Searching for a traditional Sufi Master

Ghaus-ul A’zam Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (radi Allahu anhu) says: "If a person is unable to differentiate between a true and false Murshid, he should read 2 Rakaats Nafil for achieving recognition of Allah at Tahajjud time. Then he should ask Allah to inform him of those pious people who will be able to guide him on the Right Path. He should beseech Allah to show him the person who will intoxicate him with Allah’s love and adorn the eyes of his heart with the light of Allah’s closeness and inform him of unseen happenings that he personally witnessed". (Insha-Allah by doing so, one will receive the answer) [Al-Fath-ur Rabbani, p.146]

If someone is unable to do this then he should seek the advise of a well versed Sunni Aalim. At times, people take advice from the ignorant and become Mureeds of Shaitaan. May Allah Ta’ala protect us all. Amin !

A major question that arises is how does a seeker find a real spiritual master? Or how can he be sure of the spiritual master's quality? The followers of the esoteric and inner traditions believe that God's mercy permeates and encompasses every situation and everything. The right teacher turns up at the right time if a person has sincerity, the right courtesy and intention. Our Pir-i-Tariqat would always advise his murids about having the correct intention, especially if a seeker is about to take bayat [pledge] with him. He would ask, "What is your intention"? Many seekers [murids] do not make progress on the Sufi Path because they started off with the wrong intention.

The correct courtesy is patience and recognition of the need. And it is by divine mercy that the right answer comes at the right time for the seeker.

A true spiritual teacher must have the proper basic qualities, just as a physician is supposed to have fulfilled primary basic requirements before he can practice medicine. To begin with, a spiritual guide, that is a Sufi master, must be knowledgeable about all the outer aspects of the original way of Islam and its way of life. He must be fully conversant with the knowledge and practice of the way of Islam. He should apply what is in the Quran and the prophetic way of life to himself. If he has not practiced the outer laws, how can he have practiced the inner aspects of this way of life, let alone recommend others to practice them? So the true spiritual master must himself live the outer and inner codes of Islam fully.

Another condition of a spiritual master being a true teacher is that he must have achieved real enlightenment by arriving at complete knowledge of the self. The spiritual master must know the extraordinary vast horizon of the self. Whoever knows his self, truly knows his Lord.

A true spiritual master must also have been given the express permission to start out and guide others on the path of self-knowledge, by another enlightened and experienced teacher who himself had been given permission to teach, and so on, back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). For there are people who keep within the outer limits of the Islamic Law, others who have achieved self-knowledge, and still others who have attained gnosis as well as the knowledge of the self, and yet they are unable to guide others. Just as it is not enough for a physician to have only studied and passed examinations, and observed and assisted other physicians in their work, before he himself can begin to practice medicine in his own right. He must also be given the permission or license to practice medicine by a qualified physician who is satisfied with his ability to do so.

Another prerequisite is that there should be a seeker to receive knowledge from the spiritual master, just as there has to be a patient before a physician can practice his medicine. Finally, just as it is of no use for a physician to attend to a sick person if he is unable or unwilling to accept the remedy for his illness, so there is no need of a spiritual master if the seeker is not keen to follow him.

The ultimate aim of the Sufi master is to assist his close follower to discover Truth within the self and to be enlightened about reality. In order to be fulfilled at all times, it is important to discover the causes of unhappiness. The essential cause of all dissatisfaction is rooted in the transgression of limits, waywardness, desires, expectations, fears, anxieties and other aspects like lack of understanding of the nature of Reality. From the Sufi point of view, the basic acts of worship which are defined by the Islamic Law, such as the ritual prayer, fasting in the month of Ramadan, the alms tax, the pilgrimage to Mecca and so on, are, although necessary, not sufficient for most of the people who are sick in this vast hospital called the world. The globe is God's hospital, and the Messengers, the Prophets and the saints or spiritual masters are the physicians of the soul. Since there are different kinds of illness, there are different wards in the hospital. There are clinics where the patients do not stay for very long; there are wards where the patients stay for several weeks or months; and there is a surgical ward where the physician, or Sufi master, is constantly engaged in 'operating' on his patients. We also find that the 'medicines' are prescribed in accordance with the specific requirements of the patient, taking the total environment and all the surrounding circumstances into consideration.

The ultimate function of a Sufi master is to move the seeker gradually, according to his pace, to a level at which he is able to read the primal 'book' that is within his 'heart'. If the seeker learns this art and becomes strong and acts at will, then obviously he is progressing and evolving. The spiritual master's objective is to part with and transmit to others what he has himself already attained. This process, as stated earlier, can be enhanced when the environment as well as the companionship is right, and when the close follower has the intention to learn and the will to act, and acts appropriately. The teacher can do little if the seeker or the close follower does not want to advance. The traveler can give up at any stage of the journey, even when there is only one step left. However, at times, even if the close follower wants to advance, it is not guaranteed that his objective will be fulfilled according to expectations. Shaykh al-Fayturi (d. 1979) says the following about the dilemma of the teacher in one of his odes:

No matter how much the teacher strives,
No matter how much the close follower wants,
No matter how sincere he is, spending days and nights [in worship],
Ultimately enlightenment is a gift from God.

The teacher's function is to guide the seeker along a disciplined path to the point at which he is able to sit in absolute watchfulness without watching anything. This is the pure, simple, ultimate height of the meditative condition. It is just to be. From there on, it is only Allah Who can help. So the seeker has to complete half the circle himself, but the other half is not in his hands. You go as high as you can climb, and then let go!

The whole Sufi way of life is about giving up attachments, and the greatest and the worst attachment happens to be knowledge. There is an anecdote from Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) in this context. When Imam al-Ghazzali left Baghdad in order to search for Sufi masters, he had acquired all the outer knowledge of the Islamic sciences, but his innermost was not yet awake. He took with him two mules loaded with books. On the way he was stopped by a robber who wanted to take all his books. Imam al-Ghazzali offered him everything except the books, but the robber only wanted the books, and took them. Seven or eight years later, when Imam al-Ghazzali had fulfilled his Sufi quest, a man appeared before him in Mecca. Apparently it was the Prophet al-Khidr, who is called Elijah in the Judaic tradition, who informed Imam al-Ghazzali that if it had not been for the theft of his books, he would have remained the slave of those books and would not have discovered the real 'Book' of knowledge that is within everyone's heart. Imam Ali says in this context, 'You are the evident [original] "Book".'

Books are needed initially as an aid to inner discovery, but when a person grows stronger with inner knowledge, he needs less external aids. Books are like the push-chair which a child only needs at the beginning of its life. Unfortunately, however, many so-called scholars keep their push-chairs for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, many pseudo-sufis tend to dismiss not only books but also recitations as altogether unnecessary. This simplistic attitude is nothing other than a form of self-elevation, which is a perversion of and a digression from the real spiritual path. Books and recitations are essential aids in assisting inner awakening, and can neither be totally relied on nor totally ignored.

The seeker of knowledge and gnosis has to follow the path under the guidance of a teacher until there comes a point when he has to be left alone. The teacher is like a crutch, on which the seeker no longer has to rely once he can walk. The time comes when the close follower no longer needs a physical master as he is now plugged directly into the original power source. If someone says that he needs an outer teacher all his life, then he has falsely limited the true extent of human potential and divine mercy and generosity. If someone says that he does not need a master at all, then he is arrogant and conceited and will live under the tyranny of the lower self.