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The Master Disciple Relationship Revisited

Sufism is the school of divine ethics, and the master of the Path attempts to decorate the Sufi's heart with divine attributes.

The relationship between a master and a disciple has often been characterized in Sufism as that of unwavering trust, where the disciple follows the master without asking questions or raising objections in his or her journey towards the truth. It is a heart-felt relationship where the disciple's love of the master will be the force enabling him or her to follow the master towards the truth.

The story of Khizr and Moses, as illustrated by Rumi in his Mathnawi, is an oft-cited example to illustrate the master-disciple relationship. Guided by God, Moses sets out to learn divine knowledge from Khizr. Khizr warns Moses from the beginning that "You won't be able to accompany me, because you will not understand what I do and you do not have the capacity to accept it." Despite the warning, Moses insists on accompanying Khizr. Having warned Moses, Khizr performs a series of acts, all of which Moses finds objectionable. With Moses' third objection, Khizr announces that he will no longer guide Moses. Before they depart, though, Khizr finds it necessary to explain his actions, which Moses finds objectionable. Moses couldn't follow Khizr in pursuit of Divine knowledge. Perhaps he relied on himself and his mode of understanding first and foremost before relying on Khizr. Perhaps the justification of an action for Moses was more important than following Khizr in the performance of the action. Whatever the reason, fundamentally Moses couldn't follow Khizr because he didn't have the unwavering trust in Khizr needed on the path. Unwavering trust in Khizr would have meant that despite Moses' ignorance of the true consequence of Khizr's actions, Moses should have followed Khizr without raising any questions or objecions either outwardly or inwardly.

Trusting someone is not an event that happens immediately. It usually takes us years of knowing and interacting with a person before we come to trust him or her. We need to ask questions and examine the person's behavior before reaching the point of trust. When it comes to the master-disciple relationship, it would be quite unusual for a disciple to reach the stage of unwavering trust in the master upon being initiated into the spiritual path. It takes years of perseverance by the disciple and a great degree of patience from the master for the relationship of trust to develop.

During this period of acquiring the quality of unwavering trust in the master, the disciple's expectation is for the master to behave in accordance with the disciple's familiar rules and conventions. It would be similar to the relationship between Khizr and Moses, where Moses expects Khizr to follow the conventional rules and laws. However, once the disciple acquires unwavering trust, the relationship between master and disciple will be transformed to a new level, which goes beyond the world of regulations and conventions and the realm of justifications and reasons. It is the beginning of the journey of love and selflessness, as these qualities make us disregard our own self-interest in relation to others. When we act selflessly or out of love we go beyond the world of rules and conventions, which are mainly devised to protect us from others.

Acting out of selflessness, however, is not something that we are inclined to do by our own nature. Our nature is to protect ourselves and our impulse is to act out of self-interest. Our ego demands that we protect ourselves first before protecting others, but on the Sufi path we are expected to put others before ourselves. A master is someone who teaches selflessness by example and at times requires the disciple to do selfless acts. But without the disciple's trust in the master this is not possible.

The more trust the disciple has in the master, the easier it is for the disciple to follow him or her on the path of love and loving-kindness. Love and Loving-kindness, however, cannot be taught by words. A mother does not teach her children to act lovingly towards others by asking them to rely on her words only. She acts lovingly towards others and the children follow her example. In the same way, a master cannot persuade the disciple to act with loving-kindness towards others simply by giving a speech on the subject. The master acts with loving-kindness and the disciple follows his or her lead. Again, without trusting the master, the disciple cannot take this leap.

The master-disciple relationship, like any other relationship based on trust, can take a wrong turn and be harmful for both the master and the disciple. The danger for the disciple is this: rather than trusting the master to guide him or her towards the truth, the disciple turns the master into an idol –– an idol having the quality of acting in accordance with the disciple's expectations and wishes. Unsurprisingly, when the master fails to act in such a way, the disciple becomes disillusioned and hence unable to continue on the spiritual journey. The danger for the master is the abuse of the disciple's trust, such that instead of guiding the disciple towards the truth, the master leads him or her towards the wasteland of the master's own ego.

Article taken from Sufi Journal, Issue 70, 2010


Other Writings by Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh

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  • The Experience of Nothingness

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