What Sheikh Sharishi says about the necessity for spiritual guide (sheikh at-tarbiya) to be learned in both exoteric and esoteric sciences is correct. But as for the exoteric sciences, what is required is that he obtains the knowledge he requires for himself personally, and also that which his disciple will need as he travels the spiritual path – namely, the essential rulings concerning purification and prayer (at-tahara wa ‘s-salat), and the like; for many exoteric sciences have nothing to do with traversing the spiritual path to the King of Kings, such as the rulings of homicide cases, prescribed punishments, divorce, and manumission. Were things otherwise, many of the greatest and most renowned figures of the Way, paragons of virtue and true knowledge, would be thus demoted from their high ranks; for although many of them were well-versed in the Sacred Law, many others knew nothing of it save that which must necessarily be known by any Muslim.
I say that if you recognise this, you will recognise the falseness of the claim some people make that the spiritual guide must be proficient in all the Islamic sciences, such that if all these sciences were to disappear he alone would be able to revive them. How could this be, when many of those who were undisputed spiritual guides were unschooled?
In ‘Awarif al-Ma‘arif Suhrawardi quotes Bayazid al-Bistami as saying: ‘I kept the company of Abu Ali al-Masnadi, and I would teach him what he needed to fulfil his religious obligations, whilst he taught me pure tawhid and metaphysics.’
And it is well-known that Sheikh Ibn ‘Abbad (ar-Rundi) received his spiritual awakening at the hands of an unschooled man, as did Ghazzali. It is also known that Ghazwani was not well-versed in the exoteric sciences, and if anyone asked him a question concerning them, he would sent the questioner to his disciple al-Hibti.
Likewise, the guide of our guides, our master Abd ar-Rahman Majdhub, did not have knowledge of the exoteric sciences; and many of the greatest saints were unschooled – yet they were deeply steeped in the secrets of sainthood.
As for esoteric knowledge, the spiritual guide must be completely immersed in them, since the whole purpose of the spiritual guide (the ‘sheikh’ as the Folk call him) is to impart this knowledge, and the disciple only seeks the guide so that he might lead him along the spiritual path and teach him knowledge of the Way (tariqa) and the Supreme Truth (haqiqa). Therefore he must have perfect knowledge of God, His Attributes and Names and how they are manifested, and their meanings and details, and their benefits, wisdoms and secrets; and he must have perfect knowledge of the obstacles which lie on the spiritual path, and the ruses which the soul and Satan employ, and the different forms which spiritual experiences take, and the way in which spiritual stations are truly ascertained. And he must know all of this by direct taste and experience, so that if he is asked about the obstacles on the path and the way to avoid them, he is able to answer properly. And in addition to this, he must have the power and resolve to overcome all obstacles and go beyond all ties, both open and secret; and he must have a piercing insight by which he can ascertain the suitability and readiness of those who seek his guidance, so that he may deal with each one according to his particular status, and guide him to the shortest path to reach his Lord. This was said by al-Fassi.
As-Sahili said: ‘One of the necessary conditions of the spiritual guide is that he have enough knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah to fulfil his obligations as prescribed by the Sacred Law, and to guide him in his everyday affairs; and if this is complemented by the esoteric wisdom which God has bestowed upon him, he will thereby possess a light which will guide him amongst men, and lead him to a deep understanding of what the Quran and Sunnah say.’
And Abu ‘l-Hasan ash-Shadhili said: ‘Every spiritual guide from whom you do not receive graces from behind the veil, is not a true guide.’ Perhaps he means that the true spiritual guide gives aid to his disciple even when he is physically far from him. He also said: ‘By God, I can bring a man to God in a single breath.’ And Sheikh Abu Abbas (al-Mursi) said: ‘By God, nothing may occur between me and a man save that I look upon him, and thereby give him all the benefit he needs.’
And I say that we have personally met – praise be to God! – even in our time, men who give abundant benefit with a single glance; and we have kept their company and recognised that they are truly inheritors of Shadhili and Mursi – God be pleased with them all, and grant us to follow in their footsteps – Amen!
From al-Futuhat al-Ilahiyya fi sharh al-Mabahith al-Asliyya.
Mere days he needs, not years and years
To keep our company;
And if he gains the goal he seeks,
God’s servant shall he be!
-Sheikh Ahmad al-Alawi.