Does one require a spiritual guide?

Ihsan is the striving for excellence [primarily spiritual but can include all aspects of life].  Sadly, mediocrity has become the norm and depravity is the new low in conduct.  According to Abu Huraira, the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:  “I have only been sent (as a Messenger in order) to perfect noble character (of mankind).” Character has been replaced with personality.  Many are motivated to search for a better way.  With the marketing sophistry befitting the corporate world, plebeians are offering themselves up as spiritual guides.  It is timely to raise the question; is it necessary to have a spiritual guide and if so what are the necessary pre-requisites of a spiritual guide?  What must the seeker know/do to ensure that a charlatan does not entrap them?  Ibn Abbad of Ronda addressed these and other related issues in the following letter that offers wise counsel which is still relevant today.

The Path that Leads to God

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful. May God bless our Master, Muhammad, and his Family. From Muhammad[i] ibn ‘Abbad, may God be kind to him, to my brother Ibrahim ash-Shatibi[ii], may God Most High protect him and give generously to him in this life and the next. I wish you peace and the mercy and blessings of God.

I received your letter and I understand what you are searching for. I have also read both of the letters you sent to my master Abu ‘l-‘Abbas al-Qabbab[iii], and have familiarized myself with their contents. I  am unable to address myself to all of the topics they include. They treat such diverse, wide-ranging issues at such length that I am far from capable of responding to the letters in their entirety, either with accuracy or in a superficial manner. In fact, I should be able to say scarcely anything at all on the subject even if it were to become more incumbent on me to do so than your worthy inquiry has made it.

In the interest of conciseness and brevity, I have decided to confine my remarks to my understanding of the role of the spiritual guide, and to as much as is clear to me concerning initiation on the Path. That is more likely to be generally applicable to those to whom God Most High grants a successful beginning in the spiritual life. If you find my proposal suitable, say so; if not, then tell me more about what you would like and kindly forgive the present abridgement. God Most High is the Master of Success for both of us, according to His good pleasure.

It is my view that, in general, one can scarcely deny the necessity of a spiritual guide in following the Path of Sufism. This is surely one of the crucial issues in actual practice.  These spiritual guides, to whom followers of the Path have recourse, fall into two categories: those who both instruct and educate, and those who instruct without educating[iv].

Not all wayfarers require a spiritual guide who educates.  Those who are of banal mind and rebellious lower self do need such a guide, but those who have an open mind and a docile lower self do not require the restraints of the first type of guidance. However, everyone who walks the Path needs an instructing spiritual guide.

[i] IAR 43 notes that IA insisted his name should be spelled Mahammad not Muhammad, according to common Maghribi practice.

[ii] Abu Ishaq 1brahim ash-Shatibi (d. 1388) was a famous Malikite jurist of Granada. He was very much involved in a debate over the legitimacy of Sufism in Spain and North Africa. IAR xxxii cites a communication, indirectly, in which someone asked ash-Shatibi “about the situation of a group of people who claim to be Sufis, professing poverty, and who congregate often at night in one of their homes. The gathering begins with some communally recited recollection (dhikr). Then they move into singing, clapping their hands, and making ecstatic utterances until dawn . . . . Some of the jurists participate in gatherings so that if anyone questions them about their behaviour and permissibility of their meetings, they merely respond that the jurists would not attend if they were illicit.”

[iii] Abu ‘l-‘Abbas al-Qabbab (d. 1375) was a celebrated Moroccan jurist and the mentor of ash-Shatibi. He had spent some time in Sale with IA’s teacher, Ibn ‘Ashir.  Ash-Shatibi had written to both al-Qabbab and IA in Fez.  Al-Qabbab was of the opinion that the Sufis in his time were neglecting works they ought to read in favour of some sections of Ghazali’s Revival that he judged to be of questionable value for people in earlier stages of the Path (IAR 174, 1-li; see Introduction).

