by Ray Berry

THERE WAS A FIRE in the desert at Basra in the eighth century. This fire burned with a cool blue flame piercing everyone it touched.

This fire was a woman, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya.

Of all things in that world- a woman who had burst into flame. A woman whose burning renunciation and fearless faith in God and steadfastness to the ideal left the ashes of the world behind as she carried many beyond the apparent to Al Haqq, the Real.

Rabi’a; Rabi’a, “the fourth” (that is what her name signified being the fourth child of her parents) would in truth become Rabi’a the first-God’s first.

Rabi’a was born into a poor family living in a slum of Basra. But though poor they had firm faith in the will of the Lord. There was no cloth with which to wrap the newborn child, nor was there oil to light the lamp. The mother asked her husband to borrow oil from a neigh­ bor, but he lived under a vow to never ask for anything from anyone, to only accept that which he felt came unasked from God.

The story is told that he had a dream of the Prophet that night which soothed his aching heart. Muhammad appeared to him and said:

“Do not worry, my son, your newborn daughter will be a great saint; she will inspire and be revered by thousands of my followers. Tomorrow, you write a letter to the Amir and remind him that he is in the habit of saying a hundred prayers to me every night and four hundred on Friday. Since he missed last Friday’s prayers, tell him his penance is to send you four hundred dinars that were acquired honestly.”

Rabi’a’s father woke in great joy, full of tears, his heart overflowing. He wrote the letter that very day.

The Amir, when he read the letter, was thankful for the Prophet’s remembrance. He commanded two thou­ sand dinars be given to the poor and the four hundred dinars to Rabi’a’ s father with the message, “I would like you to come to me so that I can see you, but it is not proper for a man like you to come to me. I would prefer to come and rub my beard in the dust of your doorway. Please, whatever be your need, let me know.”

However, in spite of this good fortune, hard times once more fell upon the family. Rabi’a’s parents died and the ties with her three sisters were severed during a famine. All alone and helpless, her difficulties were compounded when she was abducted by a stranger and sold into slavery. One day in trying to escape from her master’s clutches, she fell and broke her wrist. She cried out in despair, “O Lord, I am an orphan, a slave. My hand is broken. I feel I am a stranger in a strange land. I am not sorry for all this, but I would like to know is this your will, are you well-pleased or not?” Then she heard a voice say, “You must accept what I have to offer to you. You cannot dictate terms to me. My daughter do not grieve. Soon you will be the envy of the saints in heaven.”

From this experience Rabi’a submitted to the will of the Lord and began her life of intense spiritual practice: prayer, fasting, and the performance of her duties as a slave in the service of God.

One night her master woke up and looked out the window down into the courtyard. There he saw Rabi’a absorbed in her all-night prayer vigil. Suddenly to his eyes she became illumined, her body engulfed in a radiance which lit up the whole house. Of course, the man was terrified and astonished. He crept back into bed and thought about this strange experience till dawn broke. Then he went to Rabi’a, told her what he had seen, and offered her her freedom or protection under his care. Rabi’a choose her freedom and with his blessing left Basra and went into the desert to continue her search for God-realization.

During this reclusive period in the desert, she had a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’ba. On her way to Mecca, travelling the dry, hot, dusty road for days on end, she stopped exhausted and cried out, “O God, my heart is weary. Where am I going? I am a lump of clay, and your house is a stone! I need you here, the Lord of the house. What have I to do with only the house?”

God spoke in her heart, “Be content here with My name!”

Returning to her hermitage she applied herself ever more diligently to her prayer, meditation, and repetition of the name of Allah.

Even after she returned to Basra she lived apart from the world as much as her disciples and constant visitors would allow. She followed the path of poverty and self-denial with unwavering steps to her last days. Many well-meaning friends would have been honored to alleviate her poverty with gifts of money and provisions. She answered them, “I should be ashamed to ask for worldly things from Him to whom the world belongs. How should I ask for them from those to whom it does not belong?”

Once when she had fasted and gone without sleep, praying for seven days and nights, she became extremely hungry. A friend brought her food which a cat promptly ate. As she went to get a drink of water, the jug slipped and broke to pieces. In frustration she called out, “O Lord, what are you doing to me?” And she was answered, “Be careful, if you really desire it, I will give you all the pleasures of this world, but I will remove Myself from your heart, for your love for Me and the pleasures of this world cannot dwell together in one heart. Rabi’a, you have a desire, and I have a desire. I cannot combine the two.”

When she heard this warning, she made up her mind to sever all worldly desires and hopes from her heart.

