Sufism in practice According to the teachings of Ibn Zarruq.
Adapted from ‘Zarruq the Sufi’ by Ali Khushaim.
There are a number of prescriptions for the wayfarer that will help him or her on the journey towards the Higher. The most important is the companionship of like-minded people and singing the praise of the Creator.
The Prophet said(s) “To sit with the righteous is better than sitting alone. Sitting alone is better than sitting with evil men. The good companion is like a perfume seller, even if you do not have some of his perfume you smell of it, while the bad companion is like a blacksmith, even if his fire does not touch you, some of his stinking smell will attach to you”
According to this tradition, companionship (suhbah) is necessary for the beginner in order to take good example from those who have preceded on the Path, and to encourage us whilst on the Path with the feeling that there is someone who shares our aspirations and interests. Without a companion the traveller is liable to miss the way or feel depressed and thus likely to be led astray. So we must be selective of our companions and know where they will lead us. According to Sahl al-Tustari, we must avoid three types of people, heedless tyrants, fawning jurists and ignorant Sufi’s.
The first are so proud of themselves that they consider all other men below their standard. The second are hypercritical and cruel with regard to others’ mistakes, paying no attention to their own. The third claim what they have not, in their eagerness to elevate themselves in the eyes of others, without any right, being fond of exhibiting themselves. All these are the qualities of bad companions who must be shunned at all costs.
To select a companion it is essential to choose three types of people, or all of them if possible; one for the Hereafter, and this person must be pious, religious and acquainted with the faith. One for this world, and they must be of good manners. And one to be taken as a friend whose big advantage is to be safe from his bad behaviour. The gain, all the gain, is in finding the good companion and realising where to go with him, as Abu Hasan ash-Shadhili said:
“My beloved bade me and said: ‘do not move your feet except in the direction where you expect God’s reward. Do not sit except where you are safe from disobedience. Do not associate except with him who aids you in obeying God. Do not incline towards any except with him who affirms your certitude.”
In addition to these kinds of men the traveller has to avoid any sort of association with the immature (ahdath) since this is dangerous both to their reputation and manners. This is applicable not only to the young, but also to every immature person whether in mind or spirit, even if they are seventy years old. The definition of the immature is he who does not agree with you in the Path that you have chosen, as God said to Moses:
“Pay attention and select your companions. Any who does not agree with you to please Me is your enemy, since he hardens your heart and separates you from Me”
The companion, in fact, is a part of man like a patch on a garment. Just as it would be odd if the patch was not the same colour as the material of the garment, so it is to accompany those who are not our type in mind and conduct.
Travelling the Way is not an easy task. And to be on the safe side the traveller needs a guide who has explored the road before him and knows its difficulties. That is why a shaikh is indispensable for him. But before he yields to him and entrusts himself he must be sure that the shaikh is the right one who can be trusted, for it is very risky to have confidence in a guide who does not know the road very well and is not acquainted with its perils and dangers.
In many of his works Zarruq emphasises the important role played by the shaikh and warns of being deceived by false claimants who seek only worldly prestige and are not real Sufi masters, and he indicates many conditions for him to observe strictly to enable him to lead the travellers in their Way.
Who is the good guide? He asks. The answer is: he who must possess three qualities:
1) That he should know the road as he knows himself.
2) That he know the types of the travellers he is guiding, in order to help each of them to the most suitable means of travelling and be aware of his ability to complete the journey and reach his destination.
3) That he depend on both knowledge and experience, since it is not enough to know the map to guide others, since it is necessary to have explored the way first and be sure of it before trying to lead others on it. The shaikh is here like a doctor whose knowledge of the peculiarities of the medicines depends on experience, just as his experience depends on his knowledge.
