kashf, spiritual experiences, and corruption: lessons and reflections from my tariqa experience

kashf, spiritual experiences, and corruption: lessons and reflections from my tariqa experience

The following account is written by a friend of mine. We studied Arabic together in the mid 2000s and then I lost contact with him. Some friends of his found In Shaykh’s Clothing helpful for the corruption they witnessed in Sufi tariqas and brought the work to his attention. When he looked at it, he recognized me, and from there we  got in contact and he shared his story. – Danish Qasim

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

This account is written to perhaps help those who have been at the receiving end of a very sophisticated instance of tariqa/shaykh abuse. There are some accounts out there that articulate in a much more adequate fashion the cult aspect of tariqas. This account is less about the systematic cult abuse of the tariqa and more about the personal charm, manipulation, and abuse of the Shaykh himself. It will help those who have witnessed kashf/kharq al-‘ada  with their shaykh along with abuse, and they struggle to combine the two.

This uncommon ‘spiritual’ ability is often mistaken for wilaya (sainthood) and account for the lingering on of murids around the shaykh, sustaining along the path not only traumatic experiences but also the real danger of leaving the fold of Islam.

Since the shaykh in question is hermit-like and not well known, and also since he has a very small group of followers left, mentioning his name is not necessary here. Therefore, all names, dates and places mentioned in the following account have been changed.

Finding the Red Sulphur!

I met my shaykh in April 2008. I had just recently arrived in an Arab country from the US looking to advance my Arabic studies. My Arabic teacher introduced me to this shaykh who had recently arrived from another Arab country. I was immediately struck by his presence. It was unlike any I had felt in my life: radiant face, majestic figure, beautiful voice when reciting, impressive sense of aesthetics and most importantly a proper scholar of Islamic sciences. He was a traditional Arab with an impressive sense of hospitality and generosity. Furthermore, he was from Ahl ul Bayt. You couldn’t ask for more in a shaykh. But the thing that really sealed the deal for me was when he told me something about myself that he should not have known: kashf, a spiritual unveiling. I had no doubt that I had stumbled upon the Kibreet al Ahmer or Red Sulphur, a metaphor for the rarest of the rare.

I took the tariqa with him thereafter and immediately saw the transformation. Friends and family members were all very impressed with the new me. Initially I had no plan to settle in the area, but after meeting the Shaykh and taking the tariqa with him, I was certain that my life was all about serving this man. I got married in 2009. My wife also became intrigued with the sheikh and she also considered him her shaykh- even though strictly speaking the Shaykh never took women murids. He did extend his tawajjuh (spiritual attention) towards her and she also started having spiritual experiences. These experiences ranged from seeing intense dreams to something called  واقع–a state between sleep and wakefulness– where you witness visitations from all kinds of interesting persons and things– light and dark. We interpreted the dark and scary experiences as an important block towards building deep spirituality.

Slowly I introduced a number of my friends to the Shaykh who also found him intriguing. Some became his murids. My eldest sister, who was struggling with finding a suitable husband, also visited him and immediately accepted him as her spiritual master. She would sit in a corner of the room asking her questions while he would answer without looking at her. His answers impressed her tremendously. She also started to have spiritual experiences. He would often send her phone messages when she was close to getting into a religiously prohibited zone. She was in the corporate world and would often find herself interacting with men. This baffled her. How can a person sitting thousands of miles away know what she is doing? It really boosted her iman and she got her life more in line with Islamic principles. I was not worried about the Shaykh having my sister as one of his “disciples” because he was very strict when dealing with women and would only accept communication with them through male kin.

Even though I was struggling financially, and had given up on pursuing my career goals, I was very happy and considered myself to be fortunate to have met a person who I thought only existed in medieval hagiographies.

2008-2010 were great years. I was having paranormal experiences (good and bad) that I ascribed to the Shaykh. I considered myself very fortunate to be receiving them. I was learning and transforming. My Arabic had become fluent by then. In fact, since taking the tariqa, I was immersed in learning with our Shaykh in Islamic sciences like fiqh, aqeeda, Arabic syntax, and logic. To his immense credit, he always believed that the exoteric sciences had to be mastered before the esoteric ones. He was offering the lessons for free at his home. What more could one ask?

