Sohba And Musahaba (Conversation And Communion)
This article explains the meaning of Sohba and Musahaba (Conversation and Communion) in Sufism.
Sohba (Conversation) means making effective speeches to direct people to the Almighty, enlightening others with words and thoughts, using other’s good opinions of oneself to guide hearts to eternity, and always wishing well for others. The famous Turkish Sufi poet who lived in the 13th century, Yunus Emre, stresses the vitality of conversation and communion (musahaba) in this sense, saying: “What sets the soul right is the conversation of saints.”
With respect to the relationship between a guide and the initiates on the Sufi way, there are two things which lead initiates to the truth: a guide’s conversation and communion with his disciples and their serving in the lodge where the guide teaches. Serving is a means of being favored with the guide’s special attention, and conversation or communion, which has been considered as an important means employed by the guide that is greatly beneficial, is a way to feeling and experiencing truth with all one’s inner and outer senses. Nevertheless, benefiting from the guide so that one is “colored” by him depends on the rank of the guide. Every guide has an influence upon his disciples in proportion to the degree of his rank. The most perfect and greatest guide is the Almighty Himself. That is why the master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, took on the universal, brightest color due to his being addressed by Him in the Revelation. The verse (2:138), Take on God’s color perfectly; whoever can be more beautiful in color than God?, indicates this fact. After him come all the other Prophets and pure, verifying scholars and saints, who vary in the colors they have taken on, according to the rank of guides and the capacity of each to take on the color. All the scholars and saints who have and will come after God’s Messenger have been and will be dependent on him and his guidance, both in taking on color and coloring their disciples. However, as mentioned before, both the coloring of others and taking on color varies according to one’s capacities:
Everyone benefits from God’s enlightening gifts according to his capacity;
A snake receives poison from April rain, and an oyster a pearl.
Service denotes seeking God’s good pleasure and approval with sincerity and purity of intention, and putting oneself in the hands of one with whom God is pleased for teaching and guidance. As for communion, this means attending the courses of a friend of God with a heart whose doors are opened to Divine favors and blessings, and sharing his aura of holiness within which the Divine manifestations of grace pour forth. The Companions of God’s Messenger were the most advanced of all in serving, and were accordingly favored with the most enlightened communion. This was due to the fact that the one who taught and held communion with them was the greatest of creation, whose single look was enough to cause the souls endowed with the necessary capacity to rise to the high horizons of perfection. We should also point out that his disciples, those heroes of steadfastness, who put their hearts, senses, consciousness, and will power into orbit round that sun, had the necessary capacity and performance.
Every friend of God is favored with coloring those around him or her to a certain extent. The range of this favor is very broad, from a friend of God whose light may be likened to a candle in darkness, to those whose light may be likened to radiant stars that light up whole galaxies. In addition, as pointed out before, as with every guide or friend of God, those who benefit or receive light from them vary in their capacity. This means that the extent or degree of coloring on the part of guides varies to the number of the capacities. So there are as many ranks or degrees of coloring and being colored as there are Prophets, spiritual guides and initiates who benefit from them, from the greatest of creation, who is the most polished mirror of the Light of Lights, to the one who has just taken his or her first step on the spiritual journey. The communion or conversation of the one who was universally favored with coloring others was so influential and so great a blessing for him that no one has ever been, nor will ever be, able to attain it. Consider the fact that those who were honored with the conversation and companionship of him, who said, “The first thing which God created is my light,” were and have been called with the title of Ashab (meaning the friends with whom he communes), not with another title even though they were the fortunate ones who traveled to God most eagerly and sought His good pleasure and approval most of all.
Everyone listening to or sharing the atmosphere of a guide, observes in his every manner his belief in the Single, Besought-of-All, his knowledge and love of Him, and the degree of his relationship with Him. Influenced by all these blessings that the initiates observe in the guide, they find themselves in an indescribable mysterious spiritual atmosphere. Those flying toward the “Sun of Suns,” attracted by the centripetal force of a guide, both benefit from his knowledge of God and follow in his footsteps to reach every point that he has already passed.
I think this is also the reason why people gather around spiritual guides who are sources of radiance, and develop as particular spiritual institutions or schools. It is because of this that in the early periods of Islam, the Muslim Sufis who sought to strengthen or consolidate their individual relationships with the All-Radiating One, came together in dervish lodges or similar institutions of enlightenment where the Truth could be “observed” beyond all concepts modality. In those buildings of light, which they saw as being similar to the hall adjacent to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madina, where those of the Companions stayed who had dedicated themselves, during his lifetime, to studying the Qur’an and the Sunna. They sought the way to develop an atom into a sun, a drop into an ocean, and to change the darkness of corporeality into light. As this was the main reason for the appearance of dervish lodges and distinct spiritual orders in later centuries, it is not possible to claim that they are incompatible with the spirit of Islam. Moreover, since everyone has weaknesses or shortcomings of character that they cannot overcome alone, being in the company of others seeking the same goal attracts God’s special help and protection. A member of a community or group thinks with many heads, turns to God with a collective heart, strengthens the entreaties of one voice with the entreaties of many, and turns his or her individual notes into the melody of a chorus. In the words of Bediuzzaman, by participating in the other-worldly deeds of a community, the individual can transcend the normal level of attainment in acts of obedience to God.
