With the help of Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, as well as the research team (Tawwaba Samia Bloch) working on the biography of Murshid Samuel Lewis, Jennifer Alia Wittman and I were finally able to locate the cemetery where Murshida Rabia Ada Martin (1871-1947), the first American Sufi and murshida, is interred.
Born in San Francisco in 1871 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ada married David Martin at the age of 19. After a period of struggle, she began to study various religions and esoteric paths. In 1911, she attended a talk by the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), then touring the United States for the first time at the Vedanta Society in San Francisco. She knew at once that she had found her path and her teacher. She wrote to him immediately and it was confirmed for him in a vision that she would become his first murid. She then traveled to Seattle where she was initiated and given the name, Rabia. Thereafter, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan guided her on both the inner and outer planes, and eventually recognized her as the first murshida, ‘guide’ or leader, within the newly formed universalist lineage of Inayati Sufism. She established the first American community of Sufis in the Bay Area, and the first khankah or center in Fairfax, California. Among her murids were Murshid Samuel Lewis (1896-1971) and Murshida Vera Corda (1913-2002). She passed away in San Francisco in 1947.
For various reasons, Murshida Rabia Martin’s place in early American Sufism has been, for many years, overshadowed by the success of later teachers, and her burial place forgotten by most Sufis. However, several years ago, while walking and saying dhikr in a park near my home, I had an experience in which I felt Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan was telling me that Murshid Rabia had been too long forgotten, and that it was time to reclaim her for the lineage as a true murshida within it. I felt immediately that I should find her burial place. It was then that I began to look for clues about where she was buried. But, to my surprise, no one seemed to know. All I could find were smallish pieces of biographical information. I was sure, however, that she was somewhere in the Bay Area.
Nevertheless, it was not until this year that I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and look for myself. Jennifer Alia Wittman, the Executive Director of the Inayati Order—North America, and I, both wrote to Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, the seniormost disciples of Murshid Samuel Lewis, as the people most likely people to know where she might be buried. Though neither was aware of the location, they soon put the team researching the biography of Murshid Sam on the case, looking for any information available. After several days and many e-mails back and forth, Pir Shadba sent us the text of an obituary the team had unearthed, telling us that Rabia Ada Martin was interred a mausoleum in the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California.
The Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is a beautiful, sprawling Jewish cemetery with an equally beautiful and majestic mausoleum called, Portals of Eternity. Looking up at the great edifice, we quickly realized that we had no idea where to begin looking. After all, there had to be thousands of burial chambers in the mausoleum. So we decided to go into the offices of the cemetery to talk to the director, who tried to help us locate the exact place of her burial chamber. He took out the old books, but found that the entry was somewhat incomplete. “Unfortunately,” he said, “you’re going to have to search the entire mausoleum. All I can tell you is that her chamber will be at about eye level. And don’t forget to search the lower floor if you don’t find her upstairs.”
We then walked over to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum and up to its beautiful green oxidized copper doors. Green doors was clearly a good Sufi sign I thought. Above the doors was written in English, “Portals of Eternity,” and above that in Hebrew characters, Beit Olam, which literally means, ‘Eternal House.’
We pushed open the heavy green doors and kissed the mezuzah, just inside on the right, as we entered the foyer, on the floor of which was a large magen david, of ‘star of David.’ Directly in front of us was a room where memorial services are held, and to the left and right, hallways leading to the burial chambers.
We had no idea where to start, so we decided to be systematic, carefully going down every passageway together, scanning every wall at roughly eye-level, Alia taking the left side of each hall, and me the right. Back and forth, up and down passageways, we searched through the whole maze of the upper floor. After a half-hour of searching, we’d found nothing. A little discouraged, we then remembered the lower floor and made our way downstairs, again searching the passages systematically.
Finally, about five minutes later, I came upon two burial chambers marked, “Etta M. Mehdy” and “Mirza Mehdy,” and remembered that Etta was the daughter of Rabia Martin, and her husband’s name was Mirza!
Then, sure enough, not far away, at eye-level, as the director had said, was a chamber marked, “David Martin, 1867-1943” and “Rabia Ada Martin, 1871-1947.”
It was a great moment, and an honor, thinking that we may have been the first Inayati Sufis to rediscover and visit her burial place in more than half a century.
Noticing that the flower vases on the burial chamber were empty, we immediately regretted not having brought flowers. Momentarily glancing at someone else's flowers, we both exchanged a knowing look and smiled. We decided to go back to the office to see if we could buy flowers instead.
At the office, the director showed us the flowers available and we decided on white carnations. He asked us who it was we had been searching for and why. We told him who Rabia Martin was, explained a little about Sufism, and told him that other Sufis would likely be coming to visit her burial place now that we had found it. It was a Jewish cemetery, but he was very interested and took down her name, saying that he intended to look her up and add her to list of significant burials in the cemetery.
Heading back to the mausoleum, Alia suggested I photograph the way to Murshida Rabia Martin’s burial chamber so we could describe it to others later. We found our way back to the chamber, filled the vases with water in a nearby utility room, and arranged the flowers in them on the chamber. We then recited the “Toward the One” together and said individual prayers there for the peace of her soul, in gratitude for her work and contributions, and for the reestablishment of her name in the silsila or chain of transmission of Inayati Sufis everywhere.
Directions to the Burial Place of Murshida Rabia Martin
The address of the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is 1299 El Camino Real, Colma, CA 94014-3238.
It’s hours are 8:30AM to 4:00PM, Sunday through Friday. It is a Jewish cemetery and closed on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening), major Jewish Holy Days, as well as secular holidays. Flowers can be purchased in the office.
The cemetery offices are located right at the entrance, and one may park there to walk to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum, easily visible nearby.
Enter the foyer of the mausoleum.
Turn into the hallway to the right.
Walk down to the end of the hallway.
Turn left and descend the stairs to the lower level.
Turn right at Corridor A.
Walk straight to the end, where you will find the burial chamber of Murshida Rabia Martin.
When leaving the cemetery, there is a place to wash and purify your hands, pouring water over your right hand three times, then over your left three times.