Cracks start to appear

Somewhere in 2011 cracks started appearing (or I started to see them) on the Shaykh’s personality.  I started seeing contradictory and questionable actions from him. I was beginning to see these actions partly because I had acquired enough knowledge to judge right from wrong, and partly because he felt he was close to me so he started to be less cautious in words and actions. On numerous occasions he would tell someone about what I confided in him- to my utter embarrassment. I also started to see that he would backbite about the other brothers and would present his backbiting as “a valid criticism” of what was happening around him. This was especially true of any scholar that would visit him. As soon as they left, he would start criticizing them for their lack of knowledge or weakness in personality. We would also see him stretch the truth on many occasions. For example, we would be sitting with him and someone would come to his door and he would tell his son to tell the person that the Shaykh is not home. Feeling that we might question this obvious lie, he would often say “they come for mischief, so it’s better not to see them.” Who were we to judge? After all, we were in the presence of a scholar and wali who surely knew right from wrong.

Another event that made matters worse was the appearance of a new murid who was an online marketer by profession. He introduced EBay and Amazon and a host of other websites to our Shaykh. He did it for decent reasons I assume. But the effect it had on our Shaykh was quite catastrophic. This new murid and I began spending hours upon hours with the Shaykh surfing the web and looking for products. The time of the night that we used to spend talking about spiritual matters was now being spent on buying a range of products on EBay.

I did not make much of this new behavior, as strange as it was. For one, it was all mubah (permissible). Secondly, I thought it was possible that he was testing us so we better not fail him. Sometimes we would sit with him from dusk to dawn almost, and when reaching home, I could barely finish my 2 rakat Fajr prayer on my feet. Any doubts, I thought, were Shaytan’s whispering and I had to shut it out completely.

2011-2013: This was the usual state of affairs. Spending hours upon hours online shopping and less and less discussing spiritual matters. The lessons were also being suspended as he developed chronic nerve pain. But I did not make much of this as he would from time to time share his spiritual unveilings and blow our minds. The kashf was not frequent, but the nature of it was enough to have a lasting impact on us. Here are some of his astonishing feats:

      • Many times he would know that I was having an argument with my wife and he would call me while it was happening.
      • He foretold of a fit of anger I would have with a dear friend of mine a day before it happened.
      • He helped a friend of mine (who would go on to become his murid) with the location of an item his mother had buried but had since forgotten where it was, despite the fact that the mother was adamant that it could not be there. She was blown away by his GPS skills and considered him a patron saint for her family.
      • He also stuck a rod through the same murid’s cheek to show him the gifts bestowed on this particular tariqa. When he removed the rod, there was no mark from the piercing.
      • When my wife went into labor and the doctors said that the labor would take so and so hours. He said “they are off by 3 hours” and he was right. The baby was delivered around the time he predicted.

Events of this nature kept us in check and made us not see the other contradictory and questionable actions. He was increasingly saying many strange things, some of which we knew not to be true but hearing him say it with such certainty made us doubt our own senses and faculties. Here is a sample from a very long list of strange claims:

      • A certain political figure will poison another one to grab power in 2 months (a year passed and nothing happened)
      • This country will attack that country in 4-6 months (the time passed and nothing happened)
      • Saddam’s sons were not killed by Americans but were living in a French Riviera.

He would then change these statements and would not update us, while I was still propagating these tall tales to others. And when I would ask him about his former claims on a particular issue, he would simply say “I never made that statement” or “you misunderstood my answer”. I would not allow this obvious ridiculousness to dint my certainty. I soldiered on thinking this was all a test.

Furthermore, he would often criticize a famous shaykh for his ridiculous predictions about the future. Once this other shaykh told his murids to leave a country before a particular year because of an impending earthquake that year[1]. Some of his murids sold their belongings and traveled to other countries. When the year passed and no earthquake took place, that shaykh was asked about his prediction to which he purportedly answered “since some of you doubted me in this matter, Allah never made the event happen” (as if that is supposed to be a bad thing!). Our Shaykh was severe on this behavior from other shuyukh but now he was doing the same exact thing.

It was also around 2013 that our shaykh made me and the online marketer murid take a “special oath” with him. The special oath was about “undying loyalty and a helping hand in all noble causes”. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I took this oath and felt like the most fortunate person on the face of the earth. The other murid was hesitant to take this oath but I assured him (to my eternal regret) that this was a blessing that we can’t pass on. Little did I know that I was setting-up myself for a series of sophisticated manipulations.

