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?
~ Rabia al Basri
I was beside myself upon encountering the potent verse of Hazrat Rabi’a al-Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya, or simply Rabia al-Basri, (718-801) is an early Sufi poet from Basra, Iraq. She lived her life dedicated to passionate prayer, truth in action, introduced the doctrine of Divine Love, and is considered the first female Sufi saint of Islam. She lived as an aesthetic so devout that what remains of her verse were her prayers, mantras, and quotes. What is known of her life are anecdotes and details shared from other Sufi mystics that have mixed with myth, but it is commonly agreed she was always deeply absorbed in prayer, and often weeping. Her story has been excessively co-opted to fulfill moral arcs – she has been described as a slave become free, a peasant become venerated, and a prostitute become chaste – but closer to the truth is, she was a self-realized woman from the coast of Iraq, beyond her time.
When questioned by Sufi leader Shaikh Hasan al-Basri, “the patriarch of early Sufism” as to how she had attained this state of being, she replied, “you know of the how, I know of the how-less.” She is regarded as a saint for spending her nights occupying her days and nights in the worship of God, tying her faith to the highest form of love, Ishq-e Haqīqi (عشق حقیقی) or “divine love” (agape), the abandonment of self which leads to unification of the lover and beloved. The word ‘ishq’ is derived from ‘ashiqah’ which means vine, for it is said when love takes its root in the heart of a lover, everything other than God is effaced. and what is recorded as her poetry, expresses beautifully that notion.
Rabia’s life and words are intensely meaningful to read, as I have been contemplating how one might live their passion so entirely as to not be separated from that which is loved, and how this transmutes the respective life itself into a prayer. Then what is loved can never be lost, nor captured, belittled, or degraded, and whether or not it is recorded in history, sanctified, or regarded as art is beside the point. These social laurel are meant to bring us closer to the source of love, not necessarily the lover, and can ironically become snares when we try to fixate and hold to the beauty present in the medium. Love is about the message, not the words, but you need the words to find the message, to know the source to turn to. I’m drawn to how the devotion of Sufi poets leads them to abandon convention, to dissolve the veils between themselves and divinity. Their poetry beckons us to share in the source of their sacred joy, so I comb these poems carefully, which is how I discovered Rabi’a al-Basra, following the words of an affecting poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, “I Have Five Things to Say,”
The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,
“You are the sky my spirit circles in,
the love inside of love, the resurrection-place.
Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
with longing for your listening silence,
and your life-quickening smile.
You give attention to the smallest matters,
my suspicious doubts, and to the greatest.
You know my coins are counterfeit,
but you accept them anyway,
my impudence and my pretending!
I have five things to say,
five fingers to give
into your grace.
First, when I was apart from you,
this world did not exist,
nor any other.
Second, whatever I was looking for
was always you.
Third, why did I ever learn to count to three?
Fourth, my cornfield is burning!
Fifth, this finger stands for Rabia,
and this is for someone else.
Is there a difference?
Are these words or tears?
Is weeping speech?
What shall I do, my love?”
So he speaks, and everyone around
begins to cry with him, laughing crazily,
moaning in the spreading union
of lover and beloved.
This is the true religion. All others
are thrown-away bandages beside it.
This is the sema of slavery and mastery
dancing together. This is not-being.
Neither words, nor any natural fact
can express this.
I know these dancers.
Day and night I sing their songs
in this phenomenal cage.
My soul, don’t try to answer now!
Find a friend, and hide.
But what can stay hidden?
Love’s secret is always lifting its head
out from under the covers,
“Here I am!”
Here I am, indeed! Rumi invokes and echoes the secrets shared by Rabi’a al-Basri, elaborating upon it without ornamentation, revealing that divine love can be gleaned from human moments, within and without our time. With Rabi’a, what she has imparted has been received this far in the future, and yet she is just like anyone you would know and probably do, and perhaps a lot like yourself.
I was further curious about the concept of “sema” and learned that it is a ceremony which signifies the mystic’s journey toward spiritual perfection, practiced through contemplation on or participation in music, prayer, dancing, spinning, poetry, wearing symbolic attire, and even erotic activities, whatever allows one to meditate on God (absolute excellence), and in this trance-like state reveal what is already in one’s heart, rather than create emotions. When all doubt disappears, the heart can communicate directly with God, or approach a state of spiritual drunkenness and gain mystical universal insights, whereby one can live in concert with absolute excellence and can better serve all creation. The sema serves as a literary device of sorts, a passion by which one can catalyze their union towards perfection.
Sema for Rabi’a al-Basri was living, synonymous with praying, expanding her presence which as magnificent to behold. As described by Sufi leader Hasan al-Basri, “I passed one whole night and day with Rabi’a … it never passed through my mind that I was a man nor did it occur to her that she was a woman…when I looked at her I saw myself as bankrupt [i.e. as spiritually worth nothing] and Rabi’a as truly sincere [rich in spiritual virtue].” (Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University.) This is a brightly colored statement, because its an early attribution which equally elevates the spirit of man & woman from the gravity of gender in a rigidly-binary patriarchal society.
In another example which defies attitudes of gender in context of Arab culture, then and now, the Rajneesh-guru Osho shares an anecdote of Rabi’a al-Basri which speaks to her presence as a priestess-prostitute and attempts to describe what she could communicate at a glance. To the question, “if truth cannot be expressed in words, then why have all the buddhas used words?” Osho answered with this parable:
The great mystic, Rabia of Basra, was immensely beautiful. And a beauty not of this world. Once a rich young man from Iran comes to Basra. He asks people, “Is there anything that is out of the way, something special here?”
