Spiritual Gathering (Sohbah)

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What is sohbah? What does sohbah mean? By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion. 

Assemblies of sohbah and dhikr are gardens of Paradise on Earth, soaked by the downpour of Divine mercy and serenity.

Among the most important means utilized by many a murshid-i kamil in order to positively influence the heart and spirit of the murid is spiritual gathering and speech or sohbah. The words of a person who has purified his ego and heart are overloaded with the emotions of his experienced mindset. Words uttered sincerely amid these emotions find a way to the heart of the listener, influencing him beneficially.

Ikhlas, or sincerity, is the most basic factor that renders a conversation influential. The speech of a murshid-i kamil, most sincerely striving to transfer certain spiritual feelings onto his subject, consists of a devotion to the Sunnah of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-.  The quality of ikhlas that wields this influence is brought about by putting what one knows to practice and to desire sincerely, from the bottom of the heart, that the listener adopts the advices given and implements them in his own life.

Another factor that makes speech influential is conciseness (wajiz). Achieving conciseness in speech, on the other hand, depends on mastery of the given language and a choosing the best possible words. The apogee of this power of conciseness is the Holy Quran.

In the Meccan era of Prophethood, the daughter of Imru’l-Qays, a celebrated Arab poet, was still alive. They read to her surah al-Zilzal. A woman very much conversant with eloquence, articulateness and concision, she became virtually petrified from wonder.

“Such words”, she then said, “cannot be the words of a mortal. No mortal has to power to express words on such a high level. It is not right for my father’s poems to still remain hanging on the walls of Kaaba when there are words like this on Earth. Please…go and bring those poems down!”

So states the hadith:

“There is surely magic in some speech.” (Bukhari, Nikah, 47) That is speech exercises a magic-like effect on the heart.

Offering spiritual guidance through speech, therefore, holds great importance. To properly come to terms with the extent of blessings of the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- brought about through speech, it is enough to ponder why that particular age, in which those speeches took place, and not any other in the history of humankind entire, is called the Asr-u Saadah, the Age of Bliss. A muakkad sunnah of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, that is a practice that the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- repeated consistently, sohbah holds a central place in all Sufi orders, especially in the Naqshbandi, as a means of transferring spiritual enlightenment from one heart to another.

Speaking of conciseness, one recalls the poetic words of Yunus Emre, which express the power of speech, both positive and negative:

With a word a war is ended,
With a word another beheaded,
A poisonous dish is turned,
To honey and butter with a word

The heart-worlds of the Companions, previously resembling an arid land, became inundated with blissful downpours of mercy through the speech of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Thanks to this, their unique seeds of virtue and spirit that until then had remained concealed beneath the soil were able to flourish. The spiritual transaction of love reflecting from one soul to another enabled the emergence of star characters. The man of ignorance, hardhearted to the point of burying his own daughter alive, who recognized no rights whatsoever, melted away and disappeared. In the same silhouette there instead appeared a teary-eyed, selfless and sensitive man.

It is significant that sahabah, the Arabic term for companion, and sohbah are derivatives of the same word. Overflowing emotions of love and respect for the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- allowed the Companions to become the most consummate examples of the ideal benefit spiritual speech and training is hoped to yield. Yet, the state of spiritual peace and manners that would overcome them when in the presence of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was of such an enormous degree, that in describing it, they would say:

“It was as if there was a bird perched on our heads and we were afraid to scare it to take flight should we make the slightest move.”[1]

They thus carried the towering character and morals of the Noble Messenger -upon him blessings and peace- everywhere they went. They displayed numerous and exceptional feats of virtue whose memories will live until the Final Hour. Regarding them, Allah, glory unto Him, declares:

“And (as for) the foremost, the first of the Muhajirs and the Ansars, and those who followed them in goodness, Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him, and He has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them for ever; that is the mighty achievement.” (at-Tawbah, 100)

Every sohbah conducted in the feeling of worship is a reflection of many a sohbah of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-; for he is the center of all spiritual benefit obtained. Each sohbah immersed in spiritual excitement is a glimmer that successively shines forth from that center. Therefore, even if one attains a share of the light of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- through the medium of a righteous servant of the Lord, because the source of this light is one and the same, it is just as if he has attained that light directly from its source; just like burning other candles with the light of another. The flame that sets all candles alight is one and the same. Even the final candle to be lit reflects that very first flame, the source of the burning flame itself.

Assemblies of sohbah and dhikr are gardens of Paradise on Earth, soaked by the downpour of Divine mercy and serenity. The hadith states:

“If a group of people come together to remember Allah, the mercy of Allah will encompass them, serenity will descend onto them and Allah will mention them next to those in His presence.” (Muslim, Dhikr, 38)

The folk of the heart, the wise and the righteous carry their love and ecstasy to their sohbah. They reflect the light of the mysteries in their heart to those present. And as a result of spiritual reflection (inikas) and coloring (insibagh) hearts then become filled with the light of the inspiration of truth, in varying degrees according to their aptitudes. This just like the morning zephyr that, breezing through a garden adorned with roses, cloves and all other kinds of exquisite flowers, delivers the fresh scent of spring to wherever it goes.

The Almighty says:

“And continue to remind, for surely the reminder profits the believers.” (ad-Dhariyat, 55)

Having personified the above ayah in the most perfect manner, the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- has said: “Religion consists of nasihah.” (Bukhari, Iman, 42) Nasihah has two meanings. The first is to invite to what is good, the second sincerity.

