In the language of Sufism, when used together, sayr u suluk (journeying and initiation) denotes becoming free of bodily and animal appetites to a certain extent within the framework of certain principles, searching for ways to reach God and traveling toward Him by the heart in order to lead a life at the level of the spirit and heart. It also signifies becoming refined from evil nature and morals and adopting Qur’anic morals in order to be able to travel toward and meet with God.
Journeying and initiation have connotations with regard to the Divine manifestations that come during the journey. From the viewpoint of these manifestations and an initiate’s being favored with them, journeying has been dealt with in two categories:
Journeying downward (sayr nudhuli): In order for the restricted, conditioned, transient, contingent existence to emerge, the Absolute, Necessary Existence manifests Itself with mercy and blessings. In other words, the Almighty, Ultimate Truthful graciously condescends beyond all concepts of modality to manifest Himself. He does so universally, with all His Attributes and Names, and gives existence to and maintains all beings and things (wahidiya), and He does so particularly, with some of His Attributes and Names, and bestows its particular shape, character, quality and capacity on and maintains each being and thing (ahadiya). This can also be regarded as the expanding manifestation of the Absolutely Necessary in the spheres of the contingent, and the Absolute in the spheres of the conditioned and restricted. This journey extends from the earliest determination of beings and things in the Divine Knowledge to the step expressed in the Prophetic saying, “The first thing which God created is my light,” and from here to all degrees of existence in the whole of the universe, and finally to the realm of humankind.
Journeying upward (sayr uruji): Human beings, the most comprehensive fruit of the tree of creation, set out for a long spiritual journey with their willpower, power of perceptiveness or mechanism of feelings, consciousness, and spiritual intellect (the core of the heart) to return to their original home or source. At the end of the journeying, they find themselves annihilated with respect to their bodily associations or appetites in the Light of the Existence of the Absolutely Necessary Being. Here we will try to explain this spiritual journeying in four steps or stages:
The first stage is “journeying toward God,” (sayr ilallah) which is also called the first journey as it is the beginning of traveling toward God. It begins in the realm of the manifestation of the Divine Acts and continues through the realm of the manifestation of the Divine Names and ends in reaching the Name Which determines a traveler’s existence with all its peculiarities. There are many who set out for this journey, but few who can continue it. Whether this journey is made in the outer world—through reflection on God’s works in the universe—and called “journeying in the outer world,” or it is made in the inner word of travelers—through self-purification—and is called “journeying in the inner world,” when it ends, the travelers no longer feel interested in anything save God and find themselves in tides of “annihilation in God.” This favor has been described as “minor” or “lesser sainthood.”
The second stage is “journeying in God” (sayr fillah). Since it requires another determined attempt and beginning, it is regarded as the second journey and is sometimes called “absorption.” Travelers at this stage are freed from evil morals and mortal attributes and acquire praiseworthy or Qur’anic qualities, and represent the Divine Names according to their individual capacity. They reach a higher horizon where they begin to discern what lies beyond material existence and feel that knowledge from the Divine Presence flows into their heart. They gradually melt away in the face of the rays of the knowledge that concern the realms of the Divine Names, Attributes and the Qualities that are essential and indispensable to the Divine Being, and they are favored with a full perception of what belonging to God means. This favor has been called “subsistence with” or “by God” (baqa billah).
The third stage is mentioned with different names, such as “journeying with” or “in the company of God,” (sayr maallah) “the third journey,” or “distinguishing together with absorption.” One who has reached this final point only sees Him beyond all concepts of modality, knows Him, and feels Him, and is surrounded by the lights of knowledge of Him. The manifestations of His “Facial” Light destroy everything and everywhere it is echoed: “All that is on it (the earth) is perishable, but there remains forever the “Face” (very Being) of your Lord, the One of Majesty and Munificence” (55:26-27). All other existent beings, and kinds of knowing, seeing, and feeling begin to be reduced so that they are of only a nominal nature in the initiates’ deep knowledge of God and their overflowing spiritual pleasures. Feeling the existence of all others, even if only temporarily, is distressful to the heart. Travelers who are not among the successors of the Prophet in his mission of representing, practicing and conveying the Divine Message, are lost in the depth of their spiritual pleasures in their private worlds. The final point of this stage, where all opposites are lost in the sight of a traveler, is called “absorption itself.” Nasimi expresses this spiritual state of pleasure where all appearances have disappeared, in a typical style of immersion as follows:
The space where I am has developed into no-space;
this body of mine has wholly become a soul;
God’s look has manifested Itself to me;
and I have seen myself intoxicated with His meeting.