[iv] “Instructing” translates tarbiyah; “educating” translates ta’lim

Kinds and purpose of spiritual guides

A spiritual guide who educates is necessary for the sort of wayfarers I have mentioned above, for it is clear that a great coarseness shrouds their lower selves. Only the educating spiritual guide can raise and penetrate such a veil. Among individuals of this sort, there are many who need a spiritual guide because of the rivalries and enmities in which they are involved. Their situation is analogous to that of chronically ill persons whose physical cure remains a puzzle. ‘There is no alternative but to seek out a competent physician who can heal their maladies with potent medication.

Individuals who have expansive minds, and who have their lower selves under control, are exempted from needing an educating spiritual guide by reason of their abundant intelligence and malleability. The instructing spiritual guide assigns tasks exactly suited to such individuals, but those tasks would be inappropriate for the other type of person. This type perseveres by the permission of God Most High, unafraid of what harm might befall him as he journeys along the Path. He remains intent on proceeding and approaching the Path in the proper fashion, such as I will describe, God Most High willing. Even this type, however, will not achieve perfection as will the person who entrusts himself to the educating spiritual guide. For the lower self is always heavily veiled and full of guile, so that it remains fickle. The lower self is never freed of such obstacles except through obedience to the first type of spiritual guide, and through docility to his judgment and tutelage. If one bind himself by the decisions which the educating spiritual guide lays down, he does not need the second type.

Reliance on the educating spiritual guide was the Path of the later Sufi leaders, whereas adherence to the instructing spiritual guide was the Path of the earlier ones. It is evident that many of the earlier writings, such as those of al-Harith al-Muhasibi, Abu Talib al-Makki, and others before them, did not stipulate recourse to the educating spiritual guide as did the books of later authorities. The earlier writers nevertheless spoke of the fundamentals of Sufi learning and its branches, foundation, and implications. That is especially true of Shaykh Abu Talib. Their failure to mention the educating spiritual guide therefore suggests that such a guide was not a condition or necessity for the following of the Path.

I am referring to the well-traveled Path pursued by the majority of wayfarers. It is similar to the way of life of our spiritual ancestors in ancient times, in that they arc not reported to have sought out educating spiritual guides and become submissive to them and adhered to them in the way that is required of such a guide’s disciples. On the contrary, the way of our forefathers was the acquisition of learning and the cultivation of the interior life, on the Path of companionship and brotherhood with one another. They achieved this by coming together and exchanging frequent and extended visits. Their interior and exterior demeanor gave evidence of the great benefit of this approach. They wandered freely over the countryside, seeking to encounter the saints and the religious scholars and the servants of God.

The instructing spiritual guide

A consideration of the writings of the Sufis brings us hack to the matter of the instructing spiritual guide. The use and study of these books is recommended only if their authors are people of learning and intimate knowledge, whose conduct is worthy of imitation. And only the person who seeks the company of a reliable spiritual guide whose spiritual genealogy is genuine can pass sound judgment on these writings. If the reader finds in them a helpful exposition that is totally consistent with the external demands of the Revealed Law;  that may be sufficient for him.  Otherwise he has no choice but to return to a spiritual guide who can elucidate the books for him; for, as I hare already mentioned, the spiritual guide is indispensable in that instance.

The spiritual guide who educates is hard to find these days and “more precious than red sulphur.” So also is the instructing spiritual guide, for many who are associated with this Path and who arc both recommended and trusted do nor in fact render an accurate account of the meaning of Sufism, nor do they acquaint people with the Mystic Truth, let alone with what is beyond that. I do not know, which of the two calamities is the greater: the disappearance of the spiritual guide with profound understanding, or the lack of sincere disciples. But we belong to God and to Him we return.

Now the question arises: How does a person who wishes to pursue the Sufi Path make do under these circumstances? Does he occupy himself with the quest of the spiritual guide? Or does he abandon the search and simply wait?  And in either case, does he engage in the activities of the wayfarers, or not, in the meantime?

I say there is no point in searching for the spiritual guide, whether or not one is actively practicing Sufism. The spiritual guide is a gift God Most High. It is His way of directing the aspiring servant who has turned his attention entirely to following the way and is sparing no effort and using all of his capabilities, however humble or grand. It is in this context that God Most High leads the individual to a more excellent state, safe from innovation and error, in which the seeker is secure from the pitfalls that await everyone who relies on the spiritual guide’s solicitude and supervision as a buffer against past and future tribulations.

