Seclusion [khalwat] is better than isolation [cuzlat] العزلة . It is a kind of isolation, that can only be prescribed by the shaikh. Its shortest time limit is 40 days, as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an about Sayiddina Musa (s), “And remember We appointed forty nights for Moses” (Surah al-Baqarah, 51). Muslim narrated that the Prophet (s) made seclusion in the cave of ara for one complete month. Its aim is to clean the heart of connection to this world of material pleasures, and to bring it to a state of remembrance of Allah, Almighty and Exalted. In it countless visions occur, and it elevates the murid to a state of knowing the self, and from there to a state of knowing Allah.
Seclusion requires the seeker to disconnect himself from people and to disengage himself from all material interactions for a set period of time. His heart must be engaged only in God’s Remembrance, and his mind relaxed from daily concerns. All this must take place under the guidance of a gnostic shaikh, to teach us if we forget, and to remind us if we are heedless, and to throw out of the heart all gossip and whispers of the ego.
The shaikh orders the murid to seclude himself in a room where he will be served every day only with what is necessary for survival. Then he will teach his tongue the way of reciting Dhikr, until he will be engaged with that recitation. The shaikh will support his murid in opening the Vision of the Divine Presence in the heart (surat al-mushahada fil-qalb). Whatever happens to the murid during the seclusion, he must tell his shaikh, and he must conceal it from anyone other than the shaikh.
Seclusion is not an innovation but is an order of Allah, Almighty and Exalted, in his Holy Book and in the example of the Prophet (s). The Prophet (s) used to make seclusion in the cave of Hira in the mountains of Makkah, remembering Allah, Almighty and Exalted. It is indicated in the Qur’an, in Surat al-Muzzamil, (73, 8): “So remember the name of thy Lord, and devote thyself to Him with full devotion.”
Allama Abu Sacad in his commentary on the explanation of the Qur’an by Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, volume 8, p. 338, says, “The meaning of this verse is to keep secluding yourself from anyone other than Allah, Almighty and Exalted, remembering Him day and night, by tasbih, tahmid and tahlil, and to disconnect yourself, by all the power you have, and approach Him through the meditative stations such that you will not see anyone except Him, and be away from connections to other than Him through that meditation.”
Meditation here rests on seclusion. The proof for this in the Qur’an can be found in the story of Maryam (s), the mother of Jesus (s): “So her Lord accepted her with a gracious acceptance, and caused her to grow an excellent growth, and made Zakariyya (s) her guardian. Whenever Zakariya visited her in her seclusion he found with her provision. He said, ‘O Maryam, whence hast thou this?’ She replied, ‘It is from Allah. Surely, Allah gives to whomsoever He pleases without measure.’” (Ali Imran, 37)
Allah said in the Qur’an, in Surat al-Kahf (ayat 16), mentioning the story of the companions of the cave, they were ordered, “Betake yourself to the Cave: your Lord will shower His mercies on you and dispose of your affair towards comfort and ease.”
Similary, seclusion has a proof in the sunnah. Bukhari reports that Ayesha said, “The Prophet loved to make seclusion. And he was secluding himself in the Cave of Hira.”
Imam Nawawi, explained the hadith of Ayesha, “To be alone with the one you love is the real seclusion. It is the way of the pious and it is the way of knowers.”
He said, in his explanation of Sahih Muslim, “The Prophet (s) said, ‘Seclusion was made to be loved by him,’ because with it the heart will be empty of all this materialistic life, and it will be in peace. It helps to deepen the meditation on Allah’s Divine Presence, and with it his attachments to dunya will decrease, and with it his reverence will increase.”
Imam Zuhri said, “I wonder at people, that they have left seclusion. The Prophet (s) was doing some things and then leaving them, yet he never left seclusion until he died.”
Abi Jamra said in explanation of this hadith, “The Prophet, when he secluded himself and left people behind and disconnectd himself from this world, received revelation from Jibril in the Cave of Hira. Anyone who will imitate the Prophet in doing seclusion, under the order of his shaikh, will be lifted to the state of sainthood.
“The proof of seclusion is that the Prophet (s), through his seclusion in the Cave of Hira, was lifted up to the state in which he received revelation. During his seclusions the first fruit was true dreams, and from that state he was elevated to the state in which he received revelation, to the state where he could receive revelation from the angel Jibril. Then he was lifted up more and more until he reached, during the Night of Ascension, the Divine Presence, to the station of two bows’ length or nearer.”
“All these stations were the fruit of his seclusion in the Cave of Hira. We see from this, that if we follow the footsteps of the Prophet (s), we will be lifted from one state to another, until we reach the high states of sainthood, and we will find ourselves in the Divine Presence.”
Shaikh ‘Abul Qadir said, “From the cave of Hira, where the Prophet (s) used to make seclusion, the light emanated, the dawn shone forth, and sunrise came. The first sparks of the luminescence of Islamic Sufism were struck. Never did the Prophet (s) leave his seclusion, even when he left the cave of Hira. All his life he was making seclusion, in the last ten days of Ramadan every year.”
