Rabi’ah Al-Adadawiyyah


Rabi’ah Al-Adadawiyyah

By Juliet Gentile

Rabi’ah Al-Adadawiyyah (Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī) (d. 801) was as early Islamic saint, hailing from Basra, in today’s Iraq, an area known for its mystic women. She has been called “first among Sufis,” a “second spotless Mary,” and the “Crown of Men.”[1] Her life is seen as the apotheosis of over a hundred years of mystical knowledge inculcated by and for ascetic women.[2]

When she was a child, both of her parents died and she was sold into slavery. Despite these humble beginnings, she grew up to be one of the most renowned Sufis, introducing centrality of ashk (love) into Islamic mysticism. After gaining her freedom, Rabi’ah lived as a celibate ascetic, debating with and teaching major religious figures of the time.

Although she herself left no written documents, her words were preserved by Islamic scholar and mystic, Farid-al-din Attar ,who included Rabi’ah in a collection of seventy-five “masters” drawn from earlier sources. He wrote about Rabi’ah, “when a woman becomes a man in the path of God, she is a man and one cannot anymore call her a woman.”[3] He also remarked that both in gnosis and prayers, Rabi’ah “was unexcelled in her time and esteemed by all the great men of her age.”[4]

A renowned ascetic, Rabi’ah emphasized renunciation of the world and total dependence on God, leading to comparisons with the mystics of early Christianity. She lived simply in a mud hut with no possessions other than a felt wool rug for praying and sleeping, one jar for water, and her death shroud.[5] Her days were filled with prayer and visits from the needy, and at night she kept vigilant for intimations of her divine Beloved.[6]

Her intense attachment to God and distaste for worldly concerns is reflected in this parable:

One day the people of Basra found Rabi’ah running from place to place carrying a flaming torch and a bucket. When they asked her why, she exclaimed: “I carry a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other: with these things I am going to set fire to Heaven and put out the flames of Hell so that voyagers to God can rip the veils and see the real goal.”[7]

Once she had achieved renown as a mystic, many Sufi masters visited to seek her wisdom and company. It is recounted that one or two of them proposed marriage and Rabi’ah’s reply to one was this:

I’m not interested, really, in “possessing all you own,”

Nor in “making you my slave,”

Nor in having my attention distracted from God, even for a split second.[8]

Towards the end of her life Rabi’ah was cared for by two disciples who would become important mystics themselves, namely, ‘Abda bint Abi Shawwal and Maryam of Basra.[9]

‘Abda bint Abi Shawwalas with Rabi’ah when she died and conducted her last rites. A year later, ‘Abda dreamed of Rabi’ah dressed in regal gowns and veils, unlike the simple muslin shroud and woolen veil with which she had wrapped her body. When ‘Abda asked what had happened to her death shroud and veil, Rabi’ah replied: “By God, they were taken from me and were replaced with what you see on me now.”[10] Despite some confusion, Sufi sources maintain that her sepulchre is located not in Jerusalem, but in Basra, Iraq.[11]

Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women (New York, NY: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 2004). Pg. 12

[2] Abu ‘abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami, Early Sufi Women, 1, trans. Rikia E. Cornell (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 30.

[3] Valerie Hoffman, Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 230.

[4] Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, 13.

[5] as-Sulami, Early Sufi Women,  275.

[6] Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, 15.

[7] Charles Upton, Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rubia (New York, NY: Pir Press, 2003), 48.

[8] Camille Helminski, Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2003), n.p.

[9] Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, 15.

[10] as-Sulami, Early Sufi Women, 280.

[11] Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, 18.


as-Sulami, Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman. Early Sufi Women. 1. Translated by Rkia E. Cornell. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999.

Hoffman, Valerie. Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Helminski, Camille. Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2003.

Nurbakhsh, Dr. Javad. Sufi Women. New York, NY: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 2004.

Upton, Charles. Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabia. New York, NY: Pir Press, 2003.

Page Citation:

Juliet Gentile. “Rabi’ah Al-Adadawiyyah.” Project Continua (July 13, 2015): Ver. 2, [date accessed], http://www.projectcontinua.org/rabiah-al-adadawiyyah/

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