On Shaykh-Murid Relationship [Q&A Session: 18-11-10]

CII talk delivered by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed db on 18-11-10 [Question 2 of 3]

Q.2: I have been bayt to an elderly shaykh for sometime now (a few years). I was regular in my zikr and azkar, used to attend his majalis etc. Then a time came in my life when I had some serious personal issues. I tried to get assistance and guidance from my shaykh. At first, it was difficult to get in contact with my shaykh, and eventually when I did get, the response that I got from my shaykh was very unsatisfactory. In other words, it was unfulfilling, demoralizing and to a certain extent it was demotivating as well. Ever since that time, I have broken all contact with my shaykh and have lost desire to re-establish any contact with my shaykh. Please comment.

A: I think that’s a very good question and think that there maybe quite a few people who feel and experience similar things. So I think we should ask the questioner or anyone who has had such feelings to re-consider what our deen of islam says that

Innamal a’malu bin niyyaat 
Actions are based on intentions

So, I think that the questioner was mistaken at the outset in the intention with which they took a shaykh. And this is something that we need to mention a lot in this day and age, and that is that people sometimes think that their shaykh is their personal counselor, they view their shaykh as a therapist like a psychologist/counselor.

They want their shaykh to do trouble-shooting, problem-solving, hand-holding, fire-fighting etc. And part of the reason is that because, Alhamdulillah, a lot of people who do come to tasawwuf are doing it because they are struggling in their effort to lead a life that is pleasing to Allah Almighty and sometimes, some of the reasons why they are struggling, is because they have personal problems.

Like this person said that ‘I had a personal problem’. They may have personal problems, they may have marital problems, they may have family problems, they may have academic problems, they may have financial problems, they have a whole range of problems. And it is definitely a fact, that some of those problems are part of the reason that they are not able to come closer to Allah Almighty.

So, if they view the shaykh as the person who will fix anything and help me in anything that keeps me from coming close to Allah, well because I have these problems, these problems are keeping me from coming close to Allah Almighty, therefore the shaykh should be helping me with these problems. So, this is a very natural conclusion to come to. And like I said, it has ikhlas, it is a very sincere conclusion to come to.

In this day and age, when the mashaikh have become very few in number and it is very difficult for any shaykh, whether its that shaykh you mentioned that the questioner was bayt to, or anyone. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that in this day and age, a sign that a shaykh is doing khidmah of tasawwuf, is that that person doesn’t have time to counsel and trouble-shoot and problem-solve everyone of his students. Because then that would mean that that job-description would be of a counsellor, it wouldn’t be of a shaykh.

So, what is a shaykh supposed to do?

The shaykh is supposed to do two things. And this person should realise that in every relationship, including the shaykh-mureed relationship, there are certain roles, responsibilities and rights. And if either parties has higher expectations than are justified from the other party, then they are bound to feel, like the questioner said, disillusioned, demoralised or demotivated. So, what are the role and responsibilities of a shaykh?

1. Number one is what we call ta’leem, tarbiyah, irshad, naseehah, bayan, wa’z.
It means that the job of the shaykh is to expound upon those aspects of the deen that will bring a person closer to the aims and goals of tasawwuf. So the shaykh has to make bayans, has to give talks, has to give lectures, has to give khutbas, on topics such as leaving sin, taubah, love for Allah Almighty, love for Sayyidina RasulAllahi (peace and blessings be on Him), on any and everything that is in the deen that is required knowledge for a person who wants to bring themselves closer to Allah Almighty in this spiritual sense, then

The first responsibility of the shaykh is to make sure they deliver and provide that knowledge to the mureed.

2. Second responsibility of the shaykh is that the Shaykh must instruct and tell the mureed what zikr to do.
It’s the job of the shaykh. It cannot be that somebody becomes student of a shaykh and they say that you know, they never told me what zikr I should do, I don’t even know what zikr is. No.

These are the two roles/responsibilities of the shaykh. And yes, if a particular mureed becomes close to a shaykh, the shaykh may have more time, more interest or more ability to help resolve their problems, but that is not one of the necessary rights of this relationship.

Secondly, because that shaykh may be too busy doing the first role which is delivering bayans, or doing other Khidmat of the deen or with their own family etc, they might not always be accessible for that type of problem-solving and counselling.

