The Initiate From a Different Perspective
An initiate is one who follows a way. In Sufi terminology, the word “initiate” denotes one who walks toward God with a certain discipline in order to please Him, thus neutralizing the tendencies in their nature that lead them away from God, or trying to eliminate the distance between them and God. There are two kinds of initiate:
- The first is the initiate who, without having to fulfill the requirements of following a spiritual path, passing through certain periods of suffering, or staying with a guide for a fixed amount of time, can pass through all states and stations in one attempt and reach the highest point destined for them by being attracted by God Himself. This is the initiate who is attracted or feels attraction toward God.
- The striving initiate, who follows a spiritual path toward God either within their inner world or through the outer world in conformity with the requirements of the journey.
However, despite these two basic categories, there can be interconnections and transitions between these two different methods of initiation. For example, one who feels attracted toward God may lose this feeling at one point, only to regain it later without having had to enter a path. Or an attracted initiate who loses the feeling of attraction may feel it again after they have begun to follow a path. Referring such matters to the heroes of Sufi practice, I would like to discuss the initiate who walks toward the Ultimate Truth within their inner world or through the outer world.
The first step in initiation is intention. Intention is the beginning of every action; it is both the beginning and the foundation stone of initiation, without which any action is devoid of spirit and thus walking toward God is impossible. If a pure intention is strengthened through dependence on God’s help and sharpened through resolution and steadfastness, then an initiate can succeed in every attempt with God’s permission and will be able to overcome every obstacle; indeed, one day they will reach the final point according to their capacity. However, it is clear that there is need for a perfect guide along this path, as it is one which extends through many mansions, stations, and deep valleys; sometimes it is a highway and sometimes a trail. Along this road many difficulties await the traveler. For this reason, woe betide the initiate whose guide or master is a pretender or an insufficient one who claims to be a guide. The following couplet by Niyazi-i Mısri9 expresses this beautifully:
Let not any guide lead you, for he may make it
too difficult to proceed;
It is very easy for one whose guide is perfect
to advance along this path.
Initiation is another way of discovering and experiencing the truths of belief and being a Muslim in accordance with their true nature. The initiate recognizes them partly while they are a seeker, and became familiar with some of their manifestations at different degrees while they are the one who wills. Peace of heart, the elixir of which many talk without knowing its true essence, is drunk by the glassful during initiation. Reverent awe of God can also be experienced in this way as well. In addition, that which is experienced becomes the depth of human nature at different degrees; in other words, belief, which was obtained on the horizon of theory, is grasped and experienced on the horizon of practice along such a journey made in the atmosphere of the heart and spirit. Having risen to certain heights through constant travel along this path and having been matured in virtues and praiseworthy characteristics, the initiate follows a line along which spirit beings move and reach scenes that lie beyond the horizon. The initiate elevates their theoretical knowledge to the level of experienced knowledge of God and is filled with lights both inwardly and outwardly, pitching their pavilion of glory at the station that is best suited for their state and stance.
It sometimes happens that a traveler with an illuminated heart and this degree of knowledge of God finds themselves in different states and manners, and they are enveloped by the colors that belong to the realms beyond; thus the ways to spiritual pleasures and vision are opened to the traveler. Nevertheless, there are many who are deceived by these occurrences and remain at a halfway point. Only the alert travelers overcome this stagnation by God’s leave and continue their journey. Such occurrences are neither the aim of worship nor the goal of initiation. One who perceives these as the goal cannot know the True Goal, and one who aims at these cannot obtain anything other than weariness. For this reason, the heroes of knowledge of God try to remain distant from such things, even in their dreams, fearful that such manifestations occurring without demand might lead them to perdition; at the same time they respond to the Divine gifts of which they are aware in their conscience with gratitude. If these are offerings from the All-Merciful and favors from God Almighty that increase the initiate’s zeal and yearning—it is not possible for us to say that they are truly thus or not—the traveler should think that they are in the face of a new shower of bounties and thus be full of thanks and enthusiasm, changing the acts of formal worship into acts of deep devotion, enriching their life with the depths of the night (spending some of their night in worship), and all their acts should demonstrate that they are a careful servant of God—they should do all of this, but never feel proud of these, never pursue fame or feel superior to others, as this will darken the manifestations that come in waves from the Realm of Mercy with the soot and rust of selfishness, arrogance, ostentation and the desire for fame. The traveler should realize that all these gifts and favors come due to their awareness of their innate impotence, poverty, and neediness before God, and thus they should not appropriate them. They should concentrate on the Real Source of these bounties and be fearful that they may be a test; thus, they should always seek refuge in God, and consider that such bounties may be a means of encouragement to further and better worship. As a result, the traveler should try to worship more consciously and in constant awareness of God’s omnipresence. They should worship God with the awareness that all they do in the name of worship is nothing but an insignificant response—insignificant on the part of the traveler—to the bounties that they have received in advance.
This is what is expected from a traveler to the Ultimate Truth who always controls, criticizes, and supervises themselves. Such a traveler knows their place and always feels and voices their inability to know, worship, mention, and thank God as He should be worshipped, known, mentioned, and thanked, saying:
All-Glorified are You, We have not been able to worship You
as worshipping You requires, O the All-Worshipped.
