The Seeker and the Sought

Among the stations of iyyâka naʿbudu wa iyyâka nastaʿîn­—You alone we worship and your help alone we seek [Sûrat Al-Fâti ḥah, 1:5]—is the Station of the Sought (Al-Murâd). The people [of sulûk, i.e. travelers upon the spiritual path] have singled this station out for mention. Yet, in reality, every seeker is sought. Indeed, one cannot be a seeker save after he is sought. Yet, these people deem the seeker as being the beginning of their process and the sought as being its end.

Abû ʿAli Al-Daqqâq said: “The seeker is the carrier. The sought is carried.” Thus [prophet] Moses was a seeker when he supplicated: My Lord! Expand for me my breast [Sûrat >â Hâ, 20:25] and our Prophet ﷺ was sought when it was said to him: Did We not expand for you your breast?” [Sûrat Al-Inshirâ ḥ, 94:1].

Al-Junayd was asked concerning the seeker and the sought. He said: “The seeker entrusts his (inner) affairs to knowledge. The sought entrusts himself to the care of the Truth, for the seeker walks and the sought flies. When does one who walks ever catch up with the one who flies?”

The author of Manâzil Al-Sâ’irîn [Shaykh ʿAbdullâh Al-Anṣâri Al-Harawi, d. 482/1089] said in the Chapter of [the Station of] the Sought: “Allah Almighty said: You had not hoped that the Scripture would be inspired in you; but it is a mercy from your Lord [Sûrat Al-Naml, 28:86]. Most of those who discourse in this knowledge distinguish between the seeker and the sought, and deem the station of the sought above that of the seeker, and refer by the term ‘al-murâd’ to the elite concerning which there is a [Prophetic] report.”

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Is There a Spiritual Elite?

I say that the ground for adducing this verse is that Allah, the Magnificent, sent to His Messenger ﷺ His Book and singled him out for His grace and qualified him for His message and prophethood—without him [the Prophet ﷺ] hoping for it, earning it, or seeking it by his deeds. Rather, it was a matter willed for him. Thus he [the Prophet ﷺ] was the sought in reality.

[Al-Harawi’s] statement, “Most of those who discourse in this knowledge distinguish between the seeker and the sought,” is to explain that some of them limit the mention of the Station of Al-Murâd, containing it within the Station of Al-Irâda (will), since the one who possesses the will (to seek Allah) is a seeker. Yet he is also the one sought.

As for [Al-Harawi’s mention of these scholars’] allusion to the elite [among the travelers of the spiritual path], he means by it a report narrated on the authority of the Prophet ﷺ: “Most surely, Allah has some who are the elect among His creation (anâ’in’), whom He gives life in safety and death in safety” (recorded in Al-Majmaʿ by Al-Haythami and graded weak). ‘danâ’in’ means ‘the elect.’ It is said: ‘So and so is my ḍinna from among men,’ which means one whom I have singled out, and aḍinnu bi-jûdatihi, that is, ‘I am miserly concerning his fine company and fear its loss.

The example of the seeker and the sought is that of a people summoned by their king from far-off lands to his company. He sends along guides and wealth, mounts, and all manner of accompaniments. Moreover, he commands them to cross long distances and deserts, and strive hard upon the path until they meet him. To one group among them, however, he sends steeds and servants. He directs these servants: Have [the select among the summoned] mount these steeds, and thereby leave all others behind. Moreover, serve them upon their journey, so as not to let them tire with tying and securing (saddles), and when they dismount for a respite, give them solace. Then have them mount again until they arrive to me. Such people do not experience the strenuous struggle and exhaustion on their journey that others do.

Some say that the seeker goes beyond the Station of Seeking (irâda) until he becomes the sought. He is the lover who becomes the beloved. Thus, the ultimate end of every sincere seeker is to become the one who is sought. This is the opinion of most of them. The author of Al-Manâzil, however, considered one who is sought to be one who is lost [in spiritual ecstasy]. The seeker, on the other hand, is actually the one who treads the strenuous path.

The Three Levels of the Sought

[Al-Harawi] said:

The station of being sought has three levels:

First: The servant is protected by compulsion from disobedience, as the delight of disobedience is spoiled for him, its opportunity diminished, and its doors closed.”

[Ibn Al-Qayyim said:] This means that when such a servant inclines toward an act that would stand between the servant and his Lord, when the servant is prone to surrender to his base desires, his Master protects him, as if forcibly, by spoiling and dimming the pleasure of the sin. Thus, he does not feel its pleasure save mingled with much discontent, which may even overcome its pleasure altogether and eliminate it, rendering the pleasure of the sin little more than a stealthy shadow.

Second, He narrows the opportunity or means (of sin) as He surrounds him from it until he no longer inclines to it or settles into it. And even when the causes are available, a defender is appointed to him who comes between him and it, one who says to him: “Look! You are being deceived.” This is the essence of (divine) care, protection, and shelter.

Third, the paths of sin that incur [divine] wrath are closed to him, even if he dislikes this. This is a mark of compassion and protection for him.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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