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Born a slave in the year 714 in what is today modern Iraq, Rabiya
al-Adawiyya is considered the first female saint in Islam. One night, her master
awoke to see a halo of light shining around her head illuminating the darkness.
Horrified by the sight, he released her into the desert. Some days later, she
returned to him playing a flute with the skill of a professional musician.
Rabiya was a mystic of the then emerging Sufi order. She often spoke of the concept of Muhhaba (selfless love) which emphasized the centrality of the love of God to mystical experience. A famous tale relates how she carried a torch and ewer through the streets of Basra intent, she explained, on setting fire to heaven and dousing the flames of hell, so that those two veils would drop away from the eyes of believers. "Love God for his beauty," she cried out to the people, "not out of fear of hell or desire for paradise."
Throughout her life, Rabiya remained celebit though she had many offers of marriage from admiring Sufi companions. She often performed miracles to expose the contradictions in the relationship between men and women. Rabiya confounded her male contemporaries with her unconventional ideas. The esteemed Sufi leader Hasan al-Basri was one such man humbled by her spiritual and intellectual power. In a short Sufi narrative, he declares, "I passed one whole night and day with Rabiya speaking of the Way and the Truth, and it never passed through my mind that I was a man nor did it occur to her that she was a woman, and at the end when I looked at her I saw myself as bankrupt and Rabiya as truly sincere."
There are many other narratives written about the interaction between Hani al-Basri and Rabiya al-Adawiya which depict Rabiya surpassing her male counterpart. In one story, Rabiya is seen by al-Basri meditating near the bank of a river. To get her attention, al-Basri placed his prayer carpet on top of the water, sat on it, and called out to Rabiya to float over and converse with him. Understanding his intention was merely to show off to others his spiritual power, Rabiya tossed her prayer carpet high into the air and floated up to it. "Oh Hasan," she said, "come up here where people will see us better." Hasan became silent because he knew it was not within his power to fly. "Oh Hasan," Rabiya continued, "that which you did, a fish can do . . . and that which I did, a fly can do. The real work (for the Saints of God) lies beyond both of these."
In her later years, Rabiya moved to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and lived as a hermit inside the Tomb of Pelagia near the Chapel of Ascension. Eventually, she too was laid to rest there.
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