So, I think in terms of the matters of the dunya, mureeds need to not be exclusively dependent on the help of the shaykh. If it is available and accessible, that’s wonderful. And even then it does not represent the final word, it is just a mushawarah or just an advice and a counsel suggesting a possible way out or a possible solution to our problem. It’s not binding in the shariah in any way. And if that shaykh is not available and not accessible for that person’s problems, then they will have to sort out their worldly problems like everybody else does. There are certain worldly or mundane ways to sort out mundane problems.

–> If they have academic problems, they should study harder, they should have a tutor.
–> If there is an interpersonal problem, they should study and learn the adaab of inter-personal relationships.

Certainly, that is what the shaykh had to make available. The two-step tasawwuf cannot always show how the teachings of islam are going to apply personally to every individual’s case. But generally, a person many times can get religious guidance from knowledge and information on how to be kind, how to be merciful. And I know this also that sometimes some people do not consult their shaykh until they are deep in the fire.

So for example, they make a decision to do something and they don’t ask the shaykh, they go ahead and do it and still don’t ask the shaykh. When it backfires on them, when there is unexpected change of circumstances, then they frantically start trying to contact their shaykh. And if the shaykh doesn’t respond to them, then they feel that the shaykh is the one who let me down and didn’t help them and is never there for me in my times of need. So, this is a very delicate relationship. A person has to have a right intention.

You know its sort of like a student is saying I am studying economics from a professor and I wanted them to help me out on a personal matter and I couldn’t reach them, but when I did reach them (because that’s the second part of the question that we are trying to address as-well), I did reach them I didn’t find their answer satisfying and therefore I decided to drop out of college and drop may economics major.

That wouldn’t make any sense. Everybody would say that this is a non-sensical statement. So in response to the second thing that he said, the shaykh’s response or the shaykh’s advice in personal problems does not have to be satisfying. Being dissatisfied with that is not a reason to leave the shaykh if we had understood that the reason I am with the shaykh is to be tutored in zikr. If the person says that the method of zikr that the shaykh has taught me I find that unsatisfying, if the person says that I listen to those talks and ta’limat and teachings of the shaykh, I find those unsatisfying then I would say okay, well those are the two core things, if you find those two things unsatisfying then yes, you should move on.

And again I think it’s a natural thing that people do tend to become emotionally over-dependent on the shaykh. And its very difficult to tell what is that level of dependency.

And I would say maybe for people who are beginners who are trying to figure this out, I would say maybe a few rules of thumb.

1. First rule of thumb: Don’t let yourself become more dependent on your shaykh than he is accessible to you. So if you happen to live in the same street as your shaykh and if you happen to pray salah with them five times a day in the masjid, then you can allow yourself to become a bit more dependent on them because you have more access to them. So don’t allow yourself to become more dependent than you have access to. And you shouldn’t in any way feel bad. Maybe some people in the world have more access, some people in the world have less access. All I know is that I have to apportion my dependence accordingly.

2. Second rule of thumb: If you want to seek the shaykh’s advice you should do so at the outset of something. If you have already begun something and gotten yourself into it and then you experience a crisis, at that point many times a shaykh might not even respond because he has no way to get you out of the crisis. Sometimes people get themselves into such messes, we genuinely don’t know how to take them out of it. There is nothing we can say.

Now what we can do is to provide them following: counselling, we can give them that, and they say that in psychology that if nothing else the psychologist is somebody you can talk to, somebody who can listen to you. And sometimes the masha’ikh don’t have time for that anymore. So all they could do is that they could pick up your phone and listen to you for half an hour saying how the crisis unfolded, what happened during the crisis, how you felt during the crisis. But at the end of that whole half hour they are really not equipped to take you out of that crisis. They don’t have that ability. Its not in their power.

Just like, if somebody took a medical illness to a shaykh and they spent half an hour telling them how they made certain decisions in life, poor health, poor lifestyle, no exercise, harmful diet and they explained everything, the shaykh can just listen at the end of that, he cant do anything, he cant take your diabetes away, he cant take your blood pressure away, he cant unclog your arteries, he wont be able to do it.

And I will also tell you this, sometimes the older the shaykh is, this is from my own experience.

The older the Shaykh gets, the more experienced they get.

They get more experienced precisely about this that what are the problems that I cannot solve. So as they get older, they get more experienced at that. Secondly, inevitably, as they get older they will get more students, so they will have less time. So then based on their experience, and again its not always certain, but if they feel that there is a high probability that I really cant solve anything about this problem so I wont give my time to it. And then there is another person asking me writing something that I do think I can help them with, I will give my time to that. And you will find that, especially in the senior and the more elderly mashaikh, this is going to be the case.

