Spiritual Abuse and the Sufi Tradition

Interrogative Imperative Institute

"Once tasawwuf (the Sufi path) was a reality without a name, and now it is a name without a reality."

The foregoing words were said more than twelve hundred years ago. The situation today is much worse.

While there are still some authentic shaykhs or guides and legitimate chains of spiritual/mystical transmissions (silsilah or Sufi Orders) that are in existence today, there are many, many more counterfeit/fraudulent 'teachers' and groups who have muddied the spiritual waters considerably and, in the process, are exploiting the ignorance and vulnerability of unsuspecting individuals.

Science and Mysticism

The following comments arose in response to a number of statements and questions which had been expressed concerning the relation of modern science to issues of mysticism. In a number of cases, various theories were being propounded about the nature of psychological development and how this plays out in relation to the Sufi Path, while in a number of other instances, claims were being made that quantum physics has only just recently discovered what mystics have known for thousands of years -- namely, that everything reduces down to being a function of vibration and that the ultimate quantum of being is consciousness.


There are a number of books out now -- Connie Zweig's The Holy Longing, to mention just one -- which seek to explore the relationship of the psychological/emotional realms to the mystical dimension. Among other things, these works develop the idea that people often bring their emotional and psychological problems, issues, or baggage along on their esoteric journey -- sometimes with problematic or, even, disastrous results.

I have heard some people -- for instance, Baba Ram Das (Richard Alpert) -- indicate they do not believe that the mystical path can solve any major form of neurosis or other, underlying, psychological problems. At best, according to such individuals, mystical pursuits can help diminish the size of a psychological difficulty or limit the extent to which these sorts of forces interfere with a person's life -- in short, they can be managed and controlled, but not eliminated.

One also encounters much talk, from time to time, about spiritual guides as father figures, and that, with respect to some people, the search for a teacher is, in reality, just a search for a father figure. Moreover, apparently, issues of transference -- both positive and negative -- play themselves out whenever such individuals encounter a shaykh or other kinds of mystical guide.

Perhaps, some distinctions need to be drawn here. There is a difference between the emotional and psychological stresses which life imposes on all of us -- shaykhs included -- and the theories of this or that brand of psycho-dynamic theory of development.

Every human being has a need for love, kindness, compassion, empathy, honesty, sincerity, decency, friendship, understanding, and so on. If we don't get this quality of life -- at least, in some minimally acceptable form -- from our original nuclear family and/or surrounding neighborhood/community, then, we tend to seek such qualities elsewhere. Furthermore, if we don't receive these qualities -- again, at some minimally effective level -- during the early periods of the developmental process, then, yes, various kinds of psychological and emotional problems may arise which affect one's ideas about identity, purpose, motivation, learning, sociability, personality, love, intention, reciprocity, relationships, morality, hope, and meaning. On the other hand, people are quite variable in how they respond to the presence or absence of these kinds of issues in their lives.

Some individuals who are from very dysfunctional backgrounds rise like phoenix from the ashes. Other individuals who are from relatively functional families and communities go sour, and, in between, are individuals with an array of complex forces and factors operating within them, helping to shape and color their perception of life, themselves, and others. What percentage of those individuals who become interested in mysticism do so for unresolved emotional and psychological issues? I don't think anyone knows, and this is so, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there is no universally agreed upon conception of what constitutes 'normal' development in any, non-statistical sense. There are countless theories about this subject, but that is all they are -- theories ... with some aspects of such theories seeming to resonate in relation to certain dimensions of people's experience, while other facets of the same theories appear to be forced or problematic or not universally applicable when it comes to explaining human development and behavior.

Secondly, there are few, if any, individuals among the living who are able to sort out the differences between the problems which are in our lives because we have adopted (chosen) poor coping strategies and the difficulties that are in our lives because they are part of our rizq -- our allotted portion (which extends to difficulties as well as ease) ... or to what extent the latter affects the former, or the former affects the latter. Consequently, determining what the meaning(s) is(are) of the events in our lives -- in the present case, developmental issues -- is not an easy matter, any more than is understanding the import of the dreams we have, since they both (dreams and life events) require interpretation.

Ta'wil, which is a term that appears in the Qur'an on a number of occasions, is understood by some to mean interpretation, but, among the Sufi masters, this term refers to a process of bringing an issue back to its origin, source, or operating principle. When we become involved in conceptual interpretations -- whether of the Qur'an or life - then this is often when we begin to go astray from the truth of things.

A spiritual guide is someone who, by the Grace of Allah, is rooted, via a silsilah, in ta'wil. It is this capacity for taking life back to its origin, source, or principle which distinguishes the mystical path or tasawwuf from theology, kalam, philosophy, jurisprudence, and even physical science.

Whatever emotional or psychological condition in which a person comes to the door of a shaykh, God has brought teacher and seeker together for a purpose which, although known to Divinity, is, yet, to be worked out on the human level. This remains true irrespective of whether the seeking of the student is sincere or the teacher is authentic.

