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Master and Disciple: An Essay on Joachim Wach
Jul 1, 2005

“Master and Disciple: Two Religio-Sociological Studies” is a paper written by Joachim Wach. At the beginning of the paper, Wach makes a comparison between the Teacher-Student and the Master-Disciple relationship, and then continues to narrow the field and to discuss the meaning of the life of a master. Although he touches on the concepts of teacher, student, and disciple in the paper, his ultimate aim is to elaborate the life of a master; the other three subjects of educational life take their place in the paper as figures that project different lights on the life of the master.

In our essay, we will briefly introduce Wach's basic understanding of each of the four concepts, namely teacher, student, master, and disciple, and then elaborate, examining in detail some of the perspectives. At the same time, we will try to look at some different aspects of the subject upon which Joachim Wach did not focus.

According to Wach, the teacher is the possessor of certain crafts, for example, knowledge in a certain subject or of a skill, and he teaches what he knows or possesses to his students. Therefore, he it is not his person itself that is respected by the student, rather it is his knowledge or skill. On the other hand, the very character and participation of the master are crucial in the learning process; therefore, it is not his knowledge or skill that is admired and esteemed by the disciple, but rather his very essence and individuality. Consequently, while the teacher is considered as a replaceable object in the educational process, the master is regarded as an essential component.

The teacher provides only knowledge, ability, or a definite subject matter, and his merit consists in his willingness to give freely. On the other hand, to give is also a kind of merit for the master, but he gives something different to his disciples from what the teacher gives to his students. The master gives himself to his disciples and consumes himself. However, the teacher lives for a certain task and gives a certain craft; consequently, he is consumed by his task.

The student respects the teacher as a body of knowledge and the teacher-student relationship exists in the common interest that is the subject matter. The disciple is interested in the personality of the master rather than his knowledge. For that reason, the master-disciple relationship survives in different interests; that is to say, while the master's interest is the student himself, the student's concern is the master's very existence. On that ground, the master and disciple have an irreplaceable value for one another, while in the teacher-student relationship, both components are replaceable.

When the student opens himself to the teacher, he makes himself dear, and his value depends on his success or failure in the subject. The sharpness and intelligence of the student stimulates the praise of the teacher. On the other hand, for the master, the sharp eye or the intellect of the disciple makes no difference. Moreover, being a disciple is not based on personal worth, but is rather a relationship in which a fellowship of destiny is predominant.

After introducing the main nuances of the teacher-student and the master-disciple relationships, as Wach perceives them, let us elaborate on some points that are given only a brief mention in Wach’s paper.

One of the points that Wach explores concerning comparison between teacher and master is time. Wach asserts that the teacher is worried about time, especially its passing, while the master’s concern focuses on the moment. The teacher has much to teach and wants to have completed his task at the end of the course. He wants his students to graduate so that they can go out and teach what they have been taught. However, the master has no concern about when his disciples will complete his course, because the right time for the matriculation of the disciple cannot be determined in advance. In other words, the right time can be at any moment. Consequently, each moment is a treasure for both the master and the disciple in this learning process; the right knowledge or the gnosis-in the Sufi sense-can be given and obtained at any moment.

Moreover, the teacher teaches a certain type of knowledge or skill; therefore, his course must end at a certain time period. However, the master teaches of himself and provides knowledge of life; therefore, this teaching phase may last for a life time.

Approached from a different angle, time is a valuable concept in the teacher-student relationship only when the teacher teaches, as this relationship is based on teaching and learning. On the other hand, time is a valuable component in the master-disciple relationship, because even the master’s silence or a look can be a great method of teaching. In other words, the master-disciple relationship is not based solely on certain actions.

When we look at the issue from the perspective of the student and the disciple, we can determine that students plan that they will give a certain time period to their teacher, but the disciples are ready to sacrifice their whole life to their master. The students are worried about the passing of the time; this is not a fault. Yet, the disciples do not worry about time; if they do worry, it means that they feel a great need to spend much time with their master.

Another issue that Wach raises in his paper is about the future of students and disciples. He asserts that the student will become a teacher, but the disciple will never become a master. Wach states that as the master’s existence is irreplaceable, the disciple can never take the place of his master. On the other hand, the teacher is not unique; therefore, the student can replace him. Agreeing with Wach about this specific idea, we also would like to say that although the disciple cannot replace his master, he certainly can become a master and there are many examples of this in the history of the master-disciple relationship. For instance, one of the famous Sufi masters, Abdussalam b. Mashish, had only one disciple during his whole life, Shazili, through whom he gained fame. This was because Shazili, after his master Ibn Mashish, also became a great master and founded the Shazili Sufi order. As the example shows, the disciple can never be his master, but he can be a master who carries on the tradition.

One of the distinctions between discipleship and studentship that Wach makes is that while discipleship drives the disciples to envy and jealousy, studentship is usually a base for mutual love. This stems from the fact that in the master-disciple relationship, the master’s very existence is the sole interest of all the disciples; therefore, they are unable to share him. On the other hand, in the teacher-student relationship, the common interest of the students is the subject matter; therefore, students usually do not experience any problem in terms of sharing. Agreeing with these contentions of Wach, we also would like to add that although discipleship usually becomes a base for jealousy, the masters do not desire that their disciples feel jealousy towards each other.

One of the great masters was Said Nursi, who lived in Turkey and died in 1960. He had a very different approach to the disciple-master relationship. Nursi’s significance rests in the very core of his teachings. In his teaching, he creates a completely new concept called fana fi’l-ikhwan and according to this concept, disciples must annihilate themselves in their fellow disciples instead of annihilating themselves in the character of the master. This mutual annihilation that occurs between disciples is called tafani and both these concepts, fana fi’l-ikhwan and tafani are fundamental in the teachings of Nursi.

One of the points that Wach should have dealt with more clearly in his paper is the emotional nature of the master-disciple relationship. For us, the master-student relationship is a relationship of compassion-love. As Wach points out, the master’s very concern is humanity; it is through his sacred knowledge that the master can perceive the ability of humanity to live cheerfully and painlessly. Therefore, the master willingly takes on the role of savior and bravely says ‘Yes’ to his destiny. His soul is willing to be sacrificed. Apparently, the main emotion that rests in the soul that accepts sacrifice is compassion; the master’s group of disciples is a small sample of humanity, so therefore, the master is always compassionate to his disciples. He cares for them deeply; lives and dies for them. On the other hand, the disciple returns this compassion with his deep love.

To elaborate on the compassion of the master, we can say that the master’s compassion toward his disciples, thereby, toward humanity, contains three main emotions: protection, endurance, and sacrifice. The relationship of the master to his disciples is like that of a mother to her children. Therefore, the master is always worried about the security of his disciples. The security that we talk about here is generally not a physical one. Since the master is aware that the life of humanity is generally cheerful and painless, he wants to protect his disciples from this type of life style. The master knows and deeply believes that such an easy life is a dead and void life.

The master’s heart burns to protect his disciples, in particular the young disciples who are usually not aware of the great dangers that await them. It is due to this unawareness that they are sometimes unable to display obedience to the advice of the master. When this happens, the master’s position becomes a very heavy burden to bear, but his compassion towards the disciples provides for him the endurance that he needs.

The last main nuance of the master’s compassion is his saying “Yes” to his destiny. As soon as the master obtains his sacred knowledge, he becomes aware of his sacrificial destiny. He knows that his task is very difficult and this task may even drive him to his death. There is no other choice for him but to say “Yes” to his death. He is able to do this because of his incomprehensible compassion. At this point, although Wach sees death as the greatest sacrifice of the master, we disagree; perceiving rather that living for the sake of humanity and enduring the difficulties of the task is a greater sacrifice for the master than the acceptance of death. The difficulties that the master accepts and bears throughout his life are heavier than death itself. It is for this reason that Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi and many others call death Shab-i Arus, “the wedding night.” It is on this night that the lover meets his beloved and the master meets his Lord; for the master, death is the end of suffering.

While the master’s compassion contains protection, endurance, and sacrifice, the love of the disciples contains respect and obedience. The following quote from Ibn Arabi symbolizes the respect of the disciples toward their master: “When I would sit before him [Abu Ya’qub al-Qumi] or before others of my Shaykhs, I would tremble like a leaf in the wind, my voice would become weak and my limbs would shake.” The respect that the disciples display for their master stems from their deep love. The other main reflection of that deep love is obedience. Although the disciples are aware of the benefits of obeying their master, these benefits are not the main reason for their obedience. Rather, such obedience arises out of their love.

Regarding this obedience, in Sufism the disciple is considered to be as a corpse in the hands of the person washing the body in preparation for burial.

In conclusion, the subject that Wach deals with in his paper is a complicated subject, and there may well be many other aspects that need to be discussed, yet it should be stated that Wach seems to have accomplished much in this field. A university professor, Wach, if not a master, certainly stands at the boundary between the realms of the master and the teacher realms.