Khalwah and Uzlah: Retreat and Seclusion
Abu-l-Hasan Ali bin Ahmad bin Abd Allah told us ... from Abu Hurayrah that the Messenger of God said, "The best of all human modes of life is that of a person who takes hold of the reins of his horse in the way of God. If he hears an alarm or an uproar, he is on his horse's back looking for death or battle wherever it is to be found. Or it is that of a person living on what he has won by warfare on the top of some mountain or at the bottom of some valley, who stands in prayer, gives charity, and serves his Lord until the certainty of death overtakes him. He comes not among people except for good."
Khalwah, retreat, belongs to the purified, while uzlah, withdrawal from the world, marks the people of union. The seeker needs to withdraw from his own kind in the beginning stages. Then, in the last stages, he needs to retreat in order to confirm himself in intimacy with God.
If the servant chooses to withdraw, his intention must be to separate himself from people so that they will be safe from his evil - he must not be looking to protect himself from their evil. For the first of these attitudes comes from thinking little of one's ego, while the second comes from making oneself out to be better than other people. A person who thinks little of himself is humble, while a person who sees himself as better than anybody else is arrogant.
A Christian monastic was asked, "Are you a monk?" He replied, "No, I am the guardian of a dog. My ego is a dog that injures people, so I have taken it out from among them so that they may be safe from it."
A man passed by one of the righteous and that shaykh gathered his garment away from him. The man said to him, "Why are you pulling your clothes away from me? My clothes are not defiled!" The shaykh answered, "I thought that you would think that my clothes were defiled so I pulled them away from you - in order not to defile your clothes, not so that you would defile mine!"
One of the rules of withdrawal is that whoever goes into seclusion must acquire the knowledge that makes his commitment to unity (tawhid) firm, so that satan cannot seduce him through the imagination. Then he should acquire enough knowledge of the divine law that he is able to fulfill his religious duties so that his undertaking may be built on definite and sure foundations.
Withdrawal from the world does not mean going away from inhabited places. The essence of seclusion is to isolate blameworthy traits in order to substitute the divine names for them. Thus it was asked, "Who is the gnostic (arif)?" and they replied, "A creature distinguished," that is, someone who appears to be together with people, but is inwardly separated from them.
I heard Abu Ali al-Daqqaq say, "When you are with people, wear what they wear, eat what they eat and be separated from them by what is within you." I heard him say, "A man came to me and said, 'I have come to you from far away.' I said, 'That is not the way it is done. To really cross distances and endure the difficulties of travel, leave yourself. If you are successful, you will attain your object.'"
It is related that Abu Yazid al-Bistami said, "I saw my Lord Almighty and Glorious in a dream and asked, 'How shall I find You?' He said, 'Leave yourself and come!'" I heard Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami say that he heard Abu Uthman al-Maghribi say, "Whoever chooses retreat over companionship must be free of every recollection but the remembrance of his Lord, free of every wish but the pleasure of his Lord, and free of every variety of the ego's demands. If he does not have these qualities, his retreat will plunge him into inner conflict or disaster."
It is said, "Solitude in retreat contains all one could ask of comfort." Yahya bin Muadh said, "Look and seek whether your intimacy with God is through retreat or whether your intimacy is through Him, but in retreat. If your intimacy is through retreat, it will vanish when you leave the retreat. But if it is through Him, in retreat, then any place you may be, in the desert or on the plains will be the same to you."
I heard Muhammad bin al-Husayn say ... he heard that Muhammad bin Hamid say, "A man paid a visit to Abu Bakr al-Warraq. When he wanted to go back home, he asked him, 'Advise me.' Abu Bakr said, 'I found the good of this world and the next in retreat and having little, while [I found] evil in this world and the next in having much and mixing with people." I heard him say ... that he heard al-Jurayri say when asked about seclusion, "It is to go among the crowd, while your secret prevents them from crowding you and to withdraw your ego from sins while your inner awareness is bound by the Real."
It has been said, "Whoever prefers seclusion has attained seclusion." Sahl al-Tustari said, "Retreat will not work unless one's sustenance is lawful. Eating lawful sustenance will not work unless one carries out one's duties to God."
Dhu-l-Nun al-Misri said, "I see nothing more productive of purity of faith than retreat." Abu Abd Allah al-Ramli said, "Make retreat your companionship, hunger your food, and intimate prayer your conversation until you either reach God or die." Dhu-l-Nun said, "Someone who is concealed from the people by retreat is not like someone who is concealed from them by God."
I heard Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami say ... Junayd said, "The suffering of seclusion is easier to bear than the sociability of mixing with people." Makhul said, "There is some good in associating with people, but in seclusion there is safety." Yahya bin Muadh said, "Solitude is the table companion of the truthful."
I heard Abu Ali al-Daqqaq say he heard Shibli cry, "'Bankruptcy! Bankruptcy, O people!' They asked him, 'Abu Bakr, what is the sign of bankruptcy?' He replied, 'One of the signs of bankruptcy is familiarity with people.'"
Yahya bin Abi Kuthayr often said, "Whoever mixes with people tries to influence them, and whoever tries to influence them attempts to impress them." Shuayb bin Harb said, "I went to see Malik bin Masud in Kufa. He was in his house by himself. I asked, 'Why do you isolate yourself here alone?' He answered, 'I do not think of anyone as isolated who is together with God.'"
I heard Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami say ... that Junayd said, "Whoever wants to secure his religion and rest his body and his heart, let him withdraw himself from people. This is a difficult time and the intelligent person will choose solitude in it." And I heard him say ... that Abu Yaqub al-Susi said, "Only the strong have the strength to manage separation from people. For the likes of us, community is more fortunate and more useful. Some will work because of seeing the efforts of others." And I heard him say ... that Abu Abbas al-Damghani said that Shibli advised him saying, "Cling to solitude. Efface your name from among the people and face the prayer niche until you die."
A man went to Shuayb bin Harb. "What brings you here?" he asked. The man said, "I want to be with you!" "My brother," Shuayb told him, "Worship should not depend on companionship. Someone who enjoys no closeness with God will not be brought close by anything external."
Some people asked a Sufi, "What is the strangest thing you have encountered in your travels?" He told them, "Khidr came to meet me and sought my company, but I was afraid that it would spoil my trust in God alone." Another Sufi was asked, "Is there anyone here with whom you would be close?" "Yes," he said. He stretched out his hand to his copy of the Quran and placed it against his heart. "This." With this meaning they have recited,
Your Book is my strength; it does not leave my couch, And in it is healing for that which I conceal.
A man asked Dhu-l-Nun, "When will withdrawing from the world be the right course for me?" He answered, "When you are capable of withdrawing from yourself." Ibn al-Mubarak was asked, "What is the remedy of the heart?" He replied, "Few encounters with people."
It is said that when God wants to transport a servant from the humiliation of disobedience to the honor of obedience, he makes him familiar with solitude, enriches him with contentment, and brings him to see the shameful deeds of his own ego. So whoever has been given this has been given the best of this world and the next.
[Imam Abu-l-Qasim al-Qushayri,
in Risalah Qushayriyyah,
Principles of Sufism]