or counsel or to listen to her teaching. In fact, many of the most notable Sufis of the next generation (such as Adham of Balkh [d. 770?]) were trained at the feet of this female mystic.

Rabi'a died at the age of about 85 in 801 (one source has her dying as early as 752). By the end of her life, she was frail and often sick, but as she told her friends who tended her in her last illnesses, her most serious malady was separation from God which "all the physicians in the world are powerless to cure." The saint did not fear death, in fact she welcomed it; death would bring her into the presence of the God for whom she had longed her entire life. She always had her shroud, which was made from an animal skin, near her, anticipating the joyful day of death when she would reunite with her Beloved. When she was dying, Rabi'a asked her friends to leave her deathbed to make room for the messengers of God Most High. As they left, they heard the saint making her confession of faith and a voice responding, "O soul at rest, return to thy Lord … enter among My servants into My paradise." She was buried at Basra.

After her death, many stories were circulated of Rabi'a's appearances in dreams. A famous legend tells of the holy woman, spirited to the end, and how she escaped the inquisitor angels of the tomb, Mundar and Nakir. She appeared in a dream and informed the dreamer that when Mundar and Nakir tested her with the question, "Who is your Lord?" she replied, "Tell Allah that I, a weak old woman, have never forgotten him, so how could he ask me, 'Who is your Lord?'" In another dream, the saint appeared dressed in fine robes of green silk embroidered with gold. The dreamer asked Rabi'a why she was not wearing the hair-skin shroud and the woolen scarf in which she was buried, and Rabi'a replied that her shroud had been taken from her and carried by the angels to Paradise. From time to time, her admirers sought solace or counsel by visiting her grave. Once visitors to her tomb asked Rabi'a if she had attained the union with God for which she had labored her entire life; they heard a voice respond, "I have."

Although the story of Rabi'a is well known in the Muslim world (so much so that her life provided the plot of an Arab movie), the saint has not received a great deal of attention outside of Islam. Some short stories were written about her in the 14th century, and the 19th-century English author Richard Monckton Milnes wrote a collection of poems titled The Sayings of Rabiah. Scholarship in the 20th century turned its attention to elucidating the contributions of women around the world and through time, and Rabi'a has benefited from that trend. There are now several works in European languages dedicated to telling this woman's story—a story which transcends the boundaries of one culture.


Arberry, A.J., trans. Muslim Saints and Mystics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

Bosworth, C.E., et al., eds. New Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. NY: Macmillan, 1987.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. NY: Macmillan, 1985.

Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Smith, Margaret. Rabi'ah the Mystic, and Her Fellow Saints in Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

suggested reading:

Arberry, A.J. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1970.

Baldick, J. "The Legend of Rabi'a of Basra: Christian Antecedents, Muslim Counterparts," in Religion. Vol. 20, 1990, pp. 233–247.

Massignon, Louis. Essai sur Les Origines du Lexique Technique de la Mystique Musulmane. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1954.

Van Gelder, G.J.H. "Rabia's Poem on the Two Kinds of Love: A Mystification?," in Verse and the Fair Sex: A Collection of Papers Presented at the 15th Congress of the UEAI 1990. Edited by F. de Jong. Utrecht, 1993.

Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon