To Every Sheikh a Tariqa

Sawt El Umma, Issue 102,
11th November, 2002

At the moment we find ourselves losing consciousness, we won’t have time to weep under domes, nor read the Book. We will be holding onto nothing but a mirage. At the moment the rain stops, there will be no moon at the end of the night to keep us awake until dawn. We will enter the next world without a passport. At the moment we feel ourselves being scattered in pieces, we will not have a tongue, lips or words. We will be afraid to speak because it will be a timeless moment crossing it will separate pleasure from oppression. Its cure will be to remember Allah who is unknowable by humans even if they swallowed time by the day and month  

If  ‘remembrance’ of Allah (Ar: dhikr Allah), ‘the prayer for the prophet’ (Ar: al-sala ‘ala al-nabi) and love of the prophet’s family are the clear bases of sufism (tasawuf) why are there so many sufi ‘ways’ (Ar: turuq ) and such a diversity of schools and banners. What’s the meaning of the well-known saying: ‘To every sheikh a tariqa.’? It means that while every sheikh has his own method of teaching his followers (Ar: murideen), this does not imply in any sense that each sheikh has his own religion. There is only one religion.

One of the most beautiful expressions in sufism is mureed, a person who follows a sheikh of his own free will, not by force or coercion, but out of love and ardor. His sheikh does not ask him to do anything outside religion and does not incite him to do anything wrong. It might be asked if such obedience and conviction is the reason for the apparent naivety of some murideen. In fact the reason is both strange and rational at the same time. A mureed has complete trust in his sheikh. He doesn’t ask his sheikh to prove what he says because he knows his sheikh is firmly grounded in the Quran and the teachings and example of the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) (Ar: sunna). That said, the question does no harm. In fact it’s useful. Questions are the key to knowledge.

Sufi tariqas are both a taste and a path. Each of them is appropriate to its age, time and nature. In the age of Al-Imam Al-Shafei (r.a.a.) , for example, if one were to ask a muslim about the difference between the schools of religious law (Ar :madhaheb) of Al-Shafei and Al-Hanbali he would probably say Al-Hanbali was more difficult. He would say the reason for this was that Al-Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal (r.a.a.), the student of Al-Shafei, was a scholar and was able to accept from his teacher and sheikh what others were unable to accept. What was difficult for others, Al-Hanbali  considered simple, easy and normal. In the age of Al-Shafei and Bin Hanbal the murideen knew religious law (Ar: shari‘aa) very well and it was not difficult for them. A mureed would accept what his sheikh told him, no matter how difficult, without question. In other ages, murideen were less knowledgeable about religious law and as a result were less able or willing to accept what they considered to be difficult. In these cases, the sheikhs would often lighten the load on their murideen so they would be able to learn. While they were still sometimes strict or harsh, this was the harshness of a father toward his son. If the son knew why his father was being strict with him he would know it was not harshness but compassion. If we know the reason for pain, it sometimes makes it easier for us to endure it.
If words such as sheikh or mureed are strange or ‘heavy’ on the hearing for some in our ‘modern’ age, there are alternatives – teacher and student, master and  apprentice, father and son, the learned and the seeker of knowledge. However, we shouldn’t distract ourselves with names and epithets. What is more important is to understand the rights and duties of each of them. The duty of the teacher is to teach his student what Allah and His Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) ordered. If the teacher carries out this duty,  it is the student’s duty to obey him

The relationship between teacher and student is to be found in its most exemplary form in the Quran in the story of Sayedena Al-Khidr (r.a.a) and the prophet Sayedena Musa (a.s.). Here Sayedena Al-Khidr (r.a.a) is the teacher and Sayedena Musa (a.s.) is the student. It is a beautiful, refined and very human depiction of the relationship between the sheikh and mureed.  From the very beginning it is a journey of discovery. Musa (the student) asks Al-Khidr (the teacher) if he can accompany him and tells him why: ‘ Shall I follow you on condition that you teach me true knowledge of what you have been taught? (Al-Kahf: 66). This is the student’s goal. Al-Khidr tells him it will not be easy; ‘Surely you will not have patience with me’ (Al-Kahf: 67). This is not meant as a criticism of the student himself but rather that he does not understand the real nature of the teacher-student relationship. ‘And how can you have patience about something about which you have no comprehension ? (Al-Kahf: 68) , he asks him. Here the teacher speaks of the difficulty of the journey and what can be expected. The student, nevertheless, insists he is ready and willing to learn.’ If Allah wills,  you will find me patient and I shall never disobey you in any matter’ (Al-Kahf: 69), Musa responds.  And so Al-Khidr lets Musa accompany him with the intention of teaching him what he knows or, more precisely, what Allah has taught him. The Al – Khidr’s expectation is that Musa’s lack of knowledge will lead to denial. This is normal. Denial is always a result of a lack of understanding.

