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Reminiscence of Said Afandi al-Chirkawi

The best of you are those who, when others see them, they are reminded of Allah - Hadith.

            The 28th of August in the year 2012. On that day many people cried. Old people cried, who were already over 90 years old, children and women cried, even strong young men cried, who would not have shown their tears, even if their parents had died. One of my friends told me that the father of someone he knows is still crying, and nobody can calm him. Another of my good friends said that his little niece and nephew cried like they would have had their father died.

            News of what had happened reached me in Makhachkala. I immediately set out for Chirkei. In the shuttle van two girls on the seats next to me wearing hijab cried as if a relative had died. It was clear why they were crying, afterall, I myself was barely holding back tears.

            Today many people talk about Said Afandi. Some say he was a wise elder, others  admire his poetry and knowledge, while still others came to love him for his kindness and integrity. That, however, is hardly enough to make young people, who had the opportunity to sit in his company no more than once a year, and at that for only a few minutes at a time, to cry profusely right in front of everyone around them after having heard that the sheikh had left this world.

            Sheikh Said Afandi had an amazing gift, which could probably only be appreciated to the full extent by those who had felt the effect of this gift on themselves. People came to him whose parents had despaired from trying to guide them, who, after one meeting with him, became totally different people. I have seen so many times that people, having lost hope in bringing their relatives to reason, convinced them to just meet the sheikh, knowing of his ability to transform people. It happened so many times that I was a witness to how people, despairing from trying to cure a relative of alcoholism, drug addiction, and other diseases, had been advised to bring their loved one, not to the doctor, not to a psychologist, but to Said Afandi, and thereafter a miraculous transformation took place.

            Said Afandi did not conduct any therapy sessions with them, nor did he recite long sermons, most often he would talk about totally everyday things. He would ask the one who had come to visit him who he is, where he’s from, what is his profession or course of study, and what brought him to Said Afandi. If he was talking about religion, then he would speak using very simple and approachable language. Anyone who would observe from the side how he received people would not notice anything out of the ordinary in his speech or actions. The amazing thing would happen after the visitor left the sheikh’s house. Before long, many of those who would come would transform to the point of unrecognizability, and they could now be seen in mosques and madrassahs instead of in the disreputable establishments they frequented before. Of course not everyone who visited him transformed in that way, the sheikh himself said that he can only help those who are ready to accept his help. All the same, if one were to look at the result of his work, they would see thousands upon thousands of people that he took out of the wasteland of infirmity.

            What happened to people after a visit to the sheikh? I would like to let people know about that by drawing on the example of my own experience. My story doesn’t differ in the least from the stories of others, whose lives changed after visiting Sheikh Said Afandi.

            From a young age I was attracted by sufism. I don’t even know where I first learned about it from. I didn’t know Arabic, and I hadn’t come across any normal literature about sufism, but none the less, where ever I read about Sufism, this topic attracted me.

            At the age of 20 I came to the conclusion that I needed to stop living the fast life that I and most of those I knew who were my age were living at that time, and I decided to delve deeper into the study of religion. I started to attend courses that were taught in the mosque. I really wanted to ask the teacher a question about sufism, but I was afraid that he might turn out to be an opponent of sufism, and for a long time I decided not to ask about what interested me. When I finally decided to ask I was amazed to find out that my teacher was a Sufi and that basically just a few kilometers from us lives such a person as Said Afandi.

            Immediately an indescriable desire to meet this person arose in my heart. I asked him to bring me to him and soon after we went to the sheikh. That was in the Spring of 1995.  That day there was a Mawlid celebration at the sheikh’s house and it was full of people. At that time I didn’t even have an idea of what a sheikh is supposed to look like. That day I saw an old man who sat with a solemn appearance. On his head was a traditional North Caucasian hat with a turban tied around it, and I, of course, immediately determined, that this was probably the sheikh. After sometime a man came into the room. All stood up, and I stood as well. My friend, who was standing next to me, said that this was the sheikh. I admit that I was very surprised; the one who had come into the room carried himself so simply and naturally, and his simplicity so differed from my vision of how a sheikh should be, that at first some sense of discomfort and confusion arose in my heart. The sheikh, however, at the same time attracted me with his simplicity - it was clear that he was a sincere person, and I decided for myself that I would become his student.

