One night, after finishing the dinner he had been served, the new slave master came upon Rabia in prayer. Eyes shut, head bowed and hands clasped, she was saying to God, “If the matter rested with me, I would not cease for one hour from Your service, but You have made me subject to a creature.” The glimmer of radiance that the slave master had perceived in his slave now appeared to be a strong light that enveloped her. Was that sakina (from Hebrew shekina), the cloud of glory indicating the presence of God? Rattled and afraid, the slave master sat up all night. When dawn broke, he called Rabia and freed her.
Rabia went back to the desert of her birth, where once, long ago, for an ephemeral moment, she had had the love of a family. With her she brought nothing but infinite love, love of the Creator and, thus, of the Creation. She became an embodiment of what would later be a central Sufi doctrine—that Love is what leads back the human soul to its Divine source and let it find reunion with the Truth. She had developed a following, but she lived a life of reclusion in a cell, a one room dwelling in the desert. Later, when she returned to Basra, she continued to live apart from the world, as far as visits from the admirers and disciples allowed.
The freed Rabia had rejected the privileges of freedom; she had opted for a life of abnegation. In her asceticism (zuhd) was a purgation of the carnal soul (nafs) and its desires (shahwat). When one of her admirers brought her some money and begged her to spend it on something she needed, she wept and said, “God knows that I am ashamed to ask Him for this world, though he rules it, and how shall I take it from one who does not rule it?” When the governor of Basra asked her to marry him, she rejected the proposal and gave him the following advice, “Renunciation of this world brings peace, while desire for it brings sorrow.” During a time when she was ill, she politely refused money brought to her by one of her many well-wishers, telling him she depended only on God. “Shall not He who provides for those who revile Him, provide for those who love Him,” she said.
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