Rabaa is of the most famous Sufi women in Islamic history, whose rough road to spirituality remains vivid evidence that the journey of faith is as colourful and rich as life, and as magical as a fairytale.
A man asked Rabaa: I have so many sins, do you think if I repent, God would forgive me? If he forgives you, you will repent, she answered.
Rabaa Bent Ismail Al-Adawi was an Iraqi woman, born in Basra around the year 100 AH (717 AD) to a poor family who named her Rabaa (“fourth”) for she was their fourth daughter. Her father died when she was ten, and soon her mother too, leaving Rabaa and her siblings with no caretakers, nothing but a small boat that people use to cross one of the rivers of Basra for pennies, as explained in the book of Sufi Historian Farid El-Din Attar’s Tazkerat Al-Awliaa (“Remembrance of the Walis.”)
However, in Abdel Rahman Badawy’s book Shahidat Al-Eshq Al Elahi (“The Martyrs of Divine Love”) he explains that there is very little documentation to explain her spiritual development as in the case of Saint Theresa for example, “we know very little on her early years except for what’s mentioned in Tazkeret Al-Awleia and that Badawy does not lean on relying on because it is dominated by the miracles usually affiliated with saints other than her biography.”
Badawy’s book adds that after her parents died, Rabaa and her three sisters left their home, each taking a different path to earn money. Rabaa however was captured by a vicious man who sold her for six pounds to a man who gave her heavy chores.
She was once on the street and found a weird man looking at her viciously, so she ran and ran then fell into the dirt and kept calling God saying I am an enslaved orphan stranger, but my biggest concern is to know if you are happy with me or not; so she heard a sound telling her do not worry for one day you will be in such a high spiritual status that pious people would envy.
Then she returned to her master’s house and went to serve him and fast and pray all night.
Attar’s book also explains that one day her master opened the door of her room and saw her praying to God and complained that if it were up to her she would have prayed non-stop but her master is too strict, and while praying a lantern seemed to be hanging above her head, and flooded the whole house with light. He was puzzled all night and the next morning he set her free.
Rabaa was asked: Do you love God? Yes, I truly do, she answered. So do you hate Satan? My love for God prevents me from engaging in the act of hating Satan was her response.
After attaining her freedom, she sought art as a means of living for she sang her own lyrics and played the nai (flute). She lived a carefree life until she started attending the lectures of Sufi Guru Hassan Al-Basri, where she met her mentor Riah Ibn Amr Al-Qaisi, a Sufi pillar of the time and the turning point in her life.
Since then she became a Sufi saint known for her piety and humbleness and wrote numerous Sufi verses in praise of God. She died at the age of 80 in 180 AH and her poetry lived on to inspire centuries later.
Some of her famous Sufi verses:
I knew love since I knew you and shut my heart to anyone else but you and I used to address you, you who can see through our hearts yet we cant see you.
I love you twice, once like lovers do and the second because you deserve to be loved; as a lover I do not talk about anyone else but you; and as for the second type of love, it’s because you allowed me to see you and I am thankful to you for both loves.