In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful – My Lord! Help me, for they accuse me of falsehood. (23:36) O Guardian of Islam and its people, make me firm upon it until I meet You.(1)The author opens each chapter of Al-Ihsān with the basmala a verse of Qur’ān and a Prophetic supplication.
As for the one whose breast is consumed by regret over the portion of his life gone to waste – after he has truly understood that God has awliyāʾ – it does not matter to him whether the Shaykh who shows the way to God should be like the imam of the prayer, or a caring mother who suckles, or a doctor who imparts curing medicine to the hopeful patient.(2)This is a reference to the previous chapters, in which the author presents various metaphors given by different scholars for the role of the spiritual guide. His constant occupation is to find someone who will speak to him of God, and of the way to Him. This seeker who has despaired of all but God and dedicated himself wholeheartedly to searching for a spiritual guide is a rare type. Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir [al-Jīlānī] said, “The seekers of the world among them are many, the seekers of the hereafter among them are few and the seekers of the Real who are sincere in their desire are fewer than few. Their likeness in rarity and near-absence is that of red sulfur. They are individuals of the most extreme rarity.” And thus are the complete Shaykhs few among few among few. Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir, God have mercy on him, said, “For the one whose following of the Messenger is sound, God bless him and grant him peace, he will adorn him with a shield and a helmet, arm him with his sword, adorn him with his manners and characteristics, and envelop him in his garment. His joy at his being from amongst his umma will be intense and he will thank his Lord for that. Then he will make him a deputy in his umma – a guide and a caller to the door of the Real… They are the rarest individuals. Out of every thousand thousand to the end of one’s breath, only one.” How must be the meeting between this unique, rare seeker, sincere in his search, and the complete Prophetic inheritor, fully realized in his following of the Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, who is so rare that you find only one in creation after raising the count to thousands upon thousands, counting them until your breath runs out?
You turn to the source of guidance and light who shows the way to God – the Noble Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace – and he informs you that, “A person is on the religion of his intimate companion, so let one of you consider well whose companionship he keeps.” Look, search and choose carefully – lest you fall upon the first preacher who mesmerizes you with his eloquence, or the first admonisher who softens your heart, making you and the audience cry, or the first prominent scholar of outward knowledge surrounded by an entourage of students, or the first would-be Shaykh among the children of the fuqarāʾ who has an impressive lineage in the Path, or even the first charlatan who makes a living with his show – nay, even the first Satanic fortune-teller who informs you of the private affairs of your home and engages in deception as the common people crowd at his door.
The rank of the true Shaykh [of the spiritual path] is lofty, rare and difficult to come by. So how can you come to recognize the possessor of due qualification in spite of your limitations? Imām Abū Najīb al-Suhrawardī said, “The rank of the Shaykh is one of the highest ranks in the path of the Sufis – acting as a deputy to the office of Prophethood in calling to God.” Today, the title “Shaykh” has become widespread, to the extent that the common people and those of meager religious learning use it to refer to anyone who can open a book and put together a few phrases, and anyone who presumes to issue fatwās and decisive legal rulings.
There are three possible methods for searching for the one whose intimate company you shall keep. The matter is at your discretion.
The first method is that you rely on your own limited standards to evaluate those whose spiritual companionship is suggested to you. You approach [the matter] with preconceived notions that have settled in your mind – perhaps you imagine this complete Prophetic inheritor who acts as a deputy in the office of calling to God to be similar to the angels. [If this is the case], then be certain that you will find no one, even if your breath should run out repeatedly as you count thousands upon thousands, and even if you should spend your life traveling East and West with the baggage of your limited standards. This is because the awliyāʾ of God are of various kinds, ranks and shades. Among them are those who are handsome, pleasing to the eye and eloquent, who join between outward and inward knowledge. And among them is the disheveled and downtrodden who can hardly make his meaning clear.(3)A partial reference to Qur’ān, 43:52, where Pharaoh says regarding Moses, “Am I not better than this (Moses), who is contemptible and can hardly make his meaning clear?” Perhaps you may miss the opportunity of a lifetime when you pass over a man whose appearance is commonplace and who is not highly regarded, while his status with God is what it is. Muslim narrates on the authority of Abū Hurayra that the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Perhaps there is many a disheveled and downtrodden person who is turned away from people’s doors – if he were to swear by God [for something], God would make it come true.”
