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With Oprah Winfrey and Ivanka Trump all using the word “Sufism” to describe their own spiritual journeys, Sufism has been all the rage in pop culture in the past century or so. Though it is a branch of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness to God, its popular perception these days is in a secular space, symbolized by qawalis and the dance of the whirling dervishes.
The origins of Sufism have at best been traced back to the 13th-century Persian scholar, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, more popularly known as Rumi. Lesser known, however, is the figure of Rabia Al-Adawaiyya, more commonly known as Rabia Basri, who lived centuries before Rumi and consolidated many beliefs and doctrines for Sufism when it was in its incubatory phase. So a tradition we may see in hindsight as being a male-dominated universe actually had one of its pioneers as a woman.
Who was Rabia Basri? Well, today her biographical details are so intertwined with myth that it is difficult to separate the two. She was born in 717 CE in Basra, Iraq (during the Abbasid Caliphate). Legend has it that she was born into poverty, raised during a famine, and eventually sold into slavery. At each of these phases, however, were signs from God, prophecies, and premonitions to people around her, of what her stature later in life would be. Farid Al-Din Attar, a Persian poet, and philosopher from the 12th century wrote that when she was born, her family was so bereft of all material possessions that they did not even have oil to light a lamp or a piece of cloth to wrap her up in. And with her first night in the world, the Prophet appeared in her father’s dream saying:
“Your newly born daughter is a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many people to the right path.”
After being orphaned during a famine, she fell into the hands of slavery. Upon finishing her chores tirelessly during the day, she would hold night-long vigils praying. And it was during one of these nights that her master saw her devotion and apparently also a halo surrounding her, which compelled him to free her. It was a sign from God, he thought.
After being freed from slavery, she dedicated her life to God completely. She never got married or had any children of her own. With no family or existing blood ties to speak of, she became a figure of solitude and celibacy. Not only was she distant from people but was also devoid of any material possessions. Her biographers claim that when she passed away, she had nothing but a reed mat, a pottery jug, and a bed that doubled as her prayer rug. It was this airy and light existence that allowed her to lead a nomadic life. It has been said that she once embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca on foot which was to take seven years at the time.
Her identity was multifaceted: she was the first Muslim saint, she was a poet, and she was a preacher. She preached outside mosques reciting poetry about the transience of this world (a feat that would shatter stereotypes of Muslim women in today’s world). The fragments of poetry that exist today, though, are perhaps as scarce as her material belongings. Much of her poetry is in verses that were transmitted orally. One of her famous verses are the following:
“O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,
then burn me in Hell;
If I worship You because I desire Paradise,
then exclude me from Paradise;
But if I worship You for Yourself alone,
then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.”
These words establish one hard fact about her: hers was an identity of renunciation. Not only did she renounce worldly luxuries but also any form of indulgence in the afterlife. In these iconic words, she overturns reward and punishment, hell and heaven, in a relentless yearning for the Divine. Her expression of her love for God transcended the material, the bodily, the worldly, and even the afterworld-ly.
Encountering this enigmatic woman in history meant that I had to unlearn much of my existing knowledge of Sufism. As an avid reader of Rumi’s biographies, I had always noticed how the women in Rumi’s family were overshadowed by his spiritual complexity. With his meeting with Shams-il-Tabriz, it seemed as though, at least at that point in history, it was only possible for men to achieve a certain spiritual status. Because women, often being child-bearers and caretakers became increasingly tied to their own body and their families, traditional gender roles would rarely allow for a woman to spend life in seclusion and asceticism. Rabia Basri’s life, however, denied subservience to any being, much less a man. Her only allegiance was to her Lord. And that servitude ironically was the greatest source of liberation for her.
So why has she not been canonized as much as Rumi? Is it because of the fact that Rumi reigned from an affluent background and had scribes writing down each of his words? Could be. But it could also be because of her gender. Perhaps that is why few to none white men have picked up her existing poetry and life and have decided to write about her, or even tried to excavate the truth about her. Perhaps there is some level of internalized misogyny that prevents writers from incorporating her in mainstream culture, the age-old question: how can a woman transcend the bodily and the worldly, to become nothing but a soul. After all, in all other traditions and religions most saints have been men.
Whatever the case may be, it was she, the mother of Sufism who taught future mystics, the doctrine of Ishq-e-Haqeeqi (true/Divine love). In the words of Farid Al-Din Attar, praising Rabia Basri’s unparalleled status as a female Sufi saint in the Conference of the Birds:
No, she wasn’t a single woman,
But a hundred men over:
Robed in the quintessence of pain
From foot to face, immersed in the Truth,
Effaced in the radiance of God,
And liberated from all superfluous excess.
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