A System that has Crumbled
It was the practice of the Prophet to accept bay`ah (pledge of obedience) from his Companions at the time they entered into Islam. In addition, he sought their pledge on other special occasions, (or, occasionally, without any occasion). Such bay`ah was approved by Allah who mentioned one of the pledges in a Qur’anic passage. Such bay`ah was also necessary because Islamic call was new, and the meaning of the Kalimah Shahadah was not apparent to the pre-Islamic Arabs. On the occasion of the bay`ah, the Prophet explained to them what entry into Islam meant in theoretical and practical terms, and that, pronouncement of the Kalimah was pronouncement of one’s willingness to henceforth obey Allah and His Messenger.
History tells us that there had been bay`ah before the advent of Islam, and hadith literature informs us that there will be a bay`ah at the advent of the Mahdi as another (perhaps the final) at Bayt al-Maqdis, probably during the time of the closing events.
Subsequent to the Prophet, bay`ah of obedience to Allah and His Messenger was not considered necessary because of the spread of knowledge and the general understanding that without willingness to obey Allah and His Messenger, there could be no Islam. People freshly entering into Islam, therefore, at the time of the Companions and their followers, were not asked to execute a pledge to this effect since they knew the demands of the testimony of Islam: it was shelving of one’s older way of life in favor of the new one they were embracing. Islam was submission to Allah, no more and no less. Everyone lived by Islamic ordinances, the society was modeled on the Islamic pattern, the economy ran on Islamic principles, the state was guided by Islamic injunctions, and there was no question of obedience to any other, than Allah and His Messenger.
Although out of use for a while in the strict religious sense, bay`ah acquired a political character after the Prophet. Since there could be more than one claimant to Muslim leadership, meaning, political authority, it became necessary to seek the pledge of obedience from the citizens for only one nominate or claimant; and hence, he who refused to take a pledge, was thought to be refusing to be in the mainstream, parting his ways with the Jama`ah. The first bay`ah of this nature was instituted by `Umar ibn al-Khattab, who pledged his own hand to the first Khaleefah, Abu Bakr. It is in this political sense that the Prophet is reported to have said that he who died without having entered into a pledge, died a Jaahiliyy death. It was political bay`ah that he meant, that is, bay`ah at the hands of a Khaleefah or Ameer, to obey him in political matters (and not personal), so long as he did not command a wrong. A bay`ah covering obedience to Allah and His Messenger was uncalled for because any other alternative was simply out of the question.
With weaknesses creeping in, however, after a few centuries there began to appear Muslims who failed to lead a purely Islamic life, or who did not, for a variety of reasons, possess enough knowledge to be able to lead their lives in a manner desired by Islam. Nonetheless, at a point in their lives they retreated from their life of disobedience, hoping to, thereonward, lead the life of total devotion to Allah. Yet, many had no idea what they were to do by way of reformation, repentance, penance and atonement for what they had neglected so far. There were others who were aware of their own moral shortcomings, conscious of the need to purify themselves, but did not know how to go about doing it, or control their base instincts before getting into a worse situation.
Naturally, they sought a person who was knowledgeable and devoted to Allah who could help. There were of course many who could, and the system of bay`ah with a religious character reappeared. But, since Shuyukh had no ecclesiastical power, bay`ah at their hands remained, primarily, the expression of a mere wish. It did not, and could not acquire the characteristics of a religious obligation.
The dubious nature had its implications. Experience taught the Shuyukh that mere admonition on their part, and pious intentions on the part of their followers, were not the cure for the anomalies. Those who came to them for help did not always live by what they were taught. And yet, their own names could be dragged into the misdeeds of their followers. It could be said, “So and so is of such poor character, although he attends the assembly of such and such a Sheikh!”
