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 In the Name of Allah,
Most Gracious
Most Merciful

The Way of The Sufi

According to the way of the Sufis, a person who has attained the state of outer and inner awareness, and who has managed to reach a point of balance and centrality, is in a position to assist others and to reflect to them their own state of progress. Accordingly we find that throughout the ages the Sufis have kept close together. Spiritual masters accompany their close followers during all the stages of progress.

We need to distinguish between the two terms: state and station. It is the difference between how it is and where it's at. State means something which one can feel or taste. One can sometimes feel an inner state of incredible generosity or great upliftment. However this state may not be lasting. What is really desired by the seeker is to attain a station which cannot occur unless it is properly founded and secure. A station is not temporary and can always be relied upon and recalled. Most of the wayfarers on the path of God will taste different states to varying degrees of lasting without any permanence in them, which is unsatisfactory and insufficient. It is for this reason that a guiding hand is needed to ensure that a seeker becomes established in a desirable station. So the companionship and relating to people who are on the path is an essential factor in a seeker's progress. Another important reason for having the right companionship is that we are always a product of the last moment, and since this moment is born from the previous moment and that from the one before it, and so on, there is continuity. A person on his own cannot realize how much he has deviated from the path of self-knowledge or self-realization. Thus a seeker needs a companion to reflect to him, like a mirror, his state and station.

Just as in the case of the physical or natural sciences where one would obviously tend to follow someone who has greater experience and qualifications in these sciences, so the same principle applies to the sciences of the self. On the physical level, we are constantly striving towards harmony and right action, and we follow those who have expertise in this field. In the same way, for inner harmony, the best qualified person is a real Sufi spiritual master. However, there is a difference between the outer and the inner sciences. In the outer sciences, the blemishes and imperfections are easily detectable. This is not the case with the inner sciences where, for example, a person can put a grin on his face whereas in reality he is very displeased within. Knowledge of the inner sciences require a subtler specialization. What is needed is a medicine for the 'heart', which is not easy to obtain or administer whereas physical healing is prescriptive, descriptive, analytical and logical, and therefore is easier to achieve.


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 and the right courtesy. 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 Qur`an 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.


Basically speaking, what we mean by the term pseudo-sufism is an incomplete path. It is an incomplete teaching which is not enough to guide the seeker all the way along the spiritual path which leads to self-knowledge and gnosis of God. Every religion and prophet, whether genuine or false, advocates moral virtues such as generosity, goodness, kindness, love and so on. However these qualities cannot take root and grow without being protected by a 'container' of outer laws and beneficial behavior. We find that every society or culture advocates its version of what is considered good and virtuous, but these qualities cannot develop and bear fruit unless they are protected and guarded by the outer bounds of laws which enable them to be nourished and to grow continuously and purposefully. More specifically, as regards the spiritual path and the teacher and the taught, we find that the pseudo-sufi leaders do not possess all the attributes of a true spiritual master, which have already been mentioned, especially the express permission to teach and guide others on the path of self-knowledge, given by another enlightened and experienced teacher who himself has been given permission to teach, and so on, back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).


Another form of pseudo-sufism , which has become active and popular in our times, is indulgence in intellectual pleasure through the study of Sufi literature and Sufi Orders. During the last 150 years, much research into Sufism has been undertaken, both in the West and in the East, by orientalists and Muslims alike. This is like compiling menus on Sufism rather than actually partaking in the feast. They discuss and analyze which Sufi menu, that is which Sufi Order, seems to be better, but without tasting any of them. How can you evaluate something which you have not experienced? Intellectual discussion about Sufism cannot lead to inner awakening and enlightenment, because Sufism is a feast which can only be consumed.

In pseudo-sufi movements we find much euphoria and temporary states of excitement which are achieved by utilizing certain practices and techniques. Occasionally they bring about a state of upliftment and delight. However such states are not lasting and are the result of a combination of several variable factors. The true art of Sufism leads the seeker towards the steady state of being contented, integrated, wise, courteous, kindly and at peace. To occasionally feel inner delight and contentment is not difficult to achieve, but in order to reach a station which is lasting, one needs to adhere to the primal way that is intended by the original way of Islam, with its outer laws, code of conduct and integrated way of life. Although inner development is possible to a certain degree without following the outer laws, if a person wishes to develop himself fully, then he has to participate in the Islamic Law and way of life fully.

This Article, written by a  professional on Sufi Muslims, Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

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