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The Spiritual Guide-Disciple Relationship from the Perspective of Islamic Sufism

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

01 August, 2015

1. The Necessity for a Spiritual Guide

A seeker who earnestly strives to walk on a spiritual path feels deep in his heart the necessity of meeting a genuine spiritual guide who will show him the secrets of Reality. Even in ordinary material matters, the need for a teacher is felt; how much more it should be in the case of spirituality, for the spiritual path is indeed very precarious and full of difficulties. In the spiritual journey, lust, pride, vanity, and rage are the biggest obstacles through which the traveller must overcome. The evil spirits of greediness are waiting to steal the spiritual wealth of a genuine seeker. The demons of pride and vanity send razor-sharp arrows of arrogance and jealousy and the tumultuous hurricane of anger can easily make the seeker drown in the sea of impatience and impetuousness. This is the reason why there is a dire need to have a spiritual mentor in our spiritual journey. This need of a true spiritual teacher is aptly and beautifully articulated by Hazrat Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (Rahmatullah Alayh) when he declares: “In the voyage towards the Divine, one who travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two days trip... Patiently search for your spiritual master for without his leading, this journey is filled with ordeals, hazards, and perils. Without the shelter of the spiritual master, one cannot annihilate the lower self. Hold firmly to the mantle of a genuine guide if you seek extermination of your deformed ego.” (See Mathnawi Sharif, in the story, “The Teacher as the Ferry-man” pp. 128-129)

The spiritual master alone knows the proper way to escape these dangers in the spiritual journey, for he has already arrived at the end of the journey—he has already successfully denied his ego, reformed his base self, and love the Divine Beloved with sincerity. Out of compassion for the waylaid and wayward souls, the spiritual teacher vows to guide others to the spiritual journey. The primary or the most crucial purpose of spiritual tutelage in the compassionate auspices of the spiritual teacher is for the guidance of the disciple to the path of spiritual reformation and rectitude (Islah-un-Nafs) so that the disciple will be prepared to experience the ecstatic torrents of Almighty Allah’s Divine Love (Hubb-I-Ilahi).      

Spiritual initiation (Bay-Ah Ruhaniyyah) is the time when the spiritual guide accepts the disciple into his auspices by receiving him into his audience, giving him preliminary advices, and bestowing the Name of Almighty Allah for the disciple to meditate upon (dhikr). Spiritual initiation is a necessary feature in the journey towards spirituality. Bay-ah, the Arabic word for spiritual initiation, literally means holding firmly the hand of a strong person, knowing fully well that this strong person will guide and protect the person who holds his hand. According to Sufism, during bay-ah or initiation, a spiritual power is being transmitted from the spiritual guide to the disciple. The spiritual guide is himself connected to a spiritual lineage (Arabic: Silsilah, literally, a strong chain) that ties the disciple to a series of previous spiritual guides that can ultimately be traced to the Prophet Muhammad (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) himself who was the direct recipient of the vast treasures of spiritual knowledge from Almighty Allah. One who receives the transmitted power (Barakah) that originally comes from God is a disciple (Arabic: Mureed, meaning; one being guided), and one who transmits it by authority of the spiritual lineage of previous spiritual guides is called Murshid (the guide). The power coming from the spiritual lineage and now made available to the Mureed during initiation is very subtle but powerful. Meeting a genuine spiritual master and receiving his instructions can clear lingering doubts, extinguish brain-wracking confusions, and settles troubled minds. By attending the spiritual master’s program of spiritual advice and moral reformation (Naseehat Ruhaniyyah wa Islah-un Nafs); the disciple reaches stability, equanimity, and certainty of faith (Yaqeen-e-Iman). The disciple finds safety in the compassionate embrace of the spiritual guide, like the helpless eaglet finds safety under the sturdy wings of the mother eagle. Such a one could stare at death without any fear, for he has reached fearlessness by the all-encompassing love and guidance from the spiritual guide.

