The Female Sufi Saint: Rabi’a al-Adawiyya

Running with fire in one hand and water in the other, Rabi’a explained, “I am going to burn paradise and douse hellfire so that both veils may be lifted from those on the quest, and they will become sincere of purpose. God’s servants will learn to see Him without hope for reward or fear of punishment. As it is now, if you took away hope for reward or fear of punishment, no one would obey.”

This was the mentality of the most famous female Sufi saint, Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, who set forth the doctrine of Divine Love. She maintained praises of God weren’t meant to be merely performed with the tongue, ears, eyes, hands, or feet — but with the wakeful heart.

“O Sons of Adam, from the eye, there is no way-station to the Real. From the tongue, there is no path to Him. Hearing is the highway of complainers. Hand and foot dwell in perplexity. The matter falls to the heart. Strive for a wakeful heart.”
        -Rabi’a al-Adawiyya

Born in 717 to a poor family in Basra, Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, was the fourth daughter to her parents. She later became an orphan and was sold into slavery. According to Farīd ad-Dīn ‘Attār, Rabi’a ran away from her owner and put her face to the ground saying, “All I want is for You to be pleased with me, to know whether You are pleased with me or not.” She heard a reply reassuring her not to be sad and promising her good. Rabi’a then went back to her owner.

One night, while she prostrated in prayer to God, her owner overheard her and witnessed a chain-less lantern suspended above her head light up the entire room. Upon this sight, the owner freed Rabi’a, and she spent her life in devotion to God.

According to ‘Attār’s “Memorial of the Friends of God,” which holds the most thorough account of Rabi‘a’s life, Rabi‘a of Basra is considered one of the Sufi masters. Ironically, during her time, people referred to the masters as the “ranks of men.” However, the deep Sufi concept of God’s Unity leaves no room for individuals, gender, or status.

Rabi’a’s sincerity and love resulted in her being accredited by the men of her time. She delivered passionate and eye-opening words of wisdom to them regarding God, and they took her teachings to heart.

Sālih Murrī, God’s mercy upon him, often used to say, “Whoever knocks at a door will have it opened in the end.”
Once Rabi’a was present. She said, “How long will you say, ‘He will open it again?’ When did He close it that He will open it again?”
Sālih said, “Amazing! An ignorant man and a wise, weak woman.”

She referred to herself as a “weak woman,” and so others called her this as well. However, her title was contrary to her actions, as she was a strong-willed woman who criticized and helped develop the other Sufi masters of her time.

Rabi’a lived the life of an ascetic, for her only concern was God. She paved the way for later female saints, and she reached a state which all Sufis strive for through the destruction of her nafs (ego/self). She developed a relationship with God built on love and tawakkul (trust). She didn’t devote herself to Him out of desires for reward or fear of burning; rather, she only wanted to please God and never be cut off.

‘Attār references Rabi’a al-Adawiyya in his famous “The Conference of the Birds” mystical poem:

“No, she wasn’t a single woman,
But a hundred men over:
Robed in the quintessence of pain
From foot to face, immersed in the Truth,
Effaced in the radiance of God,
And liberated from all superfluous excess.”

This piece is part of the MuslimGirl series: Influential Muslim Women. For more articles discussing the accomplishments of Muslimahs throughout history, click here.