Posted by: Dawud Israel | October 29, 2009

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on Taking a Sufi Shaykh

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, wa salat wa salam ala Rasulullah

This is a very important piece because in the West there is a big imperative on Muslims taking Sufi shaykhs. And its very much indoctrinated among the Sufi people I have come across, which is something I question. I think many question this as well and wonder but can’t find someone to explain this to them. So this is why its very important.

I’ve never taken a shaykh and I was glad to come across Shaykh Hamza talking about this controversial topic since this is a big criticism of Sufism that is very valid. I’ve transcribed it below as best as I could, listened to it like 3-4 times to make sure I didn’t put my own interpretation in it.

Question: How necessarily important is it to commit to one shaykh to develop your spirituality?

You’ll get different opinions depending on who you ask. There’s a nice translation of Ibn Abbad’s letter on whether its obligatory to take a shaykh. There’s a saying, “Whoever doesn’t have a shaykh, Shaytan is his shaykh.” Generally, first and foremost it means you have to have a teacher for the Shariah. You have to have someone who teaches you the religion. When we visit Sh. Mimmar (spelling?) the other day, what did he keep saying? “Get teachers even if you have to pay them. Have teachers. You need teachers to guide you. You need to have sources of knowledge.” In terms of spiritual advancement, if people are having spiritual experiences its good to have people who know what they are doing. Suhba (companionship) is also good. Many of the shuyukh of this period, like Shaykh Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad, who I studied with, Dr. Umar studied with, Sidi Abdul Hakim Winters studied with- he was of the opinion that the idea of taslim was over, the surrendering yourselves to a shaykh completely was over, this wasn’t its time. And there are a lot of dysfunctional aspect in a lot of relationships that happen, so there are problems in all these systems. And surrendering your sovereignty, you have to be very careful with that, who you surrender your sovereignty to, some people demand a lot. There’s a poem by Robert Frost, “They say the truth will make you free, my truth will make you slave to me.” So you just have to be careful, there’s a lot of manipulation out there. People from Pakistan know very well about the peer sahibs, and what happens there. I’m not making this up, am I? A lot of these people are flat-out charlatons, there’s charlatans all over West Africa, you know ‘Sufi shaykh, come and be a murid.’ The danger of Sufism that bothers me, is there are a lot of principles in Tasawwuf that are very easily manipulated into certain cultic control mechanisms and they become very dangerous. I think for those of us in the West, we come from a tradition of individual sovereignty and independence of self. And I personally believe those are very high Islamic characteristics and qualities. I think a lot of the problems in the East is all this slavishness, and devotion and obsequiousness to the grand Master Pu-Ba whoever. I mean, if you want my personal opinion, I do believe that. That does not mean I don’t show the utmost respect to my teachers. Sh. Abdullah bin Bayyah is my teacher and what I love about him is he’s somebody who respects my opinion, listens to my opinion, he’s never been despotic in any way. Habib Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad was not despotic at all, he didn’t get angry at people, he didn’t abuse people. Sifadur Harawi was like that. You just have to look to people and observe them. You just have to be careful. And then there are some people who are just deluded or they are trying to keep something alive and they have their limitations. Sidi Ahmad Zarruq said that there weren’t any complete teachers by his time, the 9th century, the completed masters were gone and to just find people that could do the best that they could do and recognize their shortcomings and don’t have greater expectations that they can do that. Wallahu Ta’ala Alaam. Allah knows best.

–Taken from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s CD set on Tasfiyah al-Qublub, (Refinement of the Heart) by Imam Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi, CD 12, Track 3 and 4

I think this is something for brothers and sisters who are into the Sufi scene to ponder over deeply, especially considering its from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and for people who criticize Sufism to realize these concerns aren’t marginal at all.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Jazaka Allah khair!