It is equally pointless merely to wait for the spiritual guide while postponing the active practice of Sufism. That is a fruitless waste and an inappropriate mode of behavior. Only the fourth option remains: involvement in spiritual activity while one waits for the spiritual guide.  The seeker can attain that goal by purifying his intention through vigilance over the sincerity of his relationship with God Most High. Anyone who desires the presence of God needs complete truthfulness, for God is present to those who are veracious. Sincerity[i] consists in making demands of the lower self and disciplining it for the state of piety required in Sufism. That includes personal prayer, a heart intent on the door of the Master, a positive frame of mind, genuine hope, and an entering into the presence of God Most High with awe, reverence, and humility. As one disciplines himself and brings his lower self into line in these matters, he should ask God Most High to fulfill His promises, and he will arrive at his desired goal.

[i] “Truthfulness”, “veracious” and “sincerity” are all from the root sdq


Understanding that this is a Gift bestow by God

One who seeks guidance must understand that the Sufi way of life is a gift God Most High bestows because of His solicitous predilection for certain of His servants. He opens the door to Sufism and lifts its veil only to one who is authentically convinced of his need for God and who is in an advanced stage of relying on God. Sufis are therefore set apart from their fellow human beings, and have no desire for others to share their life and lodgings. As the spiritual masters have said, “The Sufis dwell in a single house and no one else moves in with them.” That is so because when God wants some of his creatures to belong to Him—that is, to exist essentially and absolutely for Him-He casts faith into their hearts and inscribes it there, and supports them with His Spirit. All of that happens without any initiative or merit on their part. Therefore, when God bestows the gift on them and makes them aware of it, He opens for them the door of refuge and of utter need of Him. His creatures in turn see themselves as powerless, capable of almost nothing, and existing at the limit of weakness and indigence.

When Cod opens this door to them, He sends them all manner of gifts, blessings, graces, and kindnesses, true to His promise that He will he enough for His servants who dedicate themselves to Him and take refuge in Him. At that very moment the lights of faith are increased and intensified. God Most High arranges their spiritual states and actions in such a way that the lights become visible to them and secrets are manifested to their hearts. They continue to dwell unceasingly at the door of God Most High until they arrive at the station of serving God constantly[i].  There they experience the ultimate vision of God’s Oneness and realize fully His Uniqueness. At that moment, the vestiges of their fleshly humanity are effaced; their most mature judgments seem foolish; and in the presence of Existence itself, appearances fade away. “Say: The Truth has come and falsehood has vanished. Indeed falsehood is a vanishing thing” (17:81).

This is the consummation wayfarers long to experience. Their faithful service of their Lord is brought to completion and they are freed from constant vigilance over their sincerity. That is their sole desire. At that point, “wayfaring” and “being drawn” come together.[ii] The difference is that God brings to this station those who have been “drawn” in a shorter time than He does those who are “wayfaring.” In addition, He leads the former type to this station without any exertion or effort on their part. In neither case does God Most High leave them without His protection and custody at any level of the ascent, from beginning to end.  They are acted upon and are not the agents, according to the saying, “The Sufis are children in God’s lap.”[iii]

So you can see how God, to whom be glory, chooses to look after the person He has singled out, so that he is not reduced to searching and pursuing while relying solely on himself. The traveler on the Path must strike out in this direction. For example, he should consider his own state in the light of his understanding of the Sufi Path, taking the eminent status of one who is known to he a Sufi as a paradigm by which he might arrive at a full realization of the Path and its levels. There is no doubt that a thorough comprehension and understanding of that is crucial.  Without it no one would seek out the Path or take care to arrive at it, for a quest for something totally unknown is inconceivable.

[i] “The station of serving God constantly” translates maqam al-Ihsan.

[ii] . Literally, “The majdbub (the one drawn, attracted) among them and the salik (wayfarer) among them arc equal in this respect.” See Introduction these two types of mystical experience.

[iii] DS 81 attributes the saying to Abu Yazid al-Bistami.