            At that time I wasn’t able to take the wird from the sheikh and become his student. There was a Mawlid celebration going on in the Sheikh’s house, and the house was full of people, therefore I was shy to approach the sheikh about my request.

            The following several days after the first meeting passed agonizingly long for me. I wanted to visit the sheikh again and find out who this person really was, but my friends could not agree on a convenient day for a group visit, and I myself at that time didn’t know that I could set out and go on my own.

            Finally, we went to the sheikh again. This time there didn’t turn out to be an especially large number of visitors. The ustaz asked us, who are we, where are we from, and what did we come for. After that he explained, how to do the wirds and brought us into a room where we were fed. The sheikh also sat with us and drank a little bit of tea.

            The whole time while I was sitting with the sheikh I was expecting: in just a moment something significant is going to take place in my life that, perhaps, will change my life fundamentally. I, however, didn’t even have a clear idea of what was supposed to happen to me.  Inasmuch as I had then just begun to study the Arabic language, I couldn’t read books about sufism in Arabic, and I was not able to come by books in Russian that would clearly lay out what sufism was really all about and how the sheikh affects the murid. At any rate, I didn’t get the full picture from what I had read.

            However, to my surprise, everything was normal.  I immediately acquired a respect and a liking for the sheikh, but nothing changed in my soul.

            Soon enough we left the home of the sheikh. I was sitting at the wheel and me and my buddies started talking. Apparently, I asked some questions about how to do the things the sheikh had assigned. Before long my questions had finished, and I became lost in thought.

            At that moment something happened that changed the rest of my life. A feeling surged over me like a wave which was unlike anything I had suspected. I felt that in reality, just as I felt my buddies were sitting next to me, that the Most High is near and that He sees and hears me. It was an undescribable feeling which I had never experienced before, though I had already been trying for a long enough time to lead a lifestyle that was becoming of a Muslim, and tried to avoid everything forbidden.

            My heart it, seemed, had been covered by some kind of wave, and, having turned to Allah, Who for me at that moment was even closer, than my buddy sitting one seat over, I called out to Him. My soul literally cried at that moment and in my soul I called out: “O Allah, where have I been until now?! How have I lived my life without knowing you?” It was very hard to hold back my tears, and the only thing that barely held me back was that my buddies were sitting next to me.

            I don’t even know what to compare those feelings which overcame me at that moment to. Probably, that circumstance can be compared to that of a blind person who one day was unexpectedly able to see. Although that comparison hardly conveys what took place in my soul at that moment. After all, one who has regained sight will just be amazed and surprised at the new world that has opened up for him. But how will he get that condition of love and regret which you feel when you realize that you spent your whole life being turned away from the One Who is closed to you and loves you like nobody else. Probably, this condition is better compared with having gone 20 years without seeing one’s parents and suddenly meeting them.

            I have seen very many people who had gotten deep into the most horrible sins and debauchery, and I saw how these people changed after meeting with the sheikh. I myself at least was conscious of why I was going to the sheikh, and had already prepared myself for observing the prescriptions of the religion, but there were people who could not be brought to reason by their own parents, nor by society or the scholars of Islam, and these people just happened to come upon the sheikh one time and changed. Five minutes spent with the sheikh exerted more influence on them than the sermons of the scholars of Islam and the reproaches of those close to them.