In the Book of the Virtues of the Companions [in his Ṣaḥīḥ], Imam Muslim dedicates a chapter to mentioning an example of the disheveled and downtrodden walī: “The Chapter of the Virtues of Uways al-Qarnī, God be pleased with him”. In this chapter, he narrates that a delegation of the people of Kūfa came to ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, God be pleased with him, during his Caliphate. Among them was a man who looked at Uways in scorn. ʿUmar said to him, “Is there anyone here from among the [people of] Qarn?” The man approached and ʿUmar said, “The Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘A man called Uways will come to you from Yemen. He will not leave anyone behind in Yemen other than his mother. He had a sickness in his eye but he called upon God and He removed it from him, except for a space the size of a dīnār or a dirham. Let those amongst you who meet him request that he ask God to forgive them.’”
The Companions, possessors of an elevated status with God and His Messenger, advise [one another] to seek the blessing (baraka) of a man who is not a Companion and is not among those who are highly regarded – yet his prayer is answered. Of what use then, are your standards in recognizing the men of God?
The second method is that you experience one Shaykh after another until you recognize within yourself if you have found someone “whose state raises you and whose speech directs you to God.” Here too, if you depend on your own keenness and intelligence, you will spend a lifetime in limbo – you cannot distinguish between the elevation in your spiritual state that is caused by the words of a sincere preacher, which the sinful person hears and repents to God at his hands, and the [more permanent and significant] elevation of the heart, which is extracted from its inclination to the world by the companionship of a knower of God, a Prophetic inheritor, and elevated into the heavens of sincerely seeking God’s countenance. Furthermore, you may happen upon the one you have been searching for, but find him to be different than what you had hoped. You may witness some normal human behavior from him of which you disapprove, and thus you will be unable to be patient with him, just as Moses was unable to be patient with Khiḍr, peace be upon them both. Of course, none can be among the righteous, much less among the awliyāʾ who are followed, if they commit major sins or persist in committing minor ones. The standard of the Sharī’a is with you and it alone is your protection. But any idealistic preconceived notions that you may have beyond that are mere whims without benefit.
When I renounced the life of this world, I was disgusted by myself, and my innermost being was consumed by the search for the Real. I withdrew to an austere life, devoting myself to worship, recitation of the Quran and remembrance of God throughout the night and the day. And when the Compassionate, the Bestower, to Whom belong all praise and thanks, blessed me with meeting my Shaykh, God have mercy on him, I found comfort, mercy, expansion, joy and felicity with God. I could not have imagined throughout the period of my withdrawal, my “crisis” and my search that it was possible for a sincere seeker to laugh, to take pleasure in food and drink or to sleep soundly in his bed.
Give up depending on all but God, search and carry with you the standard of the sharīʿa – but know that you will find no way out of a wandering, forlorn search until you stand at the door of the Sovereign, the Grantor of bounties, the Bestower of guidance. Seek His guidance and His aid and depend on him. You will not, in any case, pass over that which has been destined for you. Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir, God have mercy on him, said, “If the matter is unclear to you and you are unable to distinguish between the righteous and the hypocrite, then stand in prayer at night, offer two rakʿas and then say, ‘O my Lord, guide me to the righteous among your creation. Guide me to the one you who will guide me to You, feed me Your sustenance, give me to drink from Your chalice, adorn the eye of my heart with the light of nearness to You and inform me of what he has witnessed himself, not what he has heard second-hand.’” He also said, “If you want to keep the company of someone for the sake of God, perfect your wudu’ at the time when worries are put to rest and eyes are heavy with sleep. Then approach your ṣalāt, opening the door of ṣalāt with your purification and the door of your Lord with your ṣalāt. Then ask Him after you have finished, ‘Whose company should I keep? Who shows the way [to You]? Who informs about You? Who is the one? Who is the successor [of the Messenger of God]? Who acts in his stead?’ He is All-Generous. He will not disappoint you. Without a doubt he will inspire your heart, reveal to your sirr, make it clear to you, open the doors, light the way. He who searches with sincerity will find.”
One of the signs of the sincerity of your search is that you stand constantly at the door of the Sovereign, the Grantor of bounties, and that you constantly implore him, beg him in humility and seek his forgiveness and guidance. Then put your trust in him after your heart finds comfort [in a decision]. And do not turn back, for God is indeed sufficient for you.
