These days one usually encounters various opinions regarding pledging oneself to a shaykh of tariqa. There those who consider Islam to be a simple and self-explanatory religion and therefore do not see any need for a shaykh. Then there are others who regard it as a necessary condition of success in this world and the next. For them everything is mediated through the medium of the shaykh. There are still others who whilst not holding it to be a necessity for everyone are adamant that sufism cannot be practiced without it. Needless to say all of these views are partially but not wholly true.
Islam is indeed a practice oriented religion less interested in theological speculation and thus relatively easy to follow at a basic level. However it is often forgotten by proponents of the first view that being simple is one thing and simplistic quite another. Islam was never intended to be simplistic. Proponents of the second view noted above make the mistake of taking a reasonable and true teaching too far. They forget that God is always and everywhere accessible to all of his creation and that the shaykh is one of the means through which God pours down His grace upon us but not the only means.
The third view is generally considered the soundest. Hence anyone interested in spirituality is often advised to “find a shaykh” before even taking the first step. The reasons for this are clear: we usually have no knowledge about our own selves let alone “matters of the spirit” and the passage from ignorance to knowledge can be both difficult and deceptive. Thus we need the help and guidance of an expert; someone who knows the way because he has made the journey. It is for this purpose that bay’at with a shaykh is taken.
What needs to be understood especially in our times is that whilst spiritual guidance is necessary taking bay’at (binding oneself to a shaykh) is not. Bay’at is a pledge which has certain conditions amongst which is the surrender of the will of the disciple to the shaykh. In the classical period of sufism this was regarded as necessary but under the changed circumstances of the present era many masters do not regard this as essential. This was the view of Hz Qudratullah Shahab, Wasif Ali Wasif and others. Interestingly enough this has also been the view of the Ba-Alawi Syeds from the time of Imam al-Haddad in the late 17th century. The Imam made clear his reasons why such a pact is no longer reasonable: neither the disciples nor the shaykhs (generally) meet the exacting spiritual standards which were a pre-condition for such a relationship. On consideration this turns out to be a very realistic and compassionate view. It allows seekers to benefit from shaykhs without the burden of stringent conditions of complete obedience. It also protects them from exploitation especially in times when true shaykhs seem to be getting fewer by the day.
Hz Q.U.S was asked more than once to accept the pledge of discipleship. He always declined saying: ” in this age bay’at is very difficult. Education is widespread…western modes of thinking have made us more self-reliant. Thus the ones who takes bay’at gets stuck in a noose for the first conditon of bay’at is that the disciple not even entertain disobedience to his master in his mind; because it is through the Khayal (imagination, mental imagery, imaginal realm) that the murshid benefits the seeker spiritually. Thus even if he entertains a thought of that kind in his heart there is a chance of his suffering loss….”. However Q.U.S did stress that the guidance of an “expert” is necessary particularly when the seeker begins to have spiritual experiences in order to distinguish true experiences from the whisperings of the ego or the illusions of one’s own imagination.