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The Sufi Approach to Guidance

A Sufi Sheikh must have attained purification of his ego’s characteristics to become a Sheikh. So, if he is subject to fits of anger he is not a real Sheikh, and his teachings will not affect people’s hearts. Sometimes, however, Sheikhs do get angry, but their anger is a barrage directed against people’s bad characteristics, not against them personally, and its intention is to help that person rid himself of a bad characteristic that is hindering his spiritual progress. Every bad characteristic presents itself to the Sheikh as a target – like the apple on the boy’s head in the famous story of William Tell – and an authorized Sheikh will target this without harming the man himself.

Another difference between the anger of a Sheikh and common anger is that a Sheikhwill never hold a grudge: he shoots his arrow at the target the moment a bad characteristic appears, and then it is over. Holding grudges is very, very dangerous for all people, for if it continues it becomes a dangerous illness that strikes to the very root of our faith and destroys it. Every time a person displays an objectionable characteristic you may shoot it down, but never assume that you will encounter that characteristic every time you meet that person. Don’t say, “There is that person who did such-and-such yesterday”, because today that characteristic has not appeared, and perhaps he has rid himself of it, and you are wronging him in assuming otherwise.

Our Grandsheikh was following the Holy Prophet (sal) in that he never held grudges. If a bad characteristic would appear in a murid he would shoot at it immediately and directly, but with other people he used indirect methods of correcting faults; for it is very dangerous to criticize a person directly, as he may then hold a grudge against you, and we must not invite such a situation upon ourselves, or other people. Only Saints and small children up to the age of eleven may be able to accept criticism without holding a grudge. After children reach the age of twelve they lose this good quality. You may
see small children fight, but when it passes it is over. Some few people never lose this good quality, but in our days it is almost inevitably lost.

When a saintly person meets someone he assumes the best and expects to encounter only goodwill, but most people are suspicious and anticipate evil when they meet a stranger. Our Grandsheikh never anticipated evil from anyone, but when he encountered it, he had divine permission to shoot. Most Sheikhs don’t even use this method of direct criticism on their murids because of possible harmful reactions. Sheikh Sharafuddin once told our Grandsheikh: “If you don’t apply poison to external wounds (i.e. medicine for external use only that would be poison if taken internally) our internally applied medicine might never work.”

In the presence of truth the ego raises its head in rebellion, and we must put it down; that is a very delicate task, like surgery. A butcher may cut meat, but he can’t perform surgery. The butcher has a knife and so does the surgeon, but what a difference between the two instruments! One of them is used for slaughtering and the other to prolong life. It is well known, no one becomes a qualified surgeon simply by reading medical books, but only by being an intern at the side of a master surgeon.

In our time, Muslims are approaching the illnesses they encounter in the West with a butcher’s knife, and ignoring Allah’s command to call people to truth with wisdom. The Arabs in particular are to blame for the present situation, and most of the scholars from Arab countries are opposing our efforts. Why? Because they are coming with their butcher’s knives intending to stab Westerners in the heart, and make sure that all the survivors run for their lives – and I am trying to prevent this. This enrages them, and though they can’t accuse me of transgressing the religious law, they maintain, about Sufis in general that, “they are calling people to Islam, but have introduced so many innovations.” Their criticisms stem from envy, that Sufi “surgeons” are so often successful in helping people get over their illnesses.

In a famous Hadith Qudsi, or Holy Tradition, Allah Almighty states that He Himself becomes the eyes, ears and hands of His Saints. So how should a Sufi Sheikh be oblivious to the needs of the people he encounters? Those Muslim preachers who come to the West without Divinely inspired hearing, vision and touch are surely blind, deaf and insensitive (but, unfortunately, not dumb).