2. The Spiritual Guide and the Moral Reformation of the Disciple

Obeying the instructions of one’s spiritual guide purifies the disciple’s understanding. The deformities of the disciple’s mind subside and his bewildered mind is finally attracted (nisbah) in following the ways of spirituality. Evil thoughts dare not approach the disciple who is steadfast in his devotion to the spiritual guide. He feels the presence of his spiritual guide everywhere and at all times. A great Indian saint, Hazrat Ashraf Ali Thanwi (Rahmatullah Alayh) said; “The spiritual guide makes his disciple one like him. Even though the preparation takes a little time on the part of the disciple, it takes no time for the spiritual guide’s inner light to enter into the disciple’s heart to make him one like him. Groping in the dark, one can never reach the light. Light will come from one who is flooded with it. By the illumination, guidance, and spiritual discipline coming from the spiritual guide, the fumbling soul will reach the spiritual effulgence of the Blessed Prophet”. (Malfuthat-e-Hazrat Ashraf Ali Thanvi; Kitab-e-Sani, p. 42)

The sluggish progression of a Muslim’s spiritual life is hastened by the mercy of the spiritual guide. Through the spiritual guide’s assistance, the Mureed attains the power to reform his sinful existence and he will begin to live a life of genuine piety and love for Allahu Taala. In the blessed company of the spiritual guide, the life spent in negligence and materialism becomes a life of constant awareness of what things may please and displease Almighty Allah. Through the aid of the spiritual guide, the disciple has attained the stage of renunciation (Zuhd) of all unbeneficial things. All these blessings are made possible by the grace of the spiritual guide who takes the disciple slowly to the inner chamber of the Murshid’s heart and show him the true goal of life, which is Allahu Taala alone. Hazrat Shahan Shah-e-Khawajagan Bahauddin Naqshband (Rahmatullah Alayh) says, “The spiritual guide is an authentic treasure room containing diamonds of Taqwa (fear of Allah) and emeralds of Ashq (divine love). Despite his high spiritual status, he remains humble, simple, and approachable; and many people do not know his lofty station. He is a burning fire capable of setting his disciples’ heart with the fire of Allah’s love. The spiritual guide is likened to spring water that cleanses all worldly impurities and quenches the spiritual thirst of his disciples. He disciplines through love and instructs through his actions. It is impossible to attain detachment from worldliness without the grace of the spiritual guide”. (Kalam-e-Shahan Shah Naqshband, p. 88).

A man may be a great scholar of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He might have renounced the world and might have undergone many difficult exercises of self-abnegation, but the grace of Allah (Ni’matullah) is revealed only to him who has become a surrendered slave to the spiritual guide. To demonstrate this very important point, the following anecdote is beneficial. Hazrat Imam Fakhruddin Razi, (Rahmatullah Alayh) was a great Sunni saint, scholar, and commentator of the Holy Qur-an. Hazrat Razi wrote a 500-page exegesis of Fatiha Sharif alone. It was narrated that on his deathbed, the damned Shaytan came and sat by the side of Hazrat Razi’s left head and began to argue with him on the existence of Allahu Taala. The devil asked Hazrat Imam Razi as to how he believed that Allah exists. Imam Razi gave a philosophical proof but the devil argued against the proof given by Hazrat Imam Razi. Imam Razi continued to give proofs one after another but the tempter also continued to present counter arguments of the proofs that Hazrat Razi gave. The debate made Imam Razi tired, dejected, and despondent to the extent that the great Quranic scholar even began to entertain doubts concerning his faith in Allah’s existence. At that time, Imam Razi’s spiritual guide, Hazrat Shaykh Najmuddin (Rahmatullah Alayh), located thousands of miles away, came to his succour. Shaykh Najmuddin communicated to Imam Razi’s heart by divine inspiration and said, “O my Mureed! Say that you believe in the existence of Almighty Allah without any need of proofs.” Thereafter, Imam Razi repeated his spiritual mentor’s words to the accursed Shaytan: “Oh Shaytan, I believe in Allah Taala’s existence without any need of proofs”. With this answer, the cursed devil was silenced since he cannot anymore debate with Imam Razi and the accursed Shaytan, in anger, ran away since he was now incapable of placing doubt in the heart of Imam Razi (Karamat-e Awliya-ullah, p.163).