A friend of hers, one Malik Dinar, once found her lying on a tattered rush mat, with a stone for a pillow and his heart was tom at this sight. He said to Rabi’a, “I have rich friends and if you wish, I will take something from them for you.”

“Malik,” she said, “you have made a great mistake. Is it not the same One Who gives daily bread to me and to your friends?”

Malik replied, “It is.”

She said, “Will He forget the poor because of their poverty, or remember the rich because of their riches?” Malik answered, “No.”

Then she said, “Since He knows my state, what have I to remind Him of? What He wills, we should also will.”

IN the Sufi tradition it is prayer – inner prayer – the loving converse with God when the mystic speaks out of the depths of his heart, which gives the true measure of a man. Rabi’a’s prayers reveal her depth more clearly than anything else.

At night she used to go up to her roof and pray:

“O My Lord, the stars are shining, and the eyes of men are closed. Kings have shut their doors and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here am I alone with Thee.”

With this she began her all-night vigil. When she saw the dawn break, she would pray:

“O Lord, the night has passed and the day is approaching. How I long to know if you have accepted my prayers. Please console me in this state of mine. You have given me life and cared for me. If You were to drive me from Your door, I could not forget You because of that love that You have instilled in my heart for You.”

At one time Rabi’a lay sick in bed, and in the weak­ ness which followed, she gave up her night prayer. However, even after regaining her health, she failed to resume her night vigils. One night, after some time had passed, she had a vivid dream. A beautiful maiden appeared to her and said:

Your prayers were light and your worship rest, Your sleep was ever a foe to prayer,

Your life was an opportunity which you neglected,

It passes on and vanishes slowly and perishes.

When Rabi’a related her dream that next morning, she fell unconscious. Her attendant said that after this vision she never slept at night for the remainder of her life. When the day dawned she would allow herself a light sleep in her place of prayer. Yet waking with a start from this sleep she would exclaim, “O self, how long will you sleep and how often will you wake? Soon you will sleep a sleep from which you will not wake again until the Day of Awakening.”

Prayer to Rabi’a was loving converse and total absorption with her Lord. There was no supplication for herself or for others. It was simply communion with the Divine Friend and perfect satisfaction in His presence.

0 Lord, whatever share of this world you could give to me, give it to Your enemies, and whatever share of the next world You would give to me, give it to Your friends. You are enough for me.

0 Lord, if I worship you from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship you from hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your own sake then do not withhold from me your Eternal Form.

0 God, my concern and my desire in this world, is that I should remember You above all the things of this world, and in the next I should meet with You alone. This is what I would say, ‘Thy will be done.’

Miracles, psychic phenomena, and occult powers (karamat, lit. “favors from God”) can come to the spiritual aspirant during his advance along the path. This cannot be denied. They are a test, a supreme test. Sri Ramakrishna said that they should be shunned like filth as they are only serious distractions and obstacles on the way to the goal of union with the Divine.

The Sufis themselves set little value upon the exercise of such miraculous powers.

Abu Yazid al Bistami said, “The saints do not rejoice at the answers to prayers which are the essence of miracles, such as walking on water, and moving in the air and traversing the earth. Let not anyone who is perplexed by such things, put any faith in this trickery.”

A man came to Abu Yazid and said, “I heard that you could pass through the air.” He answered, “And what is there so wonderful in this? A bird which eats the dead passes through the air. A believer is more honor­ able than a bird.”

Although there were instances of these powers manifested in Rabi’a’s life, she turned from them de­ liberately, not by denying them, but by refusing to make a display of them and belittling their use by others.

Hasan of Basra, a notable figure in Sufi circles and friend and confidant of Rabi’a was given to extreme asceticism. As a result of his austerities, he developed some occult powers which he took great pride in displaying.

One day he saw Rabi’a on the bank of the river. Casting his prayer rug onto the water he called out, “Rabi’ a, come! Let us pray two rak’ as together.”

Rabi’a retorted, “O Hasan, is it necessary to sell yourself in the bazaar of this world. This is necessary for people of your kind, because of your weakness.”

Then Rabi’ a rode her prayer rug up into the air and called down, “Hasan, come up here that people may see us.” But Hasan, who had not attained that station, remained silent.

Rabi’a said to him in consoling tones, “What you did a fish can do. What I did a fly can do. The real work is beyond both of these tricks, and it is necessary to occupy ourselves with the real work.”

