Sunday, July 29, 2007

How Fraudulent Shaykhs can Abuse Legitimate Principles of Spiritual Guidance (Part 1)

Sometimes, when the issues of fraudulent shaykhs or spiritual charlatans arise, a person listening may remark that, down through the ages, various authentic shaykhs have listed and discussed a number of indications which can be used for differentiating between a legitimate spiritual guide and a fraudulent one. For instance, some of these individuals make reference to the exemplary work of Hazrat Suhrawardi (may Allah be pleased with him) and the 15 rules governing the conduct of a shaykh which might be used in this context for identifying authentic teachers.

There are some problems which surface, however –– at least, potentially –– in conjunction with the 15 rules that are cited ... problems which indicate that the difficulties surrounding the recognition and choosing of a spiritual teacher can be fairly complicated and not at all straightforward. Nevertheless, none of what follows should be construed as a criticism of Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him), since the material he provided was really not intended to deal with the cleverness or duplicity of spiritual charlatans and the manner in which such individuals often alter the teachings of the great shaykhs to accommodate the needs of a false teacher.

For example, let’s examine the first rule put forth by Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him).

1. The purifying of resolution and the searching for the cause.

He should seek out of himself that the cause not be the desire of precedence, the desire of being a shaykh, or the desire of being followed.

While it is true that someone who is a shaykh should not have a desire to be a shaykh, or to be followed, or to have any wish for precedence in the eyes of either the would-be guide or others, let me ask a question: If I am looking for a spiritual guide, how do I know what is in the heart or intention of another human being? Yes, I can spend time listening to what is said, as well as watching behavior and trying to determine if I can detect any trace of the foregoing desires in the man or woman I am considering, but if the person I am thinking of taking initiation with is clever –– and many of the spiritual frauds and charlatans who are out there are very clever and they know the game inside and out -- then, two things are likely to be the case. First, what the sociologist Irving Goffman referred to as ‘front room’ behavior (to distinguish it from how people behaved when they were in ‘back rooms’, out of people’s sight), is likely to appear exemplary. Indeed, the whole advantage that a counterfeiter has is that she or he knows –– from either reading or personal experience –– what the object being imitated (in this case, a spiritual teacher) is supposed to look like. The spiritual fraud knows, for example, that a true shaykh or teacher is supposed to be, among other things, humble, kind, generous, compassionate, loving, considerate, thoughtful, ethical, and so on. Consequently, the ‘front room’ or public arena in which people meet the counterfeit shaykh are often carefully managed and staged to generate exactly this kind of impression in the minds and hearts of unsuspecting individuals.

Secondly, many people who are seeking spiritual guidance will never get a whole lot of time, under a variety of circumstances and settings, to be able to form any kind of informed judgment about what the actual state of desire in a spiritual teaching candidate may be. A seeker’s exposure to an alleged spiritual guide tends to be very restricted, and, consequently, information about a so-called teacher tends to be managed under highly controlled circumstances.

Someone, who was being asked for advice, once asked the advice-seeker who was trying to decide whether to become involved, in some way, with another individual if the man (that is, the advice-seeker) had either been on a journey with the other individual or had any business dealings with that person. The question was asked because such close contact often provides one with some reliable information about the character and temperament of a person under conditions which are not of a person’s choosing and over which they tend to have little control.

Prior to making a decision about whether, or not, to be initiated onto the Sufi path through a certain individual, 99.9999% of the people doing this know, in reality, almost nothing about the actual interior state of the person with whom they are taking initiation. To be sure, a person seeking initiation may have impressions or feelings which are positive in relation to the alleged spiritual guide based on such things as having read a book by the person, or having listened to talks by the individual, or having received the personal testimonies of other people whom one may know who also have had some exposure to the ‘teacher’, or having watched the ‘teacher’ interact with his or her followers, but all of this information is capable of being spun in any direction which an alleged teacher wishes to spin things. Politicians are managed in precisely the same way –– that is, things are done to create certain positive impressions and feelings in the minds and hearts of the electorate.

Let’s move on to the second rule noted by Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him)

2. The knowledge of Capacity.

The shaykh must regard the capacity of the student.