Once upon a time there was a deaf person. Someone informed his wife that his neighbour was ill. She then communicated this to him through sign language, and he resolved to go and visit the neighbor, but knowing that he could not carry on a normal dialogue, he made the following plan for his visit. I may say ‘How are you?’ and he will reply, ‘I’m feeling a little better’. Then I will say ‘May Allah increase it (i.e. your recovery)’, and he will say, ‘thank you’. Then I will sit a while, and then ask him, ‘Which doctor is attending to you?’ and he will say the name of some respected physician and I
will reply. ‘He is a very good doctor, very suitable for your case’. Then I will sit a while more and ask, ‘What medicine have you been taking?’, and he will say the name of some drug and I will reply, ‘It is very beneficial, keep taking it’, then I will say my salams and go.”

So, thus having a fixed scenario in his mind, off he went to the house of his neighbour, knocked on door and was admitted to the sick man’s room. “How are you, oh my neighbor?”, he asked. “I’m miserable”, replied the sick man. “May Allah increase it”, said the deaf man. This vexed the sick man, as you may well imagine. “Who is looking after you?”, asked the deaf man. “Izrail, the angel of death”, replied the annoyed ill man. “An excellent physician, if he visits you, you should have nothing to worry about”, said the deaf man. By now the sick man was furious. “What have you been taking as medicine?”, said the deaf man. “Poison”, retorted the enraged ill man. “That should be a very useful treatment for you. Now I must go, it has been nice visiting you”, said the deaf man. “Go to hell”. “Thank you very much, good bye.”

People who occupy themselves with advising others in matters concerning their eternal lives should be people with open hearts, so that, through the eyes of their hearts they may perceive what is relevant and acceptable to the person they are advising. It is not useful just to ignore the fact that the understanding and mentality of people from a different cultural background are drastically different from your own. To be a spiritual advisor is not a question of obtaining degrees in that field, as one would obtain a diploma in chemistry or law; it is a question of subtle changes in the way one perceives people and events, so as to penetrate the defenses and arrive at the reality of a person’s inner state. This profession requires a sharp diagnostic eye. You may be a pharmacist in charge of a whole depot of drugs, but you haven’t the right to prescribe for ill people. Even if you know the drug required you may not know the dosage, and kill the patient with an overdose.

If we present the medicine to the patient in a form that makes it easier to swallow or taste better, should we be blamed? Is eating iron filings the only way to get iron into one’s system? The Holy Prophet said: “I have been sent to approach people tactfully”. The meaning of this Hadith is that there is no wisdom in meeting people’s prejudices head-on.

Don’t seek confrontation, but be wise like the ship’s pilot who, when faced with a headwind does not set bow to it and let it push him back, but wisely tracks an indirect diagonal course that may be three times as long as the direct one, but can be pursued even in the face of such an unfavourable breeze, a course which will set him towards his goal.

The Holy Prophet never used the word “No”, but we are so busy pointing the finger and saying: “This is forbidden and that won’t do”. That is not our way, neither was it the way of the Prophet(sal), nor of the great Sufi Masters of history, and Islamic scholars blame the Sufis and call us “innovators”, claiming that our methods have no basis in the example set by the Holy Prophet (sal).

When a seed is newly planted and the first leaves spring forth, these leaves may look somewhat different than the ones that grow later. But we mustn’t cut the later-sprouting leaves, saying: “These leaves must be from a different seed”. Show me a plant that remains the same throughout its life, and I will show you a plastic plant. Islam was still a sapling in the Prophet’s time, and through history has matured into a huge tree whose branches reach from East to West. And even if there are thousands of branches spreading over all peoples and times, they are connected to the root and the main trunk.

Then after some years, a tree develops flowers and fruits as well as leaves. At that point shall we look askance at the whole of mankind as it imbibes the fragrance of the flowers of our tree and as men nourish themselves from the sweet fruits of our tree? Shall we reject fruits and flowers, clinging to a “leaves only” mentality, advocating the destruction of the flowers and fruits as innovations? True Islam is not like a hedge that requires a gardener’s clipper to keep it square, but it is like a miraculously expansive and fruit-bearing tree – a shelter for all and a source of every delicious fruit.