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Rābiʿah of ʿAdawīyah

By:
Asma Afsaruddin
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Rābiʿah of ʿAdawīyah

Rābiʿah of Basra was a freedwoman from the tribe of Qays ibn ʿAdī, hence, her surname al-ʿAdawīyah Born into a family of modest means in Basra between 713 and 717, Rābiʿah (meaning "the fourth") was so called because she had three older sisters. Her life was reportedely struck by tragedy at a very young age when she lost both her father and mother and was sold into slavery. Moved by her piety and prayerfulness, her master is said to have taken pity on her and eventually manumitted her. Rābiʿah is then said to have wandered off into the desert, in pursuit of solitary contemplation of the divine. Upon her return from the desert, she acquired a simple room where she dedicated herself solely to the worship of God. According to the thirteenth- century mystic Fāriḍ al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. ca. 1221) who composed a hagiography of her life, Rābiʿah was inclined to fast all day and pray through the night. Many wondrous deeds and miracles are attributed to her. Her emphasis on the selfless love of God is exemplified in the well-known tradition, ““If I worship You for fear of Hell, then burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope Paradise, then exclude me from therein, but if I worship You for Your own sake, then do not withhold from me Your eternal beauty.”

Unlike most mystics in Islam, Rābiʿah never married and is said to have refused many offers of marriage in her life. Many of her friends and confidants were however men like Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 778) and al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 728), who are reported to have freely visited her and sought her advice on many matters.

Rābiʿah was almost ninety when she died in 801; she is buried in Basra. All her life she had been preparing for her final meeting with the Beloved. Her shroud is said always to have been placed before her in her customary place of worship.

Some later non-Sūfī biographers developed ambivalent views of Rābiʿah and her contribution to scholarship. Thus, the historian Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) praised her abstemiousness and God-fearing character (al-zahida al-khashiʿa), but tended to be dismissive of miracles attributed to her. Earlier non-Ṣūfī authors, such as the famous belle-lettrist al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 869), who was a younger near-contemporary of Rābiʿah, were more favorably disposed toward her. Ṣūfī biographers such as Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (d. 996), however, held her in practically universal high esteem and praised her single-minded devotion to God and abstemiousness. They also tended to assign to her a much higher spiritual status than her distinguished male contemporaries or near-contemporaries. Through her exceptional piety and learning, Rābiʿah appears to have transgressed the usual social boundaries progressively erected for women, demonstrating through her life (even when viewed under the layers of legend) that a general respect for piety and learning, regardless of gender, remained a predictable constant of societies influenced by the Islamic Weltanschauung.

Bibliography

  • ʿAṭṭār, Fāriḍ al-Dīn. Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliyaʾ (Memorial of the saints). Translated by A. J. Arberry. Persian Heritage series. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
  • ʿAṭṭār, Fāriḍ al-Dīn. Tadhkirat al-Awliyaʾ. (Notes on the Iintimates of God). Edited by. R. A. Nicholson. London: Luzc, 1905.
  • Makkī, Abū Tālib, al-. Qūt al-qulūb. Cairo, 1310.
  • Smith, Margaret. Rabiʿa the Mystic and her Fellow-Saints in Islam. Cambridge, 1928.
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