Ba'it or "Pledges of loyalty" to spiritual leaders

Q52 :In a book entitled "Saviors of Islamic spirit" by Abul-Hassan Ali Nadwi, the practice of taking a pledge of loyalty, or ba'it is mentioned in the chapter on Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani as something that follows "the procedure and technique" of the Prophet. In one of your answers you said that it was not the practice of the Prophet to take such a pledge. Could you please explain the contradiction? My brother argues that to achieve spiritual success one must take ba'it and follow a spiritual guide. May I ask whether the Prophet did take an oath of allegiance from his followers to practice the tenets of Islam? If so, can this oath be compared to the ba'it one takes to follow the teachings of Islam under a spiritual guide? May I also ask what is the difference between mysticism and asceticism.

A52 : It is often mentioned in books on the life of the Prophet and books of Hadith that a person might have come to the Prophet and spoken to him. The Prophet would explain to him the principles and basic facts of Islam. The man would then declare his acceptance of Islam and pledge to the Prophet that he is a Muslim. The phrase used here means that the newcomer to Islam would give a pledge or a word of honor or an affirmation that he would follow Islam. The phrase normally used in this connection practically means a pledge to be a Muslim. The Prophet also took a special pledge from the Ansar, or the Muslims of Madinah, on two separate occasions. The first was similar to the pledge given by women when they became Muslims. The second known as "ba'it al-Aqabah" actually assured the Prophet that the Ansar were ready to defend Islam with their lives, and fight any enemies that might raise an army to attack the Prophet or his followers. It was confirmed that the Ansar would always be ready to come to the defense of the Prophet, willing to sacrifice their lives in order to protect Islam. At that particular moment, one of their members tried to make the import of that pledge clear in their minds. He stopped and asked: "Do you know what you are pledging? You are actually affirming that you would support the Prophet through thick and thin, even if that would mean that your leaders would be killed and your property looted". They confirmed their readiness to make such a pledge with all that it entailed. The Prophet also took a pledge, or ba'it, from his companions just before he signed the peace agreement at Al-Hudaibiyah. The Prophet had marched from Madinah with fourteen hundred of his companions, lightly armed, aiming to go to Makkah to perform the Umrah. Just before arriving there, Quraish, the major Arab tribe residing in Makkah, made it clear that they would prevent them from entering the city with all their might. There were negotiations and emissaries to discuss the situation. Then the Prophet sent his companions Uthman ibn Affan to the chiefs of Makkah to make it clear to them that all that the Muslims wanted was to worship at the Ka'aba. Soon a rumor circulated that Uthman was killed by the peoples of Quraish. At that moment, the Prophet took a pledge from his companions to fight to the end. They all gave their pledges, knowing that it would mean fighting to the last breath. Their action is commended in Surah 48 of the Qur'an. These were the pledges that the Prophet took from people on different occasions. We thus have the normal pledge which signifies little more than a solemn affirmation that a person has become a Muslim. There is also the pledge of the Ansar which assured the Prophet that he had a solid base to move to. Lastly, the pledge at Al-Hudaibiyah was a pledge to fight to the end when Muslims were very heavily outnumbered. None of these is similar to the ba'it or pledges given to mystics or spiritual guides by their followers. At no time was it reported that the Prophet took a pledge of loyalty or complete obedience from someone who had already been a Muslim for some time. The fact that a person accepted Islam as a faith meant that he would obey God and the Prophet in all matters. That is the import of the second part of the declaration that any person makes when he becomes a Muslim. The declaration is known as the "shahadah", and it states, "I bear witness that there is no deity save God and that Muhammad is God's messenger." Obedience to God cannot be put into practice without following the Prophet's guidance. A pledge might have been given individually by one of the Prophet's companions after a serious slip. But that was always part of a declaration of repentance. It was simply a renewal of the first pledge and an affirmation that the repentant companion would resolve never to go back to his act of disobedience. No special formula was required by the Prophet at any time. He always advised his companions, who might have slipped, to repent and mend their ways. If any of them told that his offense was very serious, he renewed his pledge of obedience to emphasize that he has come back to the fold. What mystics or Sufis require from their disciples is something totally different from what actually took place in the times of the Prophet. They give themselves a position of a spiritual guide. The ba'it or the pledge given to them is one of total obedience in all situations. We have seen many of these disciples unable or unwilling to question any piece of instruction given to them by their guide or mentor. They blindly trust that what they are told is correct. Their obedience is felt by them to be all that is required of them to ensure admittance to heaven in the hereafter. They believe that the short way to heaven is to follow their sheikh, or pir or mystic or whatever they call their spiritual guide. They do not even question the ability or the knowledge or the honesty or the behavior of their mentors. They simply accept the position of blind followers feeling that it is all that is required of them. In this way, the disciples are practically abdicating their responsibility. God has made everyone of us responsible for his actions, making him the one who strives to gain admittance to heaven by following the Qur'anic teachings and the guidance provided by the Prophet; or the one who earns for himself the punishment of hell through hardened disobedience to God and His messenger. This is a position of honor God has given to every man and woman. By assigning that responsibility to a mentor or a spiritual guide, a person rejects the position of honor God has given him and adopts instead a position of blind following that is totally unbecoming of a thinking human being. The Prophet did not recommend or suggest that such an action of following a spiritual guide is required, desirable or even acceptable. On the day of judgment, God asks us about following the Prophet, not about following a spiritual guide. Many of those who appoint themselves to such a position are probably unable to ensure their own salvation, let alone the salvation of others. Many yield to the temptation of wealth or authority. How can they provide others with something they themselves lack? The only way to win God's pleasure and His acceptance of our work is by following the guidance provided by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), not by following anyone else. You also ask about the difference between mysticism and asceticism. In the context we have been talking about, a person is a mystic if he seeks by contemplation or self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the deity, or if he believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding. This description applies to most sufis. It is easy to understand why going deep into mysticism or sufism can lead a person astray. If he begins to think of a union with the deity, then he certainly goes beyond Islamic concepts. The Qur'an is always described by God Himself as plain and manifest. Why do we need to seek a hidden meaning for its words claiming that it requires a great deal of effort to uncover? Let me remind you that a Bedouin Arab might come to the Prophet and sit with him for an hour or so, when the Prophet would have explained to him the basics of Islam. The Bedouin would then declare that he is a Muslim and might go to his people and explain to them his new faith. Many of them would respond to his call and adopt Islam. That might have represented all their Islamic education, and they would nevertheless be good Muslims and through conscientious following of the principles of Islam secure for themselves admittance into heaven. Asceticism calls for severe abstinence and austerity. An ascetic person is one who practices severe self-discipline, and may retire into solitude for this purpose. This is also against Islam, because Islam wants its advocates to mix with people and call on them to correct their behavior and adopt what is certain to earn God's pleasure.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )