A Sufi disciple, called a mureed, is attached to his or her shaykh, or master, who serves to guide the disciple along the path to spiritual fulfillment. Each Sufi order is characterized by the relationship between disciples and their shaykh, to whom they pledge an oath of allegiance called bay'a. This is standard and required for entrance into an order, but it does not imply celibacy or a monastic life. Many Sufis have families and children, and view their membership in an order as just another aspect of their lives. Once this pledge is taken, the relationship between the teacher and student is initiated.
Eventually, the disciple progresses and may become a teacher and master, initiating future generations of Sufis. Once a disciple has attained knowledge and discipline, his shaykh may permit him to instruct others. There is no formal curriculum or "graduation" to such processes, and they are determined by the members of a tariqa. It is generally held by Sufis that this type of teacher-student lineage stems all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad, who initiated his own friends and Companions along the spiritual path. Basing their disciplinary practices on interpretations of the Quran and hadith, teachers continue what they believe is an unbroken chain of devotional methods, called a silsilah, that originated with Muhammad.
The rite of initiation or bay'ais a kind of rebirth taken when a member first joins a tariqa, when sins of the past are washed away and the disciple undertakes to eradicate them from his or her behavior. It involves clasping the hands of the shaykh and pledging obedience according to whatever formulas the particular tariqa happens to use. Again, there are no universal formulas for such initiations. Dedication to the master or teacher thus involves a kind of emptying of the self, a purging of one's past identity and the adoption of the role of mureed.
Groups of disciples perform dhikr and sama communally, usually in the presence of their shaykh, who may or may not participate. The role of the teacher is not to program the students in their worship, but to guide them to their own realizations. In some Sufi orders, the teacher, who represents a repository of generations of wisdom, conveys a message without explicit instruction as to particular practices. That is, according to one view, the only True Teacher is God Himself, and a shaykh is merely an intermediary source of guidance, not the True Teacher. The shaykh may convey a message of wisdom, but that wisdom does not originate with the teacher, it only passes through him to the student. This experience is meant merely to aid students in their own progress. The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan articulates the relationship between a mureed and a teacher as such:
If you think of the teacher as your brother, it is true; if you think of teacher as your friend, it is true also; if you think of the teacher as your spiritual teacher, it is true; and if you think of the teacher as your servant, it is also true. Besides this, there is no place for any other discussion. Your teacher is a human being, and as such he is liable to shortcomings. You may give him your confidence and trust, and know him as a human being.
In other words, the knowledge conveyed from teacher to student is not inherent to the nature of the teacher, but is a set of data passed on from one person to another about a third party, namely God. The job of the shaykh is not to teach the disciple about God, but to guide the disciple in learning how to learn about God. In this way, Sufism's emphasis on the inner life of each individual is not diluted by the necessity of attaching oneself to a shaykh.