The Imams of ‘Ihsan’ – introducing Sh. Rabia (God’s mercy upon her)

rabia

Dear Readers, peace be with you,

Hope this beautiful spring day finds you well and your families in good health. It has long been on my mind to introduce you to the immense wealth of female scholarship and role models, the Islamic tradition abounds in.

The fact that many, including many Muslims themselves, are unaware of this rich heritage is a sad testament to the dearth of sound knowledge and/or access to the same, in the modern world.

In an older post, I introduce the three foundational aspects that make up the religion of Islam; Islam (practice), Iman (belief) and Ihsan (excellence/beauty). Each of these branches has its own ‘Imams’ or great leaders, so great is their contribution to each of the domains, that all Muslims recognize them and know them to be the foremost in their sphere.

For example, every Sunni Muslim knows the four Imams of fiqh (=jurisprudence, or law), which deals with the external practices, or ‘Islam’, in this way of life. They are Ibn Hanbal, Abu Hanifa, Shafi’i and Malik, (raheemahullah alaihum, God’s mercy upon them all). I will explain more about this later God willing, but in short, they each founded a ‘school of thought’ that laid principles of law that govern the practices of Islam.

What is less well known among Sunni Muslims of today is that each of the other two branches also has ‘Imams’. For Iman (or creed/theology), they are; Imam Maturidi, and Ash’ari (God’s mercy upon both). And for Ihsan, considered the pinnacle and adornment of this religion, they include Abu Talib Al Makki, Junaid of Baghdad, and Raabia of Basra, about whom this post will be.

Raabia is a great saint of Islam. Islam too recognizes saints, but they are not the same as commonly thought of when one brings to mind saints of the Christian tradition, so more about this later God willing.

Raabia, a woman, reached such an exalted state in her ‘knowing’ of God, that she became a teacher and mentor for some of those who went on to become among the foremost scholars of our tradition, especially in the domain of Ihsan. It is from their accounts that we know what we know of her. She is unique in that she left no known written works, but her ‘name’ is recognized by almost all Muslims, a testament to the impression she made. She lived ~1200 years ago.

Rabia (Allah’s mercy upon her) lived in Basra, in present day Iraq, she would have been born in the first hundred years or so after the death of the blessed beloved (peace be upon him). An account of her life is given by Farid ud-Din Attar in ‘Thadhkirat al-Awliyaa (=Memorial of the Friends of God), the author of the famous ‘Conference of the Birds’. She was a devoted worshipper and great lover of God, so much so that stories of her piety, and ascetism, have become a part of ‘common Muslim lore’.

She was a contemporary of a number of prominent scholars of Ihsan such as; Hasan Al Basri, Sufyan ibn Sa’id ath-Thawri, Shu’ba ibn al-Hajjaj to name a few. These great scholars are reported to have sought her advice on legal matters as well as on spiritual matters. Some accounts of these encounters are collected by the 11th century famous Sufi scholar ‘as-Sulami’ in his ‘Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’ Abbidat as Sufiyyat’ (translated recently as ‘Early Sufi Women’ by Rkia Cornell, Fons Vitae publishers), some of which I reproduce here;

“Sufyan ath-Thawri said about Rabia’, “take me to the mentor. For when I am apart from her, I can find no solace”, when he entered her abode, Sufyan raised his hand and said, “O God, grant me safety!” At this, Rabi’a wept. “What makes you weep?” he asked. “You caused me to weep,” she replied. “How?” he asked. She answered, “Have you not learned that true safety from the world is to abandon all that is in it? So how can you ask such a thing while you are still soiled with the world?”. In another account it was reported by Shayban al-Ubulli who said ‘I heard Rabi’a say: “For everything there is a fruit, and the fruit of the knowledge of God is in orienting oneself toward God at all times”. Also on his authority it is related Rabi’a said “I ask God’s forgiveness for my lack of truthfulness in saying, ‘I ask God’s forgiveness.’” In another narration, it is recorded that a scholar said in her presence “He who persists in knocking at the door will have it opened for him”. “the door is already open,” she replied. “But the question is: who wishes to enter it?””

She attained the highest state a practitioner of Islam aspires to, to become an ‘a’rif’ or ‘one who knows God’, a gnostic. Though strict with herself and a great renouncer of the world (thus embodying a basic Islamic ethos, that one is firm on oneself, but compassionate and magnanimous with others…a concept many Muslims seem to like to apply in the opposite direction these days – that is, being firm in judging others but lax with themselves!), her greatest contributions to Islam, is her teaching of the concept of ‘Divine love’.

This was a time when Muslims were overcome with extreme awe of God, it is said, to the extent, some of the early Sufis were scared to lift a finger lest God disproves, she showed that God’s love is to be sought for the sake of God himself, rather than to worship Him out of fear of punishment or desire for reward.

It is important to recount the time early in our history when men and women learned and taught one another – Hasan Al-Basri famously stated ‘I once spent a whole day and a night in Rabi’a’s company and never once did it cross my mind that she was a woman and I was a man’ – and it is related Rabi’a said – ‘once Hasan Al Basri visited me and so enraptured were we in talking about God that I forgot what I was cooking and it burned to a crisp’ – may these times come back to us.

Indeed, it is vital we reacquaint ourselves with such immense gnostics and teachers in our faith, especially those who are women, who taught us the all important practice of Ihsan, without which Islam can become an empty shell.

Giants such as Rabia’, so long left in the margin of scholarly enterprise, but so important for us to know today. And may God grant us a strong love for them so we follow in their footsteps, thus bridging our ‘islam’ and ‘iman’ to come to ‘ihsan’, and thereby taste the fullness and joy of what it means to be a Muslim.