The objector who is empty of concern for God, himself and his life says, “What has ‘the Shaykh’ to do with us? The Shaykh, the Shaykh!? The goal is well-known, the path of the hereafter is clear and the Book and the Sunna are here before us.” He says that while he lies comfortably in the abode of heedlessness. He enjoys his food and savors his drink. Obsessed with the world and with his own self. To such a person I convey a message from Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir, God have mercy on him, in which he says, “Cling fast to the men of God, the Real. The lot of you are insane, drowning in the life of this world. The men of the Real cure the sick, save those who are drowning and have mercy on the people of punishment. Be with such a one if you come to know him, and if you do not then cry over [the state of] your soul!”
Cry over the state of your soul if you are devoid of lofty desire, lacking in aspiration, hopelessly inclined toward the earth, pleased with the life of this world. If you cannot manage this, then cry to God (Mighty and Majestic) to come to your aid with someone who will carry you and lighten your load. Whoever fails to grow close to God attains nothing at all.
O you who are indifferent! O you who are astray! Listen to this statement of Shaykh [Aḥmad] al-Rifāʿī, “Whoever fails to grow close to God attains nothing at all. I implore you by God! This gnosis passes by! How far [you are from attaining it]! How far! Whoever leaves behind himself and all others and slaps the haughtiness of his lower nature frees himself from ignorance. A cloak of wool, an ornamental headdress and a short garment!? Rather a cloak of sorrow, a headdress of sincerity and a garment of reliance [on God]! Then will you know! The outward of the knower of God is not devoid of the glimmer of the Sharī’a and his inward is not devoid of the fire of love. He abides by God’s command and does not deviate from the path. His heart dances upon the embers of spiritual ecstasy.”
Yā hādhā! Gnosis of God is not mere expressions to be bantered about casually or finely crafted sentences to be recorded on paper. It is not a product sold by a vendor passing by on the street, cheap and easy to reach. The cloak of wool, the headdress of the turban worn by the fuqarāʾ and the short garment were the marks of ascetics and indications of the sincerity of seekers in the era of isolation, withdrawal and spiritual retreat. That era has ended, but the heartfelt call of its people remains as a reiteration of the Prophetic counsel toward sorrow over time wasted, sincerity in seeking the Real and reliance on God in overcoming obstacles in the path. The path to God (Mighty and Majestic) is open until the Day of Resurrection for the one who seeks, works hard, perseveres and finds a guide and companion who will wash him, cleanse him, feed him, clothe him and beautify him until he is fit to enter the presence of God.
The Shaykh is like a lady’s maid, an old woman who is responsible for beautifying the bride for her wedding night. Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir, God have mercy on him, said, “O my son! Acting in accordance with the Quran will bequeath to you knowledge of the One who sent it, and acting in accordance with the Sunna will bequeath to you knowledge of the Messenger, our Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace. Do not let your heart and your aspirations stray away from the hearts of the Sufis (al-qawm). The Shaykh is the one who seeks the opening of the door of proximity for them. He is the lady’s maid. He is the emissary between hearts and their Lord (Mighty and Majestic)… If you possess the entire world while your heart is not like their hearts then in reality you do not possess a single atom… Woe to you! Know your status! Where are you in relation to them? All of your aspiration centers around food, drink, clothing, marriage, amassing worldly possessions and guarding them jealously. You strive hard in the affairs of this world while you are idle with respect to the affairs of the hereafter. You load up the flesh of your body, though you are only preparing it for the worms and insects of the earth.”
He also said, “You are the servant of the one who holds your reins in his hand. If your reins are in the hand of the world, you are a servant to it. If your reins are in the hand of the hereafter, you are a servant to it. If your reins are in the hand of the Real (Mighty and Majestic), then you are His servant. If your reins are in the hand of your lower self, then you are a servant to it… Among you are those who want the world, and few among you want the Lord of this world and the hereafter.”
I say, may God protect you and I from indifference and straying:
|↑1||The author opens each chapter of Al-Ihsān with the basmala a verse of Qur’ān and a Prophetic supplication.|
|↑2||This is a reference to the previous chapters, in which the author presents various metaphors given by different scholars for the role of the spiritual guide.|
|↑3||A partial reference to Qur’ān, 43:52, where Pharaoh says regarding Moses, “Am I not better than this (Moses), who is contemptible and can hardly make his meaning clear?”|