Not only did Rabi’a disdain this miracle mongering, but she also had no taste for pious displays of religious emotion. One day she was passing by Hasan’s house. He had his head on the window sill. He was weeping, and his tears fell on Rabi’a. She thought at first that it was raining, but looking up saw that it was Hasan’s tears streaming down. She called up to him, “Hasan, this weeping is a sign of spiritual weakness. Guard your tears and hold your emotions in check so that you may build up the capacity of your inner life. Then there may surge within you such a wave of grace that you will have the strength to hold onto God’s gift.”

These words distressed Hasan, but he kept his peace.

It’s not hard to imagine the condition of women in this place at this time. In many instances, women were treated no better than donkeys or goats, traded by fathers or brothers into marriage or slavery!

However, women in the Sufi tradition, women of distinct spiritual attainment, were looked upon as equals by their male counterparts. In Rabi’a’ s case, she held an exalted position among spiritual masters or adepts, sur­ passing the men in her understanding and realizations. It is to their credit that these men could accept her as one of their teachers.

Rabi’a had several proposals of marriage from both rulers and sheikhs, but she rejected them all, feeling that only by living a celibate life could she pursue her goal unhindered.

Abd al-Wahid ibn Zayd, a saintly man and founder of one of the first monastic communities near Basra, sought her hand. Rabi’a despised his offer and shunned him with the greatest loathing. She said to him “O sensual one, seek another sensual like yourself. Have you seen any sign of desire in me?”

The Amir of Basra offered her a dowry of a hundred thousand dinars plus ten thousand dinars every month. She countered:

It does not please me that you should be my slave and that all you possess should be mine, or that you should distract me from God for a single moment. Renunciation of this world means peace, while desire for it brings sorrow. Curb your desires and control yourself and do not let others control you. As for yourself, give your mind to the day of death; but as for me, God can give me all you offer and even double it. It does not please me to be distracted from Him for a single moment. So farewell.

Hasan of Basra also proposed that they should marry. Rabi’ a replied, “The contract of marriage is for those who have a phenomenal existence. Here existence has ceased, since I have ceased to exist and have passed out of Self. My existence is in Him, and I am altogether His. I am in the shadow of His command. The marriage contract must be asked for from Him, not from me.”

This same Hasan is noted as being a follower and disciple of Rabi’a. He was a learned man and a preacher, a noted theologian whose opinions on Sufi doctrine were held in great esteem. Yet if Rabi’a were not present in Hasan’s assembly, he left the meeting at once. Hasan said about his relationship with Rabi’a, “I passed one whole night and day with Rabi’a speaking of the Way and the Truth, and it never passed through my mind that I was a man nor she a woman, and when I looked at her, I saw myself bankrupt, spiritually worthless, and Rabi’a as truly sincere.”

Yes, there was a fire in the desert at Basra, and after almost ninety years, it burned stronger and brighter and illumined the way for many others.

Attar speaks of Rabi’a as “that woman on fire with love.” Another said, “She who is on fire with love of God, what fear has she of judgement.” And another, “the fire of God which He has kindled in the hearts of His saints to burn away what exists in them of vain fancies, desires, purposes and needs.” And hear these words of St. John of the Cross: “Love has set the soul on fire and transmuted it into love, has annihilated it and destroyed it as to all that is not love.”

IN old age Rabi’a was feeble in body yet so clear in mind that many disciples continued to come and seek her counsel right up to her last days.

There could be no fear of death for her. She knew that death was the permanent Union with her Beloved, above and beyond the temporary experience of union that could be attained in this life. The mention of death made her tremble not with apprehension but with infinite joy. She would have agreed with Abd al-Aziz who said, “Death is a bridge whereby the lover is joined to the Beloved.”

IT seems appropriate to end this account of Rabi’a with a poem by Shams of Tabriz that captures the essence of Rabi’a’s life, the Sufi path, and the way of all true mystics through the ages.


Ray Berry


I am not of this world, nor of the next, Nor of Paradise, nor of Hell;

My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;

‘Tis neither body nor soul,

For I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

I have put away duality,

I have seen that the two worlds are one;

One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call. I am mad with Love’s cup,

The two worlds have passed out of my ken. For I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

He is the first, He is the last,

He is the outward, He is the inward.


If once in my life I spent a moment without Thee,

From that time and from that hour I repent of my life.

If once in this world I win a moment with Thee,

I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph forever.


For I am not of this world, nor of the next, Nor of Paradise, nor of Hell;

My place is the Placeless. my trace is the Traceless

‘Tis neither body nor soul,

For I belong to the soul of the Beloved.


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