As salaamu alaikum Dr. Whitehouse, and thanks for taking the time to speak to readers of The Civil Muslim. Just to clarify for people for whom this is important, are you a “universal Sufi” for whom the laws of Islam are not considered important (prayer, zakat, etc.) or would you consider that Sufism goes hand in hand with the law (shar’)?
With respect to the facet of your first question which raises the question of whether, or not, Sufism goes hand in hand with the shar’ (law) of Islam…many people seem inclined to translate ‘shari’ah’ as meaning law in a legalistic sense. The Qur’an is not a book of law. It is a book of spiritual guidance. The journey toward God is not an exercise in legal hermeneutics. It is an exercise in coming to understand the truth about ourselves, our relation with the universe, and our relationship with Divinity.
The word shari’ah appears only once in the Qur’an. In Surah 45, verse 18, one reads: “O Prophet, We have put you on the right way (shari’ah) concerning the deen, so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people.” The etymology of shari’ah indicates that one of its root meanings – as a noun — concerns a place where animals come to drink water. A related verbal derivative from the same root – shar’a – refers to the process of taking a drink. Another word that is derived from the same root is shari’, and this term can refer either to a lawgiver, legislature, or one who determines the law. However, the same word also can refer to a street, path, or way.
Truth is the water to which God invites all Creation. In other words, God is the lawgiver in the sense of natural law, not legalistic conventions.
I have had two spiritual teachers in my life. One of those individuals was, in my opinion, an authentic shaykh, while the other person was, in my opinion, a fraudulent shaykh … a charlatan.
My first – authentic – guide had asked me to conduct a weekly session concerning the Sufi path at the University of Toronto. I did this for about twenty years … including four, or so, years that followed the passing away of my guide. Somewhere early on during the aforementioned four-year period, a woman phoned me and asked if I was the one conducting the weekly Sufi meetings at the University of Toronto. I indicated that I was, and she replied that she would be at the next meeting…and she continued to do so for the next several years. She didn’t say much, but, from time to time, she would make references to her own spiritual guide.
Through a set of gradual steps which occurred across several years, I eventually had the opportunity to meet with her shaykh who was visiting from the United States. Following several more lengthy meetings with him, I indicated to the woman who had been coming to the weekly discussion group concerning the Sufi path that I wanted to be initiated and would she broach the subject with the teacher.
Although nothing had been intimated to me during the previous several years of association with the woman, nor during any of my several discussions with the ‘shaykh,’ it seemed – as I later found out – that the alleged shaykh had instructed the woman in question to find me, babysit me, and wait for the alleged ‘shaykh’ to make his way to Toronto in order to meet with me.
The unexpected twist to the initiation ceremony is that after that process concluded, the gathering was informed by the ‘shaykh’ – and there were about approximately 50 or 60 people who had assembled for the ceremony – that I was being made a ‘shaykh’ in the silsilah into which I had just been initiated. I had not come to the ‘shaykh’ for that purpose, and even though I had had a very close sixteen-year relationship with my first teacher and was something of a ‘right’ hand man for him, I went to the second ‘teacher’ with no expectations other than to continue on with the learning process concerning the Sufi path.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Seven or eight years into the relationship, circumstances led me to spend some time with the ‘shaykh’ in the United States. Although the people in the household were very observant with respect to holding ‘fatiha’ sessions — during which the Qur’an is recited, thanks is given to God, and blessings are sought for the different shaykhs in the spiritual lineage, as well as for the people who have gathered for the session — the people in the household seemed to be less observant when it came to prayers and fasting. It seemed that while, on certain occasions, they did perform salaat, more often than not, this did not seem to be the case … although it is quite possible that they observed the prayers by themselves in their own rooms.
The fasting issue – at least in the case of some individuals – was more overt. I was up for fajr during Ramadan, and after eating something prior to the beginning of fasting, I would say the morning prayers. After I got done, I noticed that some of the people were continuing to eat despite the fact that the time for eating had long since passed by. People – whether Muslim or non-Muslim — come to the Sufi path from all different conditions and with different spiritual capacities and different levels of commitment. What such people do is not necessarily a reflection of, or on, their spiritual guide.
Manipulating the Impressions of Others
I heard in a round-about way that people within the silsilah had been told by my ‘teacher’ to not bother me because I was in a state of jazb – or intense spiritual attraction, often characterized by a sense of spiritual intoxication – and, therefore, they should not disturb me or contact me. Although we often are not the best judges of our own spiritual condition, I did not feel that what people were being told correctly described my spiritual station.
Certain allegations were made by various individuals that were critical of my ‘teacher.’ Yet, without facts which can be substantiated – and such facts are not always easily accessible — what is one supposed to do with those kinds of allegations?Unfortunately, life does always permit itself to be parsed in clearly understood terms. Sometimes our lives are left hanging in the interstitial spaces between what can, and cannot, be proven.
The final straw – the proverbial one which breaks the ‘camel’s’ back – came in the form of someone who was an initiate of mine…on one occasion, we had taken a trip to another state to visit with my ‘shaykh.’ Not too long after our return from that trip together, the individual began to behave in what I considered to be rather anomalous ways. Among other things, the person was going to take another trip to visit with the ‘shaykh,’ however, my ‘teacher’ had not said anything to me about the upcoming journey – despite his claim that he was under an obligation to tell me everything that took place in conjunction with the silsilah, and despite the fact that the individual who would be making the trip was supposedly my ‘student’ and, therefore, part of the spiritual adab or etiquette of the situation entailed that both my ‘shaykh’ and the student should ask my permission concerning the proposed journey. When that person returned from the journey, the individual indicated that I was no longer the student’s ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide.’
A little later on, I followed up with a further investigation of something else that the ‘teacher’ had told me when I and my student had last visited with him the previous November. I checked with official sources – including the state police and the local police where the ‘shaykh’ was living – and uncovered indisputable facts indicating that my ‘shaykh’ had been lying to me about the event in question.
During subsequent investigations, I discovered that the ‘shaykh’ had been lying to other people about me. I began to understand that the reason why it seemed to me that I was being moved to the periphery of ‘silsilah’ activities was because this was, in fact, what was happening … but it was all done by the shaykh’s manipulating and managing the impressions that others had concerning me.
(To be continued…Subscribe to this blog (located in the lower left portion of the page), to receive an email notification of Part 2.)