All-Glorified are You, We have not been able to know You
as knowing You requires, O the All-Known.
All-Glorified are You, we have not been able to mention You
as mentioning You requires, O the All-Mentioned.
All-Glorified are You, we have not been able to thank You
as thanking You requires, O the All-Thanked.
Moreover, such a traveler always feels agony, shame, fear, and anxiety because of the faults they have or may have made and the sins they have or may have committed knowingly or unknowingly, as well as their manners and behavior that are displeasing to God. They are in a state or mood as if they are about to be questioned in the grave concerning how they spent their worldly life; they are afraid as if their actions were about to be weighed in the Hereafter. The traveler seeks refuge in God with utmost repentance and dies once again in respect of their carnal desires, feeling a new revival in consideration of their deeper attachment to God, as if they have heard the sound of the Trumpet (which is to be blown for the resurrection of the dead), trying to build a new world in the horizon of their heart and spirit. This should be a world where the traveler will constantly think of God, mention God, turn to God, converse with God, and receive breezes of revival from the realms beyond. They will always be in the company of their guide, fully submitted to the spirit of the master of creation, Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, in their royal pavilion pitched in closeness to God.
This is a station where existence ends in non-existence and non-existence will take on a new, ever-fresh existence. The clocks always indicate mid-day at this station, the east and west are one within another, daytime and night are fused together, and the physical and metaphysical cannot be distinguished. Space is replaced by absence of space, and time is replaced with timelessness. The inhabitants of this station comprehend that everything belongs to and is originated by God and that they are on the way of return to Him, ultimately to end in Him. Breasts begin to burn with the fire of feeling His nearness and with the awareness that meeting with Him is almost at hand. Lips begin to murmur the things expected to come from Him, the things of which they are aware and partially experience; they remain waiting in great hope. As if overcoming whatever should be overcome, the heart says: “My God! I ask for the pleasure of looking toward Your “Face,” and a yearning to meet with You!” They are in a turmoil due to the expectation of the vision of His perfectly beautiful “Face,” the source of all beauties, and the desire to meet with Him. With an inextinguishable love and inexhaustible zeal, the heart utters: “I ask for the highest of grades and the greatest of goals!” and begins to wait for the realization of the expected meeting. Who knows how many times a day such a person imagines themselves to be seated at the table of this meeting, taking sips of the water of the Divine regard and consideration, voicing their yearning, saying:
O cupbearer, offer the wine: it is time to break the fast;
Improve this ruin: it is time to display the favors.
Then, sighing that the coming of the time to “break the fast” is dependent on God, the travelers pull themselves together.
Even though they are few in number at present, the initiates are the means of pride for the inhabitants of the heavens; these heavenly inhabitants watch them and take pride in their nearness to God. As stated in the verse, And it has never been the way of your Lord to destroy the townships unjustly while their people were righteous, dedicated to continuous self-reform and setting things right in the society (11:117), the initiates are the resilient barricade against possible calamities and the means of security.
Whether they be among those who are attracted by God Himself, or those who follow a spiritual path, or those who base their journey on the acceptance of human innate impotence and poverty, an initiate is one whose eyes are fixed on the door of the Ultimate Truth, who advances in adherence to the Prophetic way, trying to be equipped with knowledge of God and careful in their relations with their Lord; such a person always acts in awareness of God’s omnipresence. It is as if they are about to meet with Him; in their every state, they feel a yearning to meet with God at the same time as being in awe of God and fluctuating between hope and fear. Sometimes they feel that they are on the horizon of certainty arising from observation, perceiving what seems to be imperceptible according to the profundity of their knowledge of God, attaining points that seem to be unattainable and observing what seems beyond the limits of observation, beyond all terms of quality and quantity. At other times they are lost in more comprehensive and profound visions, breathing the light-diffusing words, God it is Who is the All-Known; God it is Who is the All-Besought, God it is Who is the All-Worshipped! They constantly mention God, fixing their eyes on Him and worshiping Him exclusively. Haqani10 describes an initiate of this quality in the following couplet:
What is befitting for an initiate—a follower of the path,
Is that he should proclaim: “We worship none but Him alone.”
An initiate may encounter certain surprises during their journey, even though they expect nothing; they are transformed from one state into another and they may hear voices from the realms beyond, receiving compliments from spirit beings. However, their duty is to advance toward God without ceasing; they travel from God toward God, from themselves toward Him. They grasp hold of one Divine Name and walk toward the next; while flying in the atmosphere of one Name, they observe different beauties as manifestations of another.