  2. i would like to add up in this , that if u r living in the cercumstances where u r having the dout to get the right spiritual teacher u can quench ur thirst by reading the Mankabaat ( sufi poetry) of old sufi’s like from sub-continent Baba fareedudin,
    Sultan baho and when u reading them and try to be on the way they teaches in these poetic verses about spirituality u r infact in there Suhbaat as u r learning from them as still if they r not alive . as u were mentioned the per-baba in pakistan region according to my state of knowledge people usually find these persons to ask them for there ease in wordly matters and they get accordingly. when ur inner vision is clear and u r sincere by heart looking for some spiritual teacher to guide u and at the same time ur desire to get the enlightenment become intens then u will surely gona get the right person as Allah SWT will guide u and show u the right path through that teacher.
    and in pakistan there r still lots of good spiritual guiders and only those could find them who have been selected by Allah SWT to show the real guidance.
    thank you

  3. Salaam ‘alaikum,

    I love Sheikh Hamza and have benefitted from him tremendously. Possibly more than from anyone else except my own Sheikh and some of his students.

    But in this we must heed the advice of Sidi Ahmad Zarruq (from whom Sheikh Hamza often quotes and who’s works he’s translated and taught). Sayyidi Sheikh Zarruq says in his ‘Rules of Sufism’:

    Rule 61: The knowledge of anything may only be taken from those who possess it.

    So a Sufi is not to be relied upon in jurisprudence unless his mastery of it is known. Nor a scholar of jurisprudence to be relied upon in Sufism unless his realization of it is known. Nor a hadith scholar to be relied upon in either unless he is competent in them. Thus the seeker in the path of Sufism must take knowledge of Sacred Law from scholars of jurisprudence; he but returns to those realized in tariqa in what concerns bettering his inner self regarding it [jurisprudence] and other than it [hadith] (Qawa‘id al-Tasawwuf, 36).

    So what have the Sheikhs of the path said?

    “Whoever does not take the tariqa from its men only goes from one absurdity to another.”
    -al-Sheikh al-Akbar Ibn al-‘Arabi

    “In the path of Sufism, keeping the company of others (suhba) is of tremendous consequence in the journey to Allah, in accordance with the wont of Allah Most High and His wisdom. Some have even said, “Whoever has no sheikh [but travels the path alone] has the Devil as his sheikh.” Another has said, “A person is like a [fruit] tree growing up in the wild: if not trimmed and pruned, it becomes a scrub.” ‘
    -Sayyidi Sheikh ibn Ajiba

    “Whoever has no sheikh in this matter is not to be rejoiced over”
    -Sayyidi Sheikh Abul Abbas al-Mursi

    “People have been prevented from attainment by nothing except their rushing down the path without a guide, gobbling up their desires, and taking dispensations and making symbolic interpretations.”
    -al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi

    So, while the advice of Sheikh Hamza is beneficial for some, it is not the final word on this subject.

  4. BismillahirRahmanirRahim

    Most of the evils of modern society are found in the attempts to protect people from themselves and what are deemed inferior policies, in the name of individualism and independence.

    The funny thing about these modern ‘safeguards’ are that they inevitably and ultimately implement what they desire to stop. Slavery becomes ‘banned’, but then reaches its height in the 21st century under different names and hidden identities . Feminism demands women’s freedoms, but complements the package with economic forces and a consumerist mentality which silently *require* them to join the workforce, thereby removing choice and freedom. Free people from long-term employment and the subsequent pensions, and move to 401k’s only to discover they’re wealth just disappeared overnight.

    Much of the disasters of this world have been about modernity’s attempt to start over, with the best of intentions, armed with freedom, only to achieve far worse than the subtle balance that existed prior.

    The western world, and its converts to eastern faiths, need to give up this dream that they have anything to offer from their western methodology of ‘freedom’ and independence. It is exactly that which needs to be rehabilitated as part of accepting Islam.

    The story of Islam is one of submission.

    I think a lot of the problems in the East is all this slavishness, and devotion and obsequiousness to the grand Master Pu-Ba whoever.

