The Spiritual Master

Connection to a master is considered a condition sine qua non for spiritual success. Without a master, without a guide, all illusions and all distractions are to be feared. This is what is meant by the well-known Sufi adage "He who does not have a shaykh has Satan for his shaykh." The true master is, of course, one who has himself already traversed the path, who knows its route, its pitfalls, and its dangers, so that he can guide others. When a disciple has been accepted by a master, he must place himself entirely in his hands and become, according to the saying, "like a corpse in the hands of the body-washer." The goal of this submission is the total effacement of the ego, the psychic death, which signals the true birth into the spiritual life.

To illustrate what the relationship between a disciple and his master is, one can refer to the disclosures made by the "very great master" (al-shaykh al-akbar) Ibn `Arabī, who was born in 560/ 1165 in Murcia and died in Damascus in 638/ 1240 and who left in his Risālat al-quds (Epistle on Sanctity) animated descriptions of the spiritual masters whom he had visited in Andalusia during the first part of his life. 9 Ibn `Arabī speaks, for example, of his master Abū Ya`qūb al-Qūmī and says of him:

He was much given to private devotions and always gave alms in secret. He honoured the poor and humbled the rich, ministering in person to the needs of the destitute.... He was seldom seen without a frown on his face, but when he saw a poor man his face would light up with joy; I have even seen him take one of the poor into his lap.... When I would sit before him or before others of my Shaykhs, I would tremble like a leaf in the wind, my voice would become weak and my limbs would shake.

Another famous and convincing example of the fruits born by submission to a master is that of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, founder of the order of whirling dervishes and one of the greatest spiritual masters the world has ever known. He abandoned his position as professor and the honors he had received in Konya to follow the spiritual teaching of the mysterious Shams al-Dīn Tabrīzī and reached, through love of this master and annihilation in him (alfanā' fi'l-shaykh), the highest peaks of Divine Love and contemplative vision.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr has recently defined the function of the spiritual master as follows:

The role of the spiritual master, the shaykh, murshid, or pīr, as he is known in Arabic, Persian and other Muslim languages, is to make this spiritual rebirth and transformation possible. Being himself connected through the chain of initiation (silsilah) to the Prophet and to the function of initiation (wilāyah) inherent in the prophetic mission itself, the Sufi master is able to deliver man from the narrow confines of the material world into the illimitable luminous space of the spiritual life.... To behold the perfect master is to regain the ecstasy and joy of the spring of life and to be separated from the master is to experience the sorrow of old age.... To become initiated into a Sufi order and to accept the discipleship of a master is to enter into a bond that is permanent, surviving even death. 10

Nasr says further:

Man may seek the fountain of life by himself. He may seek to discover the principles of spiritual regeneration through his own efforts. But this endeavor is in vain and will never bear fruit unless the master is present together with the discipline which only he can impart. Without the philosopher's stone no alchemical transformation is possible. Only the power of the shaykh can deliver man from himself--from his carnal soul--so as to enable him to behold the Universe as it really is and to rejoin the sea of Universal Existence. 11