“Yes,” they all tell him. “We have the most beautiful woman of the world!”
The young man naturally becomes interested and he asks, “Where can I find her?”
And they all laugh and say, “Well, where else?… in a brothel!”
That repulses the rich young man, but finally he decides to go. And when he gets there, the matron asks for an exorbitant fee. He pays the fee and is ushered in. There, in a silent and simple room, a figure is praying. What beauty she has! He has never seen such beauty and grace, not even in his dreams. Just to be there is a benediction, and the prayerful atmosphere starts affecting him. He forgets about his passion. He is entering into another kind of space. He is drugged. He is turned on to God.
An hour passes and he intensely feels he is in a temple! Oh, such joy and such purity! He goes on feasting on her beauty. But it is no more the beauty of a human being – it is God’s beauty. It no more has anything to do with the body – it is utterly other-worldly.
And then Rabia opens her eyes, those lotus eyes, and he looks into them, and there is no woman in front of him – he is facing God. And this way the whole night passes, as if it were only a moment.
The sun is rising and its rays are coming through the windows, and he feels it is time to go. He says to Rabia, “I am your slave. Tell me anything, anything in the world that I can do for you.”
She says, “I have only one little request.”
He asks, “What is it?”
Rabia says, “Never tell anybody what you have seen and experienced here. Allow the people to come to me – this beauty is nothing but a trap set for them. I use it as a door for them to enter God. Please, promise me that you will never tell others what you have experienced here tonight. Let them come to a whore and a brothel, because otherwise they will never come to me.”
“Oh!” he says, “So this is the secret of this city. The whole city clamours after your beauty, yet nobody tells me about his experience.”
Rabia laughs and says, “Yes, I extract the promise, this promise, from all of them.”
Rabia used her beauty as a trap. Buddha used his words as a trap. Krishna used his flute as a trap. Meera used her dance as a trap.
You have to be trapped. And you can only be trapped in ways that you can understand. You have to be taken from the known into the unknown, but the beginning has to be in the known.
You understand passion. The young man was not in search of God, but he became interested in a beautiful body, in a beautiful woman – and was trapped. He had gone there because of his passion. Once he was there in the presence of Rabia, the passion started changing – it became prayer.
You can understand words, that’s why all the Buddhas have used words, knowing perfectly well, saying again and again, that the truth cannot be expressed in words. But you understand words and the truth cannot be expressed in words, then how to communicate? The journey has to start from where you are. The Buddhas have to speak words. Words will bring you closer to the Buddhas; words will not give you truth, but they will bring you closer to the Buddhas. Once you are close to them, you will start forgetting the words; you will start falling into silence.
The words cannot express truth, but they can bring you close to a Buddha. And that is more than you can expect of poor words! That’s why Buddhas go on saying on the one hand words are meaningless, on the other hand they go on using words.
They are meaningful for you – you don’t know the language of silence, you don’t know the language of being. You know only your mind; you have forgotten all else. If I am to bring you out of your mind, I will have to start from the mind, I will have to take your mind in confidence – then only the pilgrimage towards no-mind…. (Osho. Walk Without Feet, Fly Without Wings and Think Without Mind. Ch 8)
I have to admit that this perspective is pretty dope – this sphere beyond words has been my quiet focus for a while – but let’s examine this story just a little bit more before we get beyond words completely. This is a typical example of a story of ‘the mystical feminine’, a male-written formulaic narrative that superimposes the Madonna/whore archetypes over any woman’s actual personality; while at the same time, romanticizing prostitution in a culture and era wherein protections for sex-workers were practically nonexistent. Or at least obstructing the full truth through omission. To more closely consider the conditions of prostitution & sex-work in modern-day Iraq, look to Rania Abouzeid’s article in the New Yorker, ‘Out of Sight: a former prostitute tries to rescue Iraq’s most vulnerable women’ (2015), “On the morning of July 13, 2014, the bullet-ridden bodies of twenty-eight women and five men were retrieved from two apartments, said to be brothels, in a building complex in Zayouna, a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. I saw the bodies a few hours later, at the city morgue, laid out on the floor. Morgue workers blamed the religious militias…” That’s a stark contrast from the images Osho’s story shares. How much better or worse would conditions for sex-workers in Iraq in 740 A.D. be? We can try to move beyond the horror of these words by rationalizing the context, or accept the reality and understand the lies perpetuated by narrative. Keep it clear in our minds. Someone is always making a case.
Despite its patriarchal hindrances, this story does point to a truth beyond words, and it is rare to encounter a religious narrative wherein raw feminine, sexual prowess is the doorway to a holy experience, wherein one accesses divine love. This is a truth which surprises what I know of modern Islamic social attitudes regarding women and erotic expression. This is a scene wherein a rich and powerful man is compelled to submit his will to a feminine superior. Rabi’a appears so collected, so calmly and confidently commanding, a true demi-Goddess in herself, and that perhaps this is the greatness that is Allah. The story emphasizes that this insight of spiritual rapture is not to be advertised, for a little bit of the mystery must be maintained so that others can be naturally drawn in. Surely, this truth is not just a a prize for capitalist elite, as the exorbitant fee from the story suggests, but rather it is beyond the highest value of what men can pay. Symbols of value in this world are forfeit, and conventional wisdom is lost in the light of what a woman can reveal through her passion.