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.

Genuine Fake

There are some people who claim to be a shaykh and who may have no conscious desire to hurt people, but who, nonetheless, are carrying on fraudulent activities, spiritually speaking, due to the lack of any authentic process of spiritual authorization backing up what they do. Such individuals might be referred to as (but Allah knows best) what Alan Watts (a big name among the consciousness-raising crowd of the 60s-70s who was considered a guru by many and who wrote a variety of popularized books seeking to translate the 'sacred East' to the 'secular West') called a 'genuine fake' -- that is, someone who sincerely believes himself or herself to be a genuine spiritual guide but who, in truth, is not. Moreover, perhaps, Alan Watts had insight into this phenomenon because there are quite a few dimensions of his public and private persona which radiated with the properties of being a 'genuine fake' in the foregoing sense -- and there are those who would say the foregoing way of referring to Watts (i.e., as a genuine fake) might be an inaccurate kindness.

Some individuals are very intelligent, compassionate, scholarly, gifted, eloquent people who are interested in spirituality and wish to help people in some way with respect to the mystical path. What such individuals don't seem to realize is that one doesn't have to be a shaykh in order to do assist others.

For those people who are caring, talented, educated, multi-lingual, financially secure, and socially well-placed, why isn't this enough? Why do they insist on having to be known as a shaykh as well?

Some people like to refer to themselves as a shaykh, but not in the "classical sense". I confess that I really don't know what this way of talking about things means.

The classical sense of being a shaykh is that God wishes one to be a spiritual guide, and, therefore, Divinity moves the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to inform the heart of a given silsilah that such and such a person is the man or woman who is to serve as a locus of manifestation for the flow of the special barakah (Grace) that is given expression through a silsilah to keep it spiritually healthy and effective as a Divinely-ordained catalytic agent in the transformation of dross metals to gold.

If a person is not a shaykh in the foregoing sense, then, I suppose one can revert back to other semantic clusters which, sometimes, are associated with the term, and, in that event, one could serve as an elder or leader of a group of people, and this conveys another sense of the term 'shaykh'. Or, maybe, if someone commits 10,000 hadiths (traditions of the Prophet) to memory, then, such an individual becomes known as a shaykh in the exoteric sense of the word.

Unfortunately, it seems, none of the foregoing is really what some people who have assumed the title of shaykh seem to have in mind. Apparently, their nafs, or carnal soul, will accept nothing less than being thought of by others as someone who can help seekers after the mystical way to realize spiritual potential and essential identity.

If -- and, I emphasize 'if'-- the foregoing is so, then, in my opinion, someone who is hell bent on pursuing such a course may not be a charlatan (i.e., someone who flamboyantly attracts people with jokes and tricks for the purposes of duping those people). Nevertheless, such individuals are frauds, or spiritual counterfeits, for they are trying to pass themselves off as legal tender for something that is not backed up by real value.

One becomes a false shaykh as outlined above in a very simple way. It all begins by lying to oneself -- and having lofty motives does not assuage the tawdry nature of the lie which serves as the glue that seeks to hold everything together. Let such individuals read the Quranic Surah (chapter) of the Spider for a likeness of what they are doing. They are building a house of worship and a spiritual path out of the flimsiest of materials - the desires of nafs-i-amarra. I used to know someone who had a desire to be a shaykh and in order to satisfy that desire, he had a wish-fulfillment dream and, thereby, became a shaykh. There are two brothers (in both the biological and religious sense) whom I know who claim to have had dreams which have made them shaykhs, and now they are busily engaged in taking mureeds -- but as someone once said: 'if one becomes a shaykh in the dream world, then, that dream world is also where one should find one's mureeds.'

There is a fellow who, recently, has been seeking to make a big splash in so-called Sufi circles and has made pronouncements to the effect that he has been invested with some sort of authority b y none other than Khizr (may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him). It seems that he wishes to join the company of others who, according to their followers, also were given spiritual authority by the same mysterious teacher who taught Musa (Peace be upon him).

Now, it is true that, on occasion, Khizr (may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him) does authorize certain people to serve in the capacity of a spiritual guide. However, in other cases, the beauty of making this sort of claim is that it is very difficult to verify -- although if one begins to observe how such people conduct themselves and treat people, one begins to witness a variety of demonstrations which suggest that their claims in this regard are, let us say, exaggerated. There are Sufi Reiki people and martial arts-wielding Sufi groups both of whom are promoting distance initiations over the Internet. I have talked with people who have been adversely affected and exploited by both of these kinds of groups, and there is no question but that in some cases there are clear indications that occult -- not mystical -- practices and techniques are involved in some of these groups.

There are so-called Sufis who are trolling Internet chat rooms and discussion lists in search of young, impressionable women and who are capable of exerting an extraordinary influence over the latter individuals. I know this because I have talked with a number of people who have been subjected to this process but who now, by the Grace of God, have been able to free themselves from the insidious character of such influence and mind/heart control.

All of these so-called spiritual guides have something in common. They have a lack of respect for the sacred. More specifically, they believe that because they have an understanding, or desire, or wish, or aspiration, that God is happy with their understanding, desire, wish, or aspiration. They believe they have the power of 'kun' when all they have to do is say to a thing (i.e., their wish or aspiration) 'be' and it becomes.

