She was born between 95 and 99 Hijri in Basra, Iraq. Much of her early life is narrated by Farid al-Din Attar. Many spiritual stories are associated with her and it is sometimes difficult to separate reality from legend. These traditions come from Farid al-Din Attar, a later sufi saint and poet, who used earlier sources. Rabia herself did not leave any written works.
She was the fourth daughter of her family and therefore named Rabia, meaning "fourth". She was born free in a poor but respected family.
According to Farid al-Din Attar, Rabia's parents were so poor that there was no oil in house to light a lamp, nor a cloth even to wrap her with. Her mother asked her husband to borrow some oil from a neighbor, but he had resolved in his life never to ask for anything from anyone except the Creator. He pretended to go to the neighbor's door and returned home empty-handed.
In the night Prophet appeared to him in a dream and told him, "Your newly born daughter is a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many Muslims to the right path. You should approach the Amir of Basra and present him with a letter in which should be written this message: 'You offer Durood to the Holy Prophet one hundred times every night and four hundred times every Thursday night. However, since you failed to observe the rule last Thursday, as a penalty you must pay the bearer four hundred dinars '.
Rabia's father got up and went straight to the Amir with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. The Amir was delighted on receiving the message, knowing that he was in the eyes of Prophet. He distributed 1000 dinars to the poor and joyously paid 400 dinars to Rabia's father. The Amir then asked Rabia's father to come to him whenever he required anything, as the Amir would benefit very much by the visit of such a soul dear to the Lord.
After the death of her father a famine overtook Basra and Rabia parted from her sisters. Legend has it that she was accompanying a caravan, which fell into the hands of robbers. The chief of the robbers took Rabia captive, and sold her in the market as a slave. The new master of Rabia used to take hard service from her.
She would pass the whole night in prayer, after she had finished her household jobs. She spent many of her days observing fast.
Once the master of the house got up in the middle of the night, and was attracted by the pathetic voice in which Rabia was praying to her Lord. She was entreating in these terms:
"Lord! You know well that my keen desire is to carry out Your commandments and to serve Thee with all my heart, O light of my eyes. If I were free I would pass the whole day and night in prayers. But what should I do when you have made me a slave of a human being?"
At once the master felt that it was sacrilegious to keep such a saint in his service. He decided to serve her instead. In the morning he called her and told her his decision; he would serve her and she should dwell there as the mistress of the house. If she insisted on leaving the house he was willing to free her from bondage.
She told him that she was willing to leave the house to carry on her worship in solitude. This the master granted and she left the house.
Throughout her life, her Love of God, poverty and self-denial did not waver. They were her constant companions. She did not possess much other than a broken jug, a rush mat and a brick, which she used as a pillow. She spent all night in prayer and contemplation, chiding herself if she slept because it took her away from her active Love of God.
As her fame grew she had many disciples. She also had discussions with many of the renowned religious people of her time. Though she had many offers of marriage, and (tradition has it) one even from the Amir of Basra, she refused them as she had no time in her life for anything other than God.
More interesting than her absolute asceticism, however, is the actual concept of Divine Love that Rabia introduced. She was the first to introduce the idea that God should be loved for God's own sake, not out of fear -- as earlier Sufis had done.
She taught that repentance was a gift from God because no one could repent unless God had already accepted him and given him this gift of repentance. She taught that sinners must fear the punishment they deserved for their sins, but she also offered such sinners far more hope of Paradise than most other ascetics did. For herself, she held to a higher ideal, worshipping God neither from fear of Hell nor from hope of Paradise, for she saw such self-interest as unworthy of God's servants; emotions like fear and hope were like veils -- i.e. hindrances to the vision of God Himself.
"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.”
Rabia was in her early to mid eighties when she died, having followed the mystic Way to the end. She believed she was continually united with her Beloved. As she told her Sufi friends, "My Beloved is always with me"
Much of the poetry that is attributed to her is of unknown origin. After a life of hardship she spontaneously achieved a state of self-realization. When asked by Sheikh Hasan al-Basri how she discovered the secret, she responded by stating:
"You know of the how, but I know of the how-less."
One of the many myths that swirl around her life is that she was freed from slavery because her master saw her praying while surrounded by light, realized that she was a saint and feared for his life if he continued to keep her as a slave.
While she apparently received many marriage offers (including a proposal from Hasan al-Basri himself), she remained celibate and died of old age, an ascetic, her only care from the disciples who followed her. She was the first in a long line of female Sufi mystics.