They set off together on their journey eventually boarding a boat which Al-Khidr (alone) later punctures to render it un-seaworthy. Seeing what is happening Musa (the student) objects just as Al-Khidr (the teacher) had expected. He accuses Al-Khidr of trying to kill the other passengers. ‘Did you puncture it to drown those in it?’ (Al-Kahf: 71) he protests. Al-Khidr reminds him of their agreement by asking: ‘Did I not say to you that you would not be able to have patience with me?’ (Al-Kahf: 72). Musa quickly apologizes attributing his outburst to forgetfulness of their terms of agreement clauses and reminding him forgetfulness is not a sin. ’Don’t blame me for forgetting or make it lay heavy on me.’ he says (Al-Kahf: 73). In other words ‘take it easy on me.

Al-Khidr accepts Musa’s apology and they set off again on this journey. They come across (both of them) a young boy who Al-Khidr (alone) suddenly and unexpectedly kills for no apparent reason. Musa cannot bring himself to accept obedience to his teacher should extend to condoning murder. In the first case Al-Khidr was ‘guilty’ of willful intent to kill the people in the boat but this is clearly a premeditated murder of an innocent boy. Musa can no longer contain himself. ’Have you killed an innocent person that has not killed another?’ (Al-Kahf: 74) he exclaims. The innocent boy has not even reached puberty. He is unaccountable for his actions so how can this be his fate? Again Al-Khidr reminds him of their agreement. ’Did I not say to you that you would not be able to have patience with me?’ (Al-Kahf:75) Musa apologizes yet again saying this will be the last time he breaches the agreement. ‘If I ask you about anything after this then keep me not in your company. Indeed you shall have (then) found an excuse in my case ’ he says (Al-Kahf:76). Al-Khidr (the teacher) accepts his apology and the condition, proposed by Musa (the student) himself, not Al-Khidr, that should it happen again, they will part company as if it is the mureed who sets the conditions of the relationship not the sheikh.

They set off again and arrive in a village. They ask the villagers for food but are refused. In the village they (both of them) come across a wall about to fall down and despite the fact the villagers have been mean and inhospitable to them Al-Khidr rebuilds the wall. Again, the student objects thinking perhaps this time his objection will be acknowledged since the objection is not about something bad like the destruction of the boat and the killing of the boy but something good and positive. Not realizing the agreement with his sheikh covers any and all objections, whether it be to something good or bad, the mureed says to his sheikh ‘If you had pleased, you might certainly have taken a remuneration for it’(Al-Kahf: 77) to which the sheikh replies ‘This is where you and I part company. Now I shall explain to you those things about which you were unable to have patience.’ (Al-Kahf: 78)

The sheikh then explains what was beyond the understanding of the mureed. ‘As for the boat, it belonged to  poor men who earned a living from the sea and I wished to disable the boat because it was being pursued by a king who seized every boat by force’ (Al-Kahf:79).  Disabling the boat meant the king would leave them alone. The sheikh had actually done something good, even though it looked bad to his mureed. As for the young boy, both his parents were believers. The sheikh knew that when the boy grew up he would intimidate his parents and force them to give up their belief. If the boy died now, he would die without sin and enter paradise while his parents would still be able to have another child. ‘We wanted their Lord to give them in his place a better one, purer and more compassionate’ (Al-Kahf: 81). As for the wall, it belonged to two orphans in the village. (It should be noted here the Quran uses two different words for the village. At first, it is called qaria in expectancy of customary village hospitality. When the meanness of the villagers becomes apparent it is called medina which also means city). Buried under the wall there was a treasure that was the rightful property of the orphans. Because their father was a righteous man, Allah wanted them to reach maturity and claim what was theirs ‘This explains those things about which you were unable to have patience’ (Al-Kahf: 82) Al-Khidr concludes