Whether a seeker comes from functional or dysfunctional backgrounds, that individual is entangled in issues of psychological and emotional difficulties because such problems are inherent in what it means to be a seeker. It is our ignorance of the truth of things which is the source of our problems, and ignorance arises out of both effectively functioning as well as dysfunctional families and communities alike.

Intuitively, many seekers understand the gist of what it is they are seeking. They are looking for people of ta'wil ... people who are capable of going back, and helping people to learn how to journey back, to the origin or source of one's life.

Unresolved issues of development may be present, but underneath it all is one naked reality -- one needs the truth in order to be able to sort life out. A spiritual guide may, at some level, be, for some, a 'father figure' (and unless one knows what kind of a background another person grew up in, one really doesn't have a clue what the hermeneutical character of this term might be), but such issues are, for the most part, purely secondary to the one, overriding consideration of life -- without truth, one begins at no beginning, and one works toward no end.

Psychologically deprived childhoods are not what make people vulnerable to spiritual fraud -- although such a background can be exploited once the bait has been taken. The 'bait' into which we bite with our trust is the belief, hope, and understanding that the individual who calls himself or herself a mystical guide is someone who gives authentic manifestation to the promise of ta'wil in the sense outlined above.

No seeker knows the truth of this belief, hope or understanding at the time of meeting an alleged shaykh, or even at the time of taking ba'yat (initiation) -- that is why they are called a seeker ... because they are ignorant and don't know the truth of things. This is what makes all seekers vulnerable ... their ignorance and a hope which places one's essential trust at risk.

Authentic teachers take this initial investment of trust from a seeker and turn it into nisbath which is the essential heart-to-heart channel of spiritual communication between a seeker and a teacher, and the medium of transmission of this nisbath is trust. Fraudulent teachers exploit and manipulate such an investment of trust and convert it into another kind of relationship -- a parasitic one that is problematic, if not destructive, to the host (i.e., the seeker).

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that 'all people will perish but the people of action, and among the people of action, all would perish except the sincere, and the sincere are at great risk'. One of the reasons why the sincere are at risk is because 'trust' -- a component of sincerity -- is offered up under conditions of ambiguity with respect to how it will be received and treated by others.

Some individuals may seek out abusive relationships because that is all they know, and, for such individuals, it may be that they operate on the premise: 'better the devil one knows than those one does not know'. However, there are many other individuals who are not seeking abuse, although, for reasons best known to Divinity, this is what they find.

Moreover, the nature of spiritual abuse is such -- or can be so -- that the people who are being abused may not even be aware of its presence. This is because the fundamental form of spiritual abuse is not sexual, financial, material or authoritarian exploitation, of one kind or another, but, rather, a charade which is being played out such that the so-called teacher is passing himself or herself off as a sacred manifestation of ta'wil, when this is not the case. An alleged teacher can have all manner of information about the structural character of the mystical path, along with countless teaching stories, practices to give, fatihas (a ceremony of remembrance and gratitude) to offer, sama (sacred music) sessions, and so on, but if that person has not been properly appointed by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), with the permission and authentication of Divinity, then, this person is not rooted in the esoteric tradition of ta'wil, and, mystically speaking, can offer absolutely no -- and I emphasize no -- help to an individual seeker with respect to the issue of returning to one's origin or source and realizing the truth of what that entails. Such a fraudulent guide is merely wasting one's time as far as the essential purpose of life is concerned, and this remains s o even if one learns this or that from such an individual.

There are many theories of psychology which make claims about what an infant does and does not experience, or is and is not aware of, or does and does not know, or whether an infant has a sense of self. In truth, an infant is something of a 'black-box' mystery with respect to which psychologists and other theoretically inclined individuals attempt to do a certain amount of reverse engineering based on observed behavior -- which often tends to constitute a very poor, limiting sample from which to try to make inferences about the nature of an infant's phenomenological world ... a sample which, among other things, may be consistent with a variety of contradictory theories.

Individually, we are unique manifestations of the realm of al-a'yan al-thabita, that is, the realm of immutable entities. According to the Sufi masters, in truth, we are absolute non-existence ( al-'adam al-mutlaq) brought into a condition of relative non-existence (al-'adam al-idhafi) through the way the Names and Attributes of Divinity are manifested through the prism of al-a'yan al-thabita (immutable essences).

We do not individuate through the self-awareness of our parents, because, in fact, most parents are caught up in an illusion of self. Thus, the Prophet is reported to have said: "Every child is born according to primordial nature (fitra), and, then, his parents make that child a Jew, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian." Furthermore, since the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also is reported to have said: "There are 71 sects among Jews, and only one of them is correct, and there are 72 sects among Christians, and only one of them is correct, and there are 73 sects among Muslims, and only one of them is correct," one might add that some parents initiate children into becoming this sect or that sect of Muslim, and, thus, primordial nature, or fitra, goes missing in the battles of life.

