Muhabbah and Rabitah

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What is the basic of tasawwuf? What is Muhabbah? What is Rabitah? What does Muhabbah and Rabitah mean? Rabita and Muhabbah in islam in english

A look into the gist and purpose of tasawwuf reveals the fact that the prime catalyst in sayr-u suluk is love, while its ultimate objective is spiritual manners (adab). Love, here, is a means, while spiritual manners a result. One cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of these two concepts. When the love felt for someone intensifies, a certain degree of this love becomes projected to things around, seen as carrying a resemblance or a proximity (nisbah) of some sort to the person loved.

A disciple, for instance, who nurtures an extreme love for his murshid, cannot help but feel a similar love towards anyone who adopts a similar behavior to him, albeit in a more inadequate form. When he comes across an acquaintance of his murshid, he treats him like someone would treat a relative just returning from pilgrimage. Owning any single object, which his murshid had erstwhile used, uplifts his spirit. This is comparable to the joy felt by Uways al-Qarani upon receiving the mantle personally sent by the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-.

Parallel with the intensification of love, the proximity (nisbah) that gradually increases towards the beloved becomes, at the same time, comprehensive, so as to begin from the beloved, the strongest proximity, at its core, and expand in a way that encompasses the weakest. In tasawwuf, the eternally expanding the perimeter of this circle of love that has the beloved as its center, in a way that encompasses all proximities near and far, is called absolute love (ashk-i mutlaq).[1] To recall the words of Yunus Emre,

Appreciate the created,
For the sake of the Creator

This is the state of lovingly and compassionately embracing all creation, no matter what their characteristics, natures and deeds may be, simply for the sake of the Creator. This is the final stage a lover can reach. Virtually, each station of love on the way thereto is metaphorical love (ashk-i majazi).

Metaphorical love begins the moment the disciple pledges loving affinity to his murshid. This love, too, is metaphorical. Since in its nature the heart is reserved to Allah, glory unto Him, alone, it cannot have any other beloved than the Lord. Things, other than Him, to which one becomes attached, are like steps on this ladder, exercises acclimatizing the heart to Divine Love. Overall, this is the attempt to reach the Mawla, or the Lord, through Layla, if one may use the expression. The most inspirational stage in this attempt is to encounter a true murshid-i kamil and to experience the spiritual excitement of love and affinity with him. And the most propitious manifestation of this is rabitahRabitah is the very intensification of love, where it can no longer be compared to ordinary, trivial attachments.

Literally, rabitah denotes ties and interest. In this respect, there is not a single being in the universe detached from rabitah. Everything is interconnected. On another level, rabitah is the manifestation of love that forms the core of existence. It is the perpetuation of the vivacity and sparkle of love.

There are three kinds of rabitah.

  1. Natural Rabitah

This is the natural love felt by a person towards whom he considers close. It is an outcome of man’s natural predisposition, like the love a mother feels for her child, and so forth.

  1. Base Rabitah

This is to become attached to forbidden, devilish tendencies; like the gambler whose heart is ever hungry with the desire to gamble to the point where he even forgets about the livelihood of his own family.

  1. Sublime Rabitah

Motivated by the loftiest of feelings, this is the rabitah that steers one towards means that will eventually deliver him to the Lord. It is to accompany, either physically or spiritually, those whose hearts have been garnished (tajliyah) and who have thus attained to the rank of mushahadah, in order to benefit from them spiritually.

Here, we shall expand on this, the third type of rabitah. This signifies the way in which the disciple, towards acquiring a certain aptitude, keeps the love of his murshid ever alive in his heart, with the aim of fully benefiting from him spiritually.

A method of Sufi training, rabitah comes in various names and ways of practice in each tariqah. Generally, however, it is for the disciple to call his murshid to mind, right in front of his eyes, and amid sublime emotions, to try to become one with him, by recalling his spiritual state of mind and behavior. Keeping the love and respect for the murshid ever alive in this manner, gives the disciple a spiritual vivacity.

Man lies exposed to influences. As is the case with many diseases, inner conditions or states of mind are also contagious. The transaction that takes place between spirits is an incontestable fact of life. Especially the strong spiritual characteristics shown by active and influential figures transmit to others around, in varying degrees. This transmission does not depend on whether the ‘transmitter’ exudes a positive or negative character. It takes place regardless, so long as there exists a mutual bond of love and affinity between the two.

