and family are two words that are much in vogue these days. The idea of a
'silsilah' shares certain features in common with the notions of family
and community, but, as well, the former concept also differs in important
respects from the latter terms.
Construed in its best sense, a community is not just a collection of
people who happen to reside within a given physical space, but involves a
set of values, principles, practices, and goals that bind together the
people in that community. The purpose of such a collectivity is to enhance
the physical, emotional, educational and spiritual welfare of its members.
Similarly, a family - at least, the ideal of a family, consists of a set
of relationships which goes beyond biological connections, and envelops
qualities of love, caring, support, and assistance. These qualities are
intended to constructively embrace the members of the family so that they
can strive toward realizing their potential - both individually and
Like true communities and constructive families, a silsilah exists to
enhance the welfare of its various constituents, and is woven together
through certain shared aspirations, beliefs, standards, and
understandings. However, although a silsilah is not unmindful of the
material needs of its members, its primary emphasis is on providing
Of course, there are communities and families that also are pre-occupied
with matters of spirituality and, as a result, seek to make all other
considerations a function of the underlying dimension of faith.
Nonetheless, while both communities and families have traditions and
histories, of one sort or another, the tradition and history of a silsilah
is rather unique. On the one hand, a silsilah is tied, in particular ways,
to the essence of the Prophetic tradition, considered as a whole, and on
the other hand, a silsilah gives expression to the personal histories of
spiritual struggle and sacrifice that have characterized the passing on of
gnostic light from one shaykh to the next down through the spiritual
lineage of a silsilah.
Communities and families can, in certain ways, be constructively dynamic,
thrive, and continue to exist even if there is no one within the community
or family who possesses the understanding that comes through gnosis, or
esoteric Self-realization. Furthermore, families and communities of
substantive quality have existed without necessarily being tied to the
essence of the Prophetic tradition in any direct fashion.
However, a silsilah cannot be constructively dynamic in a mystical sense,
nor thrive, nor continue to exist, with any manner of spiritual vibrancy,
if there is no one within its current manifestation capable of giving
expression to the presence of gnosis. Moreover, and to state the flip side
of the same gnostic coin, a silsilah that does not possess a direct link
to the essence of the Prophetic tradition, cannot legitimately be said to
be a silsilah.
Every shaykh, guide, or spiritual master of the Sufi Path has been
appointed as such by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the
essence of the Prophetic tradition. Moreover, every individual who has
been so appointed is provided with the spiritual wherewithal that is
needed to fulfill, God willing, whatever duties may arise within the
context of the silsilah's particular sphere of influence.
Without such an appointment and the spiritual potential that this entails,
then, the dimension of a silsilah which, by God's leave, helps make
spiritual transformation possible, is missing. As much as the philosophy
of 'rugged individualism' would like to maintain that, among other things,
mystical realization is achieved through personal accomplishment, the fact
of the matter is that one cannot rise up spiritually without being aided
through the support, nurturing, protection, guidance, love, and generosity
which comes through the series of legitimately authorized loci of gnostic
manifestations that is known as a silsilah.
To believe that one can achieve mystical realization and Oneness with
Divinity by individual efforts alone is to make the same mistake as Iblis
or Satan did when he refused to bow, when commanded by Allah to do so,
before the locus of manifestation through which the Divine breath was
being blown - namely, the Self-realized human being - realization that was
itself an expression of the Divine breath. The way to God always has come
via a door - a door which has been especially constructed for the purpose
of guiding people through the process of becoming open to the spiritual
potential that God had kneaded into our being as so many hidden treasures
Communities and families are immersed in social relationships of one kind
or another and become dysfunctional when there are, for whatever reasons,
disruptions in the social fabric from which those relationships are
constructed. A silsilah is not about social relationships, although,
sometimes, people become confused about this and treat a silsilah as if it
were a social entity that existed for the purpose of maintaining certain
kinds of social relationship.
In fact, on occasion, there are individuals who come from backgrounds that
suffer from family and/or community dysfunction and are looking for
something to replace that problematic history. As such, they approach the
silsilah with the desire that it fill the community or family void in
their life, and, quite frequently, become disillusioned when they begin to
discover that the purpose of the silsilah lies in quite another direction
- although, certainly, enhancement of one's spiritual condition can help
one, God willing, to establish more healthy relationships with other
people, whether within or outside of the silsilah.
A silsilah is about spiritual relationships. This involves, first and
foremost, one's relationship with the individual who has been properly
authorized to serve as a doorway to spiritual realization - that is, the
shaykh, guide, pir, teacher, master, elder, or whatever term is used to
designate such a role or function. Moreover, through this doorway one is
introduced to the spirit of the Muhammadan Reality - both through the
locus of manifestation of the teacher's presence as well as through the
locus that lies waiting within one's essential being and permits one to
realize one's intimate and unique relationship with Divinity.
A silsilah embodies the collective spiritual struggles of a series of
individuals who, link by link, can be traced back to the household of the
Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him). Person by person, across this series
of individuals, there is a direct, spiritual linkage with the Prophet
Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the process of spiritual
authorization, and person by person, there has been an activation of
spiritual potential and gnostic awareness which, God willing, enables
those individuals to do the spiritual work of the silsilah.
Many people today - even those who have not stepped onto the Sufi path,
have heard of Rumi, the great mystical poet of Konya located in what is
now known as Turkey. Yet, a friend of God once was reported to have said:
"There have been so many Rumi's who have never uttered a word."
The foregoing pronouncement was not a criticism of Rumi. Rather, it was an
allusion to a larger reality.
More specifically, there are very few masters of the Sufi Path who have
been selected by God to become known to the world. Most Sufi shaykhs
exist, or have existed, in anonymity.
They sought in anonymity. They struggled in anonymity. They suffered in
anonymity. They sacrificed in anonymity. They became realized in
anonymity. They conducted the work of their silsilah in anonymity.
Few people - with the exception of their guides, a few other spiritual
masters, and, later, perhaps, some of their close mureeds or students,
knew, or had any inkling, of their spiritual greatness. Yet, through their
efforts, the torch of the silsilah continued, by the Grace of Allah, to be
lit from one generation to the next.
A seeker who, by the Grace of God, finds her or his way to an authorized
door of spirituality enjoys a tremendous opportunity - an opportunity that
cannot be realized in any other way. Such a seeker has been provided with
all that is necessary to embark on the mystical quest as long as, of
course, the seeker possesses the right kind of spiritual intention and
sincerity, both of which are rooted in a desire for God and God alone.
A silsilah is more than community or family. It is the lighted pathway of
loving guidance which comes from Divinity and leads back, God willing, to