Letters of a Sufi Master: The Shaikh al-Arabi ad-Darqawi
Translated by: Titus Burckhardt; Preface by Martin Lings
Publisher: Louisville KY USA: Fons Vitae, 1998
This small volume presents a collection of letters from Shaikh ad-Darqawi (1760 – 1823 CE) to his disciples. Darqawi was a master in the Shadhili Sufi Order, which was founded in the thirteenth century and flourished throughout North Africa. The Darqawi branch of the Order was named for him. In the preface Martin Lings points out that this collection of letters serves to correct the mistaken belief of many scholars of Sufism – that by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all Sufism in North Africa had descended into mere ritual and superstition. Lings writes, “The spiritual radiation of Shaikh ad-Darqawi brought about a sudden great flowering of Sufism in Morocco and Algeria and beyond.”
Lings describes the letters as an expression of “practical Sufism.” In them we find practical advice from master to disciple, rather than discussions on abstract doctrine. According to Lings, in Sufism such practical teachings are usually delivered only by word of mouth, and in many cases never get preserved in writing. In this case, “the collected letters of al-Arabi ad-Darqawi were compiled by himself, copied by his disciples and printed many times in Fez in lithographed script.” Selected by the Shaikh himself, these letters have been studied by disciples, not only in the Shaikh’s own lifetime, but throughout the centuries since then. Even today this collection of letters is “still read, with commentaries, in the zawiyahs of the Darqawi line.”
In collecting his own letters to serve as a teaching tool, Darqawi was following the example of his own master, Mulay al-Imrani, known affectionately as al-Jamal, who had done the same. Unfortunately, only a couple of manuscripts of al-Jamal’s letters still exist, and they have never yet been translated into English. Titus Burckhardt has translated the letters of Shaikh Darqawi from the original lithographed edition and two nineteenth-century manuscripts.
Darqawi often quotes his master. For example, he relates al-Jamal’s words on the power of the contemplation of the divine Beloved:
If you contemplated Him in everything, contemplation of Him would veil all things from your sight. For He is the only thing outside of which there is no thing – if you bring together the ephemeral and the eternal, the ephemeral is extinguished and the eternal alone subsists.
The dominant theme of Darqawi’s work is the importance of the practice of remembrance of God. Darqawi writes:
The faqir, when he exchanges the remembrance of all things for the remembrance (dhikr) of God, purifies his servitude… So remember only God; be God’s alone; for if you are God’s, God will be yours and blessed is he who belongs to God so that God is his.
His disciples, like spiritual seekers of all times, had to face and overcome the persistent distractions of the lower mind, called the nafs by Sufis and translated here as “passionate soul.” Darqawi advises simply ignoring this enemy whose only goal is to “molest you.”
If you wish to free yourself from your passionate soul, reject what it tries to suggest to you and pay no attention to it, for it will more certainly continue to molest you and will not leave you in peace; it will say to you, for example, you are lost! Let its insinuations neither disturb nor dismay you.
Sheikh Darqawi warns the disciple to flee sense pleasures:
Always flee from sensuality, for it is the opposite of spirituality and opposites do not meet. Inasmuch as you strengthen the senses you weaken the Spirit, and vice versa… Many are they who have freed themselves from sensuality in order to plunge into Spirit for the rest of their lives.
He describes those who are entangled in sensuality:
It is as if God (be He exalted) had not given them Spirit, and yet each one of them is part of it, as the waves are part of the ocean. If they knew this they would not allow themselves to be distracted from the Spirit by sensory things; if they knew this they would discover in themselves boundless oceans.
A second common theme in the letters is God’s presence in all things. Sheikh Darqawi often stresses the importance of seeing God in everything. He wrote:
The Prophet (may God bless him and give him peace) has said: “I have seen nothing without seeing God in it”; and we say, it is impossible to see our Lord while seeing anything other than Him; and all who have reached this degree of knowledge affirm the same.
It is important to remember that each letter was written to a specific disciple, with reference to that disciple’s spiritual condition. Darqawi explains the seemingly contradictory guidance given by a true master:
Sometimes he sees that the disciple’s Spirit will be freed by fasting, so he makes him fast; at another time, on the contrary, he will make him eat to repletion for the same purpose; now he sees that the disciple will benefit from an increase of outer activity; at another time, from less activity; at one time from sleeping; at another time from staying awake; sometimes he wishes the disciple to avoid people; sometimes, on the contrary, he advises him to frequent people.
Darqawi’s letters are peppered with vivid aphorisms handed down from earlier masters of the Shadhili lineage. For example, he quotes the Hikam (“wise sayings”) of the great thirteenth-century Sufi, Ibn Ata-Illah: “Since you know that the Devil will never forget you, it is your business not to forget Him who grasps you by the forelock.” As a footnote explains, this Arabic idiom refers to controlling a horse by grasping its forelock.
In other words, the way to defeat the Devil is to remember that one, God, who holds all power over you. Darqawi reinforces this point with a quote from his own master:
Our master used to say: “The true way to hurt the enemy is to be occupied with the love of the Friend; on the other hand, if you engage in war with the enemy, he will have obtained what he wanted from you and at the same time you will have lost the opportunity of loving the Friend.”
Naturally, true submission – to give oneself over to the control of the Beloved – is not easy for the struggling disciple. As Darqawi says, “Dethronement of the ego is a necessary condition according to us and according to all Masters of the Way.”
Sometimes Darqawi illustrates his teaching with an easily understood, down-to-earth metaphor. To teach his disciple to choose his goal wisely and then persevere single-mindedly towards it, he writes:
I would like you not to be scattered in your love… We see that some people become attached now to one thing, now to another. They are like a man who tries to find water by digging a little here a little there and will die of thirst; whereas a man who digs deep in one spot, trusting in the Lord and relying on Him, will find water; he will drink and give others to drink… The Sufis used to say: Knock persistently at one door and many doors will be opened to you: submit to one Master and the multitude will submit to you.
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