Rabia of Basra

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Rābiʼa al-ʼAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya
Depiction of Rabiʼa grinding grain from a Persian dictionary
Bornbetween 714 and 718 CE
Died801 CE
Academic background
InfluencesHasan of Basra
Academic work
Main interestsSufism, Asceticism, Divine love
Notable ideasDivine love

Rābiʼa al-ʼAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Arabic: رابعة العدوية القيسية; c. 716 – 801 CE)[1] was an Arab Muslim saint, one of the earliest Sufi mystics and an influential religious figure.[2] She is known in some parts of the world as Hazrat Rabia Basri, Rabia Al Basri or simply Rabia Basri.[3] She is considered by many Muslims to be an example of piety and is a part of the complicated early history of Islam.


Very little is known about the life of Rabiʿa, notes Rkia Elaroui Cornell.

What historical information can be ascertained from the earliest sources on Rabi‘a? As stated above, there is very little except to confirm that a Muslim woman ascetic and teacher named Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya or Rabi‘a al-Qaysiyya (the name ‘Adawiyya refers to her clan and the name Qaysiyya refers to her tribe) lived in or around the city of Basra in southern Iraq in the eighth century CE. [...] The commonly accepted birth date of 717 CE and death date of 801 CE come from a much later period and the ultimate source of these dates is unclear.[4]

Cornell further notes that she was mentioned by two early Basran authors. "Because of this, they were familiar with her reputation. This local reputation is the best empirical evidence we have that Rabi‘a actually existed." She also writes, "To date, no written body of work has been linked conclusively to Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya."[4]

Despite this, narratives about Rabiʿa grew over the centuries, and a considerable hagiography developed. Attar of Nishapur, a Sufi saint and poet who lived some four centuries later, recounted a now famous story of her early life.[5] Many of her hagiographies depict her using literary or philosophical tropes where she, like her Christian counterparts, embodied idealised religious individuals.[4]

Philosophy and religious contributions[edit]

Often noted as having been the single most famous and influential renunciant women in Islam, Rabiʿa was renowned for her extreme virtue and piety. A devoted ascetic, when asked why she performed a thousand ritual prostrations both during the day and at night, she is said to have answered, "I desire no reward for it; I do it so that the Messenger of God, may God bless him and give him peace, will delight in it on the day of Resurrection and say to the prophets, 'Take note of what a woman of my community has accomplished.'"[5]

Rabiʿa was described intense in her self-denial and devotion to God.[6] As an explanation of her refusal to lift her head toward the heavens (to God) as an act of modesty, she used to say: "Were the world the possession of a single man, it would not make him rich ... because it is passing away."[5]

According to Sufi accounts, she was the first to set forth the doctrine of divine love known as ishq[7] and is widely considered being the most important of the early renunciants, a form of piety that would eventually be labeled Sufism.[3]

Poetry and myths[edit]

Much of the poetry that is attributed to her is of unknown origin.[4] There is no evidence in the historical archive that Rabia ever met Hasan al-Basri; however, the following myth, which first appeared in Attar of Nishapur's Tazkirat al-Awliya, is a common trope in the modern period:[8] After a life of hardship, she spontaneously achieved a state of self-realization. She was chosen by Allah to perform divine miracles. When asked by Hasan al-Basri how she discovered the secret, she responded by stating "you know of the how, but I know of the how-less."[9]

One of the many myths that surround 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.[6]

Biographer Rkia Elaroui Cornell discovered four main tropes of her mythologization: Rabia the Teacher, Rabia the Ascetic, Rabia the Lover, and Rabia the Sufi.[10]


Rabia is often mythologized as an essential ascetic, where "the ascetic attains the Nonworld not by rejecting the World but by treating it as unimportant. The essential ascetic avoids the World not because it is evil per se but because it is a distraction from God."[11]

As teacher[edit]

Rabia was said to[by whom?] have a circle of disciples, including Maryam of Basra. Besides her disciples, she is regarded as a mentor to many emerging Muslims and guided people in their journey toward God and Sufi practices.[citation needed]

While nothing physical is left, her impact on the lives of the people around her can be seen in the stories still told about her. For someone whose physical existence is unproved, the fact that her name is still known and respected today speaks volumes.[12]

In feminist theory[edit]

Several aspects of Sufism suggest that Sufi ideologies and practices have stood as counters to dominant society and its perception of women and the relationships between men and women. The stories detailing the life and practices of Rabia show a countercultural understanding of the role of gender in society. Her role as a spiritual and intellectual superiority is depicted in several narratives. In a Sufi narrative, Sufi leader Hasan al-Basri explained, "I passed one whole night and day with Rabi'a ... it never passed through my mind that I was a man nor did it occur to her that she was a woman...when I looked at her I saw myself as bankrupt [i.e. as spiritually worth nothing] and Rabi'a as truly sincere [rich in spiritual virtue]."[13] She decided to stay celibate in order to leave her womanhood behind and devote herself completely to God.[6]


There are no artifacts found written by or about Rabia during her lifetime. While there are various poems and pieces of writing under her name, the legitimacy of their origin is highly debated. Since there are no primary sources confirming her existence or writing, historians rely on the literature of other religious philosophers that came after her time and who wrote about her legacy.