Farid ud-Din Attar’s praise for her:

“No, she wasn’t a single woman, But a hundred men over: Robed in the quintessence of pain, From foot to face, immersed in the Truth, Effaced in the radiance of God, And liberated from all superfluous excess.”

  • In the ‘Conference of the Birds’

“That noble recluse who dwelled behind the cloisters of God’s elect, a matron of sanctity beneath sincerity’s veil, on fire with love, totally consumed with yearning, arduously enraptured by God’s proximity, that apostle of Mary’s purity, acknowledged by all men was Rabia al-Adawiya, God’s mercy rest upon her.”

  • In the ‘Memoirs of the Saints’

Two poems from Rabia (Allah’s mercy upon her)

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

~~

I have two ways of loving You:
A selfish one
And another way that is worthy of You.
In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone.
In that other love, You lift the veil
And let me feast my eyes on Your Living Face.
~~

May God ennoble her face, shower His light upon her grave and grant her the highest station in paradise, and may we be blessed to drink from her light and learn from her wisdom.

She is reported to have lived her last days in Jerusalem, and while the exact site is disputed, there is some evidence she was buried on the Mount of Olives. The site is just adjacent to where the chapel of the ascension is, isn’t that a beautiful sign.

I had the great honour to visit her resting site and pay my respects. It has been in the trust of a Palestinian family for centuries, whose door one knocks on to request the key to visit the tomb. A young member of the family accompanied me and indeed what a gladness to see a modern day teenager carrying on the family duty. Captions on the photos below will explain more God willing.

Peace be with you all

Islam as Religion

In one of the best known and most authentic ahadith (=narrations of the blessed beloved, peace be upon him), known as the ‘hadith Jibra’eel’ (=Gabriel narration), the archangel Jibraeel (peace be upon him) visits the blessed beloved and questions him about three facets of the religion of Islam.

“While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), there appeared before us a man dressed in extremely white clothes and with very black hair. No traces of journeying were visible on him, and none of us knew him. He sat down close by the Prophet (peace be upon him), rested his knee against his thighs, and said, “O Muhammad! Inform me about Islam.”

The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, that you should perform salah, pay the Zakah, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj to the House, if you are able to do so.”

The man said, “You have spoken truly.” We were astonished at his questioning him (the Messenger) and telling him that he was right, but he went on to say, “Inform me about iman.”

He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you believe in Allah and His angels and His Books and His Messengers and in the Last Day, and in qadar (fate), both in its good and in its evil aspects.” He said, “You have spoken truly.”

Then he (the man) said, “Inform me about Ihsan.” He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet (know that) He sees you.”

He said, “Inform me about the Hour.” He (the Messenger of Allah) said, “About that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” So he said, “Well, inform me about the signs thereof.” He said, They are that the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress, that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute, the herdsmen of the sheep (competing with each other) in raising lofty buildings. Thereupon the man went of. I waited a while, and then he (the Messenger of Allah) said, “O Umar, do you know who that questioner was?” I replied, “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said, “That was Jibril (the Angel Gabriel). He came to teach you your religion.”

It was narrated on the authority of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), and recorded in Muslim.

These three facets; Islam, Iman and Ihsan, together make up the whole of the practice of the religion. We say about these three words, that used separately each can be used in place of the other – i.e., Islam (=practice), Iman (=faith), ihsan (=excellence or beauty of practice/faith) can singly denote the meaning of all three, the statement ‘a person has iman’ also means that person has islam and ihsan by default – but used together, each word has a specific meaning.  E.g., saying “you’re iman is strong” can be taken to also mean ‘you are a strong muslim’ or ‘your practice of the deen has ihsan’, but if you say “you’re iman is strong and you have ihsan” that means the person has a strong faith and excellence in character and personality.

Therefore the statement, ‘a person has islam, iman and ihsan’ here denotes a distinct meaning for each word; islam means the ritual practices and jurisprudence determining the lifestyle of a practioner of the religion, iman means the faith or beliefs of that person, and ihsan denotes a higher state of perfection where the practioner is able to marry perfect faith to perfect practice. I.e., he or she feels with the heart, what occurs on the limbs.

Under this schema, Islam is usually the domain of study of  ‘fiqh’ = jurisprudence… or law, Iman the domain of study of ‘aqeeda’ = creed, and Ihsan the domain of study of ‘tazkeeya’ or ‘tasawwuf’ = purification of the soul, or mysticism.

God willing as this blog evolves more and more will be covered on the above three aspects, especially the last, which is has been considered the pinnacle and adornment of the religion – Ihsan or Islamic Mysticism.

But suffice to say now, that sadly in today’s Muslim world we see a polarization between those who lean too much toward the external practices devoid of any internal meaning, epitomized by the puritanical ‘wahhabi’ school of thought – those of strict fiqh. And on the opposite pole are those who lean so deeply toward the internal, that they forget to practices islam, the people who have unfortunately been called ‘sufis’ (a great insult to the term, as true sufis are the most conscientious about practicing Islam in all its dimensions), who focus so much on belief in God, they may disregard it’s pillars such as prayer etc.

It is marrying the two, that Ihsan is achieved… excellence is in marrying the faith to practice. By doing this the Muslim is able to be as the prophet, peace be upon him was, truly of the world, but truly other-wordly, at all times.

This is the great beauty and challenge of Islam, which does not promote a priestly class, does not encourage ascetism, but calls upon on its practitioners to be completely with God at all times, while being totally in the world serving humanity and all of creation, at all times.

On this note I will end with the prayer that God enable us all to be like this. Completely able to give and receive and fulfill all the immense potential of the creation we are, by, for, from and through God.

Peace be upon you all. Assalamu alaikum.