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The Spiritual Guide

Religion has always been a source of conflict in the world. It is, therefore, surprising for most people to hear that one of the reasons for the rise of religious intolerance, violence, and social prejudice in the world is the scarcity of spiritual guides. Spiritual guides, unlike religious leaders, teach by example and seldom by words.

The following story succinctly illustrates this point about teaching by example, though it may sound fantastic to our modern ears. Once the great Sufi poet ‘Attar (d. 1221 AD), a pharmacist by profession, was visited by a stranger at his shop and was asked, “How are you going to die?” ‘Attar shrugged him off by saying, “Exactly like you!” and went about his work, ignoring the stranger. The stranger followed him and persisted, “Can you really die like me?” “Yes!” replied ‘Attar. Thereupon the stranger lay down on the floor, put his sack under his head and died in front of ‘Attar. Seeing this, ‘Attar knew he had encountered someone in an advanced spiritual state who had been sent to him as a guide, and, in awe, committed his life to a spiritual path.

A guide is only a channel to aid the traveler in arriving at the truth. Guides by definition, therefore, cannot be the objects of spiritual quests; their only function is to show followers the right path in a wilderness full of dangers and pitfalls. The use of the expression “right path” here is not to deny the existence of other paths that may lead a seeker to the same goal. However, a guide only knows the specific path that he or she has learned and traveled in the context of a particular tradition. A true spiritual guide does not claim that the path that he or she teaches is the only path to the truth. “There are as many paths to God as there are people,” is a well-known Sufi saying.

What spiritual guides have in common is their conviction that human beings are here in this world to pursue spiritual perfection and the only way to teach and reach this goal is through manifesting divine qualities and living these by ex- ample. A guide does not only say, “be kind,” but always acts out of kindness.

A true guide has no concern for religious and metaphysical doctrines but instead realizes that what makes a person “good” is not necessarily what they believe in, but how they behave toward others. In this sense, a spiritual guide does not discriminate between Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, agnostics or atheists.

There is a story about Abu Sa’id Abu’l-Khayr (d. 1049 AD), one of the great Sufi masters of Iran, which tells of him passing by a church one Sunday and, upon hearing an assembly of Christians in worship, deciding to enter. Once he entered all the people inside were delighted and in his honor they decided to recite some Qur’anic verses. It was a joyous assembly and everyone was greatly uplifted. After a while Abu Sa’id got up and left. When he and his disciples were outside, one of his disciples approached him and said, “There was so much love in that assembly that if you had commanded people to become Muslims they would have all converted to Islam.” “But I didn’t make them Christians in the first place, why then would I ask them to give up their religion now?” Abu Sa’id replied.

The function of a spiritual guide goes beyond reminding us by example to live in the present moment, be generous and act out of kindness. A guide also demands fundamental change from a follower—not only to remember to be kind more often but also instinctively to manifest only kindness. And herein lies the most important reason to have a spiritual guide: we cannot overcome our shortcomings by ourselves. We need help transforming into a better person—into some- one who can exhibit divine character traits. If we are left to ourselves, we take the easy path of ignoring or even worse not seeing any flaws in ourselves. In this context, a guide can be anyone who helps us to overcome our shortcomings.

In Sufism a spiritual guide (pir) is someone who helps a seeker of the truth on the journey from the state of self-worship or egocentricity to the state of selflessness or annihilation of the self (fana’) through love. It stands to reason that the most important qualities of a guide from a Sufi point of view are selflessness and being able to love unconditionally.

The quality of selflessness empowers the guide to ensure that the seeker does not make an idol out of the guide thereby becoming an idol-worshiper. A guide’s task is to eliminate the seeker’s idols such as attachments to possessions, beliefs, judgments of other people, and ultimately the guide himself. This is to ensure that the disciple traverses the path of unity—seeing everyone and everything as One, and the same.

It is through love that the guide tries to purge the seeker of idols. Such love, however, may come in different shapes and forms including such harsh measures as ignoring the seeker’s demands, admonishing and even rebuking the seek- er, or giving the seeker an undesirable task. If one wants to aid in changing a loved one’s behavior, one will resort to any- thing to bring about this change. To remain indifferent is not to love at all.

Dismantling people’s idols, however, is not an easy task, as the seeker may develop resentment and anger towards the guide for demanding a change in character. It was not out of humor that the great Sufi master Bayazid (d. 875) once said, “I am safer in the hands of those who deny me, than those who claim to be my disciples.”

In the tradition of Sufism the Sufi master demands unconditional love and friendship. The transformation of the seeker begins only when there is a complete trust in the guide. It is therefore important for the seeker to be tested as much by the outward expression of love as by harshness and rebuke from the guide. Deep friendships are often made in unusual circumstances when people go beyond what is expected of them for the sake of another.

Shams Tabrizi (d. 1248), who was the most influential figure in Rumi’s life (d. 1273) and guided him on the path of divine love, once exclaimed, “I will be harsh to whomever I love. If he accepts my harshness, then I belong to that person.” Perhaps the reason Rumi felt unconditional love for Shams Tabrizi is that he realized Shams’ harshness was out of love for him:

O Shams you are the wrathful king,
You are the ocean being sought by the pearls.

Once Rumi accepted Shams’ harshness and love as two sides of the same coin, Shams would come to see him as a true friend. As Shams put it: “I have only one friend in the whole world and that is Rumi.”

There are many facets to the work of a guide, but in order for the seeker to be helped along the spiritual path, there must exist the foundation of a true spiritual friendship based on mutual trust, not a relationship based on the self and its desires.