The rules of behaviour of the shaykh

The Sufis of the Chishtiyya order, as well of many other orders, have also made a detailed study of the 52nd chapter of ‘Omar as-Sohrawardi’s handbook ‘Awaarif al-ma’arif dealing with

The proper rules of behaviour of the shaykh and what he undertakes with his companions and disciples

This they studied, if they could read Arabic or in case of knowledge of Persian they studied the book of al-Qashani (partially translated by Wilberforce Clark into English while using the ‘misleading’ title of the Arabic original). My translation is from German (Richard Gramlich; Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden; pp. 359-364. Gramlich has translated the complete book, an excellent achievement not only because it has the size of a telephone directory, but also because here we are dealing with Sohrawardi’s masterpiece.

While al-Qashani gives 15 rules for the shaykh we’ll meet only 13 rules when reading Sohrawardi’s book. This set does not only give an useful insider’s view into the psychology of a teacher, but is also useful for a disciple as we can read for instance how a teacher should behave when dealing with the privacy of the disciple.

The proper rules of behaviour of the shaykh and what he undertakes with his companions and disciples

1. The most important of the rules of behaviour is that the sincere person does not want to take precedence over others. He does not intend to attract their inner being towards himself by means of kind and beautiful words, because he would like to have disciples. In case he notices that God sends him disciples who turn to him with a proper opinion and a sincere intention in the hope to receive guidance, then he should fear that this is a test from God. Souls always like to receive approval from other people and like to be honoured. Safety can however be found in being unknown.

When destiny proceeds as it proceeds and the servant (=the teacher) knows exactly how things are and has knowledge received from God that he has received the task to guide disciples, then he speaks to them in such a way as a true councillor or one who cares, would do or speak like a father to his son on religious matters and the life hereafter.

2. Whenever God send him (the shaykh) a mureed or one seeking proper guidance, then he (the shaykh) should direct himself to God. He should ask God again and again that He may accept the words addressed to the mureed. He speaks to the mureed in such a way that he, in fact, has God in view and requests of Him that by means of his help he or she may be guided to the right things. I (= ‘Omar as-Sohrawardi) have heard our shaykh (= his uncle) Abu Najib as-Sohrawardi (d. 1168) giving this advice to his companions: “You should only speak with a faqir (the seeker who is ‘poor’ in God), when your inner being is pure.”

This is a good advice, as these words are to the hearing of the mureed what the effect of seed is on the soil. We have already said that bad seed gets lost. The seed of a speech becomes bad by means of polluted desires. A little drop of lust spoils a complete sea of knowledge.

During the talk with his mureed his heart should ask for help from God as the tongue asks the heart for assistance. Just like the tongue is the interpreter of the heart, likewise the human heart is the interpreter of God. He looks at God, listens to Him, accepts what descends from Him and does his job as His authorised representative.

3. The next thing is that the shaykh should seriously test the capacity of the mureed. This can be done by means of the light of faith and the strength of his knowledge, so that because of his penetrating insight he can observe you and assess what to expect of you, of your qualities and your capabilities.

Some mureeds are very capable in regard to religious acts, physical activities and treading the way of the pious. Other mureeds have different possibilities and capabilities, which have to do with the nearness of God. They are walking the way of those near to God, the so-called desired ones. They are capable to perform the inward acts of the heart.

For every individual among these two categories there are beginnings (mabaadin) and end limits. The shaykh however, is someone who can observe what happens in your inner being, who knows everyone of his mureeds and is aware of what you are capable of. Would it not be very strange if the farmer knows about his land, knows about his crop and is informed about every single vegetable and what type of land is the best for it; would it not be very strange that every businessman knows the strengths and weaknesses of his enterprise, would it not be strange that the woman who works with cotton knows all about that material and knows in which cases to use a thick fibre and when not, – that the shaykh would not know about his mureed and about your capabilities?

The messenger of God spoke to the people in accordance to their level of understanding. His demands kept in account what a certain person could do. To some he advised to spend and others he advised to save. To some he advised to earn money and others, like the people of the bench, he advised not to earn their daily bread. The messenger knew for what purpose a certain person had been created and what was fitting for every single person. When inviting people (to Islam) he, however, invited everyone as he had been sent to bring proofs and to openly show the way. That is why he invited everyone without any limitation. He invited those who had the inner capabilities to be rightly guided and those without them.

4. It belongs to the good habits of the shaykh – to his adab – that he has a special room for his retreats and that there is a certain time when people cannot disturb him. Thus his ‘I’ will not offer him any excuses regarding that what he may gain because of his retreat, by saying that his continuously being in the society of the people and his talking to them is not harmful, that it is not necessary for him, so that there is in no need to retreat. (This is wrong as) even the messenger of God, in spite of the perfection of his inner attainments, did keep awake in the night, he continued to say his prayers, and at times he was on retreat. Human nature is in need of discipline, sometimes only a little thereof, sometimes more than that, sometimes of a subtle nature and sometimes not so subtle.