On seeing another Companion, Abdullah ibn Rawahah -Allah be well-pleased with him- used to say to him, “Come, brother. Let’s sit awhile for the sake of Allah and replenish our faith to Him.”

One Companion, who could not figure out what he meant, informed the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- of Ibn Rawaha’s -Allah be well-pleased with him- words.

“May Allah have mercy on Abdullah”, he commented. “He just loves the assemblies of dhikr which the angels praise.”[2]

Also noteworthy in underlining the importance of sohbah is the following hadith:

A woman came to the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- and bemoaned, “It is always men who reap the benefits of your speech. Could not you perhaps spare a day for us so we can gather to learn from you what you have been taught by Allah?”

“Then gather at so-and-so place on so-and-so day”, said the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace-. Then the female Companions came together at that certain place, on a certain time, where the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- taught them. (Bukhari, Ilm, 36)

Female Companions, who with the blessings of the speeches became exemplary mothers for the entire ummah, would reproach their children given they neglected seeing the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- for a long time. One of them was Hudayfah -Allah be well-pleased with him-, told off by his mother, for failing to visit the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- for a number of days. He recounts the incident as follows:

“My mother once asked me how long it had been since I had seen the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace-. ‘It has been a few days now’, I said. Irritated, she reproached me heavily. ‘Alright, don’t get angry. I will now go and visit him and offer maghrib salat with him and kindly request him to pray for the forgiveness of both you and I’, I told her.” (Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 30; Ahmed ibn Hanbal, Musnad, V, 391-2)

Muhammad Ziyauddin -may Allah sanctify his secret-, a Sufi great, would at times gather children around him and give them sohbah. It was at the end of one such sohbah that his wife commented, ‘What could they understand of sohbah? They are still very young.”

“More or less they will benefit”, said he. “But my real purpose is not for them to understand. Assemblies of sohbah attract Divine mercy. I am only pursuing that mercy; the children are but means…”

The great Shah Naqshbandi -may Allah sanctify his secret- says: “Our path of spiritual training is paved upon sohbah. Goodness lies in accompanying the righteous for the sake of Allah. By continuing to be in the presence of their speech, one will attain to true faith.”

Scholar Jafar ibn Sulayman r.alayh tells of the benefits he was able to secure from accompanying the righteous: “Whenever I felt hardness in my heart, I would go next to Muhammad ibn Wasi, attend his company and simply stare at his face. My heart would then soften and my laziness would be replaced by a zest for worship. That zest would last me for a week.”

The words of Omar ibn Abdulaziz r.alayh are of a similar tone: “Being in the company of scholar Ubaydullah ibn Abdullah from Medina is to me better than the entire world and what is within. Being around people like him enlightens the mind, brings peace to the heart and helps one acquire manners.”

A student of the great saint Abu’l-Hasan Shazali -may Allah sanctify his secret- had abandoned his company. Some time later, he saw the former student and asked as to why he had left his sohbah.

“What I have reaped and learnt from you until now is enough”, he replied. “I no longer need you.” Upset, Shazali -may Allah sanctify his secret- said:

“Listen, my dear; had it been right for a person to rest contented with the spiritual enlightenment he received from another, Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- would have surely been content with what he had received from the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Yet he remained by his side until his final breath…”

Of course, it was not just Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- who rushed to the sohbah of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- for spiritual enlightenment, but also the Companions entire. Anyhow, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- would encourage them to do so at every given opportunity; for sohbah provided one of his primary methods of training.

Equal to the importance of showing eagerness to acquire the beauties that beckon in a sohbah is to look out for the right place and time. On this subject, Abdullah ibn Masud has said: “To give us advice, the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- would look out for the most appropriate time, so as to not make us weary.”

Abu Waqid al-Laysi, another Companion, recounts:

“One day, we were in the presence of the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- inside the Masjid when there appeared three people by the door. One turned back without entering. The other two entered and drew nearer to the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace-. One of them sat on an empty spot somewhere in the circle. As there were no remaining spots left, afraid he would cause discomfort, the other assumed a seat right behind the circle.

A short while later, the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- said, “Should I inform you of the conditions of three men? The first, who sat within the circle, sought refuge in Allah the Almighty; and Allah took him in His refuge. As for the second, he felt embarrassed before Allah the Almighty and embraced haya (spiritual manners). And Allah the Almighty became embarrassed before His servant and secured him from His punishment. And as for the other who did not enter, he turned away from the assembly and Allah, too, turned away from him.” (Bukhari, Ilm, 8)

Muslim greats, aware of the wisdom underlying the above hadith, have allowed for the sohbah assemblies of the righteous to mold their hearts, never distancing themselves from such environments. Indeed, Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal (r.a), the eminent Muslim jurist, would frequently visit the great saint Bishr ibn Khafi -may Allah sanctify his secret- and converse with him. He was attached to him, in the truest sense.

Once, his students asked, “Is it proper for you to keep on visiting an ordinary man like him when you are a mujtahid of the sciences of the Quran and Sunnah?”

“True. I am more knowledgeable than him in what you have just mentioned”, replied the great scholar. “But he knows the Lord better than I.’

[1]        See, Abu Dawud, Sunnah, 23-24.

[2]        See, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, Musnad, III, 265.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

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