Rabi'a Adawiya, the Sufi mystic behind the mosque

It is one year ago today that Egyptian forces stormed the square in Cairo where thousands of supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, were protesting against his overthrow by the military. Protestors had occupied the space outside Rabi'a Al-Adawiyya mosque for six weeks.

Police officers and soldiers fired tear gas at children and shot protestors in the head and chest. The ground glistened with blood. Many of the corpses were black because Egyptians burnt to death when their tents were set on fire. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, 638 were killed. A report published on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch says 1,000 or more people died that day.

Two months after the carnage Egyptian Kung Fu champion Mohammed Youssef stepped up to receive his gold medal at the World Championship in Russia and held up the Rabi'a salute. The four-fingered sign, made by placing the thumb on the palm of the hand, was raised by many sports stars across the world in protest against the tragic events of 14 August 2013.

The salute was circulated widely on social media, yet the massacre itself remained largely absent from newspapers and televisions across the world: "It was a massacre that not only saw the world at large silent, but also the mainstream media. Their deafening silence is further amplified when we acknowledge in whose name the mosque was honoured," Dr Mamadou Bocoum, a specialist in Islamic studies, told MEMO.

The mosque was named after the Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi'a Al-Adawiyya. Today her name evokes images of the bloody fighting of that day, yet centuries ago she taught that a relationship with God should be out of love, not fear. It is ironic, then, that her mosque was burnt with hatred and terror last year.

Born in Basra in 717 CE she was given her name because she was the fourth child in her family. Rabi'a means four in Arabic, which also explains the inspiration for the four-fingered resistance salute. Born into poverty she was later sold into slavery before becoming the leading mystic of her generation.

"Her legacy includes the concept of Divine Love within Islamic mysticism, or what leading theologian Margaret Smith defines for western audiences as 'Unconditional Love.' Rabi'a is also described as the carrier of 'love and its unquenchable flames', making the massacre at her mosque all the more tragic in the face of such an antithetical legacy," says Bocoum who is currently writing a play featuring the mystic.

Rabi'a lived under the Umayyad dynasty, whose rapid expansion meant treasures, riches, opulence and debauchery. Territories and people under their rule followed the examples of whom they believed to be their anointed leaders, says Bocoum. Many people lost their faith; religion was neglected and for some God was forgotten, if not abandoned.

"It was within this time Rabi'a emerged, lamenting the world to return to God, and cautioning society of the charms and riches of the material world. Rabi'a 'spoke out more boldly than her predecessors, urging people to surrender the existence of their lower self to Allah with a directness that knew no compromise.'"

In her most famous words, Rabi'a shares: O God! If I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own, withhold not Thine Everlasting Beauty!"

"Rabi'a is not only a symbol of love and devotion to God," explains Bocoum, "but also a symbol of resistance against corrupt systems and rulers looking to "interrupt" God's Grace to the world. Hence the event of the 14 August at her mosque has served to revive her words and clarify her example for a modern generation emerging out of a despotic rule."

Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, who was in charge of security forces that broke up the protests last year, is now President of Egypt thanks to his role in ousting Morsi. Since he has taken charge of the country his administration has detained, tortured and sentenced to death thousands who oppose his rule yet failed to investigate police and soldiers who carried out the killings in Rabi'a.

"The Egyptian government not only denies atrocities it inflicts upon its people," says Bocoum, "it also punishes those who remind themselves and others of the heinous crime inflicted upon them, such as the one that took place in Rabi'a's mosque. The then Egyptian sports minister stated that the four-fingered sign is a "grave insult" to the Egyptian people. Yes an insult, but only to the perpetrators of the massacre and to those who remain silent about it."

Upon hearing the words of her contemporary, a Sufi master who preached to his people that: "He who persists in knocking at the door [of heaven] will have it opened for him," Rabi'a screamed, "The door is already wide open! The question is: who wishes to enter it?"

Egyptians have already sacrificed so much in the name of freedom. How much further do they have to push before they get the rights they deserve?

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor