Translator's notes

Lines after Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī

By Rābiʿah al-Basrī

Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī was an eighth-century Su mystic. Tradition has it that her caravan fell into the hands of robbers, who made her into a slave. She would perform her arduous tasks and then stay awake all night in prayer, and her master – on witnessing this – realized it was sacrilegious to keep her as his servant, and set her free. A er this she became an ascetic, whose only possessions were a broken jug, a rush mat, and a brick she used as a pillow. She turned down numerous marriage o ers, instead becoming a respected teacher with many disciples. Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī is considered the rst Su to have set down the doctrine of Divine Love.

I discovered a handful of her poems last year in the excellent Islamic Mystic Poetry (ed. Mahmood Jamal). I found them really compelling in their razor-sharp purity – my rst thought was of Sappho or Emily Dickinson. And so, as usual these days, I began
to trawl internet bookshops and blogs looking for more. Although she is highly respected in the Islamic world (she’s apparently been the subject of several movies in Turkey) the only other things
that I could nd in English were fragments – random quotations, unaccredited (Google?) translations on new-age sites, etc. It soon became clear that she wrote nothing down, so all lines a ributed to her are fragmentary and doubtful anyway, but many of the scraps still contained something so interesting that I collated them, and started work on these new versions. They reveal a side of Islamic culture very di erent to that portrayed by the western media – Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī was a revered female philosopher and saint who, in direct contrast to fundamentalists, questioned everything.

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