It is very interesting to note that in the above-mentioned anecdote, the accursed Shaytan sat by the side of the left head of Imam Razi’s bed; the former did not sit beside Imam Razi near his chest area where the heart is located. Shaytan will always tempt persons who only listened to mental reasoning and philosophical argumentations. Scholars of Tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism) believe that the realm of the mind is where spiritual battles take place; it is the mind where the damned Shaytan can implant doubts on the believer’s faith. The abovementioned episode in the life of Hazrat Fakhruddin Razi taught us three precious lessons for our spiritual guidance. Firstly, we must believe in Allahu Taala out of pure faith (iman); and our faith should not be subjected to mundane philosophical proofs or speculations. Secondly, a person who is convinced of Allah’s existence simply by philosophical reasoning and not out of pure faith will be easily swayed by opposing philosophical proofs against Allah’s existence. Thirdly, even if a person possesses profound and oceanic knowledge of Islamic theology (Kalam) and jurisprudence (Fiqh), one still needs a perceptive spiritual guide to assure the preservation of one’s faith and to remain steadfast in Islam.

3. Profound Attraction to the Illumined Heart of the Spiritual Guide (Nisbat)

When a disciple puts his hand in the hand of the spiritual guide and initiates a pledge of allegiance (bay-ah) to him, this is tantamount to giving one’s pledge of allegiance to the Holy Prophet (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) himself. A genuine spiritual guide is also a disciple of a previous spiritual master whom he likewise gave allegiance to; who in turn is connected to a past spiritual guide—thereby creating a strong chain of succession (Silsilah) which can be finally traced to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) and ultimately originating from Allahu Taala. By the power of the Silsilah of the past spiritual ancestors, the disciple’s heart is drowned and inundated with Faiz (spiritual virtues) overflowing through him like floodwaters coming from a very powerful dam. This powerful flood of spiritual virtues originates from the Throne of Almighty Allah and descended to Madinah al-Munawwarah by the agency of Hazrat Jibrael’s message to our Blessed Prophet; and auspiciously, it reaches us through the mercy of the spiritual master. This overwhelming flood of spiritual virtues generously supplied from the Throne (Arsh) of Almighty Allah, is now powerfully watering our parched heart purifying it from all filth of worldliness thereby preparing our spirit for transcendental cultivation and divine maturity.

It is a spiritual obligation (Fardh) of every Muslim to have faith (Iman) in Almighty Allah and in the Holy Prophet; and after Iman; there is a need (Zarurat) for every Muslim to be predisposed to all righteous actions (Aamal-E-Salihaat). Hazrat Shahan Shah Bahauddin Naqshband (Rahmatullah Alayh) said: “Oh my son, love of Allah is death for our nafs (ego) but life for our spirit. Our ego is very stubborn and therefore love for Allah is not easily obtainable without the discipline and perfecting training coming from an authentic spiritual guide. The path of soul reformation (Islah-un-Nafs) is paved with temptations from our self and from Satan, therefore, my son; you need to hold fast to the cloak of the spiritual master who is paving your way in order for you to reach Allahu Taala”. (Kalam-e-Shahan Shah Naqshband, p.36).

Likewise, for us who are seeking the good pleasure of Almighty Allah, it is indeed beneficial to listen to the helpful advice of the Indian Sufi saint, Hazrat Ashraf Ali Thanwi (Rahmatullah Alayh): “If we are to remain steadfast in our faith and if we are to remain established in good deeds, seeking and following a spiritual master is indeed very important. Hold to the cloak of your Shaykh like a drowned man who holds firmly to a strong rope”. (Malfuthat; Kitab-e-Sani, p. 32)