In spite, however, of the high position that the shaikh occupies, the traveller is advised not to wait until he finds him, for perhaps he will not meet him at all. The real shaikh is, in fact, a light from. God sent to him who shows his sincerity and longing to go along the Way. If he does not find him in the beginning he must consult the two sources of knowledge of the Way; the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and try to follow others' example. If he does not do so he is like the sick man who refuses to take the medicine unless the doctor comes in person, and thus he may not recover even when the doctor arrives, since the disease has already spread because of his refusal to take the medicine.
However, just as there are good doctors and bad doctors, there are many types of shaikh too from whom Zarruq distinguishes three:
1) The shaikh of form (shaikh al-surah) whose concern is only with appearance, in face and dress. This is useless and no benefit will come out of him.
2) The shaikh of the way (shaikh al-tariqah) who needs knowledge to deal with the soul, reason to deal with the people and action to deal with the Truth.
3) The shaikh of the truth (shaikh al-haqiqah) who does not need anything because his truthfulness implies everything, and this is the real shaikh. He deals with the lover (muhibb) by acceptance, with the equitable man (muntasib) by care and with the seeker (mureed) by interest, fulfilling his rights after fulfilling the rights of God and His messenger. Of this kind of shaikh Ibn 'ata Allah said :
"Your shaikh is not the one from whom you hear, but from whom you take example. Not he whose expression faces you, but he whose impression penetrates you. Not he who calls you to the door, but he who removes the veil. Not he who talks to you, but he who displays his state to you. Your shaikh is he who frees you from the prison of desire and introduces you to the Lord. He who does not cease polishing your Heart's mirror until it becomes able to reflect your Lord's light. He who raises you to God and leads you until you reach Him. He who remains with you until he puts you before Him, pushes you into the light of the Presence and says: 'Here you are!'"
Once the shaikh is found the traveller has to submit himself completely to him and follow his instructions. He becomes like a corpse between the washer's hands. He refers to him in everything concerning his development in the Way and consults him on any issues. He has to respect him and become like a dutiful son to him. But despite the fact that the shaikh has undisputed authority over his disciple he is not infallible, so that his obedience is restricted to what does not contradict the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Although he is the example in his conduct, not all of his conduct must be imitated, since there are special actions confined to a particular stage to which the shaikh has attained and the disciple has not.
Lastly, the relationship between the shaikh and the disciple is like the relationship between a doctor and his patient. It is necessary for the doctor to know his patient's condition to find out the disease and the right medicine for it. Thus, the disciple must reveal all his secrets to the shaikh. At the same time the patient has the right to know how able and acquainted with the "science" his doctor is and how far his practice is in conformity with his knowledge. The criterion in all this is the following of the Qur'an and the Sunnah without whose guidance none is safe in the Way.
Now, after the seeker has found the real shaikh and gained his acceptance as one of the travellers in the Way, the next step is to establish a strong relationship with him by mutual agreement between the two which is called al- 'ahd (the covenant) and is a sort of contract binding both the guide and the traveller. There are, in fact, several methods of covenant, such as musafahah' (hand-clasp), akhdh al-subhah (taking the rosary) and libs al-khirqah (investing with the mantle), but Zarruq prefers the simple covenant, because the Prophet made it with his companions when he said to them: "Take the pledge with me that you will not take a partner with God, nor steal, nor commit adultery, nor kill your children, nor lie, nor disobey in what is right (ma'ruf). He who fulfils what he has committed himself to will be rewarded by God. If someone breaks it and is punished in this world, it will be an expiation (kaffarah) for him. He who sins and whose sin God covers, it is for God to punish or forgive, as He wills."
Zarruq comments by saying that this covenant between the Prophet and his companions was made after the faith had been well-established in them in order to confirm it the more. It alludes also to the fact that none is infallible' and that repentance is offered and obedience is only in the conventional issues,
At any rate, the covenant, as may be concluded from Zarruq's description of its procedure, which was shown in the previous chapter, is founded on three bases which have been alluded to above: (1) Repentance and its implications, (2) Seeking forgiveness, and (3) piety. Thus the seeker is considered a traveller and is initiated by learning the method of dhikr (invocation) which denotes a further step in the Way.