So, what we can do is think that okay, maybe I can find some help in my situation from the teachings of the Shaykh, maybe there is something I heard from the shaykh, maybe there is something I heard about the deen, maybe there is some hadith that I have heard, there is some knowledge in the deen that maybe able to help me. And sometimes, a person maybe in a situation that know that its such a mundane worldly matter that there is nothing really in the deen that can help you out of that problem but the deen can help you how to cope with that problem.

Rather than panicking, getting depressed, becoming violent, having anger, having resentment; Deen can teach us how to face adversity with more calm, more patience, more fortitude. 

And that is something, certainly that I think all the mashaikh of tasawwuf have taught their students. If a student isn’t able to do that, I don’t think it reflects on their teacher. So I think it’s a very delicate thing and I will also then add (I am giving a very long answer but it’s a very important question) that if you look at the books of tasawwuf, plus everything I have ever heard from our own mashaikh, that is, that there is a certain thing called adab in this relationship, and if you break the adab you break the relationship.

Let me give you one of the most devastating ways to lose the adab and break the relationship. Two ways.

1. One is related to what the questioner is saying, this is whats called soo-e-zann, in Urdu its called bad-gumani, in English you would say then to become disappointed and let down to the extent that you now hold a negative opinion about him in your mind or you have ill-will or ill-feelings towards him in your heart. That feeling itself, as far as I am concerned, breaks the relationship.

The mashaikh say very famously that when the mureed gives bayah to a shaykh, the shaykh does not have the right of divorce. The mureed has the right of divorce. And this is a way that the mureed can divorce the shaykh, because if you have divorced him in your heart and in your mind even if you just uttered those words, like in physical marriage, right in worldly marriage, if you even just say the word talaq the divorce occurs even if later you say you didn’t really mean it or feel it. Just like that, that mureed who in their mind thinks, or in their heart feels something negative about their shaykh, they have actually broken the bayah as far as I am concerned.

So, the first thing is to have a negative opinion or negative feeling about your shaykh.

2. And the second thing, which is even worse, is to have a negative opinion of all mashaikh and all religious people because of this incident. So, for example, people make statements that oh you know, if so and so is like this then what’s the point of tasawwuf? Whats the point of all of Islam, what’s the point of me being a mureed or mureedah, what’s the point of me being a Muslim. You know, its anger, its frustration, and if you take the anger and frustration out on the deen itself, right, what value does Islam have?

When they meet some a’alim and that a’alim does something that is incorrect, and they view it to be incorrect. So, instead of focusing on that act being incorrect, they use it to malign all of the Ulema and then all of ilm and then even the purpose and value and benefit of studying ilm. So if that person is like that, so that’s what an ‘alim is like, then who needs all these ulema, whats the value of ilm, whats the point of studying and they drop out of their studies. They drop out of their studies!

If you ask me, its all just shaytan and the nafs. There can be no greater proof that this person is not mureed of a shaykh, they are actually mureed of shaytan and their nafs. So the questioner didn’t ask all this. I am not saying all this in response to the questioner, but I am just saying it’s a delicate relationship to balance and its also a very delicate matter, because when it goes awry, if you make a mistake in this relationship you can have serious consequences.

Just like, again the husband-wife, if the husband makes a mistake and says talaq, it has serious consequences and severe repercussions. So I would suggest to the questioner that first of all, they should think about the situation more calmly and they shouldn’t let themselves feel personally hurt or personally let down because that’s not what this relationship was. You see, if the shaykh was your psychologist or your therapist, or counsellor, then yes you can feel that my therapist let me down, my counsellor let me down. But that’s not what the shaykh was.

And secondly, the questioner did not make this part clear, if otherwise he or she was benefiting from the shaykh spiritually, in terms of deen, in terms of increasing their taqwa, in terms of increasing their qurb to Allah Almighty. Then to sacrifice and leave all of that because they weren’t able to benefit in terms of worldly advice, that doesn’t make any sense to me. So I think he should re-consider his stance.

And at the same time, he should be honest , and if he feels that no, I am just so emotionally hurt. (if he were to address me and to say) I am so emotionally hurt my mind accepts what you are saying but my heart still feels so hurt and disappointed and let down that I was not guided, then fine, that person should go elsewhere. Because for that person to continue that relationship, it will be harmful for him and it will be unproductive for their shaykh.

