Depiction of Rabi'a grinding grain from a Persian dictionary


Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya; Sufi Mystic

March 15, 2021

by Sherif Salem, SFU Philosophy MA Program

Continuing from our International Women's Day post this year for WOmen's History Month US

Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya is a Sufi mystic who lived in eighth-century CE Basra (probably from 98 AH/717 CE to 184 AH/801 CE). Although being a prominent figure in Islamicate history, there is no wealth of information about her thoughts because she left no sources to consult. Yet, she appears in many historiographic narratives of Sufi figures since the late eighth-century. One of the earliest extensive studies of Rabi‘a appears in the work of Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 411 AH/1021 CE), who was a great systemizer of the Sufi doctrine. In his treatise Dhikr al-niswa al-muta‘abbidat al-sufiyyat (Memorial of Female Sufi Devotees), which is the first work devoted in its entirety to women Sufi figures, al-Sulami describes Rabi‘a as a paradigmatic Sufi figure.

But what were the main features of Rabi‘a Sufism?

The first was the World/Nonworld Dichotomy. For her, the world represented the institutional (e.g. economic, social, political) setting through which our society is organized, while the Nonworld is an alternative worldview that releases the Sufi ascetic from these worldly institutional constraints. For her, mastery over worldly matters also contributes to the ethical formation of the Sufi, which is a goal that every Sufi ought to pursue. 

The second feature of Sufism for Rabi‘a, is the intimate connection between asceticism and the love of God. For her, embracing the Nonworld is not an adverse rejection of the world, rather it is a positive attempt to conquest our own fears and search for God (as a form of affirmation). In her words, “leaving aside all that does not concern me and by cleaving to the One that always is.” God is the only real existing being since everything else depends on him, so being concerned with God is the only thing a Sufi should be doing.

The third feature of Sufism is its emphasis on knowledge that goes beyond mere reasoning about things. For her, there are two types of knowledge: a) knowledge about something (‘ilm) and b) knowledge about the ways of knowledge (ma‘rifa). The latter type is the most important one because it allows the Sufi to reveal the true nature of things by working out all dimensions of reality. Finally, Rabi‘a thinks that the Sufi experience cannot be transmitted through a vivid process of argumentation or so, rather she relies on aphorisms and poetic expressions to reveal her inner phenomenological experience of God. 

As she says: 

I love you with two loves: a passionate love,
And a love of which only you are worthy.
As for the passionate love,
It has preoccupied me with the remembrance of you beyond all else.
And as for the love of which only you are worthy,
Your parting of the veils allows me to see you.
No praise is mine for either one or the other,
But all praise is yours for this [love] and the other.

Reference: Cornell, R. E. (2019). Rabi'a from Narrative to Myth: The Many Faces of Islam's Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi'a Al-'Adawiyya. Oneworld Academic.

Image credit: By Unknown author -, Public Domain,

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