Again, there is nothing wrong with this rule. In order to be a good shaykh, a person does need to take into account what the spiritual capacity of a seeker is, and this is necessary for a variety of reasons. For example, the practices which are assigned to a given seeker should be aligned with what a person can handle, and what a person has the potential to handle is an expression of that individual’s spiritual capacity. If a shaykh does not take such things into consideration, a seeker is likely to encounter difficulties which could prove harmful to that individual’s spiritual well-being and growth. We do not grow out of our spiritual potential. Rather, we grow into our spiritual potential, and if an alleged teacher does not understand what that potential is, then, the spiritual instructions given will not be conducive to a healthy, constructive unfolding of the capacity which is present in a given seeker.

Nonetheless, having said this, there are still some problems surrounding this rule. To begin with, if a seeker knew what her or his spiritual capacity actually was, then, someone with that much understanding of one’s own spiritual condition likely would not be in need of spiritual guidance for such a person already would be in direct contact with that for which one steps onto the spiritual path to discover –– that is, the realization of one’s unique, essential spiritual capacity. Lack of knowledge is one of the things that sets us in motion to seek a teacher –– someone who, hopefully, knows what we do not, and someone who will be willing to share with us what she or he knows so that our lack of knowledge can be lessened to whatever extent we are capable of doing. So, when we try to select a teacher who will help us in this respect, we are looking for someone who, as Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him) points out, has a knowledge of the spiritual capacities of the seekers who come to him or her. But, knowing this rule doesn’t help a seeker one iota, because the seeker really doesn’t know what such knowledge looks like –– that is why he is called a ‘seeker’ rather than a ‘knower’.

A charlatan can say whatever she or he likes to in this regard, and the seeker won’t know the difference. All a sham-teacher has to do with respect to the issue of ‘capacity’ is have a gift of gab which enables the con-artist to throw things together in a way that sounds interesting, desirable, plausible, and mysterious, and many would-be seekers get hooked –– even when they know about this second rule of Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him), since knowing about this second rule provides an individual with absolutely no insight concerning what the issue of ‘spiritual capacity’ really entails. Seekers are trusting the teacher to know this. And, therefore, a seeker’s trust is either well-placed or misplaced depending on the actual spiritual authenticity of the individual in whom the trust is being invested.

Let’s take a look at the 3rd rule cited by Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him):

3. Being pure in respect of the students property.

The shaykh must show no greed for the property or service of the student.

Again, this is a perfectly sound rule. The spiritual integrity of a true teacher should be such that like greed have long since disappeared from the interior life of an authentic teacher. After all, one of the purposes of the mystical path is to undergo a process of transformation in which reprehensible properties such as greed become rehabilitated, so to speak, into useful allies rather than spiritual obstacles. For instance, the object of the focus of greed should be directed away from the ego and dunya (or our entanglements with the world) and become occupied with constructive purposes –– thus, the Qur’an describes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as being ‘greedy’ (Harith) for the spiritual welfare of his ummah or community.

Be this as it may, fraudulent spiritual guides are very adept at using a technique which is known as “reframing”. We are all familiar with the fact that how one frames a photograph or painting will determine what will be seen and what will not be seen in relation to that painting or picture. One can select frames which hide certain things (say, flaws in the original) as well as frames which tend to bring out certain colors or features of a painting or photograph. One also can select frames which dominate a painting or picture and take attention away from what should be the center of focus. In addition, one can choose frames which either complement a given painting or picture, and, therefore, leave one with a sense of harmony, or one can select frames which are discordant with the subject matter of a painting or photograph and create a sense of discord. The possibilities for reframing things in the context of human interaction are enormous and very complicated. Among other reasons, this is because we human beings have within us a great many weaknesses which are very vulnerable to being influenced by the manner in which things are presented to us –– quite independently of issues about the actual intrinsic value of what is being presented for consideration ... and smart sales professionals and advertisers have known this for centuries.

