Rabia lived in Basra in Iraq in the second half of the 8th century AD. Rabia was born to poor parents, and her father was a man of exceptional piety himself. On the night when she was to be born, there was not as much as even a drop of oil in the penurious couple’s house to light the lamp.
The mother-to-be implored her husband to get some from the neighbour, but on account of being a pure ascetic, the man had relinquished all his needs to his Creator and could not consider asking any mortal for their fulfillment.
With no rags to swaddle the child in and no oil to burn the lamp, Rabia’s father placed his head on his knees and his anxious state dissolved into stupor. In his dream he saw the Prophet who told him, “Do not be sorrowful, for this daughter who is born is a great saint, whose intercession will be desired by seventy thousand of my community.”
After her father’s death, there was a famine in Basra, and she was kidnapped by the robbers, and sold into slavery.
During the day she worked very hard, and at night she would turn to meditation and prayers – praising the Lord.
Once, while in the market, she was pursued by a vagabond and in running to save herself she fell and broke her arm. She prayed to the Lord “I am a poor orphan and a slave. Now my hand too is broken. But I do not mind these things if Thou be pleased with me. ” and heard a voice reply, “Never mind all these sufferings. On the Day of Judgement you shall be accorded a status that shall be the envy of the angels even.”
In her master’s house, she fasted by day and nights she spent in standing prayer. One night her master was awakened by a voice urging him to free Rabia, his slave. When he looked through the window of his apartment, he saw Rabia in prostration offering the litany “Oh God, You know that the desire of my heart is to fulfill Your commands, and that the light of my eye is in serving you. If the affair was with me, I would not rest even an hour from serving You, but You Yourself have left me at the mercy of a creature.”
Her master then perceived a a blinding light above her head. When day broke he summoned Rabia and set her free.
Rabia left the house and wandered through the desert in search for what Allah had apportioned for her. She served God for a while in a hermitage that she came upon, but then determined to perform the pilgrimage, she set out for the desert.
On the way, the donkey carrying her bundle died. She entreated the Lord by saying “Oh my God, do kings deal thus with a woman, a stranger and weak? Thou art calling me to Thine own House, but in the midst of the way Thou hast suffered my donkey to die and left me alone in the desert.” She had hardly completed her prayer when the donkey stirred up to life again.
One night a thief entered her hermitage. Being overcome by weariness she had fallen asleep. A thief entered and finding nothing of value, decided to leave with her chador. When he attempted to leave, his way was barred. He dropped the chador and approached the exit, finding the way open. He seized the chador again and as he began, the way got barred the same. He repeated this sequence seven times, utterly perplexed, he then heard a voice coming from the corner of her hermitage “man do not put yourself to such pains. It is so many years now that she has committed herself to Us. The devil himself does not have the boldness to slink around her. How should a thief have the boldness to slink around her chador? Be gone, for if one friend has fallen asleep, One Friend is Awake and Keeping Watch.”
Such was the reciprocity awarded to Rabia by her Divine Friend and Beloved.
One time her fellow-saint, Hassan Basri, saw Rabia sitting near a lake. Throwing his prayer rug on the surface of the water, he called for her to come and offer two rakaats there. She retorted by telling him that if he was showing off his spiritual goods in the worldly market, it should be things his fellow-men were incapable of displaying. On saying that, she flung her prayer rug into the air and flew up on it, and continued by asking him to join her up there where people would be able to see.
Hassan, who had still not attained that station, remained silent, on which she said “What you did fishes also do, and what I did flies also do. The real business is outside both these tricks. One must apply oneself to the real business.”
It is thus said in sufi literature, that miracles were given as a sanction to the Prophets, but to the saints they were granted as a test. Being endowed with such miraculous power, yet she knew the value of humility, and the Divine Will was the only goal she fixed her vision on.
Rabia lived her life in prayer, as an ascetic. Unlike many Sufi saints she did not learn from a teacher or master but turned to God himself.
Throughout her life, her Love of God, poverty and self-denial were her constant companions. She did not possess much other than a broken jug, a rush mat and a brick, which she used as a pillow.
She spent all night in prayer and contemplation chiding herself if she slept for it took her away from her active Love of God.
Though she had many offers of marriage, she refused them as she had no desire in her life for anything other than God.
She prayed “O Allah! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.