    That’s quite a disrespectful way of speaking about Sufi Shaykhs and those that are following an unbroken tradition of 1400 years, don’t you?

  5. This isn’t a criticism of Sufism at all. It’s more a criticism of our times and the exploitation going on. It’s a warning to be careful. Shaykh Hamza is himself a Shaykh and has his own Shaykh. That speaks volumes. If you know where to look, if you have access to individuals and a community you can trust, then that is great. But there are a lot of fakes and charlatans in our world and people must remain vigilant.

  6. Assalamu alaykum

    I think it is evident from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s comments (above) that he is confused in his understanding. He’s putting the good and the bad together and applying the bad to the entire thing. This is a logical mistake. Just like you have bad sufis, you have bad scholars and teachers. There’s bad everywhere but you just have to find the good and the pure. As for the opinion of the two masters he referred to, well in their case we have to realize that they spoke according to their level. Their level was high and as our mashayikh tell us, some men don’t require guides. They have already reached the highest stations. This is why tasawwuf is not obligatory, rather just optional and recommended according to the moderate ulama of ahl al sunnah wal jamah.

  7. Some good thoughts, but please respect adab. Shaykh Hamza is someone to respect because he has a great deal of knowledge in this area, stemming back many, many years. Don’t prefer your desires to someone who has a thorough understanding.

    Compared to Shaykh Hamza, anything you say- does not really matter, unless you’ve been on the Path for upwards of 20-30 years.

    Wa ma tawada-a ahadu Allah il-la rafa’u Allah
    And he who humbles himself, Allah will elevate him in ranks. (Muslim)

  8. The problem is, there are other shaykhs who have been on the Path for 20-30 years and they say that a shaykh is essential. It really depends on the quality of the shaykh you can find.

    I agree with RaaD,

    I like the idea of having a shaykh, its nice to have someone that can inspire you by more ways than just mere speech. At the same time, having a shaykh sometimes involves a lot of rigidity and the subservience that sh hamza was talking about.

    Its a matter of opinion, I really like Sh Hamza Yusuf’s answer, it wasn’t really a banishment of shaykhs – was it? It was more of a fair warning which is warranted given the insanity of our times.

    Shaykh Husain Abdul Sattar’s first “shaykh” when he was an undergrad student asked him to make sujood to him with one leg up.

    “7 points of your body for Allah – 6 points for me – I’m your shaykh, you must obey me”

    That’s the one negative extreme, the other more positive extreme is also illustrated by Shaykh Husain Abdul Sattar as it is his current Shaykh, Shaykh Zulfiqar Ahmed who brought him to studying the deen for 8 years, and writing books on classical arabic.

    The Pu-ba comment wasn’t disrespectful – it’s a reality of our times.

    Someone should become an undercover murid and make a documentary – that someone might just be come a shaykh in the process.

  9. I was a bit disappointed by the response of Sidi Hamza Yusuf, but I can certainly understand “where” he is coming from. If you go to Mauritania or Morocoo you will see men calling themselves “Shaykhs” in the middle of the street saying they have seen the future and hocus pocus. I am sure that this is one of the issues that Sidi Hamza is referring to.

    On another note, tasawwuf is certainly experiential, but it does have rules, methods, principles, nomenclature etc. all of which must be taken from someone who is legally authorized to have them taken from him. Silsilah is impeccably important, and necessary if one wishes to have validity in following the Prophet Muhammad (saaws) and his Sahabah. It should also be remembered that certain tariqahs see tasawwuf as a more hands on approach from the Shaykh to the Murid, that he should seek guidance and advice from his Shaykh in all affairs. Such methods are valid in the law, and are in fact Qur’anic … “ask the people of dhikr if you do not know”…

    At the same time, other turuq approach the matter differently, and do not believe the Shaykh is to delve into the minutia of their mureeds, giving the mureed much freedom, but at the same leaving the door open for guidance and instruction in the principles of attaining ma’rifah.