It sometimes happens that an initiate begins traveling from God toward God on the wings of attraction and being attracted, while at other times they travel from the horizon of His company into the depths of their own nature. Through such descents and ascensions they make journeys like “journeying in” and “with or in the company of God,” in addition to making other “ journeys” toward further points through doing good, righteous deeds, the purification of the soul, refinement of the heart, and asceticism. However, some initiates are always with God, beginning from Him and reaching the final point allowed by their capacities in His company. Some initiates are always turned to God in their hearts, feeling that He is nearer to them than their own selves. But they feel that they are caught up in a net that holds them at a certain distance from Him and they are continuously trying to cover this distance. Some others are near to God and aware of this nearness; they do their utmost to preserve this favor of being near. If a traveler bases their initiation or journey on constant companionship of God, no matter in what way this has been adopted, God is their eyes with which they see, their ears with which they hear, and the source of all their outer and inner sensations. So long as an initiate at this degree of spiritual existence continues in turning to Him, is able to purify their heart of any relationship with anything other than God, and can make this state a dimension of their nature, then all the carnal and material things in their nature melt away in the face of the dominion of their spirituality. As a consequence, the initiate who has nearly attained their destination achieves a “magical” state in which it is as if they have neither corporeality nor substance. Their nature displays the characteristic of being an immaterial being that has nothing to do with soil, water, air, or any other material object. They are in the heavens at the same time as they are on the earth; they are walking through tomorrow while living today. Even though they seem to be condemned to remaining distant from God with their corporeal being, they continuously breathe nearness in the spirit; even though they appear to be fixed in a narrow place in space with their transient body, with their eternally-young, spiritual being, they are a guest in many places at the same instant, giving a hand to many needy ones on the land like Khadr,11 and busy themselves with saving many others from drowning in the sea like Ilyas.12
So long as an initiate preserves this degree of spirituality, the showers of Divine attention continue to increase and this elevated state becomes their nature. Such an initiate is considered to have a station or rank, even if it be in a relative sense. Whatever they see is regarded as being the truth. Whatever they hear and feel is always of the same color and design. Their speeches manifest Divine inspirations and are blessed with the value of “pearl and coral,” and thus have great effects on the audience. For they are initiates who are honored with established nearness to God, and whose knowledge is from God; they are those who see, hear and speak wholly dependent on God’s permission, thus they evaluate everything according to the knowledge that emanates to them from His Presence.
Whether the initiate travels from God toward God on the way of ascension on the wings of attraction and the feeling of being attracted or on the way of descent from God toward their own essence; or whether they are trying to cover their distance from God, even though they are aware of God’s nearness, or to preserve their nearness to God that they are aware of in themselves, the initiate is favored with Divine attraction and the capacity to cover all distances. Whether or not they experience any of the traits particular to states through which they pass during their journey, the initiate reaches their destination with a single bound through Divine attraction and pitches their pavilion in the very center of the station. As for the heroes of effort and endeavor, they continually advance during their journey, covering distances and passing through many states. Covering the distances at a run, enduring the hardships and troubles that they encounter, and increasing in the knowledge of God that they acquire during their journey, they advance toward their final point destined by their capacities as if climbing stairs. They can also meet with God to some degree, but this cannot be compared with the favor that emanates to initiates from God’s special treasury.
In short: the start of initiation is the perception and realization of the truth of Islam or being Muslim; the end is full awareness of God’s omnipresence, or in other words, living a life as if always seeing God. The initiation is also the title of belief that has the degree of full conviction and full submission to God throughout an entire life, and an excellence or virtue in the meaning of worshipping God as if seeing Him or being aware that He always sees us. As for meeting with God, which is the final point or destination of the journey or travel, it is what the sensation or experience that transcends all time and space is called.
O God! Guide us to the Straight Way. Shower blessings on us from Your supreme Grace, and let Your mercy pour down on us, O the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate! Bestow blessings and peace on the one whom You sent as a mercy for all the worlds, and on his Family and Companions, pure and clean.
By M. Fethullah Gulen
9 Mehmet Niyazi-i Misri (1617–1694). He was born in Malatya, Turkey, and died in the island of Limni in the Aegean Sea. He was a Sufi shaykh, poet, and scholar. Ilmihal-i Tariqat (“The Principles of the Sufi Way”), Mawadiul-‘Irfan (“The Tables of Esoteric Knowledge”), and Tevhid Risalesi (A Treatise of God’s Oneness”) are among his most famous works. (Tr.)
10 Haqani, Afzalu’d-Din Ibrahim Badil ibn Ali (1126–1199) is one of the greatest poets in Persian literature. He was from Azerbaijan. He lived a hard life amidst the political turmoil of the time. His poems of praise for the Messenger are very beautiful. His Diwan and Tuhfatul-Iraqany are famous. (Tr.)
11 (al-)Khadr is he with whom the Qur’an recounts (18: 60–82) Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, made a journey to learn something of the spiritual realm of existence and the nature of God’s acts in it. It is controversial whether he was a Prophet or merely 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, and may come to the aid of those who are in dire need on land. (Tr.)
12 Ilyas is one of the great Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. Some scholars identify with Elijah, whom God sent to the Children of Israel during the reign of King Ahab in Israel, who was notorious for his injustices. He struggled against deviances in belief, immoralities, and injustices. It is believed that like Khadr, he enjoys the degree of life where one feels no need for the necessities of normal human life, and may come to the aid of those who are in dire need in the sea. (Tr.)