Mohit Dubey: The Role of The Role Model in Sufism

The relationship between mentor and student and the idea of a necessary “role model” have been present in Islam since it’s foundation and have had a profound impact on Sufi beliefs and institutions. Beginning with the Prophet’s mentorship of those close to him (“the People of the Bench”, ahl al suffa), the teacher-student relationship has played a key role in the preservation and proliferation of Islam both exoterically and esoterically, as exemplified by Sufi orders. As a classical guitarist in the conservatory and a physicist in the college, I understand the importance of studying with a living teacher as it pertains to the art form of Western Classical music and the scientific development of physics. In this essay I will use notes from class discussions, ideas from Sufi writings, and metaphors from my personal experience to elaborate on four major motives for role models and mentors in developing a mystic Islamic worldview.


The necessity of establishing a continuous living connection with the Prophet’s teachings is the first and foremost reason for the teacher-student dichotomy in Islamic mysticism. According to many Sufi doctrines, at any given point in time there must be a living connection to every prophet that has existed (often cited to be 124,000). This is established through a hierarchy of saints (awliyā) that form a century-long chain (silsila) intended to preserve the spiritual power (baraka) of the given prophet. In the important case of Muhammad, the structure of the silsila is meant to establish teacher-student relationships similar to those between the Prophet and his early Companions with the notion of spiritual companionship (sahba), with “two people traveling the Path together” (Geoffroy 51). This “genealogy of mentorship” ensures a continuous flow of divine information and is reminiscent of the notion that Muhammad, being the final prophet, was merely an integral of the prophetic revelations that came before him through Jesus, Moses and Abraham. In a similar way, I have a “geneology of mentorship” in my study of theoretical physics. From my mentor, Rob Owen, I can trace a path of advisorship through Kip Thorne, to John Archibald Wheeler, one of the most eminent gravitational physicists of the twentieth century who coined the word “black hole”. In my study of physics in a broad sense, I tend to come from a more gravitational and theoretical perspective like my great-grand advisor much like a Sufi in the prophetic tradition of Jesus would approach Islam with a more ascetic and intoxicated view.


The second key reason for having role models and mentors is the notion that the divine law is alive, and must therefore be taught by human beings, not books. In the special case of Muhammad, he was able to literally “live the law”, having no difficulty understanding and enacting upon its meaning. However, for everyone else, the good old books are not enough – the ways must be learned from hearing the experiences of another. In this way, a teacher is necessary in order to intimately and proximately act as a living example for the student. Interestingly, this fits in with another key idea of Islam – “personal qualities are more important than actions and knowledge”. In this sense, the student is able to sense the law along with the affectations and unveilings it produces when followed with discipline by imbibing the specific character of their mentor. In a very similar manner, Western Classical music cannot be learned by simply reading the notes on a musical score. A knowledgeable teacher is required to first educate the student about the technique of the instrument (analogous to exoteric teaching) and then to develop their sense of musicality and expression (analogous to esoteric teaching). As I have studied classical guitar for the past six years, I have personally experienced this metaphor and, have adopted specific characteristics and approaches from different teachers based on their personal qualities.


The third reason for the establishment of the student-teacher connection in Islamic mysticism is that it fits in with the pervasiveness of opposites in Sufi thought and culture. Throughout Sufi literature, opposites and paradoxes are used to establish and deepen the teachings of the law and to keep its interpretation diverse and baffling. For example, in the interpretation of Hallaj we see that Allah itself created its own opposite in the form of Iblis, the fallen angel who was so in love with God that he “arrogantly” refused to bow to Adam, the human creation. Furthermore, when looking through descriptions of God’s attributes (as the “essence” can not be understand) we find that it is ripe with opposites such as majesty (jalal) vs. beauty (jamal) and severity (jabar) vs. gentleness (latif). In this sense, the dichotomy of student and teacher folds right into this notion of opposites, as the teacher plays the exact opposite role of the student, but both are necessary in the full understanding of Islam. This also brings to light the fact that most people are neither fully teachers nor fully students, but instead constantly caught in the interplay of learning and teaching through their experiences.


Fourth and finally, the teacher-student structure is essential for the preservation of the integrity of the law in the face of “amateur” mystical unveilings. Although the law itself is dynamic and alive as I described above, a teacher must advise their student of the path to ensure that their “unveilings” do not come into irresolvable conflict with the law and lead them to falsity. In this sense, the Sufi opinion is “unanimous in affirming that it is necessary to measure mystical experience with the yardstick of the law and to reject anything that would contravene it” (Geoffroy 62 – 63). In much the same way, although I may have many “great” and original ideas about how to play a piece of music, it is important that my teacher, relying on their greater amount of experience and knowledge, guide and instruct me on which of my ideas go against the inherent style of the music (as dictated by era, genre, etc.), so as to unveil the true intended beauty of the music to the audience. Furthermore, this point hints at the fact that the primary duty of the teacher is not to teach, per say, but to become unnecessary to the student. The teacher’s goal should be to cultivate independence, restraint, and wisdom in the student to that they may, in a sense, become their own teacher.




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