Katie Ryan-O’Flaherty: The Importance of the Role Model in the Sufi Tradition

Role models and connection are important in many traditions. In taoism for example, the practitioner relies on the master for secret knowledge that will give them access to immortality. While in Buddhism, there was a whole branch of the tradition (called zen) traced back to a single moment in which the Buddha shared a facet of the truth with a disciple through telepathy. In Sufi tradition, the mentor’s role is as mystical, but in a different way. Through the transmission of information and truth stretching from the Prophets, the mentee becomes closer to God through their relationship with their mentor. At its core, the role model in Sufi tradition functions as a way to access true knowledge, and gain nearness to God.

The practice of transmission stems from belief in the primordial light of the Prophet. He functions as a sort of prism, allowing the light of God to shine through and refracting it upon the people who follow him.1 His wife Aisha, even stated that “his character was the Qur’an”.2 He was “the perfect model” inspiring people through his virtues and lifestyle, giving them a picture of perfect moral behavior instructed by God. Some took imitation of the prophet to the extreme, even conducting ablutions and eating like him.3 While there was debate on the scale to which a devotee should follow the Prophet’s sunna (way of life), it was generally believed that imitation of him could bring true happiness.4 As stated by Schimmel: “his sunna, his way of life, became the uniquely valid rule of conduct”.5 A conduct studied by future generations, and giving rise to the importance of genealogy in the Sufi tradition.

The idea of the Prophet’s primordial light unsurprisingly led to the rise of the importance of genealogy in early Sufi schools. By continuing the line of role models from a Prophet (most often Muhammed but occasionally Jesus or Moses), or those close to them, one could pass on God’s light and knowledge from one generation to another. This linking of mentors allowed Sufis to pass down the intimate knowledge of the Prophet’s character through the “spiritual flow of the Prophet”,6 which, at its core was a passing the Prophet’s cosmic light.7 In this way “Sufi masters are like numerous moons reflecting the sunlight of the Prophet”.8 In some ways, the Prophet himself is a part of the  mentor—mentee chain, as Muhammed was the mentee of God, described as “the obedient one”.9

This giving of light from one generation to the next was supported by the Sufi concept that true knowledge cannot be gained from a book—one of the core tenets of the religion. This idea is reflected in the Qur’an and supported by Ernst: “God called Muhammed ‘illiterate’ (Q 7:157) for his concentrated inspiration (which did not come from books)”.10 This statement is intriguing as it directly supports the Sufi idea of spiritual knowledge inaccessible in literature. As sufism is love-centric, it was believed that a pursuit of knowledge should end in love. Sufis argued that one cannot have full knowledge of God through text alone, as one must also devote oneself to the study of spirituality. Since they practiced devotion to both text and the study of the esoteric, they believed themselves closer to true knowledge than the “man of the letter”.11 Since experiencing God is synonymous with experiencing love, and one cannot experience what it is to love from a book, it follows that one cannot fully know God from a book. In order for the mentee to learn spiritual truth, they must be next to their mentor. A concept that again, plays into the importance of genealogy in the early stages of Sufi mentoring. The proximity of the mentor was of the utmost importance as it allowed for the transmission of the divine presence of the Prophet, thus providing another link in the chain leading back to the divine.

Through this chain, the Sufi mentoring tradition afforded mentees a way to gain nearness to God through the transfer of both the primordial light of the prophets, and through the esoteric knowledge of their mentors. To me, the merit of learned spirituality from a mentor is clear. The thought that one could learn the truth of God’s love from a book is a fallacy. I wonder however, if the practice of mentoring could take away some of the individuality of Sufism. If there are thousands of different paths to God, why might one find the spiritual ideas of another superior to their own feelings and interpretation of God’s presence? I found that even within person-to-person transmission of knowledge, one can see splits in the way Sufi schools sought the divine. This is easily seen through the pursuit of religious intoxication by Bistami and Hallaj and the sobriety of Junayd.12 Bistami and Hallaj were non-conformist, seeking self-effacement in God. In fact, Bistami frequently preached the spiritual traps present in Islamic law, believing they could potentially prevent the Sufi from reaching pure spiritual intoxication.13 In contrast, Junayd viewed spiritual ecstasy as an entry point for beginners within the tradition, and instead sought a spiritual state from which one would return with a permanent feeling of God’s presence in daily life.14 Through these opposing ideas, one can see the ways in which the pursuit of truth differed between various schools of thought. This is to be expected, not only because splits in religious philosophy are common throughout history, but because personal interpretation of the truth is welcomed in Sufism. Regardless of differences, it is clear that mentorship in Sufism is of the utmost importance for the continuance of the primordial light, as well as instructing the practitioner’s journey towards God.

  1. Geoffroy, 45
  2. Ernst, 25
  3. Geoffroy, 46
  4. Ibid.
  5. Schimmel, 26
  6. Geoffroy, 49
  7. Ernst, 16
  8. Geoffroy, 50
  9. Geoffroy, Chapter 2 Notes
  10. Ernst, 17
  11. Geoffroy, 47
  12. Geoffroy, Chapter 3 Notes
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.