Yes, an authentic shaykh should show no greed for the property or service of a seeker. If I am a false spiritual guide and I wish to utilize this rule for my own self-serving purposes, what this rule says to me is this: as long as I don’t do anything which “shows” that I have greed for either the property and/or service of my followers, then, I can actually have greed for their property and/or service –– all I have to do is convince them that I don’t through the art of influence, manipulation, hypnotic suggestion, and reframing. For example, if a false teacher can induce someone to believe that, say, serving the teacher is good for the spiritual condition of a seeker, then, even without asking for service, the false teacher can command service because the whole situation has been reframed –– from one of greed for service on the part of the false teacher, to that of a seeker feeling that it is incumbent on her or him to serve the teacher and, thereby, make spiritual progress through such selfless devotion. The false teacher, through writing, discourses, stories, and so on, indirectly plants in a seeker’s consciousness that serving the teacher is a good thing, a noble thing, an act of love, and, consequently, lo and behold, without having to ask for anything, the teacher is served in more ways than one can shake a stick at.

Now, lest anyone get the wrong idea, service to others is a good thing when it has a proper niyat or sincere intention behind it. But, an unscrupulous teacher can take advantage of this and make it appear that his or her desire for the property or service of others is not present and that, instead, what we are dealing with here is merely the wish of others to serve and give to the teacher –– in fact, from time to time, the false teacher can even put on a big show about how he or she wished one’s followers wouldn’t do these things, but, in the end, bow in humility to the offer of love which is being made to the would-be teacher and accept the gift of property or service with a ‘well, what can one do’ shrug of the shoulders ... which will endear the false teacher to his or her followers even more so.

The forth rule of Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him) is:

4. Offering

Delights of offering and of severing attachments are incumbent on the shaykh.

Once again, the teaching is impeccable. A true teacher takes delight in giving to others, serving them, and severing attachments of the nafs or ego in relation to its entanglements with various dimensions of interior and exterior life. However, where there is a will, there is often a way, and the will of false teachers is inclined to look for ways of turning sound spiritual advice –– such as that which is given by Shaykh Suhrawardi (May Allah be pleased with him) –– inside out and using it to their own advantage.

Consider the technique of ‘priming the pump’. More specifically, most people know that if one wishes to get a water pump or a fuel pump or the like, going, then, sometimes, one has to add some water or fuel first in order to get the pump functioning properly. False teachers often are very good at giving things away as a means of priming the pump of material goods and/or service, so that this pump will begin to function ‘properly’ –– that is, so that followers will freely give back to the teacher without the teacher having to say much, or anything, except receive what is offered. Thus, a false teacher might give, for example, a hundred dollars to someone in need, knowing that, in time, either that individual and/or those to whom the needy person talks to about the gift, will interpret the gift-giving as indicating that the false teacher is a humble, charitable, compassionate, loving, selfless individual who is sacrificing his or her own meager resources for the good of others, or a false teacher might arrange to underwrite the expenses of a trip for someone far away to come and visit the teacher (and, more often than not, the money does not come from the teachers own resources but from the resources of someone whom the false teacher controls), and to the recipient of such a seemingly generous and selfless act of friendship, the offer and arrangements are overwhelming to such an extent that the recipient has great difficulty even considering the possibility that something evil or untoward or unsavory may be behind the offer –– which is precisely what the offer has been intended to do ... misdirect attention away from the actual motives to making someone feel guilty or ashamed for being so cynical as to suppose that the offer is not entirely sincere.

In addition, a fraudulent spiritual guide can put on great performances in the public sphere about severing attachments with issues of power, sex, money, property, comfort, control and so on. However, because most of the seekers have no clue about what actually goes on outside of the domain of publicly viewable events, it is the publicly consumed events which shapes people’s opinions, attitudes and judgments of the teacher. Moreover, in most cases, the only people who are permitted to get close to the teacher are those (1) who either have been so corrupted that they have vested interests which parallels those of the teacher and they will not blow the whistle on what is going on and, thereby, undermine their own advantages in the overall set-up, or, (2) those who have become so mesmerized by what is going on that they are ready to re-frame anything which the teacher does –– no matter how destructive and reprehensible –– as being something other than it is, or, (3) those who, however vaguely, do see what is going on, but whose psychological and emotional vulnerabilities are so intense that they cannot bring themselves to act upon what they know and, thus, suffer in silence, not knowing what to do about such knowledge, and experiencing a great deal of anxiety, stress, and fear as a result.

