Shah Naqshband, the most important pillar of the Naqshbandi Tariqah, used always to say: “The essence of our Tariqah is to be found in gathering in the company of the Sheikh or of fellow aspirants. Such meetings generate pure goodness”. This kind of gathering is referred to as “Sohbet”, and may involve either the Sheikh (or an appointed deputy of the Sheikh) addressing the group (after having linked his heart with the chain of Sheikhs through which he is connected to the heart of the Holy Prophet), or simply an informal “get-together”, a happy occasion for intimacy. (Often a Sohbet consists of both aspects, a discourse followed by familiar interchange).
Why does Shah Naqshband assign so much importance to such gatherings? Why does he stress this even more, seemingly, than prayer or Dhikr (prayer-meditation)? Why? Because the familiarity arising from such blessed gatherings opens our hearts to each other and to our Lord. Gathering people in such an intimate atmosphere was the method utilized by the Prophets to soften the hearts of their people, and soft hearts make our worship acceptable in the Divine Presence.
If people cannot bring themselves to defer to another, as when people gather with a Sheikh or a deputy of a Sheikh, they will grow to be ever more assertive, wild and egoistic. In our assemblies one person must be the symbolic leader and address the others. If he is a deputy of the Sheikh, he may be, on the level of everyday life, just one of a group of brothers pursuing a common goal, or he may have already attained spiritual stations which enable him to take on a more comprehensive role in guiding the members of his group. Whether the former or the latter be the case, when any of our deputies puts his heart in connection with the spiritual transmission for the sake of leading Dhikr and delivering a Sohbet discourse, he should become the means for that spiritual power and blessings to pervade that assembly.
Divine blessings descend on meetings where one person is presiding humbly and the others are deferring humbly. Such blessings never rest on a group where each is vying to prove the superiority of his views. No, our assemblies should not be debate clubs. If we follow these guidelines, after one person addresses the group and the others defer both outwardly and inwardly, a special atmosphere of intimacy should settle on that meeting, so that everyone feels well inclined towards the other members of the group, and all are able to exchange ideas in a constructive, non-confrontational manner.
Our egos rebel against being on an equal footing with others, so how should they feel about showing deference! The ego is a wild creature, constantly seeking to assert its uniqueness and superiority and to belittle others. If we can manage to get the upper hand in the struggle with our egos, they may reluctantly accede to show deference, but they will never do it voluntarily.
Man is subject to conflicting impulses. He wants to be unique, but he is also a social animal. Uniqueness is an attribute of our Lord, and we have all been given a share of that Divine attribute in that we are all different physically and in the realm of personality. In fact, there is a unique Divine Name reflected in each and every one of us, a Divine Name which the Lord has bestowed us a share of to the exclusion of others. Because of this we have an intrinsic tendency to see ourselves as being unique-because we are – but the mistake is to see ourselves as being superior to others, for it is in unity with others that we fulfill our potential for completeness, as our unique name is made manifest through the act of joining it to the whole of Divine Attributes.
The way to the fulfillment of this great potential passes through familiarity with people. Who so finds a way to the hearts of mankind finds his Lord’s Divine Presence. This is why the Holy Prophet brought people together in such informal meetings. But don’t think that this is an easy task! The power to draw people together is a gift of Heaven. The Prophets and their Inheritors have been granted the gift of addressing people’s hearts directly, so that all those whose hearts are not of stone, all open-hearted people and all those whose hearts are closed but not locked must be affected by their message.
Usually a humble class of people responded widely to the message of the Prophets, as being close to nature they were more easily able to distinguish something living from a fabrication. In general, women also were more open to the message of the prophets than men, because women’s hearts are more easily opened. Men’s hearts are often locked tightly. It is impossible for an open-hearted person to reject the guidance of a Prophet or one of their Inheritors. But as for people who are puffed up with their knowledge, and approach men of God in order to make them accept their ideas rather than accepting Divine teachings, such people are likely to lock their hearts to Tariqahs.
The sign of real spiritual transmission is that hearts are affected and softened so that real familiarity and affection grow among the recipients of that transmission. That is the first step towards real faith. You aren’t a real believer until you want for others what you would like for yourself, until you can put yourself in the shoes even of those with whom you find yourself in conflict. Until you can feel affection and familiarity towards a group of fellow seekers, it is impossible to imagine sympathy for people inimical to yourself.
How is it possible to open up your heart to your fellow man? Your hearts must meet in the heart of one of Allah’s Saints, for in their hearts is Divine Attraction, and it is that power which enables them to be a medium for the binding of hearts. If there is no connection to the Source of all love- the Lord of all beings-then no really durable familiarity can develop between people, only the commonplace surface familiarity that is so easily disregarded when self-interest intervenes.
If a person has not undergone training at the hands of an Inheritor of a Prophet it is impossible for him to bear with people who inflict trouble upon him. He will become like a thorn bush: unapproachable, always ready to prick whoever approaches, friend or foe. Usually, however, such people are unable to perceive that they are prickly, but attribute the thorniness to others. This is not surprising, as it is a common mechanism of the human psyche to put off on others our own objectionable characteristics. We are all mirrors, but we do not realize that it is our own ugliness we are abhorring in others.
The Lord sympathizes with His creatures, and who so has received a ray of that attribute may find his heart inclining towards people. This familiarity is a transmission from heart to heart. Don’t bother with my words, just receive my transmission. Familiarity with our fellow men is only the first level upon which Divine familiarity is made manifest, for the truly loving soul evokes affection even from wild animals.
Once I was with my Grandsheikh in the countryside. As we approached the house of the person we had gone to visit, a yellow dog started to rush at us with his tail curved between his legs like a scorpion. I thought that we would be torn to shreds, but then, as the dog came within clear sight of us, his whole aspect changed (even though Grandsheikh had never been there before, and therefore, the dog did not recognize him in the ordinary sense of his being a frequent visitor) and he began to wag his tail. Then the dog approached and Grandsheikh rubbed his head. At this the vicious guard dog took on the aspect of a frolicking puppy, rolling on the ground and prancing about. Then Grandsheikh explained to me: “He recognized me. I am no stranger to anyone”.
Even ferocious lions may become pussycats in the presence of the receptacles of Divine familiarity. Once, in the early days of Islam, a caravan of pilgrims were coming to visit the House of God in Mecca. All of a sudden the caravan stopped. Abdullah Ibn Umar was with the caravan and when it stopped he went forward to see what was the matter. The people were in a state of great trepidation, for a lion was sitting in the middle of the road, and they were afraid he would attack the pilgrims. Abdullah Ibn Umar made his camel kneel and climbed off its back. He went over to the lion, lifted up its ear, and reprimanded him gently, saying: “Don’t stay here. This is not the place for you: this is a road for the pilgrims bound for the House of God. You must be obedient and respectful, and not attack us, as we are under the Protection of the Almighty”.