What comes up must come down

From 2013-2016 I went through some of the most challenging times of my life. I was broke with two children, living on handouts from my family. But most importantly I had spiritually plateaued, in fact more like spiraling downwards. The list of questionable actions, which was increasing by the day, was eating me up and I was fighting hard to keep it at bay. Backbiting, double-standards, lies, exaggerations and the suspension of the sharia whenever expedient was now a common theme in our interactions. My resolve and ability to fight doubts about my shaykh was getting weaker and weaker. I had lost faith in my Shaykh and it showed in my actions. But still I found ways to explain all this. One solution was to blame myself for everything. By 2016 I had decided in my heart that suluk or spiritual wayfaring was not for me. I was simply going to stick around to help my Shaykh as I had taken an oath to be with him come sunshine or rain. By now accurate kashf had all but ceased. Almost all of his predictions of the future, or informing us of our personal issues were inaccurate. By now, I was entirely feeding from the nostalgia of earlier years, the memory of which was becoming dimmer each passing day.

Furthermore, what was also discouraging was that by now many of his murids who took the tariqa from him started to leave him. Many realized (this was confirmed to me later) that not only they had piling questions about his ability as a murshid–but most importantly– they had serious issues with some of his ethics. A few were kicked out while others exited without much fanfare. All left without trying to discredit the Shaykh in any fashion (at least not publicly). What is painful to me as I write this is that I participated in the character assassination of many of these brothers simply because my Shaykh was feeding me information about them that made me lose respect for them. The Shaykh’s divide and rule strategy was another feature of his character that should have raised a huge red flag, but I simply refused to see it. He would often in private complain about the brothers in a way that would make you despise them. As a result I was always suspicious of the brothers. They were also suspicious of me as they saw me as his right hand man. No one in our small community trusted one another.

In 2016 he suggested to me and a friend- who was also his murid through my initiation– to open a company that would specialize in subcontracting in the Middle East. This was entirely his idea. He had claimed that we will make “millions” through this. I was skeptical about the “millions” as he had made similar claims about another business that I started which ended in abysmal failure. I had never asked him to do anything special for my business projects other than dua. Nor had I ever asked him about the prospects of a business project. I knew these were against the etiquette of a murid. He would himself voluntarily come up with claims about a “success” of this or that project.

My friend and I worked hard for the company. We did everything required of us yet nothing came of it. In fact, with every failure we were blamed for lack of effort or wisdom. The company was recently closed in 2019 as it was becoming a liability.

Another disturbing issue for me was that throughout the years the Shaykh played a strange game with my sister’s marriage issue. Now that I look back at it, it was almost criminal. If a candidate came into her life he would waste no time saying “he is a decent person, go for it”. Even though when I met them I found them to be dubious characters. We wanted to be cautious with something as sensitive as marriage. But for him it was about getting married as soon as possible regardless of who the candidate was. One candidate, as we would find later, claimed he was the Mahdi, yet the Shaykh would not mind entertaining him as a candidate.

The Shaykh would also ask for a loan and then forget about it. Time and again he would take loans and when asked about it he would act as having no knowledge of it. We still gave him the benefit of the doubt on this matter thinking that perhaps the tons of medication he was taking for his medical condition was affecting his memory. The total amount of money that we loaned him is in excess of 150k dollars (he has recently begun to pay a fraction of the debt he owned. This was mutually agreed. The rest we have forgiven him). Another 150K was used to buy him things that he fancied. My family has spent over 300k on this man and yet, believe it or not, we never held that against him.

The end is nigh

In early 2019 I realized that I had to get away from him. The object of having a shaykh is to get near to Allah and not away from Him. I felt that continuing with our Shaykh as my spiritual guide was a burden beyond my ability now. I could no longer put up with the ridiculousness of our relationship. On the one hand I had zero trust in his words, and yet I had to act like I was an obedient adherent. This is the exact definition of cognitive dissonance. But I had to exit in a manner where it would not stir any controversy, something I realized the Shaykh relished. Also, I did not want to cause him any pain as I still cared for him. He had become a father figure for me, and it is not easy to just quit out of the relationship. At this point I still did not think of him as a bad person. I saw the glass half full. I planned my exit and in June 2019 I left the country for good. Our relationship leading up to that point was at its lowest but it was still warm and cordial. I felt I did a decent job of departing with our relationship still intact, in contrast to other murids who left under controversial circumstances. I felt now was the opportunity to ponder on the next stage of my life and perhaps start things afresh. I am by nature a positive person and usually strive not to be overwhelmed by life. Little did I know that there is no such thing as a problem free departure from an abuser.

