Two of the stages on the path of Sufism are hope and fear. Both come from God. In fact, whatever you experience comes from God. You think you understand that, but you forget.
The stage of hope is based on God’s divine attributes, including the Most Merciful, the Source of All Blessings, the One who Forgives, and the Most Loving.
God made the angels perfect in their own way. They are devoted to remembering and worshiping. However, the angels are static; they cannot change. God gave humanity free will. Human beings are able to make mistakes, to harm others instead of helping them. You are made to serve God’s creation, but God made you capable of choosing to serve or not. But no matter how badly you may choose you can always hope for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The stage of fear comes from the realization that you are spiritually ill, and you are afraid of making your spiritual illness worse. Everyone is spiritually ill. This illness is evident with self-centered egoism, and with the malady of selfishness and narcissism. Unless you are careful your self-love (an inflated ego) may override your love of everything and everyone else.
Narcissism is a serious diagnosis and you fear you cannot heal yourself. You are correct; you need all the help you can get. According to an old Sufi saying, you can bandage a small cut, but you cannot operate on your appendix. A sheikh is a spiritual doctor who is an essential aid in the process of spiritual growth. However, the ultimate healer is God.
Your goal is to do your best to heal yourself and to become God’s deputy or agent here on earth. You were born to serve God’s creation.
Do not fear God. Many people think of God as a stern, punishing father. They fear whenever they make a mistake God will punish them. God could but chooses not to punish us.
God loves you more than you could love yourself. Your ego misleads you; it encourages you to fear God instead of loving God. Fear instead whatever harms you or others because your transgressions will close your heart and distance you from God.
If you eat rotten food do you become ill because God punished you? No. If you eat something spoiled you are likely to get sick. That is built into human biology; it isn’t a punishment. If you ingest poison you might die. You have to use your God-given intelligence to eat healthy, nourishing food.
My sheikh used to say a dervish should only fear becoming distant from God. Fear that your heart may harden or your love of truth may diminish. But these are not punishments from God. They are the results of how you live and act.
Your mistakes have consequences so you can learn. If children touch a hot pan they will burn their hands and they learn to stay away from hot pots and pans. If they didn’t learn, they might tip over something on the stove and burn themselves seriously.
Illness is caused by forgetfulness. In 1976 I brought the first class from my university to see a wonderful yoga teacher. During our conversation with him he asked the students, “You are all in a psychology program. How many of you want to be therapists?” Everybody raised their hands.
The teacher continued, “From my point of view as a spiritual teacher, psychotherapy is a lot like visiting a sick friend in a hospital and bringing them candy. They will feel better for a moment, but it doesn't cure their illness; it just distracts them for a moment. From my point of view, we all suffer from the illness of lack of realization of our own souls; we forget God’s presence within us. That is the root of all our suffering. Any other problem is trivial.”
It was a wonderful, profound teaching.
God is within and without. You can think of God as outside yourself and seek to feel God's presence outside yourself. In fact, God says in the Holy Qur’an, “To God belong the east and the west, so wherever you turn, you are facing ‘toward’ God.” (2:115, Khattab trans.) God’s presence fills creation; God is all around you.
This beautiful verse means God is also present if you turn within. To turn within is to be aware of your soul, the divine spark God has placed within you. God also says in the Qur’an, “Indeed, it is We ‘Who’ created humankind . . . and We are closer to them than their jugular vein.” (50:15, Khattab trans.) God is closer to you than you are to yourself. God is present in every cell of your body, in every thought and emotion. Nothing could be closer to you than God.
My sheikh was once asked, “When the Russian astronauts returned to earth, they said that they ‘proved’ religion doesn’t exist, because they didn’t find heaven or angels flying above the clouds.”
My sheikh laughed and answered, “Unless you find God’s presence within, you can travel over the whole universe and you will never find God. You have to find God within yourself first.”
Knowledge and action. Fear moves knowledge into action. Don’t just sit when you've learned something; act on what you have learned. Actively serve God’s creation.
Spiritual fear is concern that your heart may be hardening and you can't sense the presence of that beautiful inner of the divine spark within you. It is fear of moving away from God. God never pushes you away. You move away from God.
Spiritual fear is worrying, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I making a serious mistake? Might I hurt someone else?”
Your self-centered ego will assure you you're doing the right thing even when your head is stuck in the mud and you can't breathe. Your ego claims, “How brilliant you are! You’re looking where other people aren’t looking—in the dirt!” Your self-centered ego tries to convince you that mud is gold.
Spiritual Fear. Love can lead to spiritual fear. One afternoon my sheikh entered the dining room for lunch, followed by the senior dervishes. Efendi sat at the main table and the old dervishes sat in a low table in the corner.
Efendi’s teachings that morning had touched me so deeply I was still in a daze. When I entered the dining room I thought I should sit with the senior dervishes. Or perhaps I should sit with some of the newer dervishes. I didn’t feel worthy to sit with the old dervishes. As I was wondering what to do Efendi looked at me and pointed at the seat next to him.