4. Obedience to the Instructions of the Spiritual Master as the Means to Spiritual Elevation

Unconditional surrender is the key towards success in the spiritual path. Nobody can set a time limit for spiritual maturity—its effects can be immediate or can be discerned after many years, depending on the readiness of the heart and the willingness of the disciple’s resolve. Spiritual elevation will assuredly be attained according to the intensity of the disciple’s longing (Talab) and dependent upon the good-pleasure (Ridhaa) of Allahu Taala who graces the disciple with spiritual ripeness commensurate to the student’s intense desire (Hawwa) and passion (Ishq) for a greater nearness to Allah Almighty. Through loving service (Khidmat) to the spiritual guide, fertile soil is being tilled and cultivated in the heart of the disciple—such a heart is ready to receive the rain of mercy from Allahu Taala. The disciple’s heart is now ready to be planted with the seeds of Divine Reality (Haqiqat). By observing the ripeness of his disciple’s heart, the spiritual guide will invite his Mureed to his inner chambers and will allow him to taste the sweetness of Almighty Allah’s Name. Even though the disciple has continuously heard and invoked the Most Holy Name of Allah, this priceless and splendid taste (Dhauq-e-Khas) of Allah’s name will be fully experienced by the disciple only during the imparting of the Holy Name of Allah (Ism-e-Azam) by the spiritual guide at the auspicious moment of bay-ah. Thereafter, the Mureed becomes tranquil and peaceful. The overwhelming obstacles which he had in subjugating wrath, hatred, conceit, lust, and self-centeredness, are now absolutely transformed into divine love (Muhabbah) and unbounded mercy (Rahmah). For this gift of the taste (Dhauq Ilahi) of the Most Divine Name of Allah, the Mureed will eternally be indebted to the spiritual guide—such is the grace that Allahu Taala gave to the seeker through the Wasila (mediation) of the spiritual master.

Allah’s Prophet (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) said; “We are moving towards a greater struggle (Jihad-Ul-Akbar) from the lesser struggle (Jihad-Ul-Asghar)” (Imam Bukhari; Kitab ul Jihad; Hadith 5). Even in our mundane world, wherever and whenever there are wars, the army needs a commandant so that the various tactics in defeating the enemy will be properly coordinated. Similarly, a seeker, in his perpetual struggles against the damnable Shaytan and against his sinful Nafs needs a spiritual director to advice him as to the proper usage of the various spiritual weaponries from the potent arsenal of the Holy Prophet that are available to defeat the shameless devil. The greater war (Jihad-ul-Akbar) spoken of by the Blessed Prophet is the battle against the temptations of Shaytan and the cravings of the base ego. The commandant required to win such a formidable war should be a God-fearing, pious, and genuine slave of Allah—such a person is the true Murshid. Basing on the Hadith Sharif on jihad-ul-Akbar, Hazrat Ashraf Ali Thanwi (Rahmatullah Alayh) declared that it is Sunnah for every Muslim to make a pledge to the Prophet in the hands of a perfect spiritual teacher so that the seeker may be guided throughout his life in his struggle to elevate his spiritual station, fight his Nafs, and become a true servant of Almighty Allah. Hazrat Maulana Jami (Rahmatullah Alayh) strongly opined that on many occasions, the devil is the Murshid (guide) of a person who does not have a spiritual teacher to guard and to protect him from the deceiving satanic manipulations and from his lower Nafs.

5. Divine Assistance and Spiritual Transmission (al-Himmat wal Imdad) in the Pledge of Allegiance (Bay-ah) to the Spiritual Teacher

In the Holy Quran-an, Almighty Allah commands the Muslims: “Oh ye who believe! Fear Allah and join the company of the truthful” (Surah Taubah: 119). In this verse, it is manifestly clear that Allahu Taala orders us to be in companionship (Suhbat) with the truthful. We need to be under the guidance of the truthful Wali (saint) of Allah Almighty for our moral and spiritual reformation. Therefore, the means for our spiritual progress is through Suhbat or spiritual association with the Murshid. Suhbat with a true saint of Allahu Taala is the best channel in attaining spiritual reformation thereby gaining Almighty Allah’s nearness. Likewise, in another verse, Allahu Taala says; “Verily, those who plight their fealty to thee, do plight their fealty to none other but Allah: the Hand of Allah is over their hands... and anyone who fulfils what he has covenanted with Allah, Allah will soon grant him a great reward”. (Surah Fath: 10).