Because of the lack of eyewitness accounts and surviving evidence of her life, the historical Rabia is unknown. However, her importance and legacy remain prominent through tales of her life, modern references, and her standing in Muslim culture. While no physical evidence was found of her, Rabia's story and poetry remain an inspiration to women and Muslim people today.[14]

Her teachings and example are influential for people of her time and Sufis today. They help narrate what Islam looked like throughout time and show what influential roles women have played in it.

In popular culture[edit]

Dilras Banu Begum (1622–1657) was the first wife and chief consort of Emperor Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor. She was given the posthumous title Rabia-ud-Daurani ("Rabia of the Age") in her honour.[15][16]

The life of Rabia has been the subject of several motion pictures of Turkish cinema. One of these films, Rabia, released in 1973, was directed by Osman F. Seden, and Fatma Girik played the leading role of Rabia.[17]

Rabia, İlk Kadın Evliya (Rabia, The First Woman Saint) is another Turkish film on Rabia. It was also released in 1973 and was directed by Süreyya Duru, starring Hülya Koçyiğit.[18]

The Indonesian song "Jika Surga dan Neraka Tak Pernah Ada" sung by Ahmad Dhani and Chrisye on their 2004 album Senyawa, is based on Rabia's quotes[19] about worshipping God out of love, not out of fear of punishment or desire for a reward.[20]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kayaalp, Pinar, "Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya", in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol. II, pp. 511–512; ISBN 1610691776
  • Mohammad, Shababulqadri Tazkirah e Hazrat Rabia Basri, Mushtaq Book Corner, 2008
  • Rkia Elaroui Cornell, Rabiʼa From Narrative to Myth The Many Faces of Islam's Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabiʼa al-Adawiyya (Oneworld: London, 2019)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Margaret Smith (1995). Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., Vol. 8, "Rābiʼa al-ʼAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya". Brill. pp. 354–56.
  2. ^ Smith, Margaret (2010). Rabi'a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam. Cambridge University Press. p. 252. ISBN 9781108015912.
  3. ^ a b Hanif, N. (2002). Biographical Encyclopaedia of Sufis: Central Asia and Middle East. Sarup & Sons. pp. 108–10. ISBN 9788176252669.
  4. ^ a b c d Cornell, Rkia Elaroui (2019). Rabi'a From Narrative to Myth: The Many Faces of Islam's Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya. Simon and Schuster. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-78607-522-2.
  5. ^ a b c a-Ra'uf al-Munawi, 'Abu (1998). Renard, John (ed.). Windows on the House of Islam. Berkeley, CA: University of California. pp. 132–33.
  6. ^ a b c Barbara Lois Helms, Rabi'a as Mystic, Muslim and Woman
  7. ^ Margaret Smith, Rabi'a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam, Cambridge Library Collection, 1928.
  8. ^ Cornell, Rabi'a, 148n2.
  9. ^ Farid al-Din Attar, Rabe'a [sic] al-Adawiya, from Muslim Saints and Mystics, trans. A.J. Arberry, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.
  10. ^ Cornell, Rabi'a, 10, 28-29.
  11. ^ Cornell, Rabi'a, 153.
  12. ^ Cornell, Rkia Elaroui (2019). Rabi'a from narrative to myth the many faces of Islam's most famous woman saint, Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya. London. ISBN 978-1-78607-521-5. OCLC 1035135590.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University. p. 96.
  14. ^ "Introduction: Is There a 'New Middle East'?", Central Asia Meets the Middle East, Routledge, pp. 15–36, 2013-11-05, doi:10.4324/9781315037493-3, ISBN 978-1-315-03749-3, retrieved 2022-12-11
  15. ^ "Incredible India | Bibi ka Maqbara".
  16. ^ "About Tomb of RabiaDurani (Bibi KaMaqbara)". Yatra. Retrieved 2 February 2023.
  17. ^ "Rabia (1973)". IMDb.com. September 1973. Retrieved 5 May 2016.
  18. ^ "Rabia/İlk Kadın Evliya". Sinematurk.com. Retrieved 5 May 2016.
  19. ^ Hirshfield, Jane (1994). Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. HarperCollins Pub. ISBN 978-0-06-016987-9.
  20. ^ Wahyudi, Agus (2010). Makrifat Cinta Ahmad Dhani (in Indonesian). Penerbit Narasi. ISBN 978-979-16821-0-7.

External links[edit]