A Brief Exegesis on Rabia Basri’s Concept of Divine Love (Hubb)

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Muttaqi Naik

The discourse on Sufism has, over the centuries, gained so much momentum and thrust that it has taken shape of a complete science/ branch in the studies on Islam and things Islamic. The aim of Tasawwuf (Sufism/ Islamic Mysticism) is to attain the realization of God. The term Tasawwuf is not directly used in the Qur’an, but it lays emphasis on Tazkiyya (inner Purification), Taqwa (Piety/ God-Consciousness), and other such concepts on which Sufis lay much stress. Among the prominent Sufis of classical era, we come across names like Hasan al-Basri, RabiaBasri, Junayd al-Baghdadi, and so on. This essay endeavors to highlight the life and teachings of RabiaBasri (717-801 CE)—one of the prominent figures of Tasawwuf, who has contributed greatly to Sufism and the concepts associated with it. She is mostly famous for her concept of Divine Love (Hubb-i-Ilahi)—deep love with the Creator.
Rabia al-Adawiyya, commonly known as Rabia of Basra/ Rabia al-Basri(C. 717–801)is regarded as a paradigm for Sufi women. An ascetic whose life spanned the late Umayyad (r 661-750 CE) and early Abbasid (r. 750-1258 CE) periods, her biographical image is a mosaic created by later writers. There are as many versions of Rabia’s hagiographic persona as there are accounts of her. She has been portrayed as a second Mary, a miracle worker, and the originator of the concept of divine love. Hanbali writers respect her extreme asceticism and other worldliness, and modern historians consider her the quintessential saint of Islam.
Little objective information is known about Rabia. She was a client of the Arab tribe of Banu Adi. Popular accounts state that she was sold into slavery during a drought, but her sanctity secured her freedom and she retired to a life of seclusion and celibacy, first, in the desert and then on the outskirts of Basra, where she taught both male and female disciples. One of her male disciples was the jurist Sufyan al Thawri (d. 777). Rabia was the culminating figure in a series of Basran female ascetics, starting with Muadha al-Adawiyya (d. 719). Her teacher may have been named Hayyuna. Many stories and poems attributed to Rabia actually belong to her students or to other Sufi women with similar names, such as her contemporary Rabia al-Azdiyyaof Basra, and Rabia bint Ismail of Damascus (d. before 850 CE).
The Sufi biographer al-Sulami (d. 1021) portrays Rabia as a contemplative and rational thinker. Later writers (like Michael A. Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism, 1996) portray her as a more emotional and legendary figure.
There is very little information on the life of Rabia as there are no biographies written of her in or near her own time. One of the earliest sources on the history of Sufis and Sufism is Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar’s Tadhkirat al-Awliya (‘Memoirs of the Saints’; translated by A.J.Arberry as Muslim Saints and Mystics,1990). Attar states that Rabia was born in the year 717 CE in Basra (Iraq), and spent most of her life there. He states that she was born to a poor home and was the fourth daughter, hence her name Rabia (‘the fourth’). Attar provides an account of how she journeyed towards spiritual awakening, accompanied by manumission from her master. The story goes that one day she slipped on the road and fell to the ground, and said, “Oh Lord, I am a stranger and without mother or father, an orphan and a slave and I have fallen into bondage and my wrist is injured, [yet] I am not grieved by this, only [I desire] to satisfy Thee. I would fain know if Thou art satisfied [with me] or not”. In reply, a voice said: “Be not sorrowful for on the day of Resurrection thy rank shall be such that those who are nearest to God in Heaven shall envy thee”.
Rabia chose a life of celibacy in keeping with her monastic lifestyle. There are many stories of Rabi’a asceticism (zuhd) and poverty (faqr), her lack of concern for bodily desires or for help from others when particularly in need. Her form of devotion is characterised by a love of God that left little room for other earthly concerns. A number of miracles (karamat, literally ‘favours from God’) are attributed to her that help us to throw light on her character. Many of these stories have been narrated by ‘Attar in particular. One tells of when two religious leaders stopped at Rabi’a’s home in the hope of some food, Rabi’a produced two loaves of bread but before the religious leaders could eat them, a beggar came in and she gave the loaves to him. However, then a slave-girl arrived to give Rabi’a eighteen loaves from the slave girl’s mistress. Rabi’a, after counting them, refused to take them. The slave-girl had taken two loaves for herself but, out of guilt, she replaced them and came back with twenty loaves. These Rabi’a accepted and then fed the sheikhs with them. Rabi’a said to the religious leaders, “When you came in I knew you were hungry and I said, ‘How can I set two loaves before two honorable persons?’ When the beggar came in, I gave them to him and I prayed to God Almighty, ‘O, my Lord, Thou hast said that Thou wilt give ten for one, and I am sure of this. Now I have given two loves for the sake of pleasing Thee in order that Thou mayest give me back ten for each of them.’ When the eighteen loaves came, I knew that either there was a deficiency due to misappropriation or that they were not meant for me”.