By means of the Predisposition of his intellect

Now the individual’s thorough grasp of the nature of the Path does not arise in him spontaneously.  It is brought about by means of the predisposition of his intellect.  A close investigation of the situation reveals that God Most High gives three graces in relation to this conceiving and understanding: the very life of the intellectual faculty; the predisposition of the intellect toward perceiving this precious thing; and the act itself of conceiving and grasping it. And all of this occurs in an individual apart from his assistance, power, or enduring worthiness. How few people are endowed with even one of these three graces, let alone all three!

Once the individual has encompassed a knowledge of the things I have been talking about, God Most High has a fourth grace in store for him, greater and more splendid than the others. It is the intimate knowledge that he cannot effect these things by his own conduct. This is the fourth grace. So long as the servant is mindful of this, attentive to it, and intent on arriving at the goal he has conceived in his mind, then what is most obvious to him is his own powerlessness, poverty, lack of ability and cleverness. He is convinced that it is his powerful and glorious Master who is filled with those things and who is in control of him.  The servant sees that only proper conduct in the presence of God, flight from his lower self toward Him, and reliance on God as his sole concern can gain him victory in this arena. Under those circumstances, God will supply all of his provisions, ease every difficulty for him, and smooth for him all that is rough.

As a result of his experience of this knowledge and the perspective it gives him, the servant will have the freedom of movement to be transported where God carries him, without having to search anxiously or having to choose where he will go. If he persists in this awareness, he will already have arrived at the station to which all other stations are connected. He will have achieved the object of his desire, by contrast with which every other desideratum is despicable. If, on the other hand, this realization docs not come over him and he is incited to seek out things that cause him to be inattentive to the One who bestows these graces I have been describing-this condition begins with a lack of full understanding and mindfulness-then his misfortune will be greater than the disaster of merely failing to reach his goal. The servant will, in addition, suffer from weariness in searching, and his exertion will lead to the constriction of the core of his being. He must then return to the healing condition in which he was at the outset.  This is the conversion that is the prelude to guidance. Achievement can never dispense with first principles. In the course of his journey the seeker must appropriate to himself all these works of the heart and must make them the foundation of his entire life.

Flee from strife and evil

In addition the seeker must flee from every occasion of strife and evil, withdraw from public gatherings and crowds, and sever those external associations that entice him into sinfulness and iniquity. The latter include all situations essential to holding political office or positions of authority and leadership, or to the study of a science, and so forth. All of those things are major distractions and are opposed to traveling the Path. The seeker should eschew speculative study beyond the minimal requirements, for it tends to agitate people and becomes a great veil between the individual and his set purpose. Few people who arc concerned with studying the law and who are skilled in it and strict in practicing it are in any way touched by Sufi learning, with the exception of the individual who travels the Path of “being drawn.” Quite the contrary. The approach of the jurists is such that they become so convinced about their own path that many of them imagine there is a rift between the outward and the inward, and a quarrel between the Revealed Law and the Mystic Truth! Their suspicion causes them to despise Sufism on the grounds that it departs from the procedures and prescriptions of their legal science. They have brought many spiritual guides to trial, accusing them of unbelief, free-thinking, and a variety of errors and innovations.

It is most important that the wayfarer flee such people as he would flee a lion. He should avoid getting involved in their studies altogether, except insofar as they pertain directly to his worship and devotional practice.[i]

On the more positive side, the seeker must get down to the specific actions incumbent upon wayfarers. He will already have arrived at some knowledge of these things, if only in the form of turning away from rebelliousness, refraining from legal error, keeping his thoughts from becoming dissipated, or other internal or external works of that sort.  Now he must embark upon overcoming his fear of failure and not give it another thought, for he is bound to experience more than enough of failure, especially in his initial exercises. He must then devote his spare time, outside of his spiritual exercises, to investigating the conduct of our ancestors in faith, the nature of their relationship to God Most High as evidenced by their worship, and the sincerity of their aspirations toward Him.

