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The following story is quoted in many websites and books. Some say that it is authentic, some say it is not.

  1. Is there a definite conclusion as to its authenticity?
  2. Are there books in English where such stories of great past scholars are presented as a collection?

Imam Abu Haneefa’s (RA) student, Abdullah Ibn Mubaarak (RA) was travelling from Makkah to Medinah, when he came across a woman in the midst of a desert. What happens next is for all to remember. The scholars have concluded that the knowledgeable woman was either Raabiyah Basri or Umme Yahya (RA). NOTE: Every sentence said by the lady Raabiyah Basri is from the Holy Qur’aan.

Abdullah: Assalaamu Alaikum Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): A word from a Merciful; Lord is: ‘Peace’.(36:58)

Abdullah: May Allah’s blessing be upon you! What are you doing here? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Those whom Allah sends astray, there is no guide for them.(7:186)

Abdullah: (Thinking she has lost her way). In which direction are you travelling? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): Glory to Him (Allah) who carried His servant by night from Masjid Haraam to the far distant place of worship (Masjid Aqsa).(17:01)

Abdullah: (Concluding that people returning from Hajj travel to baitul Maqdis.) For how long have you remained here? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): For three whole nights.(19:10)

Abdullah: (Astonished) But how have you been surviving when you have neither food nor drink? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):He is the Being Who feeds me and gives me drink.(26:79)

Abdullah: But if you have no water how have you been making Ablution? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):And if you find no water then take for yourselves clean earth.(4:43)

Abdullah: Listen, I have food with me. Would you like to eat now? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Complete your fast till night.(2:187)

Abdullah: But why are you fasting? When surely this is not the month of Ramadan. Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): He who does good with his own free will; it is better for him. For Surely Allah is the most Grateful and the all Knowing.(2:158)

Abdullah: However it has been excused for muslims not to fast whilst travelling? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): And if you fast it is better for you. If only you know. (2:184)

Abdullah: (In frustration) why do you speak Quranic verses only, why do you not speak my language? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): He utters no word but there is with him an observer.(Meaning the Angels who take account of our deeds)(50:18)

Abdullah: What tribe so you come from? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya): And follow not of that which you have no knowledge.(17:36)

Abdullah: (Ashamed, pleadingly). Please forgive me, yet again I have been proven wrong. Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):(Forgivingly) Have no fear for this day.(12:92)

Abdullah: Come ride upon my camel and I shall take you safely to your destination. Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):And what so ever good you do, Allah knows.(2:197)

Having reared the camel to crouch down, he then indicated Raabiyah (RA) to climb onto the camel.

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and be modest.(24:30)

After lowering his gaze, Abdullah (RA) told her to climb upon the camel. Just as Raabiyah (Umme Yahya) began to climb on, the camel moved forward which caused her shawl to unravel somewhat to which she said: It is because of the things your hands have earned.(42:30)

Abdullah: Wait; let me first tie the camel down, so that it may stay still for when you climb upon it. Raabiyah(Umme Yahya) :And we have made Suleiman (AS) understanding (the case)(21:79)

After tying the camel down once again, Abdullah (RA) told Raabiyah (RA) to climb onto the camel. Whilst climbing Raabiyah began to praise Allah:

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Glory be to Him who has subjected this for our use for we could never have accomplished this (by ourselves)(43:13)

Abdullah (RA) whilst holding onto the rope of the camel began praying loudly and also quickened his voice. Seeing this Raabiyah (RA) once again stated another verse.

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice.(31:19)

Abdullah: Allah had granted you with many rewards. Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):But none will grasp the message apart from men of understanding.(3:07)

Abdullah: Do you have a companion, a husband? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):O’ you, who believe, ask not questions about such things that if made clear to you, may cause trouble.(5:101)

After hearing this, Abdullah (RA) remained silent until he approached a group of people. (Upon arrival)

Abdullah: What family do you have amongst this tribe? Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Wealth and sons are an ornament of the life of this world.(18:46)

Abdullah (RA) realized that she had sons within the tribe. He then asked for her address.

