RABI'A OF BASRA
Basra, modern Iraq's only seaport, was founded in A.D. 636 by the caliph 'Umar, a companion of Muhammad. Within four years of Muhammad's death, the first wave of Islamic expansion had swept into the Persian empire, and a remarkable process of absorption and transformation had begun. Although few traces remain of the pre-Muslim Arabic world, the Qur'an retained hints sufficient to show that its inspiration took a poetic form already used by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian desert. Other contemplative mystics and seers had retired to caves and meditated upon al-Haqq, the Real, before Muhammad did. If his insight outshone theirs, it nonetheless drew strength from ancient and unwritten traditions. Similarly, the rapid emergence of Sufi movements within Islam suggests a developed mystical practice that found in the new faith a suitable vehicle for inward discovery. During the first centuries of Muslim growth, women joined men in every aspect of the spiritual quest. Rabi'a was amongst the first of the Sufis to leave a strong imprint upon Islam.
Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya was born in Basra around the year A.D. 717, less than a century after the city had been founded. Though tradition holds that her father was told by Muhammad in a dream that the newly born child would become a great spiritual exemplar, the family fell on hard times while she was still a child. Her parents died, and Rabi'a was abandoned to wander as an orphan. She was seized by an unscrupulous man who sold her as a slave. Though she had to work hard, her plight did not make her bitter, for she understood her condition to mean that she should abandon all expectations regarding the world and place her trust wholly in the Divine. During the day she dutifully performed her tasks while fasting, and at night she prayed for long hours in the service of Allah. One night while she was in rapt contemplation of Deity, a great light appeared above her head and illuminated the entire house. Her master awoke, saw the sakina, the numinous afflatus of the Divine, and recognized the intensity of her devotion. In the morning he called her and set her free.
She built herself a small retreat near Basra and followed the path of devotion. At least once she journeyed to Mecca to circumambulate the sacred Ka'ba, although she did not feel the need to do so to feel the nearness of God. Miraculous events attended this journey. She started out with a small group of pilgrims, but on the way her donkey died. After the others had gone on at her bidding, she prayed for divine assistance, the donkey came to life and she continued her sojourn. Meanwhile, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Prince of Balkh, was nearing the end of his own pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey which had taken him fourteen years because he had stopped to pray at every place of prayer along the way. When he arrived, he discovered that the Ka'ba had left its site and had travelled eastward to meet Rabi'a. After she reached Mecca and the Ka'ba had returned to its place, she asked Ibrahim why he had delayed coming to Mecca for fourteen years. He explained that he had taken so long to cross the desert because he had been praying, but she replied, "You crossed it in namaz – ritual prayer – but I with niyaz – supplication." Having made her pilgrimage, she returned to Basra and took up an ascetic life.
Rabi'a had many disciples throughout her life. She lived before the rise of schools and saw no point in establishing a spiritual succession. Nonetheless, many distinct movements looked to her as the founder of the way of life they followed. She received numerous offers of marriage, often from companion seekers, but she chose to dwell alone in chaste contemplation of the Divine. Like Mirabai, she had no time for familial entanglements. Once, when Hasan of Basra, a close companion, urged her to marry him, she agreed, providing he could answer four questions: "Will the Judge of the world say when I die that I have emerged a Muslim (one who has surrendered) or an unbeliever? When I am questioned by Munkar and Nakir – the angels of death – will I be able to give them satisfactory answers? When people are given their life ledgers at the Resurrection, will I be given mine in my right hand (good) or my left (evil)? When mankind is called to the Day of Judgement, will I enter Paradise or Hell?" Hasan answered all four questions with "This is among the hidden things, known only to Allah." Rabi'a responded, "Since this is so, I have four questions with which to concern myself. How could I serve a husband?"
Rabi'a took as her foci of concentration love of the Real and uncompromising asceticism. The one ever turned her mind towards the Beloved, and the other removed every temptation. She insisted on strict self-reliance, though she accepted the freely offered assistance of female companions in her later years. She withdrew from the world, but she did not deny humanity. People came to her every day, and she was generous in advice, instruction and moral assistance, but she tried to avoid being venerated as a saintly figure. Once Rabah al-Qays came to Rabi'a in a state of distress. He had been asked if he found the days and nights long owing to his ardent wish to meet Allah.
"And what did you answer?" Rabi'a asked.
"I did not say 'yes' lest I should tell a lie," Rabah confessed, "and I did not say 'no' lest I should debase his soul."
Without hesitation, Rabi'a said, "My answer is 'yes'."
On another occasion, Sufyan al-Thawri, a close friend, was sitting with Rabi'a. Suddenly he said, "Allah! Mayst Thou be satisfied with us."
"Are you not ashamed", Rabi'a said, "to ask Him to be satisfied when you are not satisfied with Him?"
When Malik Dinar suggested that she might pray for a little relief from her extreme poverty, since she refused offers of support from disciples, she asked, "Will He forget the poor because of their poverty or remember the rich because of their riches?"
"No", Malik answered.
"Then what have I to remind Him of? What He wills, we should also will."
Rabi'a was always frail and often fell ill. She refused medical treatment because she thought illness was invariably a sign that she had been distracted from al-Haqq, the love of which could admit of no competition. Once she had a vivid paradisiacal dream in which a luminous feminine figure warned her:
Thereafter she never slept at night, but instead used it for meditation until her death. During her last illness, Hasan of Basra, Malik Dinar and Shaqiq Balkhi visited her to show her the meaning of resignation.
Hasan began, saying, "He is not sincerely a servant of Allah who is not patient under the chastisement of his Lord."
"I smell egotism in this speech", Rabi'a replied.
"But", Shaqiq continued, "he is not sincere who is not thankful for such chastisement."
"Something better than this is needed."
Malik added, "He is not sincere who does not take delight in such chastisement."
"Even this is insufficient", Rabi'a answered. "He is not sincere who does not forget the chastisement in contemplating his Lord."
Rabi'a held that the true Sufi, whose consciousness is unwaveringly centered on the Divine, is indifferent to pleasure and to pain, not from sensory dullness but from ceaseless rapture in divine love. She died in A.D. 801 and was buried at Basra. Sometime later, Muhammad ibn Aslam al-Tusi and Na'mi Tartusi visited her grave. They called out, asking if she had attained her exalted goal, and heard a voice reply, "I have reached that which I saw."
From an early age Rabi'a knew that she sought nothing less than union with the Divine, but she never enunciated a theology. Nevertheless, later thinkers found in her teachings and in the anecdotes about her all stages on the Way to the Real. Though these stories were doubtless embroidered by subsequent generations, the earliest accounts of Rabi'a were recorded by al-Jahiz, who may have known her near the end of her life and certainly knew a number of her disciples. The Sufi poet Fariduddin 'Attar stated that "Rabi'a was unique because she was peerless in her relationship to Allah and her knowledge of things Divine, and she was highly respected by all the great mystics of her time." Whilst she saw reminders of Deity everywhere, her intense desire to behold the Beloved restrained her appreciation of the world in favour of the elevation of consciousness to that level of formless Reality which is ineffable. For Rabi'a, the stages on the Way were not sequential steps but rather simultaneously nurtured aspects of integral spirituality.
The Divine Highway begins in tawba, true repentance, which for the average person is a turning from what is recognized as wrong to what is right. For the Sufi, however, this repentance is only half of tawba; good must move to better through a change from tawba focussed on oneself to tawba centered in the Divine. Self-centered repentance is the abandonment of moral and mental wrongdoing, but divine repentance is vision of the Absolute. Rabi'a saw the higher repentance as a divine gift, and she called her Lord the Healer of Souls. "If I seek repentance of myself," she taught, "I shall have need of repentance again." And she would have agreed with the ethical implication drawn by al-Sarraj regarding tawba: "The sins of those near to the Divine are the good deeds of the righteous." Owing to the subtle insincerity which can taint repentance, Rabi'a warned, "Our asking forgiveness of God itself needs forgiveness."
Repentance necessitates sabr and shukr, patience and gratitude. Patience begins with the cessation of complaints, and it attains the ascetic's ideal in being satisfied with divine decree, but the true 'friend of Allah' loves whatever Divine Will does. Rabi'a refused to desire anything in her prayers and meditations, saying, "If I will something and my Lord does not will it, I shall be guilty of unbelief." If sabr is acceptance of whatever limitations are imposed on one, shukr is the same attitude towards benefits. In time one comes to feel gratitude for what the world calls misfortune. Thus Rabi'a could say, "Thou hast given me life and provided for me, and Thine is the glory", and "If Thou hadst not set me apart by affliction, I would not have increased the company of Thy lovers."