Then I had a totally neurotic inner dialog: “I’m not even worthy of sitting with the senior dervishes, but I would like to be there. And I’m certainly not worthy of sitting next to my sheikh—what am I doing here?” But my sheikh ordered me to sit next to him. As his dervish I want to be here, even if I don’t feel worthy of being next to him. I just kept going on and on, internally.
As a new dervish I hadn’t learned how to serve properly and so throughout the whole meal I worried, “Does Efendi need water? Does he need tea? Does he need more bread? What can I do? I know I’m heedless and I might miss something.” I worried the whole time that I might not serve him properly. I barely managed to get through the meal.
This is an example of spiritual fear. I was sitting with Efendi afraid of not serving him properly. I really wanted to serve him well. At the end of the meal I said “Efendi, I’m so sorry. I wish I served you better.” And he laughed his wonderful deep laugh and said “You were just fine.”
After lunch Efendi started telling stories. He told one story that affected me very deeply because I was so raw at this point.
A sheikh said to one of his dervishes, “God has blessed you with many possessions. You need to get rid of the money you have accumulated. Bring all your savings and I’ll give it to charity.”
The dervish replied, “Of course, my sheikh.” He brought his riches to the sheikh, but he kept one bag of coins at home to support his family.
The sheikh looked at what the dervish had brought and he asked, “Is that ALL?”
The dervish replied, “I did keep something for the support of my family.”
The sheikh exclaimed, “Did I tell you to keep that money? I said bring all your savings! Don’t you know how to follow simple instructions? Where is your faith? Now go home, take that bag of coins and throw it in the river!”
The dervish thought, “Oh my God. My money won’t even go to charity!”
He returned home and took the remaining bag of coins and went to the river. Then he took out one coin and chanted, Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim, “In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful” and threw the coin into the water.
The dervish felt a little lighter, a little less burdened by his possessions. One by one, he threw the coins in the river, reciting “In the Name of God” with each coin. The dervish returned to his sheikh feeling much lighter and more “spiritual.”
The sheikh took one look at him and exclaimed, “What did you do?”
The dervish replied, “My sheikh, you told me to throw the remaining coins in the river, so I took a coin and I said ‘In the Name of God’ and threw the coin into the river. Then, with each coin I threw I said ‘In the Name of God.’”
The sheikh roared, “I told you to throw the coins in the water, not make a big production out of it! Now get out of my sight!”
At the end of the story I was on the edge of breaking down and crying hysterically, which is definitely disrespectful in the presence of one’s sheikh. I kept biting my tongue to try and keep my composure. I thought, “I’m sitting next to my sheikh and I know I’m not even worthy of sitting in the same room as him. That man was thrown out of his sheikh’s presence because he said ‘In the Name of God’ when he threw his money away. Who am I to be here?”
Later I told another sheikh how that story had affected me so deeply. He replied, “That was a story of the discipline of a dervish who was far along on this path.” It is like painting a wall to make it perfectly white. That takes twice as much work as getting it 95-percent white.
Trying to cleanse your personality fully is the same challenge. Getting rid of the last traces of your ego is a very late stage in the process of spiritual development. Don’t try to be perfect right now.
Discernment. Some people fear too much and some fear too little. My advice to those who fear too much, is don’t fear so much! My advice to those who fear too little is fear more! And if you don’t know which you are, consult.
That is a paraphrase of a famous hadith. The Prophet said, “If you know something is good for you and for others, go ahead and act. If you know something is bad for you or for others don’t do it. And if you are not sure consult.”
It reminds me a Nasruddin story. Nasruddin was a Sufi sheikh who used a great deal of humor in his teaching. The people in the neighboring town were mystified by Nasruddin’s antics. “His neighbors think Nasruddin is smart and wise, but he seems like a crazy fool to us.” One of the villagers suggested they invite him to give the sermon next Friday and find out if he knows anything.
They invited Nasruddin, and he agreed. When the time came for the sermon Nasruddin stood up and said, “O neighbors! Who among you knows what I’m going to say today?” The villagers all said, “No, we don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you know nothing, I can’t teach you,” and he walked out. The villagers said, “He’s very clever. But he won’t fool us again. Let’s try again.”
They invited him back, and again he said, “O neighbors! Who among you knows what I’m going to say?” They replied, “Yes, yes, yes, we do!”
“Well, if you already know, you don’t need me!” And he left.
The villagers thought long and hard. They were sure Nasruddin could not fool them again. They invited him a third time and he said the same thing, “O neighbors! Who knows what I’m going to say?” Half of the villagers said, “We know!” and the other half said, “We don’t know!” The villagers figured they finally outsmarted him.
Nasruddin replied, “Then those of you who know teach those of you who don’t!” And he returned home.
Like all Nasruddin stories, there’s an important hidden truth here. I just suggested that those of you who fear too much should fear less and those of you who fear too little should fear more. But how do you know which you are? You have to ask someone who knows. (By the way, almost anybody but you knows who you are. You can’t see yourself as well as you can see others.) That’s why it’s very valuable to have sincere brothers and sisters on this path.