In the story of Al-Khidr and Musa it is the mureed, completely of his own free will, who asks to follow the sheikh and it is the sheikh who warns the mureed of the difficulties and his inability to complete the journey. The mureed promises the sheikh he will be patient and when he fails to keep his promise and apologizes the sheikh accepts his apology. When the mureed fails a second time to keep his promise he again apologizes and proposes to the sheikh that if it happens a third time, then he and the sheikh should part company. The mureed remains in the company of the sheikh completely of his own free will. One might ask what would have happened if Musa had remained silent about the destruction of the boat? Would he have been guilty of turning a blind eye to attempted murder? What would have happened if he had remained silent about the killing of the young boy? Would he have been guilty of murder by association? What would have happened if he had kept silent about the wall? He would have continued in the company of Al-Khidr and he would have learned all that had been hidden from him without having to apologize or eventually part company from Al-Khidr.

Ubai Bin Kaab (r.a.a) narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s.) said: ‘Allah’s Mercy be on us and on Musa. Had he been patient he would have seen wonders from his companion but he said ‘ If I ask you  about anything after this then keep me not in your company. Indeed you shall have (then) found an excuse in my case’ (Sunan Abu Daoud Part 4, pp. 286, 3984)

The story of Sayedena Al-Khidr (r.a.a) and Sayedena Musa (a.s.) is about the trust the mureed should put in his sheikh. The difference between the mureed and his sheikh is knowledge. The objections of the mureed toward his sheikh are the objections of one who doesn’t know toward someone who does. Those who know are not like those who don’t. If this is not fully understood, it can sometimes lead to serious and fundamental misunderstandings. For example, the Quran says: ‘Surely We sent it down in the night of power. And what will enable you to comprehend (Mohammed) what the night of power is.’ (Al-Qadar: 1,2) . For most commentators the words are clear. The prophet (s.a.a.w.s) does not know what the night of power is. The same expression is to be found in many other places in the Quran where Allah says for example ‘And what will enable you to comprehend what the certain calamity (Ar: al-Haqqa) is’ (Al-Haqqa: 3) or ‘And what will enable you to comprehend what the day of judgment is?’.(Al-Infitar: 17). In fact, the Arabic words ma adraka incorrectly translated in all these verses as ‘what will enable you to understand’ actually signify the very opposite. In Arabic one says to someone generous ma akramak or ‘how great your generosity is!’. It is a form of eulogy, a testimony to that person’s generosity. In the same way Allah says to His prophet (s.a.a.w,s) ma adraka or ‘how great your knowledge is !’ Allah is actually saying to His prophet (s.a.a.w.s) that no-one has more knowledge of the night of power than he does. No-one has more knowledge of the certain calamity than he does and that no-one has more knowledge of the day of judgment than he does. Fundamental misinterpretations such as these are more than serious. They undermine the very heart of faith!

There are degrees of knowledge. The poor men in the boat which Al-Khidr disabled had what the Quran calls ‘knowledge of certainty’ (Ar: ،alm al- yaqeen) They saw the holes in the boat. Sayedena Musa (a.s.) knew who had made the holes. His knowledge was  ‘the eye of certainty’ (Ar: ayn al-yaqeen) However, only Sayedena Al-Khidr (r.a.a.)  knew why it was done, the wisdom behind it. His knowledge was the ‘truth of certainty’ (Ar: haq al-yaqeen ) Sayedena Musa (a.s.) had shown good manners in raising his objections to Al-Khidr’s actions in the form of questions –  ’Did you puncture it to drown those in it?’ ’Have you killed an innocent person who did not kill another?’ The third time, however, he didn’t pose a question. He didn’t say ‘Have you built a wall?’ This was because the student or mureed was expecting something good from his teacher or sheikh. He didn’t make objections. People are not all at the same level or degree of knowledge. The Quran says: ‘We raise by degrees whom we will and above every one who has knowledge there is one who knows more’ (Yusuf: 76)

Only Allah preserves from error and gives strength to do right.