Although raja' and khawf hope and fear, were essential to the spiritual path, Sufis saw no point in longing for Paradise and trembling before the prospect of Hell. Fear saves the aspirant's love of the Divine from the taint of self-indulgence, and hope keeps it from becoming servitude. For Rabi'a, hope and fear were construed as seeking the Divine Presence and shunning anything which might separate one from it. They were the positive and negative poles of that meditation on Deity which constituted eternal life.
To the degree that one has established oneself in these stages, the seeker is ready to grasp the inward meaning of faqr, poverty. Whilst faqr has numerous external tokens – many of them found in Rabi'a's simple way of living – true poverty is an exalted state of consciousness characterized by the loss of all attributes of self. It is the existential realization that one is nothing other than the Divine. With the discovery of true poverty, one begins to grasp the spiritual meaning of zuhd, asceticism or renunciation. Whilst zuhd begins in renunciation of all that attracts one away from the Goal, and so is a kind of purgation of consciousness, it leads ultimately to renunciation of everything save the Divine. Zuhd is the only effective antidote to shirk, the idolatry of giving to another what belongs to the Divine, and it leads one to a cheerful freedom in consciousness that is receptive to divine intimacy. "Despise the world," Rabi'a taught, "for it is most pleasant to look down upon it." Her renunciation was so complete that she could say, "What appears of my good works, I count as nothing at all", and advise, "Conceal your good deeds as you conceal your evil ones." True renunciation can have nothing of insincerity in it. Once when some associates had been speaking at length of the worthlessness of this world, Rabi'a said, "You must be very fond of this world; if you were not fond of it, you would not say so much about it."
Renunciation is the springboard to tawhid, unity. Whilst all Muslims accept the unqualified unity of Allah, the Sufi enriched this conception to include the immersion of the personal self in the Divine Self and the abnegation of the personal will in the Divine Will. Tawhid as unity became tawhid as unification. Thus the Persian mystic Abu Sa'id ibn Abi al-Khayr advised:
Tawhid naturally embraces tawakkul, dependence on Deity. In tawakkul worldly matters no longer affect one, actions are never the result of self-interest, and the individual self no longer exerts itself to control its own destiny. Rabi'a once said:
For Rabi'a, the goal of the spiritual life could be nothing less than union with Deity, and love was the reflection of that ultimate possibility which illuminated every stage of the Way. Mahabba, love, includes shawq, uns and rida', longing, intimacy and satisfaction. Whilst rid',a satisfaction, has an objective and a subjective side, one criterion can be used to measure both. If the human being is to be satisfied with the Divine, the Divine must be satisfied with the human being. For Rabi'a, there need be no guesswork about rida': if man is satisfied with Deity, Deity will be satisfied with man. One can always ascertain Allah's satisfaction through prayerful self-examination. Rid' involves shawq, intense longing for the Divine, an aspect of love which Sufis have likened to the yearning of the lover (man) for the Beloved (God).
The intensity of mahabba eventually reaches the flash-point of uns, where the trembling awe of the worshipper crumbles before an overwhelming sense of intimacy. According to al-Hujwiri, love of God begins with a profound response to divine beneficence and achieves its apotheosis in a rapture which reckons even divine favours as veils separating lover and Beloved. The lover's sense of self is utterly abolished before the blazing radiance of the Beloved, and the human heart agrees with Divine Will. Such love leads by gradual stages to gnosis, knowledge of the Real, and culminates in kashf the unveiling which is called intimacy in the language of love and omniscience in that of knowledge. 'Attar wrote that Rabi'a was once asked, "Do you love the Lord of Glory?"
"I do", she replied.
"Then do you hold Satan as an enemy?"
"No", she said. "My love for God leaves no room for hating Satan."
One day a number of disciples saw Rabi'a running with a bowl of water in one hand and a torch in the other. They called to her, asking what she was doing, and she called back that she was going to set the torch to Paradise and pour water on Hell so that both these veils would disappear and cease to hinder pilgrims. Then they would know if their purpose was sure and their motive right.
One of her poems records her growth in mahabba:
Rabi'a's teachings provided spiritual food for generations. Many Sufi orders looked to her for inspiration, and her memory continues to be venerated by both Sufis and orthodox Muslims. Her life became a touchstone for spiritual endeavour because she had earned the privilege of being able to say: