A Letter Regarding The Need for a Shaykh

The following letter from a student and reply given by Hakim al-Umma (may Allah have mercy on him) demonstrates the need for a shaykh.

I am presently completing Dawrat al-hadith [hadith program: the final year of Islamic education wherein the six authenticated hadith collections are studied]. For quite a while I had intended to write, but a certain thing prevented me from doing so. I am a voracious reader and lover of your writings, and have been engaged in reading your books since my childhood. By the grace of Allah, I have benefited much. I have learned one particular thing from your writings — that the commands of te Shar’ia are all voluntary (ikhtiyariyya). Since the commands are volitional it follows that the commands to abstain are likewise volitional. Thus the remedy for all spiritual ailments is to refrain (volitionally).

I have always adopted this method for myself. The question now is this: since this principle has been learned from the shaykhs of the Path, does the need still remain to refer to the shaykhs and obtain remedies from them? i do not understand this. I have ruminated for quite a while regarding this matter. I trust that you will advise me so that I may practice accordingly. After realizing this general principle, what is the need for obtaining the diagnosis and prescription of a shaykh? I hope that if I have erred, I will be informed.

The Reply

The commands and prohibitions are all volitional. However, errors can be made in this regard. At times, what has already been acquired (hasil) is considered as not haveing been yet attained (ghayr hasil), and sometimes vice versa. For example, a person intends to attain concentration based on humility (khushu’) in prayer, and in reality he then attains this concentration. But, while having attained this he is simultaneously afflicted by an abundance of stray thoughts. This person then regards teh accident of such thought as contradictory to concentration. He thus considers that he has not atained concentration. Furthermore, in the initial stages of, stray thoughts are non-volitional — coming of their own accord — but later on the worshipper is diverted towards volotional stray thoughts, yet he is deceived into believing that such thoughts are of the non-volitional kind of the intial stages. He thus considers himself to have concentration, while in actual fact he has lost concentration.

At times he considers what is infirm (ghary rasikh) to be firm (rasikh). For example, persevering in the face of a few light mishaps, he considers himself to have attaned the state of rida bi ‘l-qada’ (satisfaction with the divine decree). His contentment in the face of these slight misfortunes leads him to believe that he has attained advanced capability in firmness and steadfastness. But when some great calamity overtakes him and he fails to be contented, he still labors under the deception that he has attained the desired degree and goal of firmness.

The consequence of regarding the attained as unattained is frustration and depression, which in turn induce one to become careless and negligent, and thus, the attained becomes truly eliminated. The harm of the opposite condition (i.e., considering the unattained as attained) is deprivation. Since one labors under the false notion that one has already achieved the goal, one does not make and effort in this direction.

The same danger lurks in considering what is firm — one remains careless, not making any effort or arrangement to attain the desired goal of firmness and steadfastness. Sometimes one commits the error of believing that the state of firmness has not been attained despite its having been atatined. For example, one combated unlawful lust during a time when the effect of one’s dhikr was dominant. As a result, the condition of unlawful lust remained suppressed so much so that one’s sttention was totally diverted from it. Later, when the effect of the dhikr decreases and the natural propensities reassert themselves, even if in slight degree, one is midled to believe that one’s striving against the lowere self has gone wasted, hence the return of the evil propensities. The consequence of this feeling is that one loses hope and is overtaken by stagnation and retrogression.

The above are merely some examples of errors and the resulatant harm. A qualified shaykh, by virtue of his insight and experience, discerns the reality of such states when informed by the seeker, and guides him aright, highlighting for him the errors and pitfalls. The seeker is thus saved from these dangers. Assuming that the spiritual traveler (salik), because of intelligence and correct understanding, discerns the pitfalls himself, then too, he will not attain tranquility and peace of mind because of inexperience. He will remain perplexed. And perplexity impedes the attainment of the goal.

This is the duty of the shaykh’s office. More than this is not his responsibility. Nevertheless, in kindness he performs another function as well. In realizing the goal or the initial stage of the goal or in eliminating an evil attribute, the seeker of truth undergoes great stress and difficulty although repeated subjection to such difficulty finally is transformed into ease. But the shaykh sometimes, as a favor, devises such a scheme that makes the difficulty disappear from the very inception.

This is a brief exposition for understanding. The need for a shaykh is felt and understood once one commences in the Path and systematically informs the shaykh of one’s particular conditions, and at the same time follows his advice and instructions. Furthermore, such total obedience is possible only if one has full trust and confidence in the shaykh — fully resigning to him. At that time one will actually feel and realize that it is not possible to attain the goal without a shaykh.

The Path to Perfection; pages 27-30

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