When the words mystic and love show up in the same sentence, Rumi usually comes to mind. But let’s travel back 500 years before Rumi’s birth to meet Rabia Basri (Rabia al-Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya 717-801 CE) a Sufi mystic poet who inspired his writing. We can’t presume to know exactly what it was about Rabia’s writing that caught Rumi’s eye. It could have been the fact that Rabia was female, courageous and quite eccentric, but it’s far more likely it was her radical view of love.
What made Rabia unusual? Although her name sounds beautiful to our ears, she was not so much named as numbered. Rabia literally means ‘fourth’ and designated her place as the fourth daughter in her family. It is said that her family, like many others, was very poor. Some tales say that her family became so desperate, they sold her into slavery. Others say that she left her home in Basra, Iraq when a famine hit. When the caravan she was travelling with was attacked by robbers, she was stolen and sold to a brothel. Regardless of which story is true, the slavery of her body did little to dampen the spiritual fire blazing in in her heart.
When Rabia was about fifty years old, a wealthy man bought her freedom. One story tells us that Rabia’s patron was well aware of her love for the Divine. When he offered her the choice of marriage and a fine house or freedom to follow her spiritual longings, he was not surprised that she chose freedom. Although her fame grew and many students and renowned religious leaders were drawn to her, she remained an outspoken advocate of love without fear or the need for hope. And it is this teaching that made her unusual.
Like most of us, Rabia had been taught that God was to be feared. Religious leaders referred to their sacred books, but Rabia, who had experienced the Divine directly, said, “Until we know that God lives in us and we can see Him there, a great poverty we suffer…When I entered God, my vision became like His, it flooded out over existence. I knew no limits.” From that time on, she taught that God was not to be worshiped because of the fear of punishment in hell or the hope for a heavenly reward, but for love alone. Through experience she knew the Divine was nothing but love, and that everything in existence is One with that Divine love. Sharing her experience, she said, “I saw that the divine beauty in each heart is the root of all time and space.” She taught that love is what the Divine is, what the Divine gives, and what we were created to share.
Like Jesus’ teachings on love, Rabia’s words were revolutionary for their time, and are equally relevant today. One story tells us that a visiting Sufi wanted to read from Rabia’s Koran, but was shocked to see that many of the verses had been altered. When the incensed visitor asked what had happened, Rabia explained that after she had experienced the Divine, she had to remove the words and verses that were not truthful. Although the visitor was furious over the sacrilege she had supposedly committed, Rabia retorted that the Divine was nothing but love, and that her own love had grown to the point that there was no longer room for hate, fear or even hope.
Another story tells of Rabia running through the streets with a torch in one hand and a bucket in the other. When asked what she was doing, she replied that the bucket was to put out the fires of hell, and she would use the torch to burn out the hope of paradise. While many around her continued to believe that the things outside them could make them happy, Rabia remained joyful for a very different reason, saying, “My Beloved is always with me.”
Once, when Rabia was asked for the secret of her understanding, she explained, “You know of the how, but I know of the how-less.” Instead of relying on the ‘how’ of religion, Rabia let go of her conditioning and preconceived notions so the Divine could instruct her firsthand. She made it clear that it was her direct, loving relationship with Source that was of paramount importance when she said, “In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church that dissolve, that dissolve in God.”
We can all be grateful that Rumi saw what Rabia was pointing to, experienced Source for himself, and also testified to the fact that Source is love. But as Rumi said, “Don’t pretend to know something you haven’t experienced.” This Rumi quote is doubtless the most important sentence in this article. You can’t begin to know what love is until you’ve experienced the Divine. Let go of everything that is not love and cultivate a willingness to let the Divine instruct you directly and personally. Then you too can be a ‘love mystic.’
Love is beyond any condition. Love is fearless in the midst of the sea of fear. Love is the energizing elixir of the Universe, the cause and effect of all harmonies. Love said to me, “There is nothing that is not me. Be silent.” –Rumi