Irshad And Murshid (Guidance And the Guide)

This article explains the meaning of Irshad and Murshid (Guidance and the Guide) in Sufism.

Guidance is defined in different ways, among which are directing to the right path, awakening hearts to the Ultimate Truth, helping feelings and thoughts reach God by removing the obstacles between Him and people’s minds and hearts, and serving as a means for the souls to have some acquaintance with God, and for the souls who have acquired acquaintance with Him to deepen in their relationships with Him. It consists of educating people individually or in communities and, thus, elevating those endowed with the required capability and merit from among them from being potentially human to being really human, or directing them to the horizon of being perfect humans.

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We can also see guidance as a call which a perfect teacher, who has full knowledge of the outer and inner aspects of the Religion and who is able to combine them in theory and practice, makes to those endowed with the required capabilities to be human at a certain level of humanity. From this perspective, we can regard guidance as the special efforts of heroes of spirituality to convey to others whatever of spirituality they have particularly been favored with. In the hands of such heroes, coal has always been transformed into diamonds, and rocks and soil have been raised to the level of gold. The teachers of Sufism have dealt with the matter of guidance and guides in this respect and have considered it as the superhuman effort of those with transcendent qualities. They do not regard endeavors at a low level as guidance, nor do they consider as guides those who are unable to open the doors to the horizon of perfect humanity for souls with the required capabilities. For these, themselves, are in need of guidance and must certainly be trained. A famous Turkish proverb states:

A guide who himself is in need of special favor
Cannot know how he can impart favor to others!

It is truly as if this proverb has been coined in regard to such people. Salim Süleyman Üsküdari[1] voices the same consideration in a poetic way:

Our teacher himself suffers from a lack of knowledge,
So how can he know what guidance really is?

Ruhi of Baghdad[2] approached the matter a bit more humorously:

Look at the ascetic: he aspires to be a guide;
He started school yesterday, today he wishes to teach.

It is a fact that if there is one thing that is the most enduring in this world and the most meritorious in the Hereafter, it is guidance; and therefore a guide is the most valuable person. However, guides can only educate according to their own capacity. It is possible to talk of a wide range of guides, from the spiritual poles or axes to ordinary preachers.

As we have briefly mentioned, guides are, in a general sense, heralds of truth who possess whatever is necessary for guidance, heroes of spirituality, and heirs to the mission of Prophethood, who convey Divine gifts to the hearts. In regard to some aspects of this mission, a guide is also called a “sitter-on-rug” (postnishin), or the “elder one” (shaykh). The word shaykh is also used in the sense of teacher or professor. A guide favored with special nearness to God and special knowledge from God’s Presence, and charged and authorized with the duty of guidance, is different from an ordinary preacher. Ordinary guides find in themselves the truths to be imparted to others according to their own horizon of perception, and convey them to others in accordance with their capacity. However, perfect guides, like the North Star, direct all to the true way, based on the fundamental sources of the Religion, and present to others whatever should be presented out of the depths of their hearts and spirit. As for those who are both a spiritual Pole (Qutb) and a Helper or Means of Divine Help (Ghawth), they shape whoever enters their atmosphere in the mold of their own horizon, and rebuild them with the material purely from the Qur’an and the Sunna.

At whatever level it occurs, guidance is the most valued among the duties of servanthood, provided it is done purely for God’s sake; and any hero of truth who fulfills such a responsibility is a guide who is an heir to the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. However, it should be noted that the companionship of a perfect guide has a particular pleasure of its own and bears signs of a possible “meeting” with God, while it is highly difficult to be able to advance in the company of an imperfect one.

A couplet, whose writer is unknown, reads:

Go to a guide, to a guide, a guide,
A guide has a cure for any suffering, O “father!”

Anwari[3] contributes to this meaning with the following:

The mystery lying in, “You will never be able to see Me!”[4]
Which signifies the impossibility of seeing God’s “Face”—
I was not able to understand it
Before my weeping eyes became the Mount of Sinai with love for Him.
The mystery of the Cloak in which the People of the Cloak[5] was covered—
I was not able to understand it before I became happy in meeting a perfect guide.

