‘Reality’ 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?

Rabia al-Basri lived in the 8th century in Basra, Iraq, and is generally considered to be the first female Sufi saint. There are many fascinating myths surrounding her life, though there doesn’t seem to be any definitive story for her. What does seem sure is that she never married, and that she instead devoted her entire existence to God, surrounded by some very faithful disciples.

To me, the first line of this poem really communicates what I understand to be the essence of mystical Islam: “In love, nothing exists between heart and heart”. Here, we find the idea of there being no reality but God: God is omnipresent. God and man — God and all of creation — are one. It is easy to understand this if you have ever been in love.

All of this puts me in mind of the Sufi practice of Silent Dhikr. Silent Dhikr is a form of meditation; it is the constant prayer of the Sufis. It literally means ‘remembrance of God’. The prayer consists of contemplation of the First Kalima, which is heard in the Islamic call to prayer:

La Illaha, Il Allahu.

I only know a few words in Arabic, and so my understanding of this vital phrase comes from books on Sufism that I have read. The traditional translation of this phrase is “There is no God but God”, which is fairly straightforward. However, other translations (which I prefer) are “There is no reality but God” and “The ‘I’ is an illusion; God alone is real”. What a beautiful, far-reaching mantra on which to meditate.

I love the part of this poem that says, “The one who tastes, knows;/ the one who explains, lies”. Surely knowledge of God is something that one cannot employ reason to attain. As Keats said of poetry, it is “an experience beyond thought.”

Next, Basri beautifully illustrates an important spiritual paradox: God is one “in whose presence you are blotted out” and yet “in whose being you still exist”. This is a wonderful poetic expression of the experience of Divine Love. One is annihilated by God — one’s ego dissolves in his presence — and yet one’s entire existence is only in Him. It is a peculiar and (I think) eternally fascinating paradox. It reminds me of something the Prophet Mohammed said: “Die before you die”.

In my opinion, Rabia al-Basri had an incredible gift to be able to express such elusive, intangible truths in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh