Literally meaning the state of being a foreigner, homelessness, loneliness, separation, and being a stranger in one’s own land, ghurba (separation) has been defined in the language of Sufism as renouncing the world with the charms to which one feels attachment on the way to the All-True, All-Desired and Sought One, or living a life dedicated to the other world though surrounded by this world and its charms. Separation can be viewed as the states in which those who try to improve the world spiritually find themselves. Some of these states, which we can also consider as kinds of separation, are moving from one state to another, turning one’s face from the created to the Creator, and descending from the limitless, heavenly realm to that of the created to guide the created to ascend to the heavenly one.
The following words were reported to have been said by God’s most illustrious Messenger, Prophet Muhammad, the greatest hero in ascension to God and descent amongst the people in order to guide them to God after the completion of his ascension: “The most lovable to God Almighty among His servants are those who are separate.” When asked who such people were, he replied: “Those who are able to keep themselves separate from people for the sake of their religion and live a true, religious life. They will be resurrected together with Jesus, the son of Mary” (Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya, Madaricu’s-Salikin, 3: 195). The idea of taking the first step toward the eternal life of the Hereafter alongside our master Jesus is a meaningful way of expressing and understanding the depth of his feeling of separation.
There are Prophetic reports that a person who dies away from home dies a martyr (Abu Ya‘la, al-Musnad, 4:269; Ibn Maja, “Jana’iz,” 61). The separation mentioned in these reports also includes: the separation of God’s saintly servants among those unaware of spirituality and spiritual states, the separation that the righteous suffer among wicked transgressors, the separation that people of belief and conviction suffer among the unbelievers and heretics, the separation that people of knowledge and discernment suffer among the rude and ignorant, and the separation that people of spirituality and truth suffer among the bigots, who restrict themselves only to the outward wording of the religious rules.
In other reports concerning homelessness, separation and being an outsider in one’s own land, the Messenger points to the holy ones of every age who strive to make God’s Word the most elevated in the world. For example: “Islam began helpless and with the helpless and those treated as outlandish and outsiders, and will return to the same condition of helplessness and being represented and revived by those who will be treated as outlandish and outsiders. Glad tidings to the outsiders who try to improve in a time when all else are engaged in destruction and corruption” (or, according to another narration, who increase in faith and righteousness when all else weaken in them) (Muslim, “Iman,” 232; at-Tirmidhi, “Iman,” 13).
The people of truth see separation as living in the realm of bodily existence despite the fact that they breathe the breezes of being in God’s company, and a requirement of being on the way to God, they not only endure separation, no matter how difficult it becomes, but also they are always ready and desirous to fly to the realm where the souls fly. They—those who have a true knowledge of God—always suffer separation from the higher realm of spiritual beings, which they see as their home or native land, and long for reunion in the dungeon of the worldly life. The following verses in his Mathnawi by Jalalu’d-Din Rumi express this separation:
Listen to the flute, how it recounts;
It complains of separation.
When the horizon of the Realm of Permanence manifested itself to him, Bilal al-Habashi expressed the same feeling of separation and longing for reunion: “I am returning to my native land from the land of separation.”
Everyone comes alone into this world, which is a caravanserai where the caravans come and leave after staying a short while, and everyone is seen off alone, without finding the opportunity to be freed from the feeling of separation. For this reason, those who suffer longing for the realms beyond feel separation peculiar to themselves, while the others who have set their hearts upon the world whose properties, dominion, and happiness are all transitory, suffer pangs of another kind of separation. In this world, every person is a Khusraw Dahlawi, who said: “My heart has become tired with separation and desires the native land,” and everyone is weary of the narrow framework of this world, they are in pursuit of new horizons, and they crave their native land.
In the light of what we have so far explained, we can deal with separation in the following three categories—useful, harmful and neutral:
The separation that is useful and praised by the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, is that felt by God’s saintly servants. When we mention separation, what comes to mind is this form of separation. This separation is that which is crowned with friendship with God, which has the depth of knowing Him, and the dimensions of loving and yearning for Him. Those who feel this separation rise to friendship with God, without ever feeling themselves completely alone. They consider the transitory moments of loneliness as signs that they are ascending toward Him and see themselves as being supported by God’s protection, His illustrious Messenger’s leadership, and the company of the believers. They continue their relationship with the world in proportion to its essential value. They are ascetics whose every moment is spent in devotion to Him, ascetics who are always at war with feelings of pride and fame. As stated in a Prophetic Tradition, they are the royalty in the Gardens of Paradise, but they live so simple and humble a life that the worldly ones attach no importance to it. With all their manners and in their appearance and their actuality, in their manner of dressing and acting, they are normal mortal beings among other mortals, without seeing them superior to anybody. They regard all worldly and other worldly favors as a means of mentioning their true Owner, of being in constant thankfulness to Him and they are zealous to strive in His cause. Whatever gift God bestows on them, they see it as a garment to be worn temporarily, a garment that must not be spoiled by them and one about which they must feel no loss when it is gone.
From another perspective, those outsiders who are admired even by the saintly persons of higher ranks such as the pure, godly ones and those near-stationed to God, hold tight to the way of the Prophet as if they were clinging to it by their teeth, as stated in a Prophetic Tradition (Abu Dawud, “Sunna,” 5; at-Tirmidhi, “’Ilm,” 5). When other people turn away from it, they wage war on the innovations in religion, fix their thoughts and feelings on God’s absolute Oneness, spend their lives in the pleasure and enthusiasm that come from adherence to God, regard following the master of the creatures, upon him be peace and blessings, as submission to the captain of a ship that is taking its passengers to the Almighty, and view following a guide in their time as following him in essence.
This kind of separation, which is regarded as the most important and blessed source of sainthood belonging to those who lived in the Age of Happiness—the time of the Messenger—and those who will come toward the end of time and follow them in adherence to God’s religion and serving it, is a way to perfection. It is extremely difficult to advance on this way, and does not seem greatly attractive to people, but it is very valuable and immune to claims of self-assertion and words of pride that are incompatible with the rules of faith and irreconcilable with self-possession. In every age, a handful of pure souls have gathered together around this source, breasted the adversities surrounding their community, fought against the dangers that lie waiting in ambush for the spirits, embraced human beings with love, helped them realize their worldly and other worldly expectations, and then said farewell to this world without tasting its pleasures to go to the other. This they had to do, as an easy life and bodily pleasures are deadly poison for them and to imbibe these would mean that they had contradicted themselves. Instead of living contradictions and controversies, which is the bitterest of separation, something that is worse than death for those who order their lives, not for their own but for others’ happiness, they prefer to receive their documents of discharge from worldly responsibilities and emigrate to the realm where the friends are.
The second kind of separation is that which is of no use and impresses the one who suffers it as a calamity. It arises from denial of God, from heresies, and misguidance. It continues in the intermediate world of the grave and even in the other world, bringing no reward to those who suffer it. This kind of separation is the most pitiable.
The third separation is neither useful nor useless, it is a separation that begins in the womb of the mother and continues until the grave. This is a separation which every mortal human being is destined to suffer. Although it sometimes brings reward to those who suffer it because of the purity of intention in their acts, it usually causes pangs for souls that have fallen away from the Almighty and that have not been able to maintain righteousness in their inner worlds. The meaning of the following couplets of a poet are truly helpful when trying to understand the states of those who suffer such separation:
If a person stays in separation from his home even for a moment,
he is not as powerful as even a piece of straw,
be he as firm as a mountain.
That helpless, poor one may seem still to be where he is,
but he always sighs when he recollects his home.
I have many complaints of separation from friends;
nevertheless, this is neither the time nor the place to tell of it.