Many people are blind, as they are satisfied with a little bit of contentment of their hearts. They see this as their asset and thus, because of this being content in their hearts, are misguided and plunge themselves in interaction with the people. Thus they turn themselves, because of a morsel taken together with others or because of friendliness shared with others, into a resting-place for the seekers on the path.

He will be visited by people who are not interested in religion and who are not longing to walk the path of spirituality. Temptations are possible as long as he is always available. Neglect may be the result.

The shaykh should not stop to ask for help of God. He should have humility in his heart, no he should even offer supplications to God with body and soul. In regard to each word he should take his refuge with God and in each of his movements he should be humble.

Temptations may come (for all people) when because of blindness one claims to be strong enough to be able to withstand an uninterrupted intercourse with the people. Then there would be too little knowledge of the qualities of one’s own soul. A small attainment may cause blindness. In this case there has been too little benefit derived from the training of one’s own shaykh.

Junayd always said: ‘If I would know that two cycles of prayer would be better for me than to sit with you, I would not sit with you’. When a shaykh knows that retreat is better, he retreats and in case associating with others is better, then he’ll sit with his companions. In this way his public behaviour is guarded by his retreat. This public behaviour may thus even enrich his retreats.

5. There is a secret to be found herein. It is this one: A human being consists of components, which are not one. You can find in a human being opposite and different elements because we have already stated that people drift there and back again between the (influences of the) sublunar world and (those of) the world transcending the lunar sphere. Because of these differences a certain type of tiredness is the result and only when being with God it is possible to persevere. This is why everyone who acts, gets tired. This being tired shows itself either in your outward acts or in a certain listlessness in acting. There may also be a certain listlessness in acting which does not clearly shows itself on the surface. For the disciples and the seekers on the path the time of being tired forms an omission, a time of rest for the soul and a giving in to this languor. When someone has reached the position of being a shaykh then this human tiredness of course still can manifest itself. This portion of tiredness may however be of benefit to the people and it does not get ‘lost’ as in the case of the disciple. A mureed may loose being directed towards God, because of this tiredness. It is a merit of the shaykh that the people still can benefit from the portion of tiredness that is his share. He more often returns to the place of his retreat and his privileged station with a positive state of mind than this the tired seeker with all the force of his or her wishes. The shaykh comes back from the people, free from tiredness, and returns in his retreat with a thirst and light in his heart. His spirit is free from the observing of non-godly things and because of his loving attitude he progresses towards the fields of eternity.

6. It is a task of the shaykh to have a gentle attitude towards disciples and spiritual seekers. He should not insist that, because he is a shaykh, he has the right to be honoured and respected. He should remain humble. Ad-Duqqi told this: “I was staying in Egypt. I was part of a group of fuqara (the poor ones in God) who were sitting in the mosque. Az-Zaqqaaq entered, stood before a pillar and made the movements of the prayer. We said to one another: ‘As soon as the shaykh has finished his prayers, we stand up and we’ll salute him’. He, however, when he finished his prayers, came to us and gave us his salaams. We said: ‘We should have done so instead of the shaykh!’ He reacted thus: ‘God has never put such a burden on my heart!’ The meaning hereof is: ‘I never expected to be honoured’.”

7. It belongs to the adab of the shaykhs, that they with mildness should meet their mureeds in view of their inner stations. Someone has said: ‘When you meet a faqir (a poor one; this is BTW the designation of a seeker on the Sufi path. Only when one reaches the end thereof one is called a Sufi) meet him or her with mildness and not with knowledge! Mildness creates trust and knowledge alienates’. When the shaykh is acting in a mild way, then the disciple, because of the blessing contained in this way of acting, may derive benefit from knowledge and then he or she disposes of uncorrupted knowledge.

8. It belongs to the adab of the shaykhs that they are benevolent towards their disciples and honour their rights in days of health and illness. The shaykh has no contempt in regard to their rights while basing himself on their being a disciple and their honesty. Someone has said: ‘Don’t neglect the right of your brother, because of the mutual love between the two of you!’ It has been told of al-Jurayri that he has said: “I returned from the pilgrimage to Mekka. The first thing I did was to go to Junayd and greeted him. I was thinking that he should not trouble himself and only then I went home. After having said the morning prayer I turned around and there was Junayd standing behind me! I told him: ‘Master! I offered my greetings to you first, so that you should not trouble yourself by coming here!’ He answered me thus: ‘Abu Muhammad! This is your right, while that was your voluntary act!’”

9. It belongs to the adab of the shaykhs that – when they notice a weakness of the seeker of guidance in regard to the denial of his or her ego – they are mild in their training and in their relying on an honest decision. They should stop the seeker only at the limits of that, which is lawfully allowed. Herein is much of what is good. As long as the seeker doesn’t overstep the protecting boundaries of that which the (Islamic) law allows, then things are well with him or her. When the seeker realizes stability herein and gets into contact with the poor (e.g. other disciples) and is used to follow that which has been prescribed, then he or she will go forward towards the real precept, because of this mild treatment. Abu Sa’id b. al-Araabi said: ‘There was a young man who was known as Ibraahim as-Saa’egh. His father was a rich man. He took to retreats amongst the Sufis and got a connection with Abu Ahmad al-Qalaanesi. At times Abu Ahmad received some money and then he bought some bread, meat and sweets for him (the young man). He told: “He has left the world while being used to a pleasant life. That is why he has to be treated in a mild way and he has to be preferred over the others”.’

