The concept of a spiritual hierarchy governing over human and world affairs has been a part of theosophy and other mystical traditions. The Greek neo-platonic philosopher Lablichus [d.330 A.D], who is famous for his work on the organisation and administration of the heavenly spheres, describes the order of division as: a]Gods; b]Demons; c]Heavens; d]Principalities; e]Angels; f]Souls.
In Sufism, though the idea of a spiritual hierarchy responsible for administration in the world is a common occurrence, yet it confines the members of this hierarchy to human beings alone under the supervision of God Almighty.
In the study of cosmology one comes across the intricate and diversified body of the phenomena of creation and its organisation. In the ancient texts of the Greek and the Roman civilizations, that exist legendary descriptions of a belief-system that acknowledged a heavenly administration directly influencing the affairs of the universe and personal human lives at the same time. A civilization as old as the Egyptian one also showed evidence of belief in a life, existence and reality beyond the apparent, worldly and material one. In most religions one finds the tradition of a hierarchical structure in the field of existence. The Supreme Being or the Source of all existence as God, Allah or Brahma as It may be referred to stands at the apex of this hierarchy. As we move down in gradation, we come to the different ranks of the Angels, then the Elementals and finally the world of physical reality.
In consciousness this is related to the various levels of knowing: The conscious; the sub-conscious; and the supra-conscious levels of knowing. Travelling through the different levels of consciousness one alights upon the diverse planes of being. There are the physical, mental, psychic, the astral and the spiritual planes of existence, reaching up to the angelic realms ultimately culminating in the pure Divine Presence. Mystical traditions have tried to explain this wondrous mode of being in words as best as they could. No matter how well defined all this knowledge becomes in letters, it is something that must be tasted rather than informed. Each one who has experienced this multi-dimensional reality has sought to convey it in the language of his personal experience.
The Quran gives us information regarding the angelic hierarchy and its functions. We are also told about the various grades that the human souls are divided into. They are referred to as the rasul [messenger], nabi [prophet], wali [friend], siddiqin [truthful ones], saliheen [the righteous ones], shuhada [the witnesses and the martyrs], momineen [faithful ones], and muslimeen [the ones who have submitted].
The only criterion of distinction that the Quran allows is piety, with a secondary one being knowledge. In the Quran man is warned against falsely believing that the seeing individual is the same as the blind one. In reality the reference is to a person with knowledge and insight as opposed to the one who is ignorant. Although there is no specific revelation in the Quran relating to the office and functions of a spiritual hierarchy, inferences have been drawn by mystical interpreters of the text to support their views.
The discipline of Sufism has always been regarded with suspicion by the orthodox religious clergy. Because it is significantly experiential rather than theoretical, the ones who have tried to understand it from the outside have often fallen prey to the confusion of false impressions formed on the surface of a lake in dim moon-light. Firstly they are not seeing things in the light of day when all becomes clear. Secondly, they are trying to conjecture what lies under the water by merely studying its surface.
Likewise if one were to ask an orthodox Muslim externalist regarding the reality of the spiritual order and its functionaries, he would calmly refute everything on the basis of surface knowledge. To believe in the reality of the spiritual administration one must have had direct experience of this phenomenon; otherwise skepticism would have the better of you.
Below I would like to give an account of the different records in various spiritual texts regarding the organisation, members, stations, and functions of the spiritual administration as found in the writings of Sufi scholars and saints of the past centuries.
According to Sufi belief there is at all times an established number of individuals serving as members in the spiritual administration of human and world affairs. It is due to their intervention and presence that the world is kept spinning on its axis. A holy saying of the Prophet S.A.W. testifies to this: The world shall not perish until in it remains even a single person saying "Allah Allah".
It is believed that this reference is to those chosen ones of Allah who due to their constant and pure remembrance of Him have attained to the station of special nearness to the Divine Presence.
These privileged souls have been appointed at their stations and ranks by the Will of the Almighty. They maintain balance and equilibrium in the dispensation of world affairs. It is for their sake that Allah eases His Wrath and bestows His Mercy. Rain is made to descend and fields turn green in answer to their supplication. These people of special Grace are not known to the common folk, thus they are varyingly known by the names of "Rijaal-ul Ghayb", meaning the unseen men, or the "Awliya-e-Mastoor", meaning the hidden Friends.
One should not be misled by the term "Rijal-ul-Ghayb" into believing that membership in this hierarchy is only reserved for men, as the word rijal indicates. Shaykh-ul-Akbar Ibn Arabi in his Futuhat-al-Makkiyya relates that once a wali mastoor was asked about the number of the rijaal-ul-ghayb. He answered, "forty souls". He was again questioned regarding his reply as to why he did not say forty men. To this he answered saying that it was so because they included amongst them women as well.
Shaykh Fariduddin Attar says in his "Tadhkirat-al-Awliya", "When a woman gives the proof of courage and chivalry on the path of sulook or wayfaring, then she may no longer be called a female."
Hazrat Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani in "Safinatul-Awliya" sums up the debate in a beautiful couplet:
If women were such as we have described
They would have precedence over men;
The feminine appellation of the sun is not a handicap,
Just as the masculine reference to the moon does not make it superior.
Mystical Sufi texts carry abundant information regarding the names, stations and number of these holy people.
There are slight variations regarding the number and the placement of the groupings in the different recordings of spiritual narrations. The names of the sub-groups within the larger group of the "Hidden Men", however, remain the same.
According to Shaykh Ali Uthman Hujweri in his Kashf-ul Mahjoob there are a total of four thousand hidden ones. They are not aware of each other and neither do they know of their own stations. They work unbeknownst to themselves and to those around them. There are reports regarding their reality in the narratives of the Awliya and the traditions. They have been called the chiefs of the heavenly troops. They are divided into sub-groups of
300 Akhyar [pious ones],
40 Abdaal [the inter-changeable],
7 Abrars [the pure ones],
4 Awtad [the pillars],
3 Naqeeb [the pegs]
1 Qutb [the Pole] who is also called the Ghaus [Helper].
They are known for solving difficulties and bringing relief by the command of Allah.
In other texts you find proof of the fact that some of the ranks recognise each other, and those that Allah wills to reveal, and the Akhyaar are the ones who remain unknown to each other and themselves. The Qutb or Ghaus being the head of all is aware of each ones station.
Shaykh Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi has written profusely on this subject. He says in his Futuhat-al-Makkiyya that in every age there is an appointed Pole or Qutb whose given name is Abdullah meaning servant of Allah. Under him are his two ministers called the Imam whose names are Abdul Malik and Abdur-Rab. Rab and Malik are again being two of the Divine Names. After the demise of the Qutb one of these two graduates to his station succeeding him. Subservient to the two Imams are the four Awtad [Pillars] who are stationed at the four directions of the world, the North, South, East and West. They are in charge of looking after these four directions. There number is confirmed in every age. Their titles are Abdul Hayy, Abdul Aleem, Abdul Qadir and Abdul Mureed being named such after the four of the seven primary Divine names.
By Naila Amat-un-Nur