The mindsets of utterly compassionate and selfless people, for instance, wield an influence on the people by whom they are surrounded. Rabitah, a manifestation of love, seeks to increase and accelerate these spiritual transactions of a positive, moral nature and transform them into concrete moral behavior in the recipient. Each Muslim with a right mind must therefore nurture love towards the pious and establish affinity with them and thereby maximize the reflection of their beautiful mindsets onto their own characters.

How strange it is that a batch of mud that splashes onto a pair of clean clothes causes a person greater discomfort than bad habits invading a heart remote from the guiding light of wahy and thus darkened beyond recognition from sin. Since he is numbed by the delusive whispers both egoistic and devilish, he does not even become aware of his spiritual plight. At the face of what can rightly be called the ‘transmission of character’, it is true that man has been left free to choose from among either positive or negative examples. Regardless, the Almighty has informed of the right choice in the Quran as follows:

“O you who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah and be with the righteous.” (at-Tawba, 119)

One thing that deserves attention in the above ayah is that the Lord does not command His servants to ‘be righteous’ but to ‘be with the righteous’, in order for them to safeguard their piety. The first step on the way of becoming righteous is indeed to accompany the righteous, to enter a loving affinity with them. Righteousness is the natural outcome of this connection. After all, one naturally takes after the other.

In reigning in the ego, accompanying the pious and the righteous acts like radiation, impossible to witness yet unquestionably effective. Being near the righteous, witnessing moment by moment their conduct and behavior and even just looking at their lit faces, are all included in this regard. It is for that reason having the opportunity to be in the presence of spiritual elders is considered a great blessing. Mindsets transmit. The smell of roses is bound to permeate the clothes of a person who hangs around a rose garden. An assembly of the righteous, similarly, is like a bazaar of spiritual transaction.

Ubaydullah Ahrar -may Allah sanctify his secret- says:

“The expression ‘be with’ in the command of the Quran ‘to fear Allah and be with the righteous’, means a perpetual accompaniment. As it has been given mention in an absolute sense, ‘being with’ has two aspects, one practical and the other legal. Practical or physical accompaniment is to be physically present in the assembly of the righteous, while legal accompaniment is to evoke their mindsets in their absence.”

Hence, as necessary as it is to maintain sublime feelings whilst physically in the presence of the righteous, one must also continue this accompaniment in his heart, in their absence. For physically accompanying the righteous may not always be possible. To continue accompanying them in the heart, one then stands in need of rabitah.

But as has been previously mentioned, the training of tasawwuf does not approve of a physical accompaniment that is ineffectual and vain. There is many a person who is within a whisker, so to speak, of a murshid, yet unable to reap his due spiritual share owing to his ignorance. In contrast, there is many a disciple in a land faraway that becomes blessed with exceptional spiritual gifts, inspirations and emotions, thanks to the deep respect, longing, love and attachment he feels towards his murshid. The saying, as expressed by spiritual elders, that ‘the one in Yemen is nearby, while the one nearby is in Yemen’ articulates just that. The important thing, therefore, is not to lose the feeling of the heart, wherever one may be at the time.

On the other hand, although spiritually competent people exercise a maximum power in correcting the mindsets of those around them, this on its own is not enough. The transmission of the mindset, in tasawwuf, is a spiritual flow of such a nature that deriving the maximum benefit of its flow depends as much on the spiritual aptitude of the disciple and his intensity of love as it does on the competence of the murshid. Thus not every disciple can attain to the same level, simply because he is a disciple. Much rather the difference of spiritual level between one disciple and another, stems from the level of aptitude and intensity of love in each.  To illustrate this through an example, there is essentially no difference whether a person, intent on filling his bucket with water, dips it into a lake or a boundless ocean; in both cases, he will only obtain as much water as his bucket allows. The disciple must therefore be apt and more importantly be eager to realize the full potential of his aptitude.

