Rabia Basri – Islamic Sufi Mystic
This post is one of a five-part series on women mystics, one from each of the five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Click here for the full series.
Rabia Basri is one of the most well-known female Islamic saints, and had a profound impact on Sufism, a mystic branch of Islam. She was born in seventh-century Iraq, and there is little direct knowledge of her life beyond that. However, according to legends recorded by a later Sufi saint, she was born the fourth daughter to a poor family. Soon after her birth her father had a dream in which he was told that his new daughter was a favorite of Allah’s, and he was given instructions for making the money he needed to support his family.
While this worked for awhile, after her father’s death several years later, Rabia and her remaining family were assaulted by robbers, with Rabia captured and sold into slavery. Her spiritual longing had already awoken, and she made the best of her situation by praying and meditating most of the night, after her duties were done. Legend has it that one night her master came upon her praying fervently, and was awestruck by the light she emanated. Horrified that he had enslaved such a spiritual being, he released her.
She went into the desert and became an ascetic, studying with the Islamic spiritual master Hazrat Hassan Basri. She prayed and meditated ceaselessly, and denied herself any pleasure not directly related to her worship. She never married, which is highly unusual within all sects of Islam, particularly for women. She insisted that she only had love for Allah, and wished to devote all her attentions to worship.
Legend has it that Hassan Basri, who was one of the premier Islamic spiritual masters of the period, thought so highly of her that he would often refuse to teach when she was not present. Word of her devotion and spiritual power began to spread, and she became a teacher in her own right, with people travelling for miles to study with her. To her dying day she lived the same austere desert life, never seeking fame, but achieving great reknown through the grace she transmitted.
She was one of the first Sufis to introduce the idea of Divine Love, which later became a major Sufi precept. Many famous quotes are attributed to her, including her answer to the question “do you hate Satan”, to which she responded, “My love of Allah has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him.” Many devotional poems are attributed to her, praising the love of Allah, and the experience of love as the true path to Allah’s grace. These poems are the precursor to the later more famous Sufi devotional poems, by Rumi and others of his period.
The other posts in this series are on Margery Kempe (Christian), Hannah Rachel Verbemacher (Jewish), Sukhasiddhi (Buddhist), and Mirabai (Hindu). For books on more women mystics, check out the Women’s Spiritual Book List or the Women Mystics page.