So better then that that person clears their concepts. Okay, they cant clarify it in their first relationship because they are too emotionally disturbed by it. But they should find another shaykh and be clear in their heart at the outset that I am not taking a shaykh for counseling, I am not going to let my dependence exceed my level of access to the shaykh and I am going to be attached to the shaykh as long as I find the method of zikr that he teaches me satisfying and I find his instructions and teachings satisfying and I am going to delink and de-couple this from a personal advisory relationship.

And I can tell here, with the listeners as-well, from this side that many times we also realize that people need advice and counseling on their personal/marital/academic/family etc/ interpersonal, all of their problems in order for them to progress in the deen but simply due to constraints of time and also priority, we are not always able to individually counsel everyone out of it.

Now, Alhamdulillahtasawwuf gives a teaching, that the shaykh is able to rely upon, but the mureeds seem to forget this, and that is the power of tawakkul and dua. So when the shakh sees that okay this is a situation that if I sat down with this person for two hours I maybe able to help them out of their personal problem and that would maybe help them in their deen, but I don’t have the two hours, so what I can do is make a one minute dua for them and have tawakkul on Allah Almighty, that ya Allah, if you truly want to bring a person closer to you, and this problem is indeed something that without resolving it they cant come closer to you. Then Ya Allah, we ask you from your own unseen help to help that person out of his problem.

And this is what the shaykh does and the shaykh moves on and he thinks that he has done his job. But the mureed is still sitting there waiting for the two hours. So we should also think that okay if I don’t get those two hours the mureed should also have enough of an understanding of the deen of islam to make dua to Allah Almighty and to have tawakkul on Allah Almighty.

And then some mureeds take this in a very sarcastic, cynical way and say okay well if I am supposed to think then what do I need a shaykh for anyway. If I am just supposed to have tawakkul and make dua to Allah Almighty then what do I need a shaykh for anyway.

And that really can only be understood by a person. You know what it means to lose a shaykh, only a person who experiences that loss can understand what that means, may Allah Almighty save all of us from that, I wouldn’t want to put it into words. So it’s a very delicate thing and I think people have to be very careful, and generally the deen of islam teaches us to be very careful about all of our interpersonal relationships, not to exalt anything beyond the level that it is and not to belittle, demean or degrade anything lower than the level that is its due. I think this is a very important question and I think this has become a whole topic!

I can probably continue until six on this topic, but adaab of the shaykh are very important. I will even share with you people, I have been with my shaykhAlhamdulillah, for sixteen and a half years now and you will not always be able to understand one hundred percent every decision or every advice your shaykh gives to you nor will you always be able to understand one hundred percent every silence that he leaves you in, but this relationship is something that transcends this zaahiri communication. I don’t know how to explain but

It’s really a relationship of hearts, and it far far far transcends the consultation and advices given by the tongue and received by the ear. So, if we were to have more of that asal relationship (it’s that batin, its that inner relationship), then the ups and downs or the apparent fluctuations in the zaahir relationship wouldn’t have so much of an effect on us.

And lets also say, sometimes a person has religious problems, because sometimes a person could even ask this question that okay, personal problems/interpersonal problems/academic problems/marital problems/family problems okay I understand that.

But sometimes I have religious problems and even then I am not able to get to my shaykh.

Because whats happening here is you also have to see that hidaya comes from Allah Almighty and sometimes Allah Almighty helps a person, how? Because

–> The way out of this religious problem is not shaykh, the way out of this religious problem is taqwa,
–> The way out of this religious problem is not shaykh, the way out of this religious problem is taubah
–> The way out of this religious problem is not shaykh, the way out of this religious problem is mujahida, making effort and striving.

So yes, Allah Almighty has enjoined us kunoo ma’as sadiqeen and in many other places in our deen and the ‘amal of this ummah through out the centuries, that we should associate ourselves with shaykh. But it doesn’t mean shaykh alone can take us out of our religious problems. And if something is due to a lack of taqwa, then yes a bayan of the shaykh may help a person re-ignite their taqwa, they bring a person again to the brink of taubah, but just a conversation or an email isn’t necessarily going to do that.

So I think that a person should realize that as well that if it’s a religious problem then the religious cure actually lies in the deen, yes the shaykh can either guide me to that cure or the shaykh can motivate me to do that cure.

And if a person thinks about it calmly, a person would realize that well isn’t that exactly what the shaykh has been doing with me since the day they took me as a student? What other has the shaykh done with me other than to try to guide me and to motivate me towards the deen. And if all that guidance and motivation is still not enough for me then I need to think about myself.

So anyway, a very long answer. But this is my temperament, I feel that tasawwuf should always be talked about and discussed openly so that people don’t have any misconceptions or false expectations.

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