Versions of Rabi’a
By Charles Upton
Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, a major saint of Islam and one of the central figures of Sufi tradition, was born around 717 AD in Basra in what is now Iraq. Little is known of her actual life: she was born into a poor family and both her parents died in a famine. Separated from her sisters, homeless and destitute, she was sold into slavery but was eventually freed. In later life she became famous as a saint; she was offered money, houses, proposals of marriage, but she preferred to remain single and live in humble surroundings.
The bulk of the Rabi’a material as we know it comes from stories of her interactions with those who came to challenge or learn from her. Uncompromising and singleminded in her devotion to the highest spritual realization, she belittled miracles that apparently happened around her, the fear of hell, and the desire for paradise. Sometimes even well-known spiritual figures, like Hasan of Basra, could be the butt of her sharper wit, deeper wisdom, and greater spiritual power.
To place Rabi’a in perspective we might compare her to another great Sufi figure and one of the greatest spiritual writers of all time – Rumi. First, she stands some five hundred years earlier, close to the beginnings of Sufi poetry as we know it. If Rumi is the Ocean, Rabi’a is the Well. If Rumi has sheer ecstatic energy and compacted multidimensional meanings, Rabi’a has virgin clarity and undistracted focus. Along with the taste of wine, she carries the taste of water – a precious substance when you live, as Rabi’a did, in the desert of God.
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