            One might think, that the sheikh possessed some skill of inculcation similar to hypnosis, or had the gift of persuasion, or had some technique resembling neuro linguistic programming. However anyone who has experienced what the murid experiences when he enters the ranks of the sheikh’s students would confirm that it is not that at all. If the best psychologist was present at a visit to the sheikh, he wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in the way the sheikh interacted with the visitors. And in fact, there isn’t even a need to engage in conjecture, as a matter of fact, amongst the murids of Said Afandi were psychologists and doctors, whoever is interested can ask them what they think on this matter. The sheikh spoke very simply and he didn’t give long speeches. A person who has not experienced what I am talking about, could only form an opinion of him as a good and wise person. However, five minutes in his company and the few words which he would address you with could hardly change a sinner who had been racing steadily to his own demise.

            What had made those people change was something else entirely. A certain state was transferred from the sheikh to them, wherein they felt that the Creator is close to them and that they are before Him with all their sins and shortcomings. That is what changed these people. They could no longer lead the life that they had been leading until then.

            Many of us can commit sins when no one sees us or when we are in company with whom we are not ashamed to do such things. But if, for example, a son who respects his father is told in the moment of committing the sin that his father is observing him, how would that son feel? Imagine yourself in that son’s place and you will understand why people changed after meeting with the sheikh. They felt the closeness of the Creator and could no longer behave as they once did.

            Of course, there are those who will begin to question what I have told, but that’s their problem, everyone is a witness of that which is in his heart and everyone of us will answer for his or her own words and actions on Judgment day.

            If what I have recounted was only the testimony of those like me, then of course such doubts would be understandable. But then what has made the great scholars of this Ummah visit Sufi Sheikhs and acknowledge their superiority over them, despite the fact that, the knowledge of these scholars was admired throughout the Muslim world, and the sheikhs, under whose guidance they had come, at times were mere shepherds and craftsmen and, in the people’s opinion, didn’t even have any serious Islamic education.

            What made Imam al Ghazali, who has been dubbed “The Proof of Islam” and whom scholars have considered the reviver of the religion for a full century, set out on the way of the sufis and become the student of a sheikh.

            Consider what he said after ten years of solitude and practice: “In the course of these years of solitude, things have become known to me which are impossible to enumerate or analyze. For the sake of the matter at hand, I’ll mention just this. For me, it has become absolutely clear that those who walk on the way of the Most High Allah, are the sufis, that their lifestyle, is the best lifestyle, that the best way, is their way, and that their manners and morals are the purest. I could say more. If one was to gather together all the reason of reasonable people, the wisdom of the wise people and the knowledge of the experts of the holy law, in order to change just the slightest thing from the way of life and character of the sufis with the goal of giving them the least bit of improvement, they would not know how to do it. Since all the affairs and actions of the sufis and all their secret and stated thoughts have as their origin light, coming from the niche of prophethood, and there is no other light on earth, by which people could be guided, than the light of prophethood...”

            Indeed, before Al Ghazali set out on the path of the Sufis, famous scholars came to him from the ends of the Muslim world for knowledge, and there were always a large number of scholars present at his lectures.

            What made Ibn Daqiq, the great scholar, who was also considered the reviver of the religion for his century, after meeting with the sheikh say: “I have never seen a scholar who knows Allah more than Abu’l Hassan al Shazily”.

            Or, for example, what made Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, when someone next to him mentioned Maruf al-Karhi and someone else said Maruf had no knowledge, say “Stop! Does the term “knowledge” imply anything other than what has been reached by Maruf?”

            It would be possible to write whole books about the respect with which the great scholars related to the sufi sheikhs. This short article is not enough to uncover this topic in detail.

            If I had never felt the kind of influence that the sheikh can exert on the soul of a person like myself, maybe, I wouldn’t understand why these great scholars extolled these sufi sheikhs.

            When I started to study sufism deeper, I remembered one saying which is often mentioned in the sufi books “The [spiritual] condition of one person in a thousand people, is better than the preaching of a thousand in one person.”

            Though I read these lines much later, the substance of these words was felt in that moment when I was returning from the sheikh. The truth of these words is likewise confirmed by the stories of thousands of people, whose lives were transformed after meeting with the sheikh.