One must also read assiduously the Sufi writings, in order to gain a thorough and intimate acquaintance with them and assimilate their profound learning and grasp their implications. The seeker must set aside the aversion most people experience toward studying some of the writings of the Sufis. As I have said, this applies especially to those who are deeply involved in legal, intellectual, and doctrinal studies. Receptivity to these writings can occur once the individual comes to prefer the way of Sufism and takes refuge in God Most High in hopes that God will open the door of understanding to him in these matters. One must also seek help by associating with someone who is genuinely learned and has a sincere love for the Sufi Path.

The seeker must occupy himself with the things I have been describing and be in no way deterred by his failure to find the spiritual guide to whom he can return at every juncture of his journey. He must also realize that he need not depreciate the very considerable benefits that accrue to him in this  beginning stage. On the contrary, he should consider himself fortunate, and grasp those positive results tightly with a miserly hand. That is the kind of gratitude for the grace of his vocation that is required if one desires an increase.

Once the servant has begun these requirements, seeking the aid of God Most High, trusting Him, exhibiting an appropriate fear of Him, and obeying His commands, then he has arrived at that greatest of hopes: that God Most High will teach him what he needs to know for his journey, as He promised when He said, “Fear God and God will be your teacher” (2:282) and “Oh! you who believe, fear God and He will give you a criterion” (8:29). God Most High has also said, “Surely We will guide in Our ways those who struggle in Our cause” (29:69); and again, may His Name be glorified, “God will provide a way out for those who fear Him” (65:2). As a result, the seeker will have every kind of superabundance heaped upon him and will make rapid and direct progress on his journey.

[i] IA’s advice against engaging in legal studies is reminiscent of Ghazali’s remarks on the same topic in the Revival. Here is a sample of what he says there (FH 69): ” . . . the safety of the populace consists in their occupying themselves with sound actions and not becoming entangled with what is outside the limit of their capacity. But at the moment the rein is loose and rubbish is being disseminated and every ignoramus comes down on the side of what suits his nature, armed with supposition and conjecture and believes it is science and proof and unadulterated faith; and supposes that whatever he alights on by the use of hypothesis and appraisal is established science and certainty itself.”

Guidance from God to quiet and soothe

God Most High will send him the kind of right guidance that will quiet his lower self and soothe his heart. As part of this process, God Most High will lead him to a saintly spiritual guide who will help him advance more quickly in understanding. In time he will have need neither of the guide nor of anyone else. The seeker need only purify his intention toward God Most High and refine his way of thinking about Him. And he will already have begun to achieve that. Strictly speaking, however, there is no formal introduction for him in these things.

To sum up, then, the person who sets out to travel the Path, acting purposefully through deeds of heart and body such as I have described, whether by commission or avoidance, will be among those who are unfailingly led along the Path, if they are worthy of it. And anyone who has been successful in these matters is worthy. The mystics generally agree that one can come to God only by God’s help and that only the lower self stands as a barrier between the servant and God. The lower self that does not go against itself struggles against God. If the lower self struggles against God, it is inconceivable that a person could travel the Path while fending off and thwarting- the protection, watchfulness, and support that God wishes to give the seeker in the way He wishes to give it. God refuses to sustain the faithful servant except in ways of which the servant has no knowledge. The lower self’s veil between darkness and light does not simply vanish; it is lifted and dissolved little by little until certitude comes.

This is the beginning of the Wayfarer’s Path toward the multileveled states of Sufism. Its culmination is none other than the total realization of the Divine Unity, “And that is the gift of God which He gives to whom He will” (62:4). So long as one remains preoccupied with “being on the way” and with “getting there,” the goal is unattainable. One must abandon himself at all times. Only then will he experience a freedom and an exaltation commensurate with his stage of advancement, and that is to experience the joy of homecoming.

Contrary to the speculations of some people, there is no desert or wasteland on the Path of God Most High. Wherever the wayfarer makes camp he is provided a dwelling and a place of comfort. Every situation is easy for him; servants and helpers facilitate all his comings and goings. But if the servant of God should fall back on the familiar, on things he feels sure of, then indeed he experiences a desert and a wasteland in the hunger of the lower self and in reliance on his intellect and conjecture. When at last the veil is lifted, that will become abundantly clear to him. And we seek refuge in. God from an unfavorable judgment.