A call has come to me from the Ultimate Truth: “Come, O lover, you are intimate with Us!
This is the station of intimacy;
I have found you a faithful one!”
This is also the station where, like a wine glass, one becomes filled with and emptied of His love, loving and urging others to love Him madly. One who overflows with the gifts of this station regards any speech that is not about Him as being a mere waste of words, and any other consideration as being disrespect for Him. One desires that every word should essentially be about Him, every meeting should end with mention of Him, and everyone should talk about Him alone in the manner of a lover. How nicely one of His lovers says:
I wish the people all over the world loved Him Whom I love;
and all our words were about the Beloved.
The fourth stage is “journeying from God” (sayr anillah). This journey has also been called “the fourth journey” or “coloring after self-possession.” One who has got to this point, where one is favored with meeting with God in a relative sense, turns towards the realm of multiplicity with new interpretations of the way of unity after having reached unity. In other words, descending while following the way of the Messenger, who descended after having ascended as high as “God’s Presence,” the traveler returns to be amidst people in order that others may also feel and experience what he or she has felt and experienced during some degree of meeting or reunion with God. Such returning travelers devote their life to saving others from “dungeons,” causing them to rise to the holy Presence of God, attaining what they have attained, seeing what they have seen, and arousing in others a burning desire to meet with Him. Guiding those baffled by the depths of darkness to the light; guiding those bewildered to the horizons beyond the corporeal world; educating those who have decided to follow the way to Him; making the hearts of those who aspire after His good pleasure content and at rest; assisting those who have found a light to overflow with a knowledge of God; and helping those favored with this knowledge to travel amid the hills of spiritual pleasures—all these are among the tasks incumbent upon the travelers upon their return to people from God. This is the state of the special apprentices of the Prophets, which some leading Sufi scholars described as “subsistence by God and with God” or “distinguishing after absorption.”
Those who have attained this horizon see unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity; they experience at the same time two depths with one dimension, and they set out for a new meeting with God at every moment with the pleasure of feeling His company and the pleasure of others whom they lead toward that meeting. They neither fall into confusion and make utterances of pride that are incompatible with the rules of Shari‘a, nor do they show feigned reluctance to attract His mercy. Instead, they always breathe self-possession. They feel breezes of journeying in God in journeying toward Him, and they observe the truth of journeying from God in journeying in Him. They are in a state of having found Him when they seem to have lost Him, and they appear to have fallen distant from Him while they are with Him, and they feel both nearness to and distance from Him at the same time.
Those travelers are the most perfect of travelers, the greatest of guides, and the masters of human education and upbringing. They cause the hearts of those who turn to them and follow them as masters of guidance to overflow with the feelings of belief, knowing God and loving Him. Modeling their actions on the Prophetic saying, “Make God loved by His servants, that He may love you,” they both love God and are loved by Him. Their purity of intention and feeling, the profundity of their thought, their earnestness in their representation of Islam, and the refinement in their manners make them such a source of the water of life and a torch of light that everyone who aspires to the Divine gifts and radiance appeals to them, and every lover of Divine light takes refuge in their guidance. Because:
Good actions originate in good nature and being virtuous; traces of perfection are found in good nature and virtues.
Initiation means acquiring the ability to meet with God, living in constant consideration of journeying, which is regarded as an important means of being always together with Him, showing continuous resistance to bad morals, adopting good morals or a good nature and laudable virtues as one’s character, purifying the heart, in which God is known to be as a “hidden treasure,” refraining from worrying about and considering all else save Him, and of being inwardly prepared to entertain the Dearest of guests. Concerning this, Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum says:
The heart is the home of God;
purify it of whatever is there other than Him,
so that the All-Merciful may descend into His palace at nights.
As mentioned before, the word “initiation” is used on its own to express the spiritual journey discussed, and it is also used together with journeying as in “journeying and initiation.” Sometimes the word spiritual is added and the concept is expressed as “spiritual journeying and initiation.” What is meant by all is that we should turn away from everything else save God, in the sense that we should not feel interest in or attachment to other things with respect to their own being and our worldly considerations, and that we should give our attention to Him exclusively. It also includes the guidance of those who represent the Qur’an and the Sunna perfectly in belief, thought and action, and appealing to them in cases of doubt, hesitation and bewilderment. Initiation also denotes living in perception of our absolute need for the Almighty in awareness of our helplessness, poverty, and neediness; having a heart overflowing and empowered with love and zeal, feeling with observation of the Divine manifestations, willpower and all other faculties with asking God for forgiveness, and praying so that inclinations to evil may be uprooted and inclinations to good strengthened.
- at-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jamu’l-Kabir, 8:91.