It was in my copy of Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and Westthat I first came across Rabia of Basra (or Rabi’a al-Adawiyya al-Qaysiyy).

Rabia’s tale is one of the most heart-breaking and compelling stories I’ve heard in a long, long time.

Rabia lived during the 8th century in ancient Iraq. She was the youngest of 4 daughters in a very poor, but respectable family. As a young girl her father died, and eventually Rabia was not only separated from her parents but her sisters as well.

She was left wandering and vulnerable.

Known to possess captivating beauty, some biographers tell that Rabia was captured and sold at a considerably high price as a sex slave to one of the most famous brothels of her day. There she was imprisoned until she was nearly 50 years old. 

Reflecting on the torment of her trafficking and sexual slavery she wrote,

 “What a place for trials and transformation did my Lover put me, but never once did He look upon me as if I were impure. Dear sisters, all we do in this world, whatever happens, is bringing us closer to God.”

Her poems are simple, her prayers moving, her life recognized as a saint in the Sufi tradition. Rabia spent her life suffering as a contemplative mystic, faithful to her faith through the exploitation of her sexuality.

In the introduction to her section of poems in the book, the translator Daniel Ladinsky concludes with this quote from her writings, 

“Show me where it hurts, God said, and every cell in my body burst into tears before His tender eyes. He has repaid me though for all my suffering in a way I never wanted: The sun is now in homage to my face, because it knows I have seen God. But that was not His payment. The soul cannot describe His gift. I just spoke about the sun like that because I like beautiful words, and because it’s true: Creation is in homage to us.”

May Rabia’s courage, faith, and resilience challenge us in this new year; through her example may we throw ourselves at the audacity of hope in the face of adversity; and in the spirit of Rabia let us find hints of the Divine in even the most difficult of situations.