Rabia placed great emphasis on the concept of repentance (tawba) as the first stage in the path towards God. Like Hassan al-Basri, she wept freely in sorrow for her sins. For her, repentance was a ‘gift from God’ and so cannot be sought. It was not the punishment for sin that caused Rabia’s sorrow, but the severing it caused in a loving relationship with God. Another stage on the path towards God is that of patience (sabr) and Rabia did not seem to lack this virtue. She accepted all as the will of God, even when she was a slave and had to suffer the various adversities presented to her. As Roy Jackson (Fifty Key Figures in Islam, 2006, pp. 35-39) puts it: “She regarded patience as an essential part of faith for if she were to will something that God did not will, then she would be guilty of unbelief. Complementary to patience is gratitude (shukr). All things, blessings as well as misfortunes, are gifts from God and so one should praise and give thanks to God. We must also be thankful for our misfortunes because they could always be worse than they are”.
Rabia’s prayers were full of thanksgiving; and she was quick to admonish. “She did not suffer fools or hypocrites lightly and could hold her own among a company of male religious experts. She was one of the first mystics to emphasize the doctrine of love”. In response to the question, ‘What is love?’ she is recorded as quoting the Qur’an: “Love has come from Eternity and passes into Eternity and none has been found in seventy thousand worlds who drinks one drop of it until at last he is absorbed in God, and from that comes the saying ‘He loves them [his saints] and they love Him’ (Qur’an 5: 59)”.
Rabia believed true piety was grounded in Trust (tawakkul: trusting acceptance of God’s will, and total dependence on Him). From this, she developed the concept of divine love and idea of possible intimacy with God. She used prayer as a medium of free and intimate communication with God. Her belief and satisfaction had reached the level regardless she was a poor lady. Once a person came for her help, she denied by saying: “I would be ashamed to ask for worldly things from Him to whom world belongs; how can I ask for them to whom it doesn’t belong” (Farida Khanam, Sufism: An Introduction, 2009, pp. 26, 27).
Not just this, she held that God should be loved and worshipped without any selfish end in mind. She criticized those who worshipped God to secure his favours and went so far as to say: “I want to light a fire in paradise and pour water in Hell so that people no longer worship for Heaven and Hell”. She prayed: “O my Lord, if I worship You from fear of Hell, burn me in it, and if I worship You for hope of Paradise, exclude me from it, but if I worship You for Your Own sake, Then don’t withhold from me Your eternal beauty”.
Rabia died in 801 CE. Though not an intellectual, Rabia’s contribution lies “in the inspiration she has been to many, most especially women who see Rabia as an archetype for spiritual freedom when social freedom may not be so readily obtained” (Jackson, p. 39).
Conclusion: Rabia was a practicing Muslimah knowing the principles of Sharia, but nothing could satisfy her, that is why she wondered here and there in search of satisfaction and finally she got in loving Her Beloved—God. Loving God was her food and oxygen; she was in love up to the extent that she never asked help from someone. She was of the view that doing Ibadah (worship) for heaven is selfishness; one should do Ibadah just for God’s love.
Rabia’s love was of that level that she agrees that even Allah’s wrath is His love for His servant. She had a level of love where she couldn’t differentiate between pain and pleasure. It was her love that she was satisfied in all the situations; it is not so easy for ordinary people to understand this philosophy. In a nutshell, it is apt to say that Rabia focused on love of Allah, this is what should be the means and end of one’s sayings and actions; this is what should be the motive of a practicing Muslim; heaven is just a reward from Allah to His lovers: “God’s love is at core of the universe and that we need to feel that love is all we do”. “Lover is one, who is lost in witnessing Him, that no consciousness remains and can’t distinguish between pain and pleasure”. For a detailed study of life and teachings of Rabia, one can consult books like Farid al-Din Attar’s Muslim Saints and Mystics (trans. A.J. Arberry, 1990); Widad El-Sakkakini’s First Among Sufis: Life and Thought of Rabia Al Adawiyya (1989); Margare tSmith’s Rabi’a, The Life and Works of Rabi’ (1994);and for a brief sketch, see Roy Jackson’s Fifty Key Figures in Islam (2006).

—The author can be at: greenxmuttaqi@gmail.com