10. It belongs to the adab of the shaykhs that they distance themselves from desiring to get the property and the service of their disciples. They should not profit in any way from their disciples. The disciple came to him because of God’s will and that is why the shaykh takes care of his disciple and gives him or her guidance only because of the fact that this is God’s will. When the shaykh makes a gift to his disciples, then it counts like the best of alms. It has been transmitted: “A giver of alms cannot give anything better as alms in the shape of knowledge which he distributes among the people”. God has said in Qur’an 76:9, while giving the precept that those things which are of God should remain pure and that they should be kept free of defects:

We feed you for the sake of God alone.
We desire no reward from you, nor thanks.

It is therefore not permitted to the shaykh to ask for a wages for his ‘alms’ except when the shaykh has received knowledge from God that he should accept the gift or that he knows that it will be of profit to his disciple. To accept the property and the service of the disciple in those cases (as just have been described) will lead to something which is good for the disciple and one needs not be afraid as nothing bad in regard to the shaykh will come out of it.

God in Qur’an 47: 36-37 has said:

He will grant you your wages
And will not ask you for your possessions.
If he were to ask you for all of them and press you,
You will surely be niggardly,
And he will bring your ill-feeling to light.

To ‘press you’ means to deal in a hard way with you and to put you under pressure. Qataada has said: ‘God knows that when you have lost your possessions then rancour comes to light’. This is education in adab by God, the Generous. And good manners are those, which come from God.

11. Ja’far al-Kholdi said: ‘A man came to Jonayd and wanted to give away all of his possessions and to live in poverty together with the Sufis. Jonayd told him: “Do not give away all you have got! Keep from it as much as is sufficient for you and give away the rest! Live from what you have kept for yourself, put your energy in the seeking of what has been allowed and do not give away all you’ve got. This is because I’m not certain if you’ll be safe from the demands of your ego”.’ The Prophet always considered a matter carefully in his mind before acting. At times the shaykh may know as for the disposition of his disciple, that the giving away of his or her possessions would put him/her into a situation wherein the disciple would not long for possessions. In this case he can give permission to his disciple to give away his possessions, just like the messenger of Allah gave permission to Abu Bakr to do so and then accepted all of his possessions.

12. When the shaykh sees something in his disciple which is rejectable or notices a state which is crooked or sees some pride in his disciple or notices that a darkness has some hold over him, then it is proper adab not to say it directly in his or her face, but he should speak about his companions (in general) and then tell about the matter and briefly explain why it is wrong. This will be of benefit to all. This type of counsel is closer to courtesy between humans and it has more than anything else as immediate effect that a harmonious connection between hearts will come about. When he notices that one of his disciples is remiss in performing a certain service he has asked him or her to perform, then he tolerates this kind of neglect, forgives him or her and stimulates the disciple softly and in a friendly way to perform this service. The messenger of God has commanded this in what has been reported by Diyaa ad-din ‘Abd al-Wahhaab b. ‘Ali [I’m omitting the chain of narrators up to ‘Abdallaah b. ‘Omar]:

A man came to the Prophet and asked: ‘Messenger of God! How many times should I forgive the servant?’ He answered: ‘Seventy times a day!’

The traits of character of the shaykhs have been purified by their imitation of the messenger of God in a beautiful way. They are more than other people capable to revive his sacred habits in everything he has commanded, recommended, rejected or made into a duty.

13. It belongs to the important adab of the shaykh that he keeps all the secrets of his disciples to himself, just like all that is revealed to them and has been given to them as a mercy. So the secret of the disciple should not reach anyone beyond his or her shaykh. Because of this it becomes possible that the unfolding and the inner hearing of things, just like other unusual events, which have been experienced by the disciple in his or her retreat, appear to be unimportant in the eyes of his disciple. He teaches his disciple that the not proceeding beyond these things may divert you from God and that it will close the door to more important experiences. He may also teach his disciple that these are gifts are a grace and that it is good to be thankful for them, but that behind them uncountable other gifts of grace are waiting. He makes it clear to him or her that it is necessary for the disciple to search for the Giver and not for His gifts so that the secret gets preserved both with the disciple and the shaykh and does not spread to other people. The diffusion of secrets comes about because of the contraction of your breast. This contraction of your breast, which causes the spreading of secrets, has been attributed to women and stupid men. The cause of this divulging of secrets is the following: A human being has two powers, a giving power and a taking power and the expectations concerning both deal with their own acts. If God had not commanded the giving power to reveal what is happening then secrets would never come to the open. The one who has a sound intellect sets limits to this power whenever it wants to act and judges it by means of this intellect in order to give it its proper place. The shaykhs are – because of the solid quality of their intellects – beyond the point that they wish to reveal secrets. However the disciple should also keep these secrets hidden even for his/her own heart. The well-being and salvation of the disciple is connected herewith. God’s help, however, will reach the sincere disciples in all their comings and goings.