Now, without going into the differences that arise from the capacity and amount of knowledge each guide has, or the spiritual gifts that each is favored with, I will try to explain the subject in relation to certain essential elements that are found in every guide.

A guide is one who has sufficient knowledge of the relationship between God, humans, and the universe, and the matters concerning this sphere of the Religion. Anyone who does not recognize God is a denier and an ignorant one; and those who are unable to perceive the relationship between Him and existence are blind and unaware of the real nature of their existence, while one who does not know himself is, in fact, lonely and a stranger amidst existence. All of these types of human beings themselves are in need of guidance.

The commitment according to Sufi Masters

The commitment according to Sufi Masters

A guide is a hero of spirituality, one who is a careful student of the Qur’an and the book of the universe, and one who has an inquiring mind which has an acquaintance with existential mysteries. A guide is also a sagacious, insightful one with eyes that are observant of things, a tongue busy with reciting the Qur’an, and ears that listen to it. With sound and accurate sense perceptions, profound and comprehensive observations, and powerful reasoning, a guide is distinguished with the manners that are found in a Prophet at a perfect level. Such a person has a universal viewpoint in dealing with matters, is careful of the intersecting points of the revealed rules and commandments and the Divine laws of creation and life. These individuals seek only God’s good pleasure and approval in conveying to people what God wants them to convey and in communicating whatever is inspired into them to needy souls, thereby considering His nearness in whatever they do and say.

Guides are those individuals who try their utmost to proclaim, on any platform, the cause on which they have set their heart in a mood of dedication, and who mediate between what should be conveyed to others and those to whom it should be conveyed. As they never think of any wage, compensation, or reward, they also attribute any material or spiritual return coming, without expectation, to the sincere efforts of those around them. Without ever appropriating whatever spiritual gifts come to them personally, they regard their followers as a means for the arrival of these gifts. This is, without doubt, self-denial; but in a true guide’s sight, it is what an ordinary Muslim should do, not something worthy of acclamation. Such true guides never expect others to appreciate their activities, nor do they aim by them at any worldly or otherworldly outcome, except God’s good pleasure and approval. They are always sincere and upright before God, for they are aware that they follow the way of the Prophets and that this way has certain rules to observe, the most important of which is that any guide should pursue only God’s pleasure in the act of guiding others.

A guide is also a hero of love and tolerance, one who has full knowledge of his audience or followers with all of their characteristics; a guide keeps them under wings of compassion, shares their joys and grief, congratulates them on their accomplishments, and ignores their faults and deficiencies. Like sources of fragrance, such guides diffuse “incense” to satisfy needy hearts; like candles, they consume themselves to illuminate the dark souls around them, for the well-being of the latter. They find true happiness in the happiness of others and avoid no sacrifice in conveying their ideals. They die in order to revive; weep in order to make others laugh; become tired to enable the rest of others; strive constantly in order to be able to awaken others to eternity—without paying any attention to either sincere or insincere appreciation, or to unfair criticisms. They beg God’s forgiveness in the face of compliments, welcome any rightful reactions and criticism, and go on without faltering.

A guide is a wise one equipped with the necessary knowledge of both religious and certain secular sciences to discuss different subjects with an audience and present satisfactory solutions to their problems. In the Naqshbandiya Order, the duty of guidance was not entrusted to those who did not successfully complete all the courses taught in the madrasas or who could not combine spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Rather, the lodges where the elders or guides of this school taught were each like a fountain of Khadr[6] at which those studying were able to quench their thirst. Any houses of guidance where guides of such caliber did not, or do not, teach are no different from ruins; those who claim guidance in them are deceived and the people who hope for illumination in such centers, which are themselves devoid of light, are indeed unfortunate ones.