The pledge of allegiance mentioned in this verse refers to the prophetic bay-ah. In the history of Islam, we read that giving one’s vow of loyalty to the Holy Prophet is the custom of the Prophet’s Blessed Companions (Radhiallahu Anhum Ajmain). The Sahabah-e-Kiram pledged themselves to the Holy Prophet (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) by taking the Prophet’s blessed hand. Surah Fath: 10 clearly assert that pledging oneself to Rasulullah is equivalent to covenanting oneself with Allahu Taala.

In our day and age, however, we are unable to pledge directly at the blessed hand of Allah’s Messenger, (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam), but we can take the hand of an exemplary spiritual master whose conduct and manner of life best resemble the exalted character of the Blessed Prophet (Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam) and whose authentic spiritual existence is a living testimony to the beauty of the Sunnah of Rasulullah. Therefore, to be attached to a genuine Murshid, is in reality, an attachment to the Holy Prophet and through the Holy Prophet, we will be connected to Almighty Allah. Spiritually speaking, when the disciple gives bay-ah to a true Murshid, the former is pledging his act of allegiance to Rasulullah through his Khalifah (spiritual representative), the Murshid. The spiritual help (Imdad), assistance, and spiritual firmness (Himmat) we receive from the real spiritual guide are actually from Allah Himself who transmitted these spiritual blessings (Barakah) through the Prophet. In turn, the spiritual guide conveys the Prophet’s Barakah to his disciples by the divine connectivity and spiritual interrelationships made possible through the holy chain (Silsilah) of past spiritual adepts of the Sufi way. 

During bay-ah, the disciple asks forgiveness of all his past misdeeds and makes a firm resolve to surrender to Allah and to submit to the Holy Prophet’s orders. During bay-ah the spiritual guide is the disciple’s witness in his firm intention to follow the Sunnah of Rasulullah. After bay-ah, the disciple must lovingly serve his spiritual guide, faithfully obeys his directives, hearken to his spiritual advice (Naseehat), defers himself to the wishes of his spiritual teacher, and assiduous in reflecting on the Divine Name of Allah (Ism-e-Azam). Subsequently, the spiritual mentor will bestow his assistance (Imdad) and firmness of resolve on the heart of the disciple (Himmat) by placing in the disciple’s heart the love of the Prophet’s way of life (Sunnah). By absorbing the beautiful Sunnah of Rasulullah, the disciple will be enabled to annihilate his crooked morality and be replaced with the excellence of the Prophet’s holy character. When love for the Prophet is cultivated in the inner being of the disciple, then Almighty Allah will love him since the disciple’s heart is now like a mirror reflecting the exquisite loveliness of the Prophet who is himself the beloved of Almighty Allah (Habibullah). Once Allah’s favour is won, by faithfully practising the Sunnah of the Prophet as taught by the spiritual guide, the disciple will be granted the experience to feel the presence of the Almighty Allah (Wasl) and it is at this time where he feels nothing except the presence of Allah embracing and enveloping him (Wajd); this transcendental experience allows the disciple to behold the beauty and majesty of the Divine Presence (Wahdat-ul-Shuhud) [See, Hazrat Zulfiqar Ahmed Naqshbandi, Love of Allah; pp.101-109].

In closing, let us pray this short but lovely Dua (supplication) of Hazrat Maulana Jami (Rahmatullah Alayh): “Oh, Allah, I love your beloved saints although I am not one of them. Bestow upon me the grace of being like them on account of my love for them.” (Naseehat-e-Maulana Hakim Jami, p.73) May Allah, the Compassionate grant us the grace to encounter a genuine spiritual mentor who is an authentic devotee of Allah, and a bona fide adherent to the Sunnah of Rasulullah (Salallah u ‘Alayhi Wasallam). We need to be linked to a spiritual instructor whose sole purpose of existence is to faithfully worship, love, and serve Allah Almighty. Success lies at the feet of such a spiritual guide. By loving service (Khidmat) to the spiritual master, the boon of spiritual and moral reformation (Islah) is achieved, Rasulullah’s intercession (Shafaah) is guaranteed, and Allah’s pleasure (Ridhaa) is attained. Insha’Allah.

Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. He is presently the Coordinator of Gender and Development (GAD) Office at UP Cebu. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.