This is the fifth part of a series, click here for the previous article.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
Here, we will be discussing the different shaykhs and teachers we may encounter in our lives. They may fall into one or more of the following three categories (Although a shaykh can to fall into all of them, it rarely happens).
- The Shaykh al-Fath (Shaykh of Opening)
The first, and the greatest, is the shaykh al-fath – the shaykh who is the means of receiving an opening of sainthood. Through him, one becomes detached from the world and connected to his Lord, Allah Most High. One draws closer to Allah and finds enjoyment in worship.
The shaykh al-fath is the door to continuous presence with Allah. Many shaykhs experience this presence to such an extent that, if their heart is absent from their Lord for a minute, they regard themselves as apostates. For example, a shaykh repented to Allah for a single sin for forty years. His students asked him about the sin, and he said, “I had guests over one evening and served them fish. Afterwards, as they left my home, I had the smell of fish on my hands and wanted to get rid of it so I took a piece of mud from my neighbour’s wall and cleaned my hands”. The students said, “that is not a serious sin because you could have told the neighbour you took it by mistake and he would have pardoned you”. He said, “that is not the reason I am crying. I went to the neighbour immediately and apologised and he overlooked the sin. I am repenting of the fact that, for the moment that I took my neighbour’s mud without his permission, I was heedless of Allah.”
Words cannot describe the state that the shaykh al-fath facilitates in his students. He may be someone we meet once in our lives. He may be the most unassuming person, and we may think of ourselves better than him. In so doing, we may deprive ourselves of receiving the great opening.
We must take note that the opening is not given by the shaykh himself. Allah has made him a means for others to attain the state. You may reject this, saying there is no proof. However, our shaykhs are living proof of this.
For example, one day Habib ‘Ali al-Habashi was playing in the road with his friends, and Habib Abu Bakr al-‘Attas looked at him from his window. When Habib al-‘Attas’ gaze fell upon him, he became disconnected from everything around him and connected to his Lord.
- The Shaykh of Tarbiyah (Shaykh of Spiritual Nurturing )
The second is the shaykh of tarbiyah. He is the one from whom we take the pledge of spiritual allegiance (‘ahd or bay’ah). He tells us which adhkar or litanies (awrad) to recite, and he advises us in times of difficulty.
There is a debate among the scholars as to whether one should have a shaykh of tarbiyah. It cannot be regarded as compulsory, because this would imply that many Muslims around the world who do not have shaykhs are sinful. No scholar would wish to ascribe to this view.
However, the shaykh of tarbiyyah is important. Imam Ghazali says in Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din that there are different ways of attaining spirituality. For example, you can ask a friend – a trusted person who is close to you – to make you aware of your faults. You will respond readily when he advises you of your bad qualities because you trust him, and you will try your best to rid yourself of them. Nevertheless, Imam Ghazali says that a shaykh of tarbiyyah is the best way to attain closeness to Allah, to increase in spirituality, and to develop the qualities of a real believer.
What qualities should you be looking for in a shaykh of tarbiyah?
- There should be an appropriate bond or connection between you and the shaykh
- The shaykh’s students shouldn’t try to encourage you to become their shaykh’s student. You should be given the space to find someone who will have a life-long impact on your heart
- In addition to fulfilling all the commands of Allah, the shaykh should emulate the characteristics (shama’il) of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and display as much of his sunnah as possible
Habib ‘Ali al-Habashi said if you find yourself in your shaykh’s heart and he receives divine outpourings, you will share in them. Imam Hasan al-Basri said if Allah gazes at your shaykh’s heart and you find a place in his heart, you will also receive Allah’s gaze.
- The Shaykh of Knowledge
The third shaykh is the shaykh of knowledge (shaykh al-ta‘lim). He is the shaykh from whom you study Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Islamic doctrine (‘aqidah), Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh), tafsir, and all the other sacred sciences.
The shaykh of knowledge plays a major role in our lives. This shaykh ensures that I know how to worship Allah. Through this shaykh, we come to know halal and haram and are able to live lives that are pleasing to Allah. This shaykh assists us in knowing how to execute Allah’s command and to abstain from His prohibitions outwardly; while the shaykh of tarbiyah assists us in doing so, inwardly and outwardly.
We are emphasizing the shaykh of tarbiyah because we are in need of purification of our egos and assistance with our struggle to live as Muslims in the modern western world. The best way to learn how to live our lives in the west is to observe those shaykhs of tarbiyah who have adopted the way of the Messenger of Allah. For example, it is impermissible for a man to shake a strange woman’s hand. This is a big challenge in the west. However, if you really want to follow Allah’s law, He will make things easy for you. When Habib ‘Umar entered a university lecture theatre in North America, a woman professor tried to shake his hand. He raised his hands to his chest politely, thereby letting her know that it was not permissible for him to shake her hand, and smiled at her radiantly. So he made up for not shaking her hand by his smile, as well as his politeness and humility.
While the three kinds of shaykhs are all important, the shaykh of tarbiyah is of the greatest importance to modern western Muslims because he connects us to Allah and guides and benefits us in navigating the challenges we face.