            The sufis say: “A person can’t know what Sufism is, even if he reads thousands of books and spends years in worship. Only through the guidance of a true Sufi Sheikh does one come to realize what Sufism is.”

            The heart of a person is like a dark room penetrated only by a weak light. If we live in a half dark room, we, accordingly, won’t be able to see the disorder that is within us, and we are unlikely to be ashamed of it. But when the room becomes full of light and we will see the mess that is within us, undoubtedly, we will become sad. If we know that our hearts are seen by others as well, our heart will become full of even more shame. This is like the condition of the murid, when he comes under the guardianship of the spiritual guide. The light of the knowledge of Allah penetrates into his heart, and then he truly feels that Allah sees him and that Allah is close to him. He begins to notice the multitude of shortcomings that are within himself and his worship which he would have never noticed before. Many things that he would have earlier considered virtues he now begins to be ashamed of, and then his heart becomes full of sadness and shame.

            They say one righteous person had sewn some clothes and set out for the bazar to sell it. Every time the people would look at it, they noticed some defect and would walk away from him. The righteous man sat on the ground and cried. People, having thought that he is crying about the clothes, started to console him. He answered them saying “Its not the clothes that worries me. I sewed it thinking there were no shortcomings in it, but when I put it on display, so many shortcomings were discovered! I have already been engaged in the worship of Allah for many years, and I don’t see the defects in my worship, and indeed on the day of judgment those shortcomings will come to light, just as the shortcomings in my clothes have come to light.”

            A person who has had at least a small amount of divine light enter his heart, begins to see the shortcomings he didn’t notice before.

            Perhaps not everyone who comes under the guardianship of a sheikh experiences what I described. The sheikh is like one who sews the seeds of the knowledge of Allah. Some places the seeds sprout and bring forth fruit, some places they dry out before they start to bear fruit, some places they start to sprout much later than normal, and some places, they just don’t sprout.

            I can’t say why it happens like that. Maybe, someone lacked sincerity, or maybe, someone else lacked patience, or perhaps his enemies seduced him from the truth. The sons of Adam have many enemies. That is their own fruit with all of its passions and lusts, those are the worldly temptations; it is shaitan, who is always next to a person and is ready at any moment when a person turns away from Allah to thrust his probiscus into his heart and suggest bad thoughts to him, as well as bad friends who distract him from the true path.

            Once Said Afandi told about one Murid, whom he had entrusted to remember Allah with his heart, but after that he stopped doing the sheikh’s assignment because his neighbor convinced him that it is not right to remember Allah with your heart in that way. For several years he didn’t come to the sheikh, but then he repented and returned. Said Afandi said “Look, I taught him to turn to Allah and remember Him with his heart “Allah, Allah...”, and that person who convinced him that its wrong, what did he give him in exchange?

            Before listening to those who deny Sufism, we must ask ourselves, what can these people offer in exchange for the path of the knowledge of Allah which has been followed by a huge number of the righteous and scholarly people of Islam.

            Probably, there has never been a righteous person who has not had people oppose him. Said Afandi is no exception. They say there were even people who were happy when he left this world.  I’d like these people to consider the following: not long ago some Uzbeks who worked close by came over for the Eid holiday. My father had invited them to his house. When they saw that there were religious books in my house, they immediately began to ask me about Bahauddin Bukhari. When they learned that I had heard of the Sheikh, they got happy. Look, so many hundreds of years have passed since Bahauddin Naqshband left this world, and these people still know him and pronounce his name with respect. Its very unlikely that someone today will remember the opponents of sheikh Bahauddin Bukhari who undoubtedly opposed him in his time. The same is true for those who were happy about the death of the sheikh: its unlikely that after several generations their own descendants will remember them, and Shaykh Said Afandi has already gone down in history, as many other great sons of Dagestan have gone down in history, such as Shaykh Shamil and his teachers Muhammad Yaraghi and Jamaludeen Kazikumukhi. May Allah reward us with meeting them in the best of worlds!

By Abubakr Datsiev | Islam Magazine | 2012