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Center for Sufism & Islamic Studies


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- The Inspirer of Faith -
O you who have attained to faith!
Remember God with unceasing remembrance,
and extol His limitless glory from morn to evening.


Two reeds drink from one stream. One is hollow, the other is sugar-cane. - Jalaludin Rumi

Guard your heart from heedlessness, protect your lower self from desires, guard your intellect from ignorance, and you will be admitted into the company of the vigilant. It is a duty for everyone to seek knowledge; that is, knowledge of yourself. - Jafar al-Sadiq

If someone remarks, "What an excellent man you are!" and this pleases you more than his saying, "What a bad man you are!" know that you are still a bad man. - Sufyan al-Thawri




The Silsilah

Community 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 collectively.

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 spiritual sustenance.

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 and jewels.

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 Divinity.


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