M. Fethullah Gulen
Seclusion is one dimension of privacy; austerity is another. The first step in privacy is completed in forty days, therefore known as the forty-day period of austerity. When the spiritual master takes the initiate into privacy, he takes him or her to a quiet room, where he prays for the initiate’s success, and then leaves. In that room, the initiate lives an austere life, utterly alone. He or she eats and drinks little in that room of seclusion, which is regarded as a door opening on nearness to God. Bodily needs decrease and are disciplined, carnal desires are forgotten, and all time is dedicated to worshipping God, meditation, reflection, prayer, and supplication.
In its aspect of the avoidance of people and austerity, privacy dates back to the early days of Sufism, even to the great Prophets. Numerous Prophets and saints, most particularly the glory of humankind, upon him be peace and blessings, spent portions of their lives in seclusion. However, their original system of privacy and seclusion has undergone undesirable change over time. The seclusion of Prophet Abraham, the forty-day periods of Prophet Moses, the austerity of Prophet Jesus, and the privacy of the prince of the Prophets have been practiced in different ways by many people, and have therefore undergone certain alterations.
Such changes can be regarded as natural to some extent, for in as much as seclusion is related to an individual’s moods, temperament, and spiritual capacity, only perfect spiritual masters can know and decide how long and under what conditions an initiate must be kept in seclusion. In the early days of his initiation, Rumi underwent many forty-day periods of austerity in seclusion. However, when he found a true, perfect master, he left seclusion for the company of people (jalwat). Many others before and after him have preferred being with people, rather than avoiding them.
Austerity, one of the two dimensions of privacy, means keeping a tight rein on carnal gratification and urging the spirit to rise to human perfection, with which it is enamored.1 Only through austerity can the carnal self be restrained, forced to renounce evil impulses and passions and submit to the commandments of God, forced to adopt humility and be the soil of a flowerbed:
Be like earth so that roses may grow in you
For nothing other than soil can be a medium for the growth of roses.
One can receive a certain Divine grace through austerity. Some can adorn their knowledge with high morals and their religious acts with sincerity and pure intention, thereby gaining mannerliness in their relations with both God and people. Others find themselves tossed this way and that in their relationship with their Lord, and continuously search for ways to get nearer to Him. There are still others who, like a moth just out of its cocoon, spend their lives among spiritual beings who may be regarded as the butterflies of the celestial worlds they have just reached.
What is essential to privacy is that the initiate must seek nothing other than God’s pleasure, and must constantly wait in expectation of that Divine favor. The initiate must not be idle while waiting for this favor, but rather wait with the eye of his or her heart open, in the utmost care and excitement, so that no Divine inspiration or gift that may flow into his or her heart will be missed. They must wait with the courtesy and decorum appropriate to being in the presence of God. The following words of La Makani Husain Efendi express this meaning very aptly:
Clean the fountain of your soul until it becomes perfectly pure.
Fix your eyes on your heart until your heart becomes an eye.
Give up doubts and put the pitcher of your heart to that fountain.
When that pitcher is filled with the water which gives delight,
Withdraw yourself and submit to its Owner His home.2
When you leave it, God doubtless comes to His home.
Never let the devil-robber enter the home of your heart,
For once he has entered, it is very difficult to throw him out.
It is true that God is absolutely free of all time and space constraints, and that His relationship with the believer occurs on the “slopes” of the believer’s heart. For this reason, the heart’s “emerald hills” or “slopes” must always be ready to receive the waves of His manifestations so that, in the words of Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum, the King may descend to His palace at night.
God Almighty decreed to Prophet David: Keep that home empty for Me so that I will be in it.3 Some have interpreted “keeping the heart empty” as purifying the heart of all that is not God, and as not having relations with others without first considering God’s pleasure. The following words of Rumi express this most appropriately:
One wise and sensible prefers the bottom of the well,
For the soul finds delight in privacy (to be with God).
The darkness of the well is preferable to the darkness people cause.
One holding on to the legs of people has never been able to arrive with a head.4
One must seclude oneself from others, not from the Beloved.
Fur is worn in winter, not in spring.
Since the purpose of seclusion is to purify the heart of the love which is not directed toward God and to be always with the Beloved, those who always feel the presence of God while living among people and who continuously discern the Divine Unity amidst multiplicity are regarded as always being with God in seclusion. In contrast, however, the seclusion of others who, although they spend their lives in seclusion, have not purified their hearts from attachment to whatever is other than God, is a deception.
Those who always feel themselves in the presence of God do not need to seclude themselves from people. Such people, in the words of Rumi, are like those who keep one foot in the sphere of Divine commandments and turn the other, like a compass needle, round the world. They experience ascent and descent at every moment. This is the seclusion recognized and preferred by the Prophets and saints.
God Almighty once said to Prophet David: O David, why do you seclude yourself from people and choose to remain alone? David, upon him be peace, answered: Lord, I renounce the company of people for Your sake. The Almighty warned him: Always keep vigil, but do not keep aloof from your brethren. However, seclude yourself from those whose company is of no benefit to you.
1.As the spirit is from God, it innately longs for Him and is enamored with perfection. The carnal soul or self, on the other hand, is enamored with animal desires.
2.“Home” signifies the heart, whose Owner is God.
3. Al-Qushayri, Al-Risala, 327.
4. That is, one who relies on people to attain his or her goal will fail.