Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or simply Rabiʿa al-Basri (717–801) was a Sufi mystic who lived in the eighth century. She was regarded as the first female saint of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam.
She was born between 95 and 99 Hijri in Basra, Iraq. Much of her early life is narrated by Farid al-Din Attar. Farid al-Din Attar, a later Sufi saint and poet, used earlier sources. Rabia herself did not leave any written works.
She was the fourth daughter of her family and therefore named Rabia, meaning “fourth”. She was born free in a poor but respected family.
According to Farid al-Din Attar, Rabia’s parents were so poor that there was no oil in house to light a lamp, nor a cloth even to wrap her with. Her mother asked her husband to borrow some oil from a neighbor, but he had resolved in his life never to ask for anything from anyone except the Creator. He pretended to go to the neighbor’s door and returned home empty-handed.
In the night Prophet Muhammad appeared to him in a dream and told him, “Your newly born daughter is a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many Muslims to the right path. You should approach the Amir of Basra and present him with a letter in which should be written this message: ‘You offer Durood to the Holy Prophet one hundred times every night and four hundred times every Thursday night. However, since you failed to observe the rule last Thursday, as a penalty you must pay the bearer four hundred dinars ‘.
Rabia’s father got up and went straight to the Amir with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. The Amir was delighted on receiving the message, knowing that he was in the eyes of Prophet. He distributed 1000 dinars to the poor and joyously paid 400 dinars to Rabia’s father. The Amir then asked Rabia’s father to come to him whenever he required anything, as the Amir would benefit very much by the visit of such a soul dear to the Lord.
After the death of her father a famine overtook Basra and Rabia parted from her sisters. Legend has it that she was accompanying a caravan, which fell into the hands of robbers. The chief of the robbers took Rabia captive, and sold her in the market as a slave. The new master of Rabia used to take hard service from her.
She would pass the whole night in prayer, after she had finished her household jobs. She spent many of her days observing fast.
Once the master of the house got up in the middle of the night, and was attracted by the pathetic voice in which Rabia was praying to her Lord. She was entreating in these terms:
“Lord! You know well that my keen desire is to carry out Your commandments and to serve Thee with all my heart, O light of my eyes. If I were free I would pass the whole day and night in prayers. But what should I do when you have made me a slave of a human being?”
At once the master felt that it was sacrilegious to keep such a saint in his service. He decided to serve her instead. In the morning he called her and told her his decision; he would serve her and she should dwell there as the mistress of the house. If she insisted on leaving the house he was willing to free her from bondage.
She told him that she was willing to leave the house to carry on her worship in solitude. This the master granted and she left the house.
She was the one who first set forth the doctrine of Divine Love and who is widely considered to be the most important of the early Sufi poets. The definitive work on her life and writing was a small treatise (written as a Master’s Thesis) over 50 years ago by Margaret Smith .
Much of the poetry that is attributed to her is of unknown origin. After a life of hardship she spontaneously achieved a state of self-realization. When asked by Sheikh Hasan al-Basri how she discovered the secret, she responded by stating:
“You know of the how, but I know of the how-less.”
One of the many myths that swirl around her life is that she was freed from slavery because her master saw her praying while surrounded by light, realized that she was a saint and feared for his life if he continued to keep her as a slave.
While she apparently received many marriage offers (including a proposal from Hasan al-Basri himself), she remained celibate and died of old age, an ascetic, her only care from the disciples who followed her. She was the first in a long line of female Sufi mystics.
It is also possible that she helped further integrate Islamic slaves into Muslim society. Because of her time spent in slavery early in life, Rabi’a was passionate against all forms of it. She even refused a slave later in life, despite her heightened spiritual status.