According to the Sufi masters there is one, and only one, form of developmental individuation which is fully compatible with the truth of existential and spiritual realities -- namely, the one in which a person is brought back to the essential origin and source of one's unique mode of al-a'yan al-thabita through a process of ta'wil -- a process which is sometimes referred to as tasawwuf. This truth is realized in the station of baqa (spiritual subsistence) but one must go through the keyhole of fana to gain admittance.

All other forms of individuation -- psychological, sociological, theological, mythological, or philosophical -- are inherently incapable of making this journey, and, therefore, are of limited and of somewhat misleading value. In fact, one of the tasks of tasawwuf is to help us disengage from all inauthentic forms of individuation, for only ta'wil -- in its sacred sense and not in its adulterated sense of conceptual interpretation -- can lead to the truth of one's essential nature or fitra.

How do we come into this world? One comes into this world as an expression of the rizq which is contained within the potential of the kind of al-a'yan al-thabita, or immutable entity, that one is primordially -- we pick up nothing along the way into this world which is not consistent with our rizq, and whatever 'picking up' is done, to the extent that such 'picking up' happens at all -- and Allah knows best the truth of this matter -- occurs as a function of an individual's potential which is inherent in one's unique al-a'yan al-thabita.

All human awareness is awareness of the selfhood of al-a'yan al-thabita being manifested in one modality, or another, of its potential. From: illusion and delusion, to: truth and realization, our capacity for awareness reflects one, or another, condition of the unique potential of al-a'yan al-thabita which is being induced into manifested form through the Presence of the Divine Names and Attributes.

As such, baqa might be described as the awareness of the Presence of Divinity as it gives manifested, relative non-existence to the potential inherent in absolute non-existence as a function of the nature which Divinity has given to the fitra of al-a'yan al-thabita. Fana, on the other hand, gives expression to the awareness of that Presence without a concomitant awareness of the fitra which makes awareness of such Presence possible -- a fitra which is God given.

The purpose of sacred ta'wil or tasawwuf is not -- at least, primarily -- to go on a journey of the planes of the different realms of being, whatever these planes may be. The purpose of ta'wil is to bring on line and calibrate all of one's inner faculties (nafs, mind, heart, sirr, ruh, kafi, and aqfah) in order to be able to properly carry out the purpose for which we were created -- that is: "I have not created human beings and jinn except that they may worship Me," (51:56 -57), and the 'Me' here is the Hidden Treasure which Divinity loved to be known and for which Creation was brought forth to know, to love, to be slain, and to be recompensed with the gift of baqa -- individuated awareness of Divine Presence as manifested through the Names and Attributes.

According to the Sufi masters, whatever is learned about planes of Being tends to occur on the downward arc of return from spiritual ascension. Furthermore, such learning is a function, in part, of the capacity of the one who is being opened to such possibilities by Divinity, and, consequently, varying capacities experience such phenomena differently, which helps account for the range of descriptions that have been given about some of these planes, as well as states and stations, and where these all fit into the scheme of things.

Finally, to the best of my understanding -- and being human, I could be quite wrong here - the Sufi masters do not either reduce the Divine Names and Attributes down to vibrational phenomena (see introduction to this essay), nor do they consider consciousness to be the fundamental quantum or building block of existence. Just as God is not spirit, the Names and Attributes of Divinity are not vibrational events, nor quantum interactions, nor string theory in action, nor are they further reducible to anything other than being the mysterious means through which manifestation of the Hidden Treasure, on whatever level, is made possible. Quantum chromodynamics or other field theories of modern science, allude, at best, to secondary realms of manifestation, not to a primary set of causal forces.

In addition, trying to reduce all of the Names and Attributes down to being expressions of some basic modality of consciousness seems inconsistent with the very existence of a multiplicity of different Divine qualities, each of which has its own unique character -- consciousness being one such, unique quality among others. Now, one could, if one wished, follow the example of those who are trying to derive consciousness from quantum phenomena in the search for a unified field theory or a TOE (theory of everything), but I suspect that such efforts will be unrequited because Divinity cannot be circumscribed nor penetrated -- in fact, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) counseled on this issue when he is reported to have said: "Reflect upon on all things, but reflect not on God's Essence."

Ultimately, Divinity, in Essence, is unknowable. We know only what is disclosed through Divine manifestation, via the Names and Attributes, together with what our spiritual capacity is capable of being made aware by the Grace of God. Furthermore, since the Essence, or Dhat, of Divinity is unknowable, then, how the Names and Attributes arise out of the Great Mystery, is itself unknowable for we do not have access to the event-horizon through which the manifest comes forth from the non-manifest. However, whatever the nature of the aforementioned capacity is, which Divinity has vouchsafed one in the form of al-a'ayan thabita, this is the means through which one seeks to worship the manifestation of the Hidden Treasure as given expression through the Names and Attributes in accordance with God's wish with respect to humankind and jinn.

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