Once the seeker has grasped the full truth of all that I have been talking about, the journey along this Path will hold no terrors for him and he will not deem it difficult.  He will undertake his travels with delight and expansion of the core of his being and he will not tax his soul or his intellect with the kind of superfluous investigation the speculative thinkers talk about. Such concerns only confuse, baffle, and restrain one, making him reticent to embark on this Path and effectively blocking for him the door to the journey. Even if a servant were compelled to hold most of these speculative concepts as authentic, and were able to fulfill his duties by acting in accord with their essential requirements, in conformity to the Revealed Law and the legal procedures of the religious scholars, he would probably not achieve fulfillment that way. And how could he? Thank God, the matter is much more accessible than all this!

A True and Tolerant Religion

Let me explain. God Most High has sent us His Messenger Muhammad, may God bless him and give him peace, with the true and tolerant religion. He imposed no constraint upon us in the religion. Any requirement above and beyond that of wayfaring which is not in line with the means of the people is divisive, produces controversy, and leads to the absence of proper guidance and of the one essential thing required of the servant-namely, sincerity in worshiping God, may He be exalted and glorified. The only thing that might prevent the servant from progressing through the stations of servanthood is a yielding to his passions.[i] Every passion is manifest to him, for they are undeniably part of his constitution and creatureliness. How could a person be unaware of his interior state so long as he demands an account of his lower self, acts in good faith toward his Lord, and strives for purity of heart?

The seeker must therefore apply himself to resisting his lower self in all temptations as long as his resistance does not threaten him with mental or bodily harm. He must persist in refusing to cling to whatever comes along that could cause him to fall back on his own devices and understanding, in whatever difficulty he experiences. In fact, the difficulty itself will be of greater benefit to him. The net result of calamities that befall the seeker, and which he discerns in the course of going against his lower self, is that they invite him to a variety of acts of obedience. However, the seeker may be unaware of this purpose and fight off the trials, thus losing the opportunity for obedience. The same is true of one who refuses to adhere to what his mind grasps when some rational I truth becomes apparent to i.e.: He ignores it and pretends not to notice it. But trials pose no danger to him. On the contrary, they are the clearest course to follow. The servant is ever the one whose lot is weakness and insufficiency, even if he is totally successful in both knowledge and action.

For the seeker, reliance on this self-discipline I have been describing will become an occupation that will protect him from distraction and deviation from the highway of full spiritual realization, and from exposure to dangers and susceptibility to all sorts of injuries. The person who pampers his lower self, either by failing to fast or by fasting too strictly and for too long, without several days’ respite, has already gone far astray. The same is true of the person who likes to give away all that he possesses without keeping some for himself; or the one who delights in seclusion in mountain recesses or sequestering himself in deserts without ever taking a break and resting awhile at home. Hidden tendencies of the passions[ii] cause all these things. Treatment is difficult; it requires religious and secular testing suited to the illness.

It is better to remain within the limits of the Revealed Law and travel the road of piety and fear of God, for there is no passionate tendency in that whatsoever. One call then intensify his vigilance in moderating the lower self and its proclivity for the extremes of negligence and excess. If the servant remains sincere in all his states, God Most High will keep and support and protect him from destruction. He will lead him, and send him to an insightful spiritual guide who will delight him. The servant’s task is to make a beginning; that of God Most High is to perfect and bring to completion. And from first to last, the matter is in God’s hand.

This is what has occurred to me as a response to your inquiry. I am fully aware that by getting involved in what does not concern me I have over stepped my bounds and am guilty of inappropriate behavior. From God Most High I seek forgiveness, indulgence, and pardon; for that is His proper domain. He gives me enough of those things and is the best of patrons. Let us ask Him, may He be exalted and glorified, to show us the truth as true and give us the ability to follow it; to show us the false as false and destine us to abandon it.[iii] And may God bless our Master Muhammad and his Family and Companions, and give them perfect peace.

[i] “Passions” here translates hawa.

[ii] . “Passions” here translates shahwa

[iii] . IA may he alluding to a Tradition that was popular among Sufi’s, but not contained in any of the standard collections: “Show, me things as they truly are,” or, in another version, “Let the false appear as false, and the true as true.” See LJ 94.

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