    I have personally seen both methods, and I have seen both methods work for different people. I have also seen one method fail, and the other work. It is thus a personal quest, and choice, that one has to make.

    May Allah bless Sidi Hamza for his good, and continue to allow him to guide the Muslims to khayr. Amin!

  10. BismillahirRahmanirRahim

    You may not have found it disrespectful, but I personally felt saddened when reading the part which generalized dominant traits in the ‘East’, meaning (really) ‘Eastern people’, and then subsequently blamed these characteristics for their perceived problems.

    Characteristics such as these which would have easily applied to the Sahabi, to the Tabayeen, and subsequent generations (R) towards their teachers.

    The ‘East’ is a consequence of millennia of religious influence, training and effort in creating a spiritual society. It also achieved success in achieving societies such as this for numerous long stretches in history.

    Discounting the attitudes towards authority as a weakness is only looking poorly upon the established result of the words of Holy Quran on a people, who took these words and applied them into a practical reality (and not left it simply as a academic affair):

    4: 59- O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those of you who are in authority.

    Any tyrant who abuses that power has their own problems, and is only increasing the spiritual station of those subjected to his authority. That, at least, is my understanding on the number of hadith speaking about tyrants and abusers.

    Maulana Rumi (ks) addressed the trial of Shaykhs:

    but while pointing out the absurdity of putting men of Allah to trial against our own judgment, he also provides us the the measuring stick when it comes to charlatans:

    A disciple who is trained by a man of God will have a pure and purified spirit. But he who is trained by an imposter and hypocrite and who learns theory from him will be just like him: despicable, weak, incapable, morose, without any exit from uncertainties, and deficient in all his senses.

    And from this we can glean that if our presence with the Shaykh brings us to the opposite of such deficient qualities, we are progressing… In other words if we find ourselves becoming more dignified, honored, strong, capable, bright, absolutely certain, completely aware of all our senses… we are then making true progress, otherwise its time to move on.

    And spending time contemplating it, I have come to realize I have been on this Path for really all my life, which alhamdulillah puts me over the 30 year barrier 🙂

    Still, in some peoples eyes those words may not matter, in others they might,… regardless thanks for giving me the opportunity to put my personal reaction down.

    Shukr Alhamdulillah for my Shaykh.

    • Maulana Rumi :
      To be the slave of a man with an illuminated heart,
      Is better than to rule the ruler’s of the land.

    • i agree with yusril. the concept that taslim is not practical anymore is rather bleak. i for one believe, islam is but taslim. Submission , so looking down upon “eastern” mindset of submitting is kind of out there. Yes there are charlatans, arent there impostors in ulemas? sufi sciences are about ones inner interactions. There was combine presence of all sciences in earliest traditions but to say these are non existent now is a hefty claim. why hefty? because we negate presence of any one capable in current mashaikh and that is heedless. thats like saying none of the current ulemas are sincere or accurate. Hefty claim, may Allah protect us from trials of tongue.

  11. AA-

    Interesting thoughts. How old is this recording of Sh. Hamza?

    • This is actually about a year or two old…pretty recent.

  12. Br Naeem:

    This series of talk was delivered in 2008 in the City of Madina.

    Wa aleikum salam

  13. i dont seee why some posers above insist on caaling hamza yusuf SIDI. We know he deserves a respcted title so why not say SHAYKH. You can think it’snot big deal, that’s okay, but you know NOBODY says sidi so that’s pretty sillyin my opinion yo.

    • Salaam ‘alaikum Samiyam,

      Sidi is a Maghribi colloquil short-form of the Arabic honorific Sayyidi (my master). It’s a term of the utmost respect.
      This usage is attested to by the fact that Sheikh Hamza commonly uses Sidi when referring to the Maliki Jurisprudent and and Shadhili Murshid, Sheikh Ahmad Zarruq, radhiAllahu anhu.

      • I would also point out that Sheikh Hamza used Sidi to refer to Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad in the excerpt that we’re commenting on.