Don’t be afraid of little things. Be fearless of the things of this world, because you are concerned for the One Who has created everything. If you remember God you won’t fear material things.
A sheikh advised his dervish who was about to leave on a long trip, “When you are traveling, what would you do if a pack of shepherd dogs suddenly starts running toward you?”
Turkish shepherd dogs used to be half-wild. They had spiked collars so the wolves couldn’t tear their throats out. The sheikh repeated, “Well what would you do?” The dervish answered, “I’d threaten the dogs with my staff.”
The sheikh said, “They’ll grab your staff, pull it out of your hands, and then they’ll knock you down.”
“I’ll get down on my knees.”
The sheikh said, “That won’t work. You’re an intruder and you’re threatening the flock.”
The dervish asked, “Well then, my sheikh, what can I do?”
The sheikh replied, “It is simple. You cry out, ‘O shepherd! Shepherd! Call off your dogs!’”
When you think the world is attacking you, call the shepherd. Call the owner of the dogs; only the owner can call off His dogs. Instead of giving in to fear, go to the owner of all things. Fear will have you focused on the dogs, and you will forget that the dogs have an owner.
God created this world with both positive and negative consequences for your actions. If you ignore possible negative consequences you will have to pay the price, so you have to be careful and aware. This is the meaning of taqwa, to be “mindful of God.” It means to think before you speak, to remember God before you act. Someone with taqwa will ask for help from the shepherd, the owner of everything.
The second Caliph, ‘Umar, asked a rabbi, “What is taqwa?”
The rabbi inquired, “O ‘Umar, when you were a boy did you wear sandals or did you go barefoot?”
‘Umar replied, “All the boys ran around barefoot.”
The rabbi asked, “When you played in an area that had nettles or rocks, did you just run around?”
‘Umar said, “Oh no, I walked very carefully. I had to watch where I put my feet.”
The rabbi explained, “That is taqwa. You watch where you put your feet.”
If you’re heedless, you may step carelessly and cut your feet or worse. Taqwa does not mean fear of punishment. It means to use your awareness and intelligence to do the right thing. It means to remember there are consequences to your actions, good and bad. Consequences are not punishments.
To worry constantly that God may punish you is a harmful habit. One of God’s 99 divine attributes is “The Most Loving.” God’s love is the root of all love in creation. God is the source of all the blessings that have ever come to you and all the blessings that will come to you.
Taqwa means balance. It is awareness of possible consequences to watch where you put your feet, to think before you speak.
If you tend to act before thinking, you don't have enough fear. But I mean fear in the sense of being cautious, heedful before you speak or act.
Those who obsess about punishment often ruin their lives because of their negative fear. Never think of God as a bad parent because that is the opposite of the truth.
Muhammad asked one of his companions, “Have you come to me to ask about righteousness and sin?”
The man replied, “Yes.”
The Prophet clenched his fist and struck his chest, saying, “Consult your soul, consult your heart. Righteousness is what reassures your soul and your heart, and sin is what creates restlessness in your soul and puts tension in your chest, even if people approve it in their judgments again and again.”
The Western view of the devil is misleading. When my sheikh was in Paris, he visited various cathedrals. He was shown a picture of hell and he asked, “What’s that? Who is that with the red skin and the horns and the tail?” The priest said, “That’s Satan.” And my Efendi laughed. He said, “That’s not Satan.”
The priest replied, “What do you mean? That's how we always show Satan; he’s red and he has horns and a tail.”
Efendi said, “That would never work. Who would listen to somebody that looked like that? He would be useless. I’ll tell you what Satan looks like. To men, Satan looks like a beautiful woman. And to women Satan looks like a handsome man with an enchanting deep voice. Satan is seductive. Nobody is going to follow an ugly little demon.” If you are going to be afraid of anything, fear the suggestions of Satan.
In another Nasruddin story, he was sitting on his front porch, whistling an old folk tune. Then Nasruddin recited, A’udhu billahi minash shaytan ir rajim, “I take refuge in God from the accursed Satan.” He kept repeating this strange behavior. A neighbor asked, “Nasruddin, what are you doing?”
Nasruddin replied, “I’m just playing with Satan.”
“What do you mean you’re playing with Satan?”
“Satan likes to come around when people are amusing themselves, in hope they will lose their awareness of God. So I whistle and he comes running up. As soon as he gets close I recite, ‘I take refuge in God from the accursed Satan.’ and he runs away. Then I whistle again and Satan runs back toward me. I can keep him occupied this way for hours.”
Normally, fear should stop you from doing this. It is very dangerous to play with Satan. Nasruddin was a spiritual master although his wisdom is generally disguised with humor. For him this strategy was effective. But sensible fear should keep you from playing with Satan
Don’t make deals with Satan; don’t argue with Satan. You might try repeating, “I take refuge in God from the accursed Satan.” But don’t whistle.