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Rabi’a, the mother of Islamic spirituality

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26 September 2020

Sorority and brotherhood are not two abstract nouns, instead they are concrete terms in the history of the Islamic tradition: and this is certainly also due to Rabi’a, the most famous mystic, who lived in the 8th century, shortly after the death of the Prophet, called with the honorary title ummul khayr: mother of goodness.

The great German scholar Annemarie Schimmel, who dedicated more than 40 years of her life to studying Islamic languages and culture, in her book entitled La mia anima è una donna. Il femminile nell’islam [My soul is a woman. The feminine in Islam] (Genoa, ECIG Edictions, 1998) underlines: “In the prehistory of Sufism the most important figure is that of a woman, Rabi’a al Adawiyya who, according to tradition, was the first to introduce the element of absolute divine love into the rigidly ascetic Sufism of the 8th century, and Islam gives her a place of honor in the history of mysticism”.

Her doctrine of love is summed up in the prayer he sings to the Lord:

“O my God, all that you have reserved for me of earthly things give it to Your enemies; and all that you have reserved for me in the afterlife, give it to Your friends. For You are enough for me.

O my God, if I adore You out of fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I adore You out of hope of heaven, exclude me from heaven; but if I adore You only for Yourself, do not deprive me of Your eternal beauty”.

Faith as love, to love without other purposes.

The story of Rabi’a teaches us of the path of profound freedom. Orphaned when still a child, a foreigner, a slave, then freed by the slave-owner who was struck by her spirituality. She lived in Basra, in present-day Iraq, where she acquired a widespread reputation for holiness. She preached and retired to the desert in a hermitage that became a place of pilgrimage; and, even the great wise ‘ulama of Islam went to visit her. She is considered the “mother of Sufism” and this has great significance for Sufism insisted on the equality of women with men, because in the spiritual life there is no inequality between the sexes. She sings: “I want to pour water into hell and set heaven on fire, so that these two veils disappear and human beings worship God not out of fear of hell or hope of heaven, but only out of His eternal beauty”.

Ibn Arabi, the major master, said about Rabi’a: “She was the only one who analyzed and classified the categories of love to the point of being a famous interpreter of love for God”.

In 1100, that is three centuries after Rabi’a’s death, the supreme theologian Ghazzali succeeded in bringing the notion of mahabba (love) back into “orthodox” Islam, so much so that he entitled one of his most interesting writings The Love of God. According to a tradition Rabi’a is buried in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

by Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh