Many people ask how one can find a proper teacher/guide/mentor, what Muslims normally refer to as a shaykh . Questioners ask about finding a shaykh of the outward sciences, Sharī’a, ḥadīth, Qur’an, etc., as well as finding a shaykh of the inward science of Sufism. While there is a great deal of literature about the conditions of a teacher or shaykh, the following points offer advice I have found to be extremely helpful and proven to produce results in the age in which we live.
A Shaykh of Learning
- A known pedigree of study. This means they must have an unbroken chain (sanad or silsila) to the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) with a qualified teacher and/or hail from a known seminary of learning that demonstrates their expertise and authority to teach a particular subject matter. For example, they studied at al-Azhar or al-Qarawiyyin, or they studied with a well-known scholar of a particular field who in turn is licensed (ijāza) to teach and pass on that knowledge. One should avoid at all costs well intentioned people who have no formal training, even if what they say is comforting. This does not mean that all people who fit the above category will be equal in their ability to teach, but at least they have a foundation that can be built on.
- They adhere to a holistic, normative view of Islam meaning that, in the most basic of terms, they uphold the hadith of Gabriel in which the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) outlined three major branches of Islamic learning: law (islam), belief (imān), Sufism (iḥsān). This also means a clear acknowledgement that these three branches evolved from the early generation into the various schools of law, thought, and Sufi orders that we have today.
- They are able to answer most questions posed to them regarding their subject matter, and are able to research more complicated and lesser known matters.
- They are able to say clearly when they do not know an answer to a question and therefore provide a clear line between their grounded knowledge and conjecture.
- They have good character and implement the Sunna of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) to the best of their ability, regardless of the subject they teach.
- They should be effective in their teaching methods so that people can benefit from them. It should be kept in mind, however, that respect from the student to the teacher is always necessary in learning and this point should never be used as an excuse to walk away if a situation can be remedied by more decorum from the student.
A Shaykh of Sufism
- One needs to find an order that is closest to the Sunna. Some Sufi practices, while valid from a Sharī’a perspective, have developed non-Sunnic practices. We should remember, however, that the Prophetic example is always our aim in everything we do.
- The shaykh must have an unbroken chain back to the Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace). There is no Sufism without an unbroken chain and there can be no spiritual advancement without it.
- One looks for a path that is easy. Some orders are difficult requiring copious amounts of devotional works, and in the cacophony of today’s dominant culture one needs to find a way of ease in order to advance. Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) always chose the easiest option when presented with a choice, given that there was no sin involved (narrated by Abu Dawūd). It should be noted that this is in regards to ease of extra devotional works required of the aspirant. When it comes to obligatory acts and cessation of impermissible acts, this is a universal obligation for all Muslims despite their affiliation to a particular Sufi order.
- One needs to find an order that has accessible publications. Immersion is the best way to learn and the spiritual path is no different.
- You and the shaykh. One needs to have a certain amount of compatibility with their shaykh. When there is no compatibility, one should not assume that a particular shaykh is deficient, but rather their own spiritual sustenance is not meant to be from that shaykh. In this instant, one should remain respectful and keep searching.