Imam Qastallani, in explaining this hadith, in his book “Rashad us-Sari” vol. 1, p. 62, “Seclusion will put the heart in peace and open in it fountains of wisdom, because it will disconnect the murid from the materialistic life and enable him to remember Allah, Almighty and Exalted. In his seclusion he must also isolate himself and seclude himself from himself, to see only Allah, Almighty and Exalted. At that time only will he receive Unseen Knowledge, and his heart will be a foundation for it.”
Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani said, in explaining the hadith of ‘Ayesha, “The seclusion is emptying the heart of everything except Allah.” [Fath al-Bari, v.1, p. 18]
Abul Hasan ash-Shadili said, “There are ten benefits from seclusion:
That is what the Prophet mentioned in his hadith, narrated by Bukhari, in the book of Riqaq. Abu Huraira reported that the Prophet said (s), “There are seven who will be kept under Allah’s Shadow, on the Day when there is no shadow other than Allah’s Shadow… One of them is a man who makes dhikr in seclusion, and the tears are coming from his eyes.”
Explanation of Seclusion by Shaikh ‘Abdullah ad-Daghestani
Once a famous French orientalist came to grandshaikh Abdullah Daghestani in Damascus and said, “O my master, I am coming to you after studying the Psalms, the Torah the Bible and the Holy Qur’an. I have studied all kinds of philosophy, all the religions, and many other systems of knowledge. But still, I feel nothing in my heart. I feel no satisfaction. On the contrary, it is as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff and were about to fall. I have become so shaky that I am going from one center to another, seeking what is real. Where can I reach that reality and gain satisfaction in my heart? Where can I find my Lord?”
“I have been everywhere. I have asked famous philosophers, orientalists, people whom I considered saints. I have read everything I could. Yet, when I have asked any scholar a question, I felt as if they were giving me an answer I already knew. They were not giving me anything new. I am confused.”
“I heard your name and I have finally come to you. After you I am not going anywhere. Will you give me an answer to my question? Whatever you say I will follow and believe. But if you do not give me an answer, I shall remain as I am, confused and uncertain for the rest of my life.”
Grandshaikh said, “My son, if you take the seed of an apple or any fruit and leave it there dry, for hundreds of years, it will remain dry. But if you take that seed and put it in a field and plant it, then come back after one month, you will find that a green sprout has come out. If you dig and try to find that seed you will not find it anymore, it has vanished, replaced by something new. If you continue to water that plant it will become a tree and that tree will give fruit. But where is the original seed? It has disappeared. There is no original seed anymore. The seed has become a large tree now, with fruit coming forth, giving people fruit to eat.”
“Similarly, if you take an egg and put it under a chicken for 21 days, after exactly twenty-one days that egg disappears and a new chick comes. Something new comes into being. If you look under the chicken you will no longer find the egg there. The egg has vanished. It was the twenty-one days under that chicken that turned it into a new generation.”
“Something similar happens with human beings when they are in their mother’s womb for about nine months and ten days. Inside that womb they are without any connection to anything outside, alone. Yet after those nine months and ten days of loneliness there will come forth a new generation, a new creation. My son, in everyone of these three examples there was something that went into seclusion. The seed cut itself off from the material world above the ground and went into seclusion for several weeks, then a new plant emerged. The egg went into seclusion under its mother, with no connection to the material life outside its shell and came out a new generation. The sperm went into seclusion in the egg within the mother’s womb for nine months, without connection to the external world of their materialistic life, but after the seclusion it emerged a new generation.”
“My son, if you do not enter into seclusion, then never say to yourself, as the seed says to itself, ‘I want to cut myself off from the materialistic life of this world and vanish from it for the love of God and for the benefit of other human beings.’ For the seed begets fruit. If you do not experience a retreat like this, if you don’t cut yourself from the materialistic life, forsake your ego and complete sacrifice and vanish into nothingness to exist only in God, never will you find your ultimate reality, your true self. Never will you be like that tree that gives fruit for people to eat. If you will not be like that egg and sever yourself from materialism, retreating into the shell of seclusion and existing only in the presence of your Lord, meditating, concentrating on Him, worshipping Him in your heart, keeping His Presence always in your heart, never will you find that satisfaction and happiness you seek.”
“Why must you imitate that sperm that enters into seclusion for nine months? The mother’s womb consists of three layers. This was mentioned 1400 years ago in the Holy Qur’an in Surat az-Zumar, 6;, at a time when no microscopes existed. The Prophet (s) also said, ‘The womb of a mother is composed of darknesses, i.e. of layers.’ You must enter into this loneliness, severing your bond to everything external, cutting yourself off from the material things of this world, to be alone with your Lord, and thus make connection to your ultimate reality, by fitting that image you wear here to its original in the Divine Presence.”
“Never will you know satisfaction, no matter how many books you read, for when you read, you only hear the books. The knowledge they contain is only hearsay knowledge, and not real. Yet in seclusion, you not only hear but you feel. You will not only see, but you will smell. It is then that the eyes of the heart open. My son if you don’t enter into seclusion, your heart will never feel the contentment you have been so long seeking.”
Immediately the scholar said, “You have given me an answer to my question and a solution to my problem that I have never yet received from anyone. My heart is open. Show me the way.” Grandshaikh gave him permission to enter into seclusion in a designated place, cutting himself off from everything. He entered that place an ordinary man, but after one year he left it a saint.”