A transcribed sohbet of Shaikh Kabir, from the forthcoming book
The Living Tradition, Discourses on the Sufi Path
The Qur’an says: In His causes you ought to strive. The Arabic word jihada could be translated as “strive.” The real jihada, the real spiritual striving, is awakening the energy or force from which we gain a new relationship with the struggle between intention and resistance, between striving and whatever opposes our spiritual striving.
The “causes” refer to Divine causes, spiritual matters that bring us closer to Divine Reality. In his translation, Yusuf Ali puts in the parentheses, with sincerity and discipline. The Qu’ran [Surah Hajj 22:78] continues by saying:
He has chosen you and imposed no difficulties on you in religion.
It is the way of your father Abraham.
It is God who has named you as those who are surrendered,
both before and in this Revelation.
That the Messenger may be a witness for you,
and you be witnesses for mankind.
So establish regular worship and give regular charity, and hold fast to God.
He is your protector, and He is the best protector and the best helper.
The Qu’ran tells us in this passage, And God has not burdened you with Religion. This is a beautiful statement about the Path. We see the Path as something very broad and universal. It is, as it is said in the Qur’an, The way of Abraham. It’s that primordial faith. Very simply, that means one thing: place your trust and attention in the Divine.
The Qur’an says God has chosen you. This means He has chosen anyone who has a longing for this spiritual reality. But the teachings tell us there is another essential dimension to this striving, the all important dimension of presence. There are three parts to striving: affirmation/intention, resistance/disappointment, and presence. At first when affirmation meets resistance, the struggle may be frustrating and seem fruitless in some respects. Everything seems to be only a clash of opposites. But with the support of presence, intention can summon Grace. With the help of presence, we can not only formulate an intention but also ask the Divine to support our intention.
Intention based only in my own limited will is incomplete. All my limited will can do is make an intention to realize there is some work to be done, whatever that work may be. For us there’s the work of transformation, transformation of the self. Do we ask for it? Do we call on the Infinite for a little help? A little mercy? A little strength? A little discipline?
When our striving comes from that higher level, when intention is enfolded with presence, we may understand the truth of the above passage from the Qu’ran, and in this line in particular, And it is God who has named you as those who are surrendered. You are lifted above the immediate clash of opposites and brought into a more spiritual perspective, surrendered, aware of divine support and Grace, no matter what the outcome. You can be an example of this surrender, this striving to live in the Divine Way, the Way that reflects the highest truths.
In the fourteenth century, Ibn Abbad of Ronda wrote some letters of spiritual guidance to his students. Sufis most often wrote metaphysical works or works interpreting other texts, especially the Qur’an. It’s rare to discover letters like this that really deal with people’s everyday issues. We read from one of these letters:
Praise be to God for the breadth of His Grace.
I received your letter describing your present spiritual states. You expressed yourself well. The gist of your message is that you find some of the states you are experiencing despicable and not at all to your liking and that you do not find them conducive to approaching your Lord. You wish that you could find your way to, and live in, certain new states, which you fancy and regard intellectually as desirable and of a positive value.
My dear Brother, you are being too severe with yourself and are acting inappropriately. You have pointlessly and unprofitably wearied your mind by spending your time that way. Worse still, it is positively harmful for you to concern yourself with such matters for they keep you from seeing the intent of the saintly mystics and keep you distant from the Sustainer of the Universe.
I do, nevertheless, find your situation understandable since it seems you share the lot of countless others before you and still to come who have had the same experience. You subscribe to their opinion that they are self-sufficient and strong enough to do as they wish whether in action or in repose and that they can be entirely heedless of the First, the Designer, the Disposer, the Dispenser of Decrees. That opinion in turn leads them to the wrong questions and to spurious answers by which they are diverted unawares from the Straight Path.
He then describes how people fall into different categories:
There are those who engage in the ritual prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, the lesser pilgrimage, zhikrs, charity, teaching, service, deeds of devotion, et cetera, et cetera, but without finding consolation in them . . . as you have described in your own case, find themselves in difficult spiritual states similar to yours.
Then there are those who are content with all their outer activity and never want to stop being busy. However, when through laziness or boredom, or something in between these two, their resolve weakens, then they experience confusion and turmoil and they believe they have been banished far from God’s presence.
Then there are those who give no thought to spiritual practices and could not care less about them. They imagine they can handle anything that comes their way.
Still others carefully plan their lives as if they were in control. When the time comes they see their own carelessness and procrastination. They do not measure up and do not fulfill their promises. They postpone their intentions until some more convenient time, and so on indefinitely.
Then there are some who do not engage in religious practices and works but who, upon hearing stories of their forefathers in the faith and their fidelity to the Prophetic example and their pleasing deeds, believe themselves quite capable of such things should they just make their minds up to do them. Then they say, “I will get to it when I’m free from such-and-such other tasks, and when I’m in the proper spiritual state.” As I have already suggested, they spend their whole lives procrastinating.
