Rabia Basri

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Muslim Ascetic
Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya
Rabia al-Adawiyya.jpg
Depiction of Rabia grinding grain from a Persian dictionary
Title al-Basri
Born A.D. 713 or A.D.717[citation needed]
Died A.D. 801
Ethnicity Arab
Religion Islam
Main interest(s) Sufism, Asceticism, Divine love
Notable idea(s) Divine love

Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Arabic: رابعة العدوية القيسية‎) or simply Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī (Arabic: رابعة البصري‎) (717–801 C.E.) was a female Muslim saint and Sufi mystic.[1]


She was born between 713 and 717 CE (100 and 108 Hijri) in Basra, Iraq of the Qays tribe.[2] Much of her early life is narrated by Farid ud-Din Attar, a later Sufi Saint and poet, who used earlier sources. Rabia herself did not leave any written works about her life.

She was the fourth daughter of her family and therefore named Rabia, meaning "fourth". Although not born into slavery, her family was poor yet respected in the community.

According to Fariduddin Attar, when Rabia was born, her parents were so poor that there was no oil in house to light a lamp, nor even a cloth 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 God. He pretended to go to the neighbor's door and returned home empty-handed.

In the night 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 Muhammad. 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.

After she had finished her house jobs, she would pass the whole night in prayer. 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 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 praying to You. 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 wali 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.

Rabia went into the desert to pray and became an ascetic. She is often cited as being the queen of saintly women,[3] and was known for her complete devotion in the form of "pure love of God."[3] As an exemplar among others devoted to God, she provided a model of mutual love between God and His creation; her example is one in which the loving devotee on earth becomes one with the Beloved.[3]

She contributed a successful life of pure, selfless love as a supplement to the sometimes strict ascetic practices of her predecessors. This perfect love she sought to promote shifted the existence of the ascetic for her own person, now living for the Beloved in complete reverence to God.[3]

Her murshid was Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, himself a known saint elevated at the level of the seven sacred souls. She did not possess much other than a broken jug, a rush mat and a brick, which she used as a pillow. She spent all night in prayer and contemplation. As her fame grew she had many disciples. She also had discussions with many of the renowned religious people of her time. Though she had many offers of marriage, and (tradition has it) one even from the Amir of Basra, she refused them as she had no time in her life for anything other than God.

She prayed:

O God! 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.[4]


Rabia was in her early to mid eighties when she died,[5] having followed the mystic way to the end. She believed she was continually in the presence of her Beloved (Allah). As she told those around her: "My Beloved is always with me" She died in Jerusalem in 185 AH, and is thought to have been buried in the Chapel of the Ascension.[6]


Often noted as having been the single most famous and influential Sufi woman of Islamic history, she was renowned for her extreme virtue and piety. She was an outstanding, devoted ascetic; when asked why she performed a thousand ritual prostrations both during the day and at night, she 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'".[2]

In addition, she was intense in her self-denial and devotion to God. 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."[2]

She was the one who first set forth the doctrine of Divine Love known as Ishq-e-Haqeeqi[7] and is widely considered to be the most important of the early Sufi poets.[8] 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 Shaikh 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.

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.

Feminist theory based on the life of Rabi'a al-Adawiyya[edit]

Several aspects of the Sufi religion 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 Rabi'a al-Adawiyya 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 one Sufi narrative, the acclaimed 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]."[10]


  • One day, she was seen running through the streets of Basra carrying a pot of fire in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said,"I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to Allah. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah."[11]
    • In his Life of St Louis, Jean de Joinville reports this story of a woman, but no name or religious affiliation is given to the woman, and the report appears to be contemporary (when in fact Joinville lived three centuries after Rabia).
  • When Rabia would not come to attend the sermons of Hasan Basri, he would deliver no discourse that day. People in the audience asked him why he did that. He replied: "The syrup that is held by the vessels meant for the elephants cannot be contained in the vessels meant for the ants."

In popular culture[edit]

The life of Rabia has been the subject of several motion pictures by 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.[12] Rabia, İlk Kadın Evliya (Rabia, The First Woman Saint), another Turkish film on Rabia, also of 1973 was directed by Süreyya Duru and starred by Hülya Koçyiğit.[13]


  1. ^ Smith, Margaret (2010). Rabi'a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam. Cambridge University Press. p. 252. ISBN 9781108015912. 
  2. ^ a b c a-Ra'uf al-Munawi, 'Abu (1998). Renard, John, ed. Windows on the House of Islam. Berkeley: University of California. pp. 132–133. 
  3. ^ a b c d Khawar Khan Chrishti, Saadia (1997). Hossein Nasr, Seyyed, ed. Islamic Spirituality Foundations. New York: Crossroads. pp. 208–210. 
  4. ^ Khushwant Singh (12 February 2013). The Freethinker's Prayer Book: And some word to live by. Aleph Book Company. p. 35. ISBN 978-93-82277-87-3. 
  5. ^ "In her early to mid eighties when she died.". Poetseers.org. 
  6. ^ See Zirkali, al-A`lam, vol. 3, p 10, col 1, who quotes ibn Khalikan as his source.
  7. ^ Margaret Smith, Rabi'a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam, Cambridge Library Collection, 1928
  8. ^ Hanif, N. (2002). Biographical Encyclopaedia of Sufis: Central Asia and Middle East. Sarup & Sons. p. 507. ISBN 9788176252669. 
  9. ^ Farid al-Din Attar, Rabe'a al-Adawiya, from Muslim Saints and Mystics, trans. A.J. Arberry, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983
  10. ^ Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University. p. 96. 
  11. ^ Attar, Farid al-Din (c. 1230). Memorial of the Friends of God (2009 Translation by Losensky ed.). 
  12. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2007447/
  13. ^ http://www.sinematurk.com/film/5512-rabia-ilk-kadin-evliya/

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, 224 pages [1]

External links[edit]