The role of a Sufi Shaykh is that he is a teacher like others.
إِنَّ هَذَا الْقُرْآنَ يَهْدِي لِلَّتِي هِيَ أَقْوَمُ
Indeed this Quran guides to that which is most upright. (Surah al-Isra, 9).
Tasawwuf or Sufism is supposed to be the study and practice of Quran and Hadith, which leads to complete devotion to Allah (Most High). The role of the Shaykh is to teach you Quran and Hadith and ideally be a role model in its practice. A Sufi Shaykh or any other Shaykh’s role is to help with this. There is no Shaykh who can do the work of spirituality for you, that is something you must do yourself, the Shaykh is there to teach.
Based on this understanding the scholars did not deem it binding to find and follow a Sufi Shaykh, rather any competent teacher of Quran and Hadith can support you in this way. Shaykh Abdal Fattah Abu Ghuddah pointed this out in his notes on Imam al-Muhasibi’s Risalatu al-Mustarshideen, where the Imam commented on the importance of understanding and acting upon the Quran:
وهذا الكلام من الإمام أبي عبد الله المحاسبي رحمه الله تعالى يفيد أن أمر الاهتداء إلى الله تعالى وصلاح النفس وتزكيتها لا يتوقف على التزام (شیخ وبيعة) وإنما يتوقف على التزام العلم والعمل الذي أمر الله به، وتضمنه الكتاب والسنة وسلوك سلف الأمة
This statement of Imam Abu Abdullah al-Muhasibi (May Allah have mercy upon him) indicates that the issue of guidance to Allah (Most High), rectification and purification of the Nafs do not require a Shaykh or Bay’ah. Rather they require knowledge and action that Allah (Most High) has commanded, and which is contained in the Quran, Sunnah and the way of the early Imams.
He later quoted the above verse of the Holy Quran as an evidence for this. Shaykh Abdal Fattah then quoted from Imam al-Shatibi’s al-Rasail al-Sughra:
واعتماد شيخ التربية هو طريق الأئمة المتأخرين من الصوفية، واعتماد التعليم هو طريق الأوائل منهم. ويظهر هذا من كتب كثير من مصنفيهم، کالحارث المحاسبي، وأبي طالب المكي، وغيرهما، من قبل أنهم لم ينصوا على شيخ التربية في كتبهم على الوجه الذي ذكره أئمة المتأخرين، مع أنهم ذكروا أصول علوم وفروعها، وسوابقها ولواحقها، لا سيما الشيخ أبو طالب، فعدم ذكرهم له دليل على عدم شرطيته ولزومه في طريق السلوك
Requiring a Shaykh for spirituality (Tarbiyah) is the way of the later Imams of Tasawwuf, and requiring knowledge is the way of the early Imams amongst them. This is clear from the books of many of their authors, like al-Harith al-Muhaasibi, Abu Talib al-Maki and others. They never mentioned a Shaykh for Tarbiyah in their books, like the later Imams did. Despite the fact that they mentioned all the fundamentals and detailed aspects of the sciences (of Tasawwuf), and they mentioned the less and more important issues related to it, especially Shaykh Abu Talib (al-Makki). The fact that they did not mention it (Shaykh Tarbiyah and Bay’ah) is an evidence that it is not a condition, and not required for the spiritual path.
Unfortunately, there is widespread confusion and misinformation with regards to the role of the Shaykh in our time. I recently heard a scholar provide the following explanation of this misconception. He said that in the past a Shaykh of Tasawwuf was looked at like a personal trainer, where you do the work, you work hard to better yourself and purify your soul and try to draw closer to Allah (Most High) and the Shaykh is there to direct you. Nowadays, the way people look at a Shaykh is more like they are going to a bodybuilding competition, where they point to their Shaykh and say, look how great he is. They are busy with praising him rather than doing the work they are required to do. I believe this is a useful analogy for much of what happens nowadays when it comes to peoples understanding of the role of the Shaykh.
And Allah (Most High) knows best.
– Answered by Shaykh Noorud-deen (12.02.2021)