Does one require a spiritual guide?

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.”

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