Excerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation
A dervish is an apprentice, one who is learning the profession that will provide eternal livelihood. This profession is still taught in certain “schools of higher learning.” While there are many skills that can be self-taught or learned alone, the skills of dervishood are learned by being in relationship to a shaikh, or guide, and within a spiritual family, a Sufi circle. There will always be much to learn on one’s own, through one’s own efforts, and within one’s own understanding. The final responsibility, of course, lies with ourselves, and in reality there is no intermediary between us and our God. And yet one can no more become a dervish alone than one can become a lover alone.
People will dedicate the whole of their lives to becoming an accomplished musician or a professional athlete. In doing so they will have to organize the whole of their lives around this one master desire. A dervish is one who has made Truth his or her master desire and is willing to submit all other desires and aims before this aim. It is possible to make Sufism a pastime, one interest among others, but that does not make one a dervish. It is fine to read widely and become acquainted with various traditions, but to be a Sufi is much more than to have a preference for reading Sufi books or listening to Sufi music.
The price of dervishood is one’s whole life, a total commitment of one’s life energies. Fortunately, in our tradition it does not mean the abandonment of a productive and socially useful livelihood, nor the renunciation of marriage and family, but it does mean that everything we are involved with will be understood and arranged from the perspective of our essential spiritual intention. Certain lifestyles may not be consistent with our intention; certain forms of livelihood may not be appropriate in light of the more stringent requirements of remembering God with each breath. We may find that we are not asked to sacrifice everything, that the Way does not contradict our essential humanity. We may find that our Friend is a patient, generous and compassionate Friend, but we gradually learn that we ourselves must withhold nothing.
In dervishood we pledge ourselves to a shaikh and a lineage. This reaches hand over hand all the way to Allah. Our pledge, our obedience, our commitment is to Allah, and the shaikh is a link. Why should there be any intermediary at all? This is a very good question. Actually there is no intermediary if the shaikh is a real shaikh and if one’s pledge is sincere. The shaikh actually is the evidence of God’s mercy and generosity, making grace more tangible, more immediate. The shaikh does not gather power or privilege for himself or herself, but is the servant of the yearning of the dervish’s heart. The shaikh may also be the challenger of the dervish’s egoism, calling us to surpass our timidity, our fears, our comfortable complacency. The shaikh may be the one to say, “Come into this fire, it will not burn you.”
No shaikh is perfect, and it is particularly in his function as shaikh that he may sometimes disappear and become a pure medium for divine grace or wisdom. It is the dervish who helps to create the shaikh, and both are in the process of learning from the relationship. It must be remembered that before becoming a shaikh one had to be a dervish, and one never stops being a dervish.
One day Mevlâna and Shams were sitting together in spiritual intimacy and conversation. A messenger entered with the news that a certain shaikh in a distant village had died. The community was asking that a shaikh be sent to succeed their late teacher. Mevlâna said, “Send so-and-so–let him be your new shaikh.” After the messenger had left, however, Shams turned to Mevlâna and said, “We’re lucky they only asked for a shaikh. If they had asked for a dervish, one of us would have to go!”
Spiritual seekers are typically people who have learned to question conventional reality. Most spiritual seekers have experienced a loss of “blind faith” and have searched for answers to legitimate questions. Our post-modern culture has also suffered a loss of faith, the result of which can be characterized as a pervasive cynicism. The conventional conditioning and orthodoxy of the post-modern world consists of a profound cynicism, doubt, and inability to approach truth innocently. While one should look quite critically at any spiritual path or teacher before committing oneself, one shouldn’t allow the pervasive cynicism and rebelliousness of our times to prevent one from seeing what humility and trust can offer. Once one has decided to play the master game of self-transformation one must do it wholeheartedly.
In my own case it took quite a while for me to understand the value of cultivating a relationship with a teacher. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a typical product of my own culture, a culture which has a fundamental mistrust and disrespect for leadership and authority. Perhaps I was simply too rebellious and critical. Now I can look back on my own relationships with my teachers with some remorse for the disappointments and pain I caused them through my insensitivity and lack of awareness. It is easy to forget that the shaikh is a servant more than a master.
The shaikh holds the keys to a treasure the seeker cannot really understand. He may be able to unlock the treasure within the dervish’s heart, but how likely is he to do this for a someone who is half-hearted, ungrateful, or full of resistance, who lacks humility or respect? The dervish’s intention should always be to allow a sincere love for the shaikh to grow and deepen. Sometimes the outer respect is the best that can be offered, but we must realize that we can fool ourselves more easily than we can deceive others and especially our shaikh.