They arrogate to themselves duties, functions, and positions which are lacking in humility. Like a car speeding through a dense fog, they are exceeding the current capacity of their headlights, and, as such, they are tragedy waiting to happen. Iblis was an unbeliever -- not because he didn't believe in, and, after a fashion, love God, but because he was not prepared to align himself with, and empty himself, of everything but the truth. His himma (aspiration) was different than that of Divinity, and he believed that his himma was more important than the Divine himma.

You have asked me what is tasawwuf. Tasawwuf is to seek the truth in all things -- including the Divine rizq (Divine apportionment) which constitutes the fabric from which our lives are woven.

How can someone be a shaykh who is not willing to operate by the light of truth ... who is not willing to exercise patience and dependence on Divinity to let God arrange things in His own way (and this means having the integrity to wait for authentic authorization) ... who is not willing to be sufficiently humble to follow, rather than try to force the issue by appointing herself or himself as a shaykh ... who has no sense of tauba (repentance) with respect to the lies which he or she tell herself or himself or others ... who lacks gratitude because he or she desires more than what God has apportioned to them ... who completely misunderstands taqwa (piety) because she or he believe it is okay to act upon wishes that have not been Divinely sanctioned (except in the form of the errors which God permits human beings and that Divinity uses for His own purposes) ... who appear to love his or her own nafs, or lower soul, more than Haqq (Truth, Realty) ... who long for something other than the Truth.

I really fail to understand how such individuals believe they are going to help people spiritually. What is it that they have to offer other than a hermeneutic which is devoid of reality?

If the foregoing is so, is that not the very essence of misguidance? If guidance were a matter of language or scholarship or wishes, then, there would be many Arabs who would be shaykhs, but, in truth, the Muslim world is in shackles because despite the presence of a facility with language and scholarly information, the hearts of all too many of our so-called leaders (including self-appointed shaykhs) are virtually devoid of hidayat, or spiritual guidance, and such people have filled this vacuum with an abiding arrogance concerning their own self- importance in the scheme of things.

The condition of the Muslim community is somewhat akin to Oscar Wilde's 'A Picture of Dorian Gray'. In other words, through our actions, we have created a grotesque, odious, hideous, but all too life -like portrait which is hidden away from public view beneath a practiced veneer of civility, humanity and alleged concern with justice, human rights, and/or spirituality -- even as we hold ourselves, and others, hostage to the likes and dislikes of our own egos, ignorance, and cultural superstitions.

What foolish audacity to suppose that one is a shaykh but just not in the classical sense. An authentic shaykh is a locus of manifestation for the barakah (Grace) which flows through a legitimate silsilah (spiritual lineage) ... his or her gift is that he or she serves as a transmitter, and as such, this has nothing to do with language skills, eloquence, scholarship, family lineage, education, or ethnicity.

The earliest account of the tradition of passing on the khirkah (mantle of spiritual authority) and its significance as a symbol of spiritual authenticity has to do with the question which the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked of Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat 'Umar, Hazrat Uthman, and Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with them all). He asked them -- 'if I were to give the khirkah to you, what would you do with it?'

Each of the four gave beautiful answers, but the answer which most pleased the Prophet was the one given by Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) when he said that he would use the khirkah to cover the faults of people. When the Prophet heard this response, he embraced Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) and presented him with the mantel of spiritual authority.

I don't know of any clearer indication than the foregoing account that bears witness to the fact that there is a process of passing on spiritual authority within the esoteric tradition. And remember, the Prophet had told Hazrat 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) that if there were to be a Prophet after Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), then, it would have been 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), so, here to, there is a definite distinction being drawn between esoteric and exoteric responsibilities.

My first shaykh -- the authentic one -- was a brilliant scholar. He knew 3-4 languages. He had an eidetic memory (that is, near photographic). He wrote wonderful poetry. He was knowledgeable about both the exoteric and esoteric aspects of Islam. Yet, when students used to come to him at the University and asked to be initiated (he taught courses in both Islam and tasawwuf), he did not look to his gifts or talents and say, well, I'm qualified to be a shaykh and, so, I think that's what I'll be. Instead, he wrote to his own shaykh and asked the latter to send a spiritual guide to this part of the world because there were an increasing number of people who were becoming interested in stepping onto the Sufi Path. His shaykh replied that he, himself, was too advanced in years to make such an arduous physical journey. And, he added: "Let us see to whom Allah gives this responsibility."

After a number of months, when the situation still had not been resolved and even more people were inquiring about the Sufi path at the University, the person who would become my shaykh wrote once more about the issue. In fact, he was hoping that his shaykh would send someone who was a spiritual guide and who used to be a Persian teacher of my once and future shaykh -- someone whom he loved a great deal.

This time, when the reply came back, the direction was clear -- you (the person who would become my shaykh) are to assume the responsibilities of being a spiritual guide. One of the first things he did to inaugurate his appointment was to do a 40 day chilla or seclusion -- his reasoning was: how could I expect to help other people deal with the problems created by their nafs (the tendencies within to rebel against truth), if I was not prepared to deal with the problems generated by my own nafs.

If someone has not been given specific authorization from an authentic shaykh who is rooted in a legitimate silsilah, then, I believe if that person insists on referring to himself or herself as a Sufi shaykh or insists on trying to carry out the functions of an authentic Sufi shaykh, such a person is making a serious mistake in adab or spiritual etiquette. As one Sufi shaykh responded when asked to describe the essence of tasawwuf, he replied: "Adab", and being a 'genuine fake' is far removed from the requirements of spiritual etiquette.

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