Rabi'a of Basra

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by Rachel Woodlock

Name: Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya
Born: Basra circa 95-99 AH/713-17 CE
Died: Basra circa 184 AH/801 CE
Little is known for sure about Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (known as Rabi'a of Basra), revered as one of the earliest and greatest Sufi mystic ascetics in Islam.

She was born into poverty: the fourth girl (hence her name Rabi'a meaning "fourth") around 95-99 A.H. in Basra. It is thought she was captured after being orphaned and sold into slavery, becoming a flautist.

Rabi'a was freed by her owner after an event in which he was startled by observing an enveloping radiance (sakina) around her whilst she was rapt in prayer. It is said that she retreated into the desert and began occupying herself with a life of worship.

Rabi'a led a life of poverty, rejecting numerous offers of marriage including reportedly the hand of Hasan of Basra, although this is unlikely as Hasan lived decades before her and would have died when she was a young girl. Nevertheless she had many disciples who sought to learn from her and some of the most famous parables of her life depict Hasan as her student. It is reported Hasan said:

"I passed one whole night and day with Rabi'a speaking of the Way and the Truth, and it never passed through my mind that I was a man nor did occur to her that she was a woman, and at the end when I looked at her, I saw myself spiritually bankrupt [i.e. spiritually worth nothing], and Rabi'a as truly sincere."1

Rabi'a is probably best known for her emphasis on unselfish love for Allah (swt): loving Allah (swt) only for His sake, and not for fear of punishment or desire of reward. She prayed:

"O Allah! 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. "

1 Smith, Margaret. Rabi'a : the life & work of Rabi'a and other women mystics in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 1994. p32-33.

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