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):And marks and signposts and by the stars (men) guide themselves. (16:16)

Abdullah held on to the lead of the camel and began to circulate amongst the tents asking whether she recognized her tent. When passing one particular tent, she called out:

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):And Allah did take Ibrahim as an intimate friend.(4:125) And Allah spoke directly to Moosa.(4:164) O’ Yahya hold fast onto the scripture.(19:12)

Abdullah now knew that she had three sons, Moosa Yahya and Ibrahim, so raising his voice; he began to call for the three. No sooner had the words left his mouth that three handsome young men came running upon hearing their names being called out. Seeing their mother, they lowered her from the camel and began a conversation with Abdullah (RA).

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Now send one of you with this silver coin into the city, and let him see what food is purest there and bring a supply thereof.(18:19)

As soon as hearing this, one son hurried away, only to return with some food which he put in front of Abdullah (RA)…

Raabiyah(Umme Yahya):Eat and drink with ease for that which you sent on before you, in pass days.(69:24)

Abdullah (RA) became fully aware of Raabiyah’s (RA) piety and great ability in understanding the Holy Qur’aan. From the beginning to the end of the journey, she had answered from the Holy Qur’aan, not once speaking her own language. He cried out in panic to her sons, “I swear not to touch this food until I have been told who this pious women is” Astonished by Abdullah’s (RA) outcry, her sons answered, “We haven’t any reasons not to tell you. She is our mother who has for the last forty years only spoke from the holy Qur’aan, using Quranic verse, so that on the Day of Judgement, she will not have to answer for any sins committed by her tongue.”

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The story as you stated can hardly be found without some deviations (it is also considered as inauthentic, beside the fact that using the Qur'an in usual speech is at least frowned upon -by sunni scholars-). I've heard it quoted by sheikh Kishk in one of his recorded sermons, maybe in exactly the same wording.

Here some findings:

  • A similar story appears in ibn Hebbans rwadat al-'Uqala' wa Nuzhat al-Fudala' روضة العقلاء ونزهة الفضلاء (pages 40-41) as a story that happened to al-Asma'i الأصمعي, ibn Hebban has compiled it with a narrator chain which has a narrator (Muhammad ibn Zakaria al-Ghulaabi محمد بن زكريا الغلابي) who is considered as very weak and a fabricator (even by ibn Hebban himself) therefore this story seems hardly authentic. In this story al-Asma'i was only in the countryside and the women answered his second question (he asked her whether she lost her way?) by verse (21:79)

    And We gave understanding of the case to Solomon, and to each [of them] We gave judgement and knowledge. ...

    Another deviation in the story line is that one of al-Asma'i's companions said: She might be from among the Khwawrij.
    Which the woman answered by the quote of verse (17:36). The final deviation is that the after she meets her family and recites verse (18:19) they informed al-Asma'i that she didn't speak any word except the Qur'an for 40 years fearing to tell lies. He then asks her to give him advice and she tells him:

    "I do not ask you for this message any payment [but] only good will through kinship." (42:23)

    Whish leads al-Asma'i to the conclusion that she was a shi'i woman. The name of the woman was not mentioned in this story at all.

  • In a rather modern book called Kifayat al-Atqiya' wa Minhaaj al-Asfiyaa' sharh Hidayat al-Adhkiyaa' ila Tariqi al-Awliyaa' كفاية الأتقياء ومنهاج الأصفياء شرح هداية الأذكياء إلى طريق الأولياء (pages 121-123) by the Author Abu Bakr Muhammad Shata al-Milyaari (also known as as-Sayyid Bakri) أبي بكر محمد شطا المليباري/السيد بكري‎ the story is quoted (without any narrator chain) as a story that happened to imam ibn al-Mubarak and even here there are deviations.
    The story is used as further explanation of the verse 89 of the poem (Hidayat al-Adhkiyaa' ila Tariqi al-Awliyaa') the author is commenting and explaining.

  • In fact I found your story mentioned in a lot of internet forums, but those who quoted a reference were other posters who refered it to the story compiled by ibn Hebban.

Note that sheikh ibn 'Othymeen said: it is haram to use the Qur'an instead of the usual speech and commented on this story that if this woman was afraid to make a mistake by not speaking except the Qur'an, she in fact has mistaken, it is nevertheless fine to use the Qur'an as an evidence for a story that happened.

Some other sources islamway. Here one out of many Arabic forum posts with apparently exatly the same story as yours.

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