Does one require a spiritual guide?

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.

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