by Ali Hammad
More than a millennium has passed since the times of Rabia, the patron saint of Sufism. The events of her life are now shrouded in an impenetrable veil of time. A few scraps of her biography are all we have, quite unreliable and done by people who came scores or hundreds of years later. The rest we have to imagine, like I did in the following account. Her message, however, has passed intact, her words guarded as sacraments never to be tempered with, by the countless succeeding generations of mystics. That, I think, is what she would have wanted. She was never about her. It was always about the Message.
Ismail had run out of names for daughters by the time his fourth was born. He simply named her Rabia: Fourth. Each girl had added more financial stress. A son would have helped in keeping the family fed, but a son was not God’s will, and Ismail was not one to question God’s will. He didn’t complain or ask anyone for financial help. He thanked God for His bounty, loved his girls, and worked harder.
The year was 717 CE. Rabia was born at the edge of a desert, not far from the town of Basra in Iraq. The family was poor and remained so throughout her life. What Providence held back in money it did (temporarily) grant in love: Rabia had the love of her father, her mother, and her three older sisters. Then, in one turbulent year, everything blew away.
Ismail died when Rabia turned eleven. Her mother decided to move with her daughters to the town of Basra where she felt she’d be able to make a better living. The caravan with which the women were travelling was waylaid by highwaymen. The mother was murdered and each daughter enslaved by a different robber. Rabia’s family thus shredded, never to be put back together again.
Penniless, helpless, bereft of love, and entirely alone in a fearsome world, the eleven-year old girl was brought to Basra and sold promptly in its slave market. Henceforth she was known as Rabia of Basra, or Rabia Basri. And with her was to originate the doctrine of selfless love that in later years would be known as Sufism.
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