Shaykh Suhrawardi’s (May Allah be pleased with him) fifth rule for identifying an authentic spiritual guide is:

5. Concordance of deed and word in invitation.

Indeed, there should be no inconsistencies or disharmonies between what one says and what one does. Unfortunately, as with everything else, there are ways of circumventing this teaching and transforming it into a tool for misleading people. One of the easiest ways of accomplishing this is to allude to knowledge that the seeker does not have but that if he or she did have, the seeker would be able to utilize in order to reconcile, in a harmonious manner, what, on the surface, appear to be inconsistencies of words and deeds with respect to a false teacher. For instance, almost everyone who has done any reading about the Sufi path or who has heard what are sometimes referred to as ‘Sufi teaching stories’, is likely to be familiar with the Quranic account about Moses (peace be upon him) and Khizr (peace be upon him), the mysterious patron saint of the spiritual path who, from time to time, enters into the lives of certain people in order to teach them or assist them in some spiritual manner. When Moses (peace be upon him) encountered this mysterious figure, the former person had an intuition that this latter individual was someone who possessed hidden or esoteric knowledge which Moses (peace be upon him) hoped to learn. Moses (peace be upon him) asked permission to accompany the stranger, and permission was given with one condition –– no matter what happened, no questions could be asked, and that if any questions were asked that would be the end of the association. Moses (peace be upon him) agreed to this condition. To make a longer story somewhat shorter, there were three events which took place that offended the moral sensibilities of Moses (peace be upon him). On one occasion, Khizr (peace be upon him) put a hole in a boat that belonged to a poor fisherman. On another occasion, Khizr (peace be upon him) killed the young son of a couple who both believed in God, and, finally, on a third occasion, Khizr (peace be upon him) repaired a wall outside of a town where the two had been mistreated. Moses (peace be upon him) believed Khizr (peace be upon him) to be one who believes in, and submits to, the truth of God’s teachings, and, yet, Moses (peace be upon him) was confronted with three deeds which each seemed to conflict with what Moses (peace be upon him) understood to be the truth about treating the property of other people, the sanctity of life, and how one should behave when someone mistreats one. In each case, Khizr violated the expectations and beliefs of Moses (peace be upon him). Each time Moses (peace be upon him) asked a question. Each time, Moses (peace be upon him) was reminded of the promise he had made to not ask any questions no matter what happened. Each time, Moses (peace be upon him) sought pardon and forgiveness for having violated his promise. Each time –– except for the third instance –– he was forgiven and allowed to continue on the journey with his mysterious companion. On the third occasion, Moses (peace be upon him) was informed that the association had now come to an end, but before going their separate ways, an explanation was given of why Khizr (peace be upon him) had done what he had done. In the case of the boat, Moses (peace be upon him) was told that there was an advancing army which was confiscating all boats to use in a war, and that if a hole –– which was easily repairable –– had not been put in the boat, the fisherman, whose entire livelihood depended on that boat, would be ruined. With respect to the youth who was killed, the youngster was no good and unsalvageable and, in time, could undermine the faith of the parents who were good people, so, the youth was eliminated in order to save the parents. Finally, in the town where the two had been thoroughly mistreated by the inhabitants, a wall was repaired because it contained, hidden within it, an inheritance which belonged to two orphans who lived in the vicinity and that if the wall had deteriorated much further, the hidden contents would have been discovered by the miserable town people and they would have stolen it, and, therefore, in order to protect the inheritance of the two orphans –– who in time would be led to the treasure –– the wall was repaired to hide the secret it contained.

Fraudulent teachers can take this teaching and convert it entirely to their own unsavory purposes and all the time, come off smelling like a rose because the surface acts which “appear” reprehensible are really being described as mere camouflage for an underlying and hidden principle which serves the truth and God. If Moses (peace be upon him), as great and knowledgeable as he was, wasn’t able to fathom the truth when a servant of God (namely, Khizr –– peace be upon him) was performing in front of his eyes with God’s sanction, then, how do the rest of us, who are far removed from the elevated spiritual condition of Moses (peace be upon him), know how to differentiate between apparent discrepancies involving words and deeds which can be reconciled on a deeper level of truth, and real discrepancies between words and deeds which cannot be reconciled on a deeper level but are passed off to us as if they could be so reconciled if we only ‘knew’ what the fraudulent spiritual guide allegedly knew and which sometime, perhaps, when we become spiritually mature, we too, will have access to such secrets ... but not just now.

To be Continued tomorrow, insha'Allah.

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