On Love for One’s Teachers
From the many blessings we are graced with in this life, one of the most profound is the blessing of inspiring, beautiful teachers. They are people who enlighten, awaken, advise, and nurture, in ways that open up worlds to us that are otherwise unseen. They are people who, in their speech, or their deeds, we catch a glimpse of something of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), something of the fortitude of warriors, or the gnosis of saints. Their words meet us at some critical point in our life, and guide us from a cold and lonely place to the warmth of divine remembrance and spiritual awakening. They mark our path forward, and more powerful yet, made us aspire to reach our destination.
This love that one has, for the one who brings you close to Allah and reminds you of Him, is pure and powerful. It is something far beyond mere shared interests or compatible personalities; light years beyond romance, or affection borne from ties of kinship or proximity. It is, in its purest form, something heavenly and spiritual – a love for Allah, by Allah, and with Allah.
“Allah the Exalted said: My love becomes incumbent for such persons who love one another for My Sake and who associate for My Sake…’ ” (Malik and Ibn Hibban)
Unfortunately, this love often gets mired in the all too worldly dust of things like attraction, fascination with personality, or envy. I wonder at some of the stories of righteous people of old who somehow seem shielded from these things. Men who would go to visit a righteous woman with their sole intention being to hear a few words of advice from someone close to Allah, with no undercurrents of sexual tension seeming to mar their interaction. Or the spiritual disciple who would spend years under the guidance of a shaykh, but would never fall into the murky waters of worshipful adoration. Or the student of a scholar who would be constantly at his service, carrying his shoes, serving him food, waiting at his door in the humblest of manners to learn at his feet, with no feeling of envy or ambition penetrating his heart, nor secret whisperings saying ‘Now you know just as much as he does – you are beyond this station.’ This was a love that was purely felt and correctly expressed.
This love is in many ways a test. One of the biggest misfortunes that can befall a seeker of knowledge is losing this softness of heart and love for one’s teachers. It happens in the guise of seeing things from a more ‘informed’ stance: The teacher whose Arabic once seemed so eloquent and faseeh just a short while ago, now seems to make painfully obvious mistakes in ‘iraab. The one whose Quran recitation was once so moving has a weak ‘daad and trouble with their mudud. The scholar at whose feet one first learned the basic concepts of fiqh clearly has no grasp on the role of the waqi’ and maslaha. And so on. Somehow, the people who once brought us close to Allah have faults so glaring in our sight, so unforgiveable, that the ties of love and honor begin to lose hold. This is why some of the righteous used to pray that Allah shield them from seeing the faults of their teachers, and say ‘O Allah, busy me with my own faults over the faults of others.’
I remember visiting a friend of mine at her home a few years ago, and in her bedroom I noticed a small photograph taped to the wall close to her bed. It was in the perfect position for one to gaze at when lying down to sleep, or for one’s eyes to settle on when first waking up in the morning. It was a small portrait of her shaykh, taken while he was sitting in a somber and dignified pose, wearing a turban and the long, traditional raiment of scholars. A respectable photo, yet in seeing it I felt that I somehow stumbled across an embarassing intimacy. Like a starry eyed teenager who secretes away a photo of their crush in a private diary, only for it to somehow slip into the public eye, I felt that I had come across something that was not meant to be seen by others.
My friend felt no such embarrassment. She told me that she would look at this photo and be reminded of Allah. In thinking about her role-model and teacher, remembering his example, she would remember her purpose and renew her intentions. I could not shake my discomfort however. Wouldn’t it have been better to write out some of the things he taught, and gaze at that instead, or even put up a verse from the Quran that helped keep one focused? Why the focus on the person, and not the lesson being taught?
Years later, someone sent me some photos of a dear teacher of mine that I had not seen in quite some time. In one, he was standing with some students and pontificating on something with a very familiar gesture, one he used often in his lectures and classes. Somehow, this picture reached somewhere deep inside and tears came to my eyes. It was not just about remembering the moments of enlightenment and inspiration and lessons learned; but also about seeing one who walked a certain path that most left untred. At that moment I think I could understand something of that sister’s feelings so many years ago.
This too is a place where love can be a test, and where extremes are easily met. Abdal Hakim Murad once mentioned an explanation that Imam Ghazali gave of Christian belief; that they were people who “had been so dazzled by the divine light reflected in the mirror-like heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself.” Do we, in some ways, do the same with our teachers? Are we so dazzled by their personality, beautiful qualities, or simple state of being that we go beyond just limits? And when they do stumble or misstep, is our heart-brokenness borne from realizing we have mistaken the mirror for the Light?
I can only wonder at the depths of the love the companions must of had for the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam). How much more intense it must have been, with someone one knew would never disappoint, go astray or become mired in human failings. For our teachers, the more we get to know them, the more their weaknesses and foibles are often disclosed to us. But with that Teacher (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), the closer people got to him, the more beautiful and perfect they found his character and manners. This is what the poet described when he said about him, salAllahu alayhi wa salam:
He is like the sun that appears to the eyes from a distance
Seemingly small and insignificant – but dazzling to the eye when studied.
An Arabic aphorism says, “Kun `aaliman, aw mut`alliman, aw muhibban.” “Either be a teacher, a student, or a lover.” Even if we are not from the scholars and teachers of sacred knowledge, nor from among those trekking that path, we would be in a noble state simply by loving those who are. May Allah grant us this love, a love pure and refined, unsullied by our own weaknesses, that honors us and our teachers. Ameen.