What is required in this relationship is a connection of love, rabita, which allows all that one has to pass to the other. When there is real love between a shaikh and a dervish, the dervish comes into resonance with the wisdom and light of the shaikh, and the shaikh carries some of the burden of the dervish. A shaikh needs to be strong enough to do this and this is possible only with the help of God and the lineage, especially the Pir, the Complete Human Being from whom the particular order derives its baraka, or grace.
There is more than one kind of real shaikh, in addition to the self-appointed teachers who can do some good and much harm. There are shaikhs who serve a kind of managerial function in dervish circles. They need to have a certain natural authority, experience, and knowledge; they must be trusted not to use the position to gain any kind of advantage for themselves. In their managerial capacity they are useful in the preparatory work of dervish training, provided they are backed up by a real source of baraka.
Then there are those shaikhs who have the permission of the unseen world, who have true spiritual authority. Such a shaikh not only has experience, wisdom, and knowledge, but also serves as a channel for the transformative energies of the tradition, both in group activities like the zhikr, and in relationship to individual dervishes. In order for this individual connection to work at its highest potential, the student needs to cultivate a spiritual connection with the shaikh. The shaikh is a “wireless transformer” connected to the powerhouse of the Pir.
In the story-book version of shaikh and dervish, the dervish is involved in a period of closely supervised experiences under the watchful eyes of the shaikh. While it would be wonderful to have such a shaikh in one’s life to listen to one’s problems and answer one’s questions, such a situation is rare.
A Sufi shaikh is likely to have a family and a profession and rarely has the time to give such personal attention to many people. Unless one somehow shares in his mission, works by his side, or has reached a high degree of surrender and can give all one’s time to the service of the shaikh, one’s relationship will more likely be through attending regular meetings and keeping the heart connection active at other times.
Given the rarity of real shaikhs, especially in the Western world, one should be thankful if one has found a connection even at a distance to an effective Sufi lineage. In reality, the dervish’s connection is beyond the tangible matrix of space and time, beyond even the conscious mind. What needs to flow to the student will flow if the student knows how to cultivate that connection and has surrendered to it. In the physical world we are under many limitations of time and space. In some cases you may see your shaikh in the tangible world only rarely. In the world of the conscious mind, you may cultivate a positive bond and even converse inwardly with your teacher. At the subconscious level of the heart, however, the shaikh’s benevolent energy will be working on you continuously. As Yunus Emre says, “Ever since the glance of the mature one fell upon me, nothing has been a problem.”
There are many legitimate issues regarding authority and its abuse that have occurred as Westerners have uncritically accepted other traditions, especially traditions untied from their traditional ethical moorings. In some cases we have been led to believe that outrageous and abusive behavior from the teacher is part of the training. One cannot have an absolute rule, but generally the stronger tactics are reserved for the strong and devoted dervishes, and only after the greatest bond of love has been made certain. Rumi’s own teacher, Shams of Tabriz, was a stringent master, and once said, “My wrath causes a seventy-year-long unbeliever to become a believer, and a believer to become a saint!”
We should bear in mind, however, that abusive conduct was never the method of Muhammad. On the contrary, he showed profound respect to people, always being the first to say hello, jumping up to greet the humblest people. If Muhammad set this example he was teaching a lesson for generations to come.
Shaikhs may also challenge a person’s conditioning or belief structure, may even appear to be doing something unethical or harmful, as in the case of Khidr and Moses in the Qur’an. No real shaikh, however, would keep a student in a state of prolonged moral ambivalence. If the shaikh appears to do or require something that contradicts one’s idea of the good, or moral norms, or the religious law, the reason for this should be made clear before too long, as it was in the case of Moses and Khidr.
The relationship between a shaikh and a dervish is one of the most sacred bonds any human being could experience. To find a real shaikh, and to be accepted by one, is a great gift. Shaikhs are taught that if one of their dervishes were to be excluded from the gates of paradise, the shaikh, too, must remain outside. If a shaikh accepts you into his heart and you can accept the shaikh into yours, it is in order that hand and hand you both will go to God. Value that relationship as you would an infant put into your hands: in the beginning it may require great care and sacrifice, and even perhaps sleepless nights, but eventually, after tests, difficulties, and joys, that infant relationship may mature into a being of strength and great beauty, and the generations of the Way will continue.