The Shuyukh therefore developed a whole plan of action and techniques of reformation complete with a kind of curriculum for those who would pledge their hands to them promising to obey Allah and His Messenger. They also added obedience to themselves as a necessary ingredient of the bay`ah and the right to inquire and told what happened at the personal and private level, so as to discover the impediments to reformation. In other words, the inclusion of this last clause helped them inquire, get the information, scrutinize, analyze, discover weaknesses, and suggest the cures. They even began to guide them in their family affairs – by extending their influence to that sector – to help their followers out of social and sometimes even economic difficulties, in order to free them for training and observation of religious obligations. Through the curriculum they drew, they guided them from time to time, stage to stage, leading them – through education and application – to higher moral and spiritual states. Not surprisingly, before accepting a novice, some of the Shuyukh would not merely inquire about what kind of books the novices had read earlier, but also, whether they knew horse riding, warfare techniques and so on. So that, when the occasion for Jihad arose, these novices (murids), inspired by the Shuyukh participated in thousands.
Thus, with the passage of time, the Shuyukh became spiritual guides for the individuals and their families, sort of adopting the family, and guiding them all, not necessarily in devotional matters alone, but in all affairs of life with the spiritual ends in view. So that, affairs such as what profession to choose, whom to appoint as teachers of the children, and with whom to make marriage alliances, were all decided on the advice of the Shuyukh. In other words, the family had a moral and spiritual head in addition to the temporal head.
This was successful so long as there were sincere Shuyukh and sincere followers of Islam. But, with insincerity towards Allah and His Revelation settling into the hearts, the system began to crumble and ultimately became corrupt. The idea became prevalent that if you were attached to a Sheikh, he would look after your affairs of the Hereafter, guiding you through to Paradise through his influence and intercession. Another, and no less serious corruption was that you get connected to an important Sheikh of the past, through allegiance to the present-day nominated representative (Khaleefah) in order to gain greater material benefits in this world, and climb to higher spiritual status in the Hereafter. It became necessary to profess this because the murids of today could clearly see that their present-day Sheikh (peer) was fatally below the moral and spiritual norms required of a man of this position, pretty poor in application of Islamic rules of life to himself and family, was in fact a gatherer of wealth, fattening himself upon the hard earned money of his followers, and thus, plainly incapable of winning salvation for himself, far from being in a position to help his followers. But, if he was below the mark, then, the implied suggestion was, the Shaykh al-Shuyukh (the chief of the Shuyukh, or the grand-master), dead by a few centuries, to whom the murids were connected through the present day Sheikh, is the all-powerful who is capable of getting your material needs granted by Allah. Thus, arose the need to include the tombs, where the Shaykh al-Shuyukh resided, yet the need to have a contemporary Sheikh, as a means, despite his questionable qualifications and suspicious activities.
But of course, the connecting line could not be stopped at the Shaykh al-Shuyukh of the 5th, 6th or 7th centuries. The murids demanded higher climbs, and hence, the chain had to be taken to the Prophet himself – peace be upon him.
How relevant is the system today and how reliable the peers? (Many of them are honest enough to refer to themselves not as Sheikhs, but as peers: acknowledging a lower position for themselves). We might answer in short that where the Sheikh is truly a Sheikh (nobody seems to have seen one recently), the system is still valid. To make room for an honest one, we might say that if a Shaykh of today accepts the pledge at his hand, of obedience to Allah and His Messenger, and then guides his murids on, by teaching them the Qur’an and Sunnah, or the Arabic language, or, putting them on to a course of study of the core texts, or monitor their 24-hour activities, then, a Muslim might enter into his bay`ah. But, if he adds anything else to his plan of action, such as, suggest adhkaar, or claim spiritual guidance, or suggest elevating his followers to higher spiritual stations through his own spiritual power, or connect him to a Sheikh of the past, or to the Prophet himself, or chase away the devil on him, or conduct halaqas of dhikr, or claim to prevent misfortunes falling onto his murids, or help them get children, or solve their economic problems through rosary and wazaa’if, or is primarily a dispenser of ta`weez (amulets) of various functions, or worse, promises connections with a dead Sheikh, or worst of all, declares participation in tomb affairs, celebrations, and functions as necessary for spiritual progress, then, he may be advised by the would be murids to earn his living through other honest means.