At a time when women are asked to return home before the sun sets, the idea of a woman ascetic wandering through the deserts seems something too far away from reality. With norms such as ‘get your daughter married before 30 or she won’t find a good suitor’ and ‘don’t give your daughter so much of freedom or else, she would get ruined’ dictating the society’s mindset, the idea of a woman celibate deriving her freedom from none but God seems absurd or something to be mocked at. But that was not the case with Rabi’a, a Sufi mystic who shattered the glass ceilings by asserting her role as the first female intellectual and spiritual leader of the Sufi sect of Islam.
Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya, popularly known as Hazrat Bibi, was born in the 8th century in Basra, Iraq. Rabi’a was the fourth daughter of her extremely poor parents from Basra (Iraq). She was named Rabi’a as the word means fourth. After her parents died, she was sold into slavery. During the day she would do the master’s housework and at night she prayed. It is believed that one night her master saw a light surrounding her which left him captivated and in the morning he freed her. Thereafter, she paved her way.
Also known as the queen of saintly women, Rabi’a made remarkable contributions to the development of Sufism. Her disciples include not only women but men as well, like Sufyan al-Thawri, who says about Rabi’a, “Take me to the teacher. For when I am apart from her, I can find no solace.” She also paved the way for many other female Sufi saints.
She was a highly influential woman who, through her intellectual and spiritual wisdom proved that one need not be a man to achieve a higher status in the eyes of God. She detached herself from all worldly ties and devoted herself completely to God. Rabi’a also founded the Doctrine of Divine Love or ‘Ishq-e-Haqeeqi‘ that postulates loving God for his own sake rather than out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. She refused to lift her head towards the Heaven (or God) as an act of modesty for which she says, “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.” She was resolute in her self-denial and refused many marriage proposals to live the life of a celibate.
This presents a very beautiful aspect of Sufism and as such has attracted followers from around the world. Nothing can be purer than loving someone selflessly and the greatness of this doctrine lies in the fact that that “someone” is none but your own Lord. This doctrine of selfless love directed towards God has enriched Sufism to a great extent and for that, we’ll remain grateful to Rabi’a.
Now the question that persists in our minds is whether we can call Rabi’a a feminist or not? To answer this question we must be careful as to which lens we are using to examine her life. If we try and use our present-day perception of feminism to determine her role as a feminist then the answers might not be very positive since she didn’t advocate equality of men and women.
However, how she conducted herself, ranging from rejecting marriage proposals and being a celibate to living her life independently with none but herself being the master of her life are themselves an alibi to the strong sense of feminism that informed her choices.
Rabi’a not only challenged the patriarchal norms but also the material spiritualism that had found its way into Sufism. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Rabi’a had set an edifice in the world of Sufi mystical traditions by being the first female Sufi saint and thereby inspiring many other women in the generations to come.
Butool Zehra is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Varda Ahmad
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.