I should mention here that at no time did I give as much as a sniff to my friends and family about my real feelings towards the Shaykh. Since 2016 I had stopped bringing people to him, and the ones that were already his murids through my initiation were not given tall tales about his legend like before. Many were benefiting from him, especially those with long-distance relationships and it was not wise for me to rock their world. The Shaykh was a meaningful force in their lives, without experiencing the baggage that people like me–the full timers– were witnessing.

An incident transpired the very first month following my departure which proved to me that the Shaykh had become mentally deranged and that completely cutting myself from him was not only a desirable thing but a religious obligation. Once he realized that I had completely left him, he conspired to fabricate things about me to some of my friends who were also his murids. He changed facts about the recent incident and started telling many that I left him because I did not make money with my businesses. He poisoned the minds of very close friends to the point where some were emotionally manipulated–like I was many years ago– to accuse me of “deception” and lies. These friends were tourist murids, spending a week out of a year and leaving happy and inspired, mostly communicating with the Shaykh through copy paste inspirational quotes of awliya and emojis. They did not grind like me for over a decade, seeing the Shaykh from every possible angle. Despite all of these despicable actions from him, I still tried to reach out to him to ask for some sort of brotherly relationship empty of bad feelings. But for him either I was to be his murid or nothing. He cut me out completely. He did not even want to talk to me. I was too much of a liability for him. I knew too much. So for him discrediting my credibility was imperative to save his legend.

Here are some of my personal observations over the years. Some are self-evident. Others require some reading into normative Sufi literature. I have tried to block as much of subjective bias as I could, though it may not be entirely possible.

  • An abusive experience with a shaykh–after it is indeed established so– should not let one disregard the sacredness of this office or absence of other genuine shuyukh. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Having said that, a real murshid is indeed a rare thing. I have often seen those with a traumatic experience in a tariq denying the entire tradition as “fake” or “unlike Sunnah” etc etc. To me this is as problematic as those who exaggerate and aggrandize the status of their shuyukh as infallible saints.
  • A murshid, even if a wali, is not safe from veering off the path. There is no such thing as a guaranteed wilaya throughout a lifespan. This is only reserved for the Prophets (upon them be peace). So we should always form our views on people from the present perspective and not the past.
  • Karamat and kashf take a back seat to the sharia (sacred law) as a measure of a murshid’s credibility. If a shaykh slanders others for no good reason, then his supernatural powers are nothing more than cheap tricks. Imam Abdul Wahhab Sha’rani says: it may occur that a so-called Shaykh in this age will hear something [about others] and relate it to nearly everyone he sees, even if what he relates will lead to the ruin of lands. Meanwhile, people will say, ‘we were told such and such by one of the Awliya’ who is beyond reproach’. They call him a Wali, but he is a corrupt sinner for spreading gossip (namima) and ruining relations between people. (Abdul Aziz Suraqah translation)
  • The sincerity of a murid can also take him/her spiritual places even if the murshid is not up to the task. Not all experiences should be ascribed to the shaykh. Furthermore, if a murshid is connected to a legitimate silsila, then the barakah of the silsila often carries the murid despite shortcomings of the murshid.
  • We judge the teachers based on the framework they inform the murid before taking them. It is not fair to keep changing the frameworks. Murids should be sufficiently informed of what they are getting themselves into. Changing frameworks to suit the murshid is a sign of an unstable murshid.
  • Your bay’a with a shaykh should not force you to stick around for the rest of your life if you have legitimate grievances. Leaving one shaykh for another has been common practice in the past, contrary to the common held beliefs in our times.

It is not advisable, in my opinion, to seek murshids that engage in psychic activities. Sufi luminaries of the past have advised to be extremely careful with these types. These are the folks who do not shy away from flexing their fortune-telling, mind reading, dream-interpretation muscles. It is not far-fetched to believe that the psychic types could be connected to some paranormal entities like the Jinn– without the former necessarily knowing it. They get their news from these entities who can appear in various forms/visions and misguide them. I personally believe that this probably accounted for fortune telling that our shaykh indulged in. He would get some right and most wrong.

 

Allah Knows Best

 

 

 

[1] This was confirmed by a former murid of the shaykh.

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