Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Rabia al-Adawiyya

She was born into a poor and respected family, and before her birth her parents were already informed from a dream that she would be a virtuous leader. She desired neither fame nor power but her passion, love of God, and self-denial earned her both.
At a young age, she was captured and sold into slavery. Rabia worked exhaustively hard but spent nights awake to pray anyway. Her “master” overheard her once in the middle of the night praying, “Lord! You know well that my keen desire is to carry out Your commandments and to serve Thee with all my heart, O light of my eyes. If I were free I would pass the whole day and night in prayers. But what should I do when you have made me a slave of a human being?” Her voice was loving and tearful. The man, fearing that he would be punished–for keeping a slave is sacrilegious–freed her.
Until she died she lived a life of material deprivation and simplicity. She spent nights in deep contemplation and prayer after working long, hard hours. She had many proposals of marriage but refused them all.
Rabia al-Adawiyya was the first to set forth the concept of Divine Love–loving God unconditionally, regardless of desire for reward or fear of punishment. She is most known for praying,
“O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
And indeed, there is a story that she was once seen running through the streets of the city holding a pail of water and a torch. When asked why, she replied, “I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.”
Her passion and love knew no bounds. When asked if she despised the devil, she answered, “I am so consumed in my love for God that no place remains for loving or hating any save God.”
Once she traveled to Mecca, and she saw that the Ka’bah was coming to meet her. She stared at it and said, “It is the Lord of the house whom I need, what have I to do with the house? I need to meet with God Who said, ‘Who approaches Me by a span’s length I will approach him by the length of a cubit.’ The Ka’bah which I see has no power over me; what joy does the beauty of the Ka’bah bring to me?”
Meanwhile, Hazrat Ibrahim bin Adham, who had just spent 14 years traveling to the Kab’ah because he had prayed 2 rakats in every mosque along the way, had just arrived at the place where the Kab’ah should have been. He was surprised to see it missing and asked, “What’s happened! Do my eyes deceive me?”
A voice replied, “No harm has befallen your eyes. The Ka’bah has gone to meet a woman, who is approaching this place.”
He ran forward and met Rabia as the Ka’bah was back in its place. “Rabia!” He exclaimed, “what disturbance have you brought to the world?”
“You have brought disturbance, not I, for you have delayed visiting the Ka’bah for 14 years.”
“Yes I have spent 14 years in crossing the desert because I was engaged in prayer.”
“You traversed in prayer, but with personal supplication, ” she said, and having then performed the pilgrimage, she continued to deeply devote her life to loving God.
She participated in many discussions with religious people, and she was so loved and respected that Hasan Basri would not deliver his sermons if she was absent from the audience. She also told him off a lot, and greatly influenced centuries of scholars to come.

8 thoughts on “Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Rabia al-Adawiyya

  1. Margaret Smith wrote a couple of excellent books on her, as well as other women mystics. I think it was called Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rabia. There is also a book called Doorkeeper of the Heart that I enjoyed that was mostly a collection of stories in which she was central.

  2. aaaargh, the internet ate my comment! Here's the (not half as eloquently worded!) gist, though:You know, this really strikes a chord with me. Coming from a secular humanist (ish) perspective, one of the things I've never been able to understand is the argument by some religious people that without the threat of hell or reward of heaven, why would people do good? I've always found the bizarre- isn't it intrinsically rewarding to do the right thing? And if you're only doing it because of threats or rewards, what's to prevent a bigger threat/reward coming along and inducing you towards entirely different actions?It feels like, although we're coming from very different axiomatic perspectives, that idea- of doing the thing that's right, regardless of reward or punishment- is the same. And that's beautiful.

  3. I'm glad you liked this! It moves me too. Most of the women I've written about here had very fiery, argumentative personalities–which is awesome and inspiring. Rabia seems so strong in a different way. She seems like the kind of person who sort of makes you melt. Of course, she was also snarky, and the others were also soft-hearted, they were all just known for different aspects of themselves. It's kind of amazing that there can be so much to a human being and we can only know a fraction of the whole.I've also felt that being good for the sake of being good should be the motivator, not the treat of reward or the promise of punishment. I think we simply aren't taught this enough, the way our society works.

  4. Thank you for writing this, Nahida.When Rabia al-Adawiyya said this: "I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God," no truer words were spoken about the nature of faith.If I'm in this to try to use God as a vending machine, then what is the point of having faith? This is where Christian (at least, that's who I'm most familiar with) fundamentalists have got it so, so wrong, in my opinion.

  5. rabia

    Pls Email me Rabia stories if u can pls I love wat I’ve just read about her I’ve always wanted 2 knw who I’m named after

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