an 8th Century Islamic Saint from Iraq
By Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
[Citations and data are from Margaret Smith, The Way of the Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978. See the Islamic Bookstore for sample pages. I strongly recommend her book].
One of the most famous Islamic mystics was a woman: Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya (c.717-801). This 8th century saint was an early Sufi who had a profound influence on later Sufis, who in turn deeply influenced the European mystical love and troubadour traditions. Rabi'a was a woman of Basra, a seaport in southern Iraq. She was born around 717 and died in 801 (185-186). Her biographer, the great medieval poet Attar, tells us that she was "on fire with love and longing" and that men accepted her "as a second spotless Mary" (186). She was, he continues, “an unquestioned authority to her contemporaries" (218).
As Cambridge professor Margaret Smith explains, Rabi'a began her ascetic life in a small desert cell near Basra, where she lost herself in prayer and went straight to God for teaching. As far as is known, she never studied under any master or spiritual director. She was one of the first of the Sufis to teach that Love alone was the guide on the mystic path (222). A later Sufi taught that there were two classes of "true believers": one class sought a master as an intermediary between them and God -- unless they could see the footsteps of the Prophet on the path before them, they would not accept the path as valid. The second class “...did not look before them for the footprint of any of God's creatures, for they had removed all thought of what He had created from their hearts, and concerned themselves solely with God. (218)
Rabi'a was of this second kind. She felt no reverence even for the House of God in Mecca: "It is the Lord of the house Whom I need; what have I to do with the house?" (219) One lovely spring morning a friend asked her to come outside to see the works of God. She replied, "Come you inside that you may behold their Maker. Contemplation of the Maker has turned me aside from what He has made" (219). During an illness, a friend asked this woman if she desired anything.
"...[H]ow can you ask me such a question as 'What do I desire?' I swear by the glory of God that for twelve years I have desired fresh dates, and you know that in Basra dates are plentiful, and I have not yet tasted them. I am a servant (of God), and what has a servant to do with desire?" (162)
When a male friend once suggested she should pray for relief from a debilitating illness, she said,
"O Sufyan, do you not know Who it is that wills this suffering for me? Is it not God Who wills it? When you know this, why do you bid me ask for what is contrary to His will? It is not well to oppose one's Beloved." (221)
She was an ascetic. It was her custom to pray all night, sleep briefly just before dawn, and then rise again just as dawn "tinged the sky with gold" (187). She lived in celibacy and poverty, having renounced the world. A friend visited her in old age and found that all she owned were a reed mat, screen, a pottery jug, and a bed of felt which doubled as her prayer-rug (186), for where she prayed all night, she also slept briefly in the pre-dawn chill. Once her friends offered to get her a servant; she replied,
"I should be ashamed to ask for the things of this world from Him to Whom the world belongs, and how should I ask for them from those to whom it does not belong?" (186-7)
A wealthy merchant once wanted to give her a purse of gold. She refused it, saying that God, who sustains even those who dishonor Him, would surely sustain her, "whose soul is overflowing with love" for Him. And she added an ethical concern as well:
"...How should I take the wealth of someone of whom I do not know whether he acquired it lawfully or not?" (187)
She taught that repentance was a gift from God because no one could repent unless God had already accepted him and given him this gift of repentance. She taught that sinners must fear the punishment they deserved for their sins, but she also offered such sinners far more hope of Paradise than most other ascetics did. For herself, she held to a higher ideal, worshipping God neither from fear of Hell nor from hope of Paradise, for she saw such self-interest as unworthy of God's servants; emotions like fear and hope were like veils -- i.e., hindrances to the vision of God Himself. The story is told that once a number of Sufis saw her hurrying on her way with water in one hand and a burning torch in the other. When they asked her to explain, she said:
"I am going to light a fire in Paradise and to pour water on to Hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether from before the pilgrims and their purpose may be sure..." (187-188)
She was once asked where she came from. "From that other world," she said. "And where are you going?" she was asked. "To that other world," she replied (219). She taught that the spirit originated with God in "that other world" and had to return to Him in the end. Yet if the soul were sufficiently purified, even on earth, it could look upon God unveiled in all His glory and unite with him in love. In this quest, logic and reason were powerless. Instead, she speaks of the "eye" of her heart which alone could apprehend Him and His mysteries (220).
Above all, she was a lover, a bhakti, like one of Krishna’s Goptis in the Hindu tradition. Her hours of prayer were not so much devoted to intercession as to communion with her Beloved. Through this communion, she could discover His will for her. Many of her prayers have come down to us:
"I have made Thee the Companion of my heart,
But my body is available for those who seek its company,
And my body is friendly towards its guests,
But the Beloved of my heart is the Guest of my soul." 
"O my Joy and my Desire, my Life and my Friend. If Thou art satisfied with me, then, O Desire of my heart, my happiness is attained." (222)
At night, as Smith, writes, "alone upon her roof under the eastern sky, she used to pray":
"O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here I am alone with Thee." (222)
She was asked once if she hated Satan.
"My love to God has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him." (222)
To such lovers, she taught, God unveiled himself in all his beauty and re-vealed the Beatific Vision (223). For this vision, she willingly gave up all lesser joys.
"O my Lord," she prayed, "if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty." (224)
Rabi'a was in her early to mid eighties when she died, having followed the mystic Way to the end. By then, she was continually united with her Beloved. As she told her Sufi friends, "My Beloved is always with me" (224).