  14. Ilyas and Samiyam (as well as others):

    Salam aleikum,
    Do not get involved in stupid, nit-picking points and do not even come near argumentation. If you want to comment here, understand you do not have permission to even near argumentation on my blog.

    His point was use shaykh- give more respect.
    Yours was- yeah, well…sidi works too (as illustrated in the original post)

    What is the point of that discussion? It really doesn’t matter. I will be deleting useless to-and-fro comments such as these from now on, simply because they detract from our brotherhood and the love between us.

    “None of you will enter Jannah until you believe. And you will not believe, unil you love one another.” -Hadith

    I hope I have made myself clear.

  15. Salam Aleikoem wr wb,

    Nonsense take a scholar as a teacher and never ever surrender to a scholar. If someone asks you this nonsense, run far away. Only surrender to Allah the most High. You may kiss the hands of your Sheich and give him the utmost respect that is from the sunnah. But never surrender your mind to think and rethink. Allah has created you and at the end you will be hold accountable for your deeds and Allah will not say to you that you are forgiven, because you followed a Scholar blindly. Open up your eyes and learn Islam from different scholars and start with loving anyone that can benefitt you with good knowledge. even if it is your math teacher.
    Sallam aleikoem Wr wb,
    Abu Adam

  16. Sheikh Hamza is awesome and two things are absolute nonsense. 1) The fact that you want Muslims int he “Sufi” Scene to ponder over this is absurd. There are so many levels of corruption on all aspects of life that people should reflect always on their existence and circumstances. However, being deluded is only created to show the light of being guided. You should instead pray that people in the Sufi scene find true Sufi guides that are true such as Ahmad Zarruq.

    Sheikh Hamza’s statement is probably stemming from his own experience with the Murabitun and the questionale status of permission to teach by the person it is claimed that he followed. I think in other talks he discussed that. That is his scar not ours. Sheikh Zarruq himself gave Ijaza to Sheikh Ibrahim Zarhuni who leads to Sheikh Ahmad Alawi who when he stepped into the France the Christians thought he was the return of our Master Jesus (Peace be upon him). Language often includess exaggerated language especially Arabic to prove a point. Sidi Ahmad Zarruq’s statements are just his humiliation coming out so that people reading his book in awe of its author will have some doubt about him and see his as a slave of Allah which a true Sufi is. Also to wake up people to the fact that there are many people claiming all sorts of things and to wake them up and warn people of them until the repent from their ways just like all the bloggers feeding people their egos online just as bad as a deluded false Sufi guide or so-called guide.

    Ahmad Zarruq himseld was a completed guide of his time his name Zarruq in fact is not his last name rather the berber name meaning “Sufi”

    Some Pearls are rare and it takes a deep dive to find them but because some people get starstruck by a fake pearl or do not find any at all does not mean that the rare Pearl does not exist.

    • Shukran for your post.

      Yeah my views aren’t anti-Sufi, and if anything are more pro-sufi than before. I just thought it was interesting to hear shaykh Hamza talk about this directly, since not many of our teachers do.

  17. Salam,

    After having read this post several times on different periods of the year, much pondering and a recent visit to Morocco, I also think this has to do with Hamza Yusuf’s -whom I admire- experiences with the Murabitun, with the background of the teachings of Ahmad Zarruq. There is a very interesting bio of Ahmad Zarruq written by Scott Kugle called “Rebel between spirit and law” which gives a clearer picture.

  18. […] On taking a Sufi shaykh: Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post.Leave a Comment […]

  19. I believe what Shaykh Hamza, may Allah preserve him, has done is intiha fi al-nafi` (exaggeration in negation). What the Shaykh is attempting to do is trying to get rid/do islah of what he feels are munkarat but what ended up doing was throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  20. […] who respects my opinion, listens to my opinion, he’s never been despotic in any way.” -Hamza Yusuf Years ago, I listened with an open mind to a lecture by an American scholar who resides in Jordan […]

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