Yunus Emre expresses this beautifully:

Should you place your cup,
By the tap to fill,
Even if left for a thousand years
Not by itself it will

Another method utilized in both rabitah and muraqabah is reading the silsila-i sharifah[2]. This is carried out with a desire of receiving a share of the mercy that is hoped to descend onto the heart by mentioning the names of the righteous who make up this chain and a reflection of their beautiful mindsets. The great scholar Sufyan ibn Uyaynah has in fact said: “Mercy descends on an assembly in which the righteous are mentioned.” (Ajluni, Kashfu’l-Khafa, II, 70)

The compiling of various books that comprise certain hagiographical accounts of the righteous, in fact has no other motivation than to inspire others, in the said manner, who approach the righteous with love. Thus the aim of rabitah is to spiritually inspire and enlighten hearts by having them evoke the celebrated chain of the righteous that reaches to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself. Upon getting hold of a chain of conjoint men, already quivering from a livewire in the hand of the first person in that chain, it is natural for a person to begin to shake uncontrollably from the voltage of electricity that falls to his share. Intensifying rabitah to the degree where it enables the disciple to embody the moral conduct of the murshid, by virtue of continuing the love and respect, shown to the murshid in his presence, even in his absence has been referred to as fana fi’s-sheikh, annihilation in the sheikh.

Beyond the station of fana fi’s-sheikh is the station of fana fi’r-rasul, annihilation in the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Before becoming honored with Islam, many of the celebrated Companions, the stars of the Islamic sky, were leading lives contrary to natural disposition. But after receiving the light of guidance and having the spiritual emotions of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- reflect onto their own characters, they became the most virtuous persons among entire humankind. The spiritual enlightenment that has trickled from the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself to the murshid through a successive chain is likewise transferred to the heart of the disciple, through rabitah and sohbah. This way, the exemplary character of the Noble Messenger -upon him blessings and peace- becomes reflected onto the disciple’s character, as much as his aptitude can bear.

On this level, one conducts himself, at each and every moment, as if in the presence of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and seeks to unite with his quintessential morals. To strengthen the rabitah or the spiritual bond with the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, it is necessary to reinforce it with salat-u salam and a passionate devotion to the Sunnah and thereby establish a line of love and affinity in the heart.

It goes without saying that in Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- one can find the most exquisite realization of fana fi’r-rasul. In appreciation of his spiritual mindset, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- has even said:

“Abu Bakr is of me, I am of Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr is my brother both Here and in the Hereafter.” (Daylami, Musnad, I, 437)

Expressed beautifully by the hadith is the intimacy of the heart. Yet, a station even beyond this intimacy of the heart is the station of fana fillah, annihilation in Allah, glory unto Him. Tapping into the mysteries of the ayat:

“And He is with you wherever you may be.” (al-Hadid, 4)

“…and We are nearer to him than his life-vein.” (Qaf, 16) are possible only through attaining the station of fana fillah.

The heart of a murshid that has become annihilated in the Lord is spiritually enlightened by the manifestation of Divine names. Thus, the heart of a murshid is like virtually a lens that has gathered beams of light onto a single spot. The blessings of these manifestations burn all negativity to ash. Through rabitah, the disciple seeks to benefit from these blessings. Egoistic and selfish feelings thereby disappear from the heart and are replaced by the spiritual mindset of that model character. All things that until then had invaded the heart are banished and incarcerated where they truly belong.

This transmission of the spiritual mindset, from the murshid to the murid, signifies a progress towards spiritual unification. “One is with whom he loves”, states the hadith.

On this subject, the Sleepers of the Cave, whose experience receives some mention in the Holy Quran[3], is noteworthy indeed. The quality of loyalty reflected onto Qitmir, the Sleepers’ dog, because it kept watch over a group of pious and righteous men. And in return, it, too, will enter Paradise with the pious and the righteous.[4] Considering that even a dog can attain to such a level by keeping company with the pious and the righteous, the spiritual progress that beckons for a true believer through accompanying the pious and righteous servants of the Lord, is glaringly obvious.

We would like to touch upon another aspect of rabitah, a practice of enormous significance in tasawwuf.

[1]        The Holy Quran emphasizes the need for Muslims to love Allah, glory unto Him, more than any other: وَ الَّذِينَ اٰمَنُوا اَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِلّٰهِِ “…those who believe are stauncher in their love for Allah” (al-Baqara, 165). This intense degree of love is referred to in everyday language as ‘Divine Love’.

[2]        Silsila-i Sharifah is the term given to the chain of murshids that reach all the way to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-.

[3]        See al-Kahf, ayat 9 to 26.

[4]            For relevant information, refer to Ismail Hakkı Bursawi, Ruhu’l-Bayan, V, 226.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

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