Some other people are convinced that their lives are in total disarray and that they are capable of nothing whatsoever. That may be quite true. That is, they may be so either in fact or metaphorically speaking, or perhaps they only imagine that to be the case. When these people hear of their exemplary ancestors in the faith or see a person who possesses their qualities they say, “No one like me is capable of that or has either the desire or power to accomplish such things.” So they let it go altogether and do not resolve to make any effort.
I have observed all these false attitudes in myself and have noticed them in others. I have seen how these excuses can conquer our hearts.
On the other hand, the mystics and those who are spiritually advanced concern themselves with the inner work. They are free from such frivolous excuses. They strive for the perfect realization of the Divine Unity from the start, for they make a solemn intention and pray in humility to their Sustainer so their hearts are aware of Him all the time. They endeavor to make Him their Companion in all their spiritual states insofar as they are able. When God discerns that attitude in them He is Merciful to them by causing them not to pay attention to their own weaknesses or strengths in whatever they undertake or leave aside. Instead, He is their safeguard and protection. He guarantees their welfare and sustenance for they are His Servants and are dedicated to serving Him. God Most High has said, Is God not sufficient for His Servant? Again, the Most High has said, Say; Behold my Protecting Friend is God, Who reveals The Book, Who Befriends the Righteous. And in the Sacred Tradition the Most High has said, ‘I am with My Servant whenever he or she thinks of Me.’
The difficult becomes easy and the struggle bearable for these Servants. God makes their every moment precious and significant. He establishes them in ease and in a Great Kingdom and in Him alone they move and take rest. On Him alone they rely. To Him alone they raise all their thoughts and aspirations. That is why this community is pre-eminent among communities. In one of the Traditions, God Most High is said to have inspired Jesus, peace be upon him, saying, “I will send forth a community after you. If they love what befalls them, they will give praise and thanks for it. If they hate what befalls them, they will be mindful of the reward in the next life and bear it patiently, even though they possess no understanding and no knowledge.” Jesus, peace be upon him, replied, “O Lord, how will that be if they are without understanding and knowledge?” God answered, “I will give them of My Understanding and My Knowledge.”
Prophet Muhammad’s community is therefore especially one of liberality and ease. The community does not even despise troublesome burdens because what they desire is so readily available. This facilitation of every situation is made possible only through the contemplative vision of which I have spoken. God has said, may He be Exalted and Glorified, God has laid upon you no hardship in religion. Yours is the community of your Father Abraham, this revelation as well as from the past. He named you Muslims, those who surrender, and the faith of that community is none other than surrender and the acknowledgement of the Divine Unity. Our Prophet, may God bless him and give him peace, has said, “Those who put God at the center were the faith community of Abraham, upon whom be peace.” A certain mystic commented on the words of the Prophet, may God bless him and give him peace: “They will find it easy and not difficult.” The saying means they are led to none other than God. Therefore, anyone who leads you to the world is way-laying you and anyone who directs you towards external actions only wears you out. But the person who leads you towards God has given you good advice. My point here is to let you know that these people are subject to fewer of the errors that I have mentioned. That is, errors relating to lack of genuine self-knowledge, an inaccurate assessment of their ability and their own strength. If this was not so, they would possess neither the essential spiritual state nor level of being. But since they are seldom lacking in this regard, they are continually on guard, and aware, and intentional in their stations, secure in God’s care for them.
Hypocritical and pretentious people, on the other hand, have severed their communication with God. You can understand from all this why some people are in error, as well as the means by which those secure remain secure. The latter state of affairs, that is security, can come about only in that sublime state for which Servants of God are singled out and by which they become God’s Friends. Know, therefore then, that spiritual state functions as the means to nearness to the Sustainer (Rabb) of the Universe. Look forward to ascending to this exalted station and joining the wayfarers to whom God has given His Kingdom. Once you have begun to do this, you will perceive the truth that the only way to that state is by means of that state, and your only help towards it is in the state itself. Someone has said in this connection, “I know my Lord intimately through my Lord and were it not for my Lord I would not have known my Lord.”
A story tells of how someone who asked Ali ibn Abi Talib, “Did you come to know God intimately through Muhammad or did you come to know Muhammad through God?” Ali replied, “Had I come to know God through Muhammad I would not have served God, and Muhammad would have been more firmly fixed in my soul than God. God acquainted me with Himself through Himself.”
The advice, in summary, is:
They endeavor to make God their Companion in all their spiritual states as much as possible. When God discerns that attitude in them He is Merciful to them by causing them to no longer rely upon their own weakness or strength in whatever they do or do not undertake, and instead He is their safeguard and protection. He guarantees their welfare and sustenance for they are His servants and are dedicated to serving Him.
There are times when we have to relate to God with the total helplessness and dependence of an infant at the mother’s breast. There are moments when only that kind of companionship, complete trust, and acceptance of ourselves brings the awareness that the Divine is our companion through every state. It is not to give up the practice of regular worship and zhikr, which is central for Sufis, but rather that we find ourselves incapable of even those basic practices that take us to the higher realms.