Of Torch and Water

I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.  Rabia Al-Basri

The profound Sufi Saint, Rabia Al-Basri lived in Basra in the 8th century. Separated from her family during a famine, she was sold by robbers as a slave. As stated in many essays about her, she attained a “spontaneous self realisation” and formed an intimate relationship with God, her beloved. Rabia learnt about God through hardship as a slave – her thesis was one of love.

Legend has it that her master saw her in devotion after a hard days work. As he stood spying on her, he witnessed a divine light surrounding her. The impact of the scene prompted him to free her, where upon she took to the desert and spent her life in the devotion of God. Rabia collected a number of followers and was often challenged or in conversation with ‘men of learning’. Her sole possessions were a mat used both for sleeping and praying, a brick to use as a pillow and a jug to carry water.

The Torch and Water

As time passed, Rabia became a well known figure in Basra. The Sufi poet, Attar is attributed as her biographer and penning her many poems, although she never wrote any down herself. There are numerous stories about her, but the torch and water are legendry –a lesson for any for the greed of paradise or for the coward heart for the fear of hell. Holding a torch in one hand a bucket of water in the other, she ran through the city of Basra. When she was stopped and asked what she was doing, she replied:

“I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God”.

One of the first Saints in Islam to propagate God as pure love and defining the doctrine on mystical love for Sufi’s throughout the Islamic world thereafter, Rabia’s legacy is becoming an important tool to help bring balance in present day Islam. Rabia’s quest was not of what is God, (The word Allah in Arabic is used generically in Christianity and Judaism and is not the domain of Islam alone), for she had this knowledge, her quest was to be with her beloved that is God. After “realising” God, Sheikh Hasan al-Basri is reported to have asked her how she came to know of the secret, she replied that:

“You know of the how, but I know of the how-less”.

Her definition of God spells out clearly that God is supreme and therefore not dysfunctional and doesn’t possess attributes such as anger. God is pure love and salvation for humanity is in pure love. Since Saints historically are forbidden in orthodox Islam and only marginally accepted, particularly amongst the Sunni, the tolerance of 8th century Iraq would have difficulty in sustaining itself in the midst of the masculine reactionary right-wing forces that are forging the future for Islam in the 21st century. Would they heed Rabia’s prayers today as they were often about eliminating the fear within of God?

 “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.”

Selection of poems by Rabia Al-Basri:

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?

My Beloved
My peace, O my brothers and sisters, is my solitude,
And my Beloved is with me always,
For His love I can find no substitute,
And His love is the test for me among mortal beings,
Whenever His Beauty I may contemplate,
He is my “mihrab”, towards Him is my “qiblah”
If I die of love, before completing satisfaction,
Alas, for my anxiety in the world, alas for my distress,
O Healer (of souls) the heart feeds upon its desire,
The striving after union with Thee has healed my soul,
O my Joy and my Life abidingly,
You were the source of my life and from Thee also came my ecstasy.
I have separated myself from all created beings,
My hope is for union with Thee, for that is the goal of my desire.
My Greatest Need is You
Your hope in my heart is the rarest treasure
Your Name on my tongue is the sweetest word
My choicest hours
Are the hours I spend with You —
O Allah, I can’t live in this world
Without remembering You–
How can I endure the next world
Without seeing Your face?
I am a stranger in Your country
And lonely among Your worshippers:
This is the substance of my complaint

Dream Fable
I saw myself in a wide green garden, more beautiful than I could begin to understand. In this garden was a young girl. I said to her, “How wonderful this place is!”

“Would you like to see a place even more wonderful than this?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” I answered. Then taking me by the hand, she led me on until we came to a magnificent palace, like nothing that was ever seen by human eyes. The young girl knocked on the door, and someone opened it. Immediately both of us were flooded with light.

Only Allah knows the inner meaning of the maidens we saw living there. Each one carried in her hand a serving-tray filled with light. The young girl asked the maidens where they were going, and they answered her, “We are looking for someone who was drowned in the sea, and so became a martyr. She never slept at night, not one wink! We are going to rub funeral spices on her body.”

“Then rub some on my friend here,” the young girl said.

“Once upon a time,” said the maidens, “part of this spice and the fragrance of it clung to her body — but then she shied away.”

Quickly the young girl let go of my hand, turned, and said to me:

“Your prayers are your light;
Your devotion is your strength;
Sleep is the enemy of both.
Your life is the only opportunity that life can give you.
If you ignore it, if you waste it,
You will only turn to dust.”

Then the young girl disappeared.


2 Responses to “Of Torch and Water”

  1. Blood-Ink-Diary Says:

    What a beautiful post ! I was searching for material on Hazrat Rabia Al-Basri and came across your blog. This is the Islam the West needs to grasp, rather than tainted notions propagated by sensationalism in journalistic reporting.
    Thank you for this superb post ! Shall visit you again. Cheers.

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