“But if you look for a companion, be careful in choosing!
And be careful of what you say, even to your closest friends!
The enemy has many spies and many ways of hearing.”
– Gandalf to Frodo
These days, self-help books, courses, seminars are all the rage. People seem unable to control themselves, probably because of all the prevalent materialism abound. We seek all the help we can to lose weight, tackle procrastination, exercise, quit smoking, alcohol or whatever vice you can imagine, yet we are as terrible as achieving our goals as perhaps ever.
The battle against the nafs or human ‘animal’ self was always a momentous undertaking. Holy men of past ages would expend their entire lives trying to gain ascendancy over human whims, desires, lusts, emotions, selfish tendencies, agendas and many found no other option than to seclude themselves entirely from civilisation.
Some Sufis have the concept of ‘being secluded in community’ – to be amongst people and interacting with them but to internally be alien to their materialistic, worldly selfish worldviews and be lost in the consideration of God. It need not be said that such a state requires legendary effort and insatiable support from Allah (swt).
In such circumstances, we need every bit of help we can get and there is perhaps no method more potent against wayward tendencies than good companionship.
In fact, its effectiveness is well established in modern methods. You can find support groups for almost every type of problem people face, from alcohol to post-war trauma. To be in an environment sharing your experiences with those with a common problem and with everyone feeding off each other’s energy and enthusiasm is a powerful and effective resource.
It comes as no surprise then, that companionship is an important way to be followed in Islam. Firstly, it is a strong sunnah or method of the Prophet (s). He was always in the company of his followers, eating with them, sharing with them, sitting with them…So much so, that his followers actually became known as his ‘companions’ or sahabah in Arabic. It meant they could learn by not only listening to his words but also by observing his character and mannerisms. The Prophet (s) touched the heart of each of his companions through the love and care he showed each and every single one of them.
It also meant the companions could be in the company of their fellow companions, urge each other to do good deeds and strengthen themselves against falling into errors.
There is also a spiritual flow in gatherings where the pious are present that affects the hearts of others. Sometimes very little even needs to be said but people leave gatherings on a spiritual ‘high’. That’s why the scholars say no one can reach the level of the companions of the Prophet (s) as they benefited from the spiritual intensity of the greatest spiritual teacher, the Messenger of Allah, Himself.
In short, if you are struggling with your faith or any issue, try to search out and be in the presence of the pious because the goodness they have will flow onto you. For getting rid of bad habits, it would be a good idea to join a community or group that are struggling and striving to rid themselves of that habit together. But if you can’t find good company, it is better to alone than to be with those that will leave you worse off in the end.
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, did after all say:
“Verily, the parable of good company and a bad company is only that of a seller of musk and a blacksmith. The seller of musk will give you some perfume, you will buy some, or you will notice a good smell. As for the blacksmith, he will burn your clothes, or you will notice a bad smell.”
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1995, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2628
Finally, good companionship is something we should never abandon or think that we are ‘above’. Every person is in need and can continue to benefit from good companionship till our last moments. Once, one of the students of Shaykh Abul Hassan al-Shadili (r) had stopped attending his gatherings. The Shaykh happened to come across him and asked, ‘Why have you distanced yourself from us and left our gatherings?’
The student replied, ‘I have received sufficient lessons of knowledge from you until now, I don’t feel I need to be amongst you anymore.’
This reply saddened the Shaykh and he said, ‘Look my son. If keeping company for a short while is sufficient to receive spiritual blessings and knowledge, Abu Bakr (r) would have been satisfied with the spiritual radiance and knowledge which he received at the hands of the Prophet (s), except Abu Bakr (r) did not spare a day away from the companionship of the Prophet (s), nor did he part from him, until he returned to his Lord.’