James Fleming (RELG 373): Necessity of the Role Model

The role of a mentor is essential for the Sufi worldview, for as discussed in class, in this view God is the “first lover” and the most intimate of beings. Therefore transmission of knowledge and practice must be done through contact with another intimate being, just as God revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet in an intimate manner. As opposed to the model present in ancient Greek philosophy, that of the “first intellect,” maximally esoteric connection to God is only possible through the mentorship of one who is more adept, just as Jibril was more adept than Muhammad was when he received the first Revelation.


Because Muhammad is the “seal of the prophets,” it is not possible to reach mystic conclusions and fully interpret their meaning or the best way to progress in such a path without an immediately available exemplar of practice. One such reason for this that many revealed truths may be difficult to accept, such as the hadith reports of the Prophet himself says, O followers of Muhammad! By Allah, if you knew what I know, you would weep much and laugh little.”[1] Perhaps more relevant who do not experience the intensity of his Revelation, there are requirements to achieve a deeper spiritual understanding which are extremely illogical. Such an example emerges in Al-Sarraj’s Seven Stations that comprise his vision of the Sufi path. One of these stations is Patience, and an episode is recounted where a man asks the revered Shibli what kind of patience is most difficult for one who is patient, Shibli only makes guesses in which he is in union with God. The man replies, “Patience without God Most High,” and Shibli’s scream “nearly tore apart his spirit.”[2] As is to be expected in the context of Sufism, this exchange is very much multi-layered with meaning. Not only is this truth difficult for Shibli to accept, but his spirit is greatly shaken in the process. Just as a great tragedy may force someone to confront unfortunate personal truths and needs a psychiatrist for consultation, so too do mystics like Shibli who access such a level of the mystic that they must reject all former truths, even Sufi ones. In this case, relying purely on logic tells us that nearness to God is not capable if one feels separated from him, but as earlier alluded, the plane of love is governed by intimacy and not intellect.


A more simple reason that a mentor is essential for the Sufi model is that in the Sufi tradition, having both an esoteric and exoteric understanding of Muhammad is essential for understanding Islam itself[3], let alone any venturing into mysticism that is beyond the realm of the common believer. Explaining the nature of Sufism in this way is essential for interreligious communication with other Islamic traditions. Most importantly, it is essential to understand that Sufism is not an innovation on the Prophet’s original message. Although the term Sufism began to finalize in the ninth century, the traditions from which it comes are traceable to the original schools of law, such as the revered Hanifa (for whom the legal school is named).[4] However, because of the esoteric nature of Sufism, if one is to delve into a collection of Sufi texts with no mentor to guide them, Sufi practices appear to have no connection to the Qur’an or Islam that is not an alteration or innovation. For example, Shafi’i (for whom another legal school takes its name) was initially bitter toward Sufi views and practices. However, upon further inspection through personal experience with a Sufi, Shafi’i realizes that Sufism embodies the essence of the purpose of Islam, stating, “I took two things away… ‘time is like a sword, if you do not destroy it, it will destroy you’ and ‘if you do not occupy your carnal soul with the truth, it will keep you busy with futilities.’”[5] The obvious meaning on the surface of this encounter is that Shafi’i has a change of heart when he realizes that Sufism is not an abandonment of the original path, but one layer deeper lies a similarity to the supposed “seal of saints.” Unless one has devoted a lifetime to such practices it is impossible not to err eventually and give into time or the go. Even figures revered as saints in their own lifetime, such as Rabi’a who avoided any sort of recognition of her piety for fear of satisfaction and sin of arrogance.[6] There is always a striving toward perfection, but never an accomplishment. The figure Hakim Tirmidhi is responsible for the doctrine of the “seal of saints,” which would be the perfection of sainthood.[7] Through retrospection, however, we realize that there can be no saint who is without intentional faults, which only the Prophet Muhammad is exempt from. Piety will always fall short of perfection, while God can perfectly reveal himself to the extent that he desires. Therefore, if there is an effort to achieve a “seal of sainthood,” this will initiate a perpetual effort of devotion to the path.


Although Rabi’a has no clear mentor of her own historically, her interactions with her disciples and her contemporaries demonstrate what is perhaps the core of Sufism, which is to love God without the prospects of reward. Most notably, she ran through the streets with a torch and a pail of water, and when asked about it said it was to extinguish hell and to burn paradise, in order to eliminate all distractions, which intervene with approaching God.[8] Additionally, she maintains that she must love God, even if he does not reciprocate as a result of her devotion.[9] This is a perfect example of ihsan, nurturing belief that one knows that God can see them, as they themselves see God. The lives led by these various Sufi teachers illustrates the significance of a role model in the path towards true love and understanding in Islam.


I have adhered to the honor code on this assignment_____James Fleming______________



Geoffroy, Eric. Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Translated by Roger Gaetani. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010.

Sells, Michael Anthony., and Carl W. Ernst. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.

Smith, Margaret. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rábiʻa and Other Women Mystics in Islám. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.


[1] [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, #627]

[2] Michael Anthony Sells., and Carl W. Ernst. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings, 206. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.

[3] Eric Geoffroy. Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Translated by Roger Gaetani, 65. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010.

[4] Geoffroy, Historical Perspective, 78.

[5] Ibid, 76.

[6] Margaret Smith. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rábiʻa and Other Women Mystics in Islám. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

[7] Geoffroy, Historical Perspective, 73.

[8] Smith, Muslim Women Mystics, 125.

[9] Ibid, 126.