Do not offer your hand to whoever claims guidance,
For he may lead you to a slope which is impossible to climb,
Whereas the path of a perfect guide
Is easy enough to follow.
Niyazi Mısri[7]

However transcendent in general knowledge and knowledge of God they may be, in particular, guides are perfect preachers who can combine, in a balanced way, their ascension toward God while still maintaining the level of their audience when conveying to them what they should convey. They always consider the dispositions, feelings, and thoughts of those whose education they have shouldered, and they avoid causing any misunderstandings or ambiguity in conveying the messages that arise from the particular gifts they have received in the horizon of their relationship with God. A true guide is a strict follower and meticulous student of the Qur’an and is, therefore, obliged to follow the Qur’an in the duty of guidance. Despite being the Word of the All-Great, All-Transcendent One, the Qur’an came to the horizon of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, not in a wholly transcendental manifestation of the Divine Attribute of Speech, but rather, in consideration of the levels of all its audience. Thus, just as the Qur’an addresses humankind according to their many levels of understanding, its first and greatest communicator—and the greatest of all guides—the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, also considered the different levels of his audience and said: “We, the community of the Prophets, have been ordered to address people according to their capacity of understanding.”[8]

Guides speak with the sublimity of their character, the depth of their spirituality, and the language of their actions. They are exceptionally faithful and devoted to God Almighty. It is an undeniable truth that those whose words do not conform to their actions and who are not trustworthy by their own actions cannot have any positive, lasting influence on people; thus, their message cannot be acceptable. The only way for those things that are said to be acceptable to the human conscience is the unshakable conviction of the truth of those things and the practice of them in one’s life. It is reported that God Almighty said to the Prophet Jesus, upon him be peace: “O Jesus! First give advice to your own soul, and only after you have accepted and followed it, then give it to others—or else be ashamed of Me.”[9] This is in perfect conformity with what the Qur’an quotes from the Prophet Shu’ayb, upon him be peace:

“I do not want to act in opposition to you (myself doing) what I ask you to avoid.” (11:88)

O God, make us among Your servants who are sincere and who have been endowed with sincerity in faith and in the practice of the Religion, and honor us with following the Lord of those who have been endowed with sincerity, upon him be the greatest of blessings and perfect peace, and on his Household and noble Companions.

By M. Fethullah Gulen

[1] Salim Süleyman Üsküdari (d. 1893) was a Mevlevi (Mawlawi) Sufi poet and writer. He lived in Üsküdar, Istanbul, and was well-versed in both prose and verse. (Tr.)
[2] Ruhi of Baghdad (d. 1605) was one of the important figures in Ottoman-Turkish classical literature, who usually wrote about moral issues. (Tr.)
[3] Awhadu’-Din ‘Ali Anwari is a famous poet who lived in the twelfth century in Iran and Afghanistan. Besides poetry, he was adept in logic, music, theology, mathematics, and astrology. His Diwan, a collection of his poems, consists of a series of long poems, and a number of simpler lyrics. (Tr.)
[4] It refers to the Prophet Moses’ desire to see God on Mount Sinai and God’s reply to him, saying: “You will never be able to see Me (while in the world).” See the Qur’an, 7:143. (Tr.)
[5] God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, once gathered together ‘Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, Fatima, his beloved daughter, and their sons Hasan and Husayn under his cloak, and said: “O Lord, these are my family.” (Muslim, “Fadail al-Ashab” 32; at-Tirmidhi, “Manaqib,” HN: 3726.) After this event, together with the Messenger himself, these people came to be called “the People of the Cloak.” (Tr.)
[6] (al-) Khadr is he with whom the Qur’an recounts (18: 60–82) the Prophet Moses made a journey to learn something of the spiritual realm of existence and the true nature of God’s acts in the world. It is controversial whether he was a Prophet or a saint with a special mission. It is believed that he enjoys the degree of life where one feels no need for the necessities of normal human life. (Tr.)
[7] Mehmed Niyazi Mısri (d. 1694), a Sufi poet who was born in Malatya (Turkey), educated in Egypt, and lived in Istanbul and Edirne. (Tr.)
[8] ad-Daylami, al-Musnad, 1:398. (Tr.)
[9] Ibid., 1:144; Abu Nu’aym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 2:382.

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