Those who have come together around the same feeling, thought and goal have such a depth in their turning to God in unison, such a richness in their consciousness and feelings, and such a profundity in their thoughts and concepts, that individuals of even the greatest capacity and perfection cannot attain the least of the blessings that come their way in their community. In the illuminating atmosphere of communion, benefiting and causing to benefit, enlightening and being enlightened, feeling and causing to feel occur differently and in an abundance peculiar to that atmosphere.
In fact, the most important purpose of communion is that belief should be supported with a knowledge of God, a knowledge of God that is based on any of the degrees of certainty, by making journeys at the levels of life of the heart and spirit under the guidance of the Truth of the Prophet’s being Ahmad, and these journeys are accompanied by a conscious observation. The most important capital and endowment of the initiates during such journeys and observations is that the inner faculties are aroused with the actions of the heart and voice, for example, the recitation of God’s Names and reflection, and the demonstration of their deserving Divine gifts. Since deserving such gifts can only be acquired by following the Message of the master of creation and therefore bears witness to the truth of this Message and the Messengership of him who brought and preached it, this decisively proves that he was absolutely truthful in all his speeches and actions.
Benefiting from the communion or conversation of spiritual guides depends, in one respect, on the initiates’ humility and feelings of nothingness, and of their being freed from the influence of their carnal selves. If travelers to the Truth have not been able to completely free themselves from the influence of their carnal selves and to rise to the point of always preferring God’s commandments and obtaining His good pleasure and approval over their own views and desires, they may commit the error of attributing to themselves being favored with some gifts or the development of some of their faculties. Instead of always being thankful to God, they may become conceited. Furthermore, if they are sometimes and temporarily favored with the feeling of attraction and being attracted (toward God by Himself), they may roll into the valleys of uttering words of pride that are incompatible with the rules of Shari’a, and therefore suffer loss upon loss, although a spiritual journey should be a means of gain after gain.
In fact, those who do not converse or commune with their disciples in accordance with the rules of the way of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, cannot always maintain the balance in the spirit of Islam and may display relaxed attitudes or make utterances that cannot be reconciled with their rank or position. They may even go so far as to prefer sainthood to Prophethood and, favoring the principles and manners established by the founder of their orders over those of the Prophetic way, commit such great errors that it as if one chose to be illuminated by a candle instead of by the sun. Besides, those unfortunate ones who prefer sainthood to Prophethood will naturally see their guides or masters as being greater than the Companions, who were the foremost and most distinguished students of Messengership. This will denote that communion has changed places with gossip, that spirituality has become darkened in its own home, that the essentials originating in the Divine sources have been replaced by those of personal choices and desires, and that there no longer remains the sacred power of attraction which the spiritual guides and their aura must have. As Muhammed Lutfi laments:
Those who were valiant have melted away like butter;
Lovable personages have all been reduced to dust.
Thorns have grown in the place of flowers;
Honeycombs have shrunk and been emptied of their honey.
The communions and conversations which resemble idle talk in cafes bring nothing in the name of Divine gifts and never assist the disciples to attain the truth. Rather, Satan intervenes in their frequency and sends out sparks. So, every action that is in the guise of a spiritual interaction in these places, which appear to be homes of spirituality, but have long since expelled sincerity and the feeling of being seen by God, is only a deception or even perdition, and expecting God’s special favors is nothing more than mere illusion. Those who attend such places as if they were attending a united congregation are only joining in a spiritless ritual. In addition, if they regard criticizing and quarreling with others, rumor mongering and slander, and cherishing ill-opinions about others as religious services, then they are gravely mistaken; the places they attend are only places of hypocrisy and their guides are not Sufis, but rather bigoted highwaymen. Who knows that such attitudes did not cause Destiny to allow the banning of such and the closing of the ways that led to their collapse?
Autumn winds have blown and the vineyards have withered away;
And there no longer exist the gorgeous roses in the gardens. ( Muhammed Lutfi Efendi)
O God! Favor us with a happy end to our affairs, and protect us from loss and humiliation in the world and punishment in the hereafter. And bestow Your blessings and peace on the master of creation, Muhammad, and on his family and Companions, the noble, godly ones.
By M. Fethullah Gulen
 Al-Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa’, 1:265.