Hakim al Umma Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi (Allah have mercy on him) said,
‘Often visit the friends of Allah (darwaish) who are speculated to be perfect (kamil).
Do not rush to criticize or deny anyone of them. (1)
However, do not hasten to make bayiah.
First thing to evaluate (in a potential Shaikh) is his steadfastness on Shariah. If this is not case then one should leave him even if he performs extraordinary feats. (2)
Allah orders us: And do not obey the one whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, and who has followed his desire and whose behavior has exceeded the limits. [18:28]
And if he is steadfast on Shariah then his piety and being a friend of Allah (wali) is established. However, the seeker is in need of training (tarbiyah) to reach perfection (takmeel) (at the hands of a qualified mentor who can effectively do this). Therefore, (it is best to wait more) do not commit for bayiah even now. In addition, ascertain that there is (spiritual beneficial) effect in his company (suhba). That is, (manifested as) development of love of Allah, abhorrence of worldly and sinful activities.
It has been mentioned in the hadith that a sign of friends of Allah is,
إذا رؤوا ذكر الل: When one sees them he is reminded of Allah.
It is difficult for most of the common folk to assess this effect in brief periods of company (available with the Shaikh). At this juncture it is essential to approach an intelligent and truthful disciple of the Shaikh and ask him about the effect of his company. ٓAllah says,
فَاسْلوا أَھْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْـتُمْ ال تَعْلَمُـونَ: So, ask the people (having the knowledge) of the Message, if you do not know. [21:7]
And Prophetic saying is إنما شفاء العيّ السؤال: the cure for ignorance is in asking for clarification.
If a reliable individual testifies then trust him (and proceed for a commitment). And if many people testify similarly then it is more reassuring. However, these testifiers must appear to be truthful and not from the category of مریداں ھمی پراند. That is, disciples that exaggerate and make boastful claims for their Shaikh.
The alternative method to select a Shaikh for those who can not visit the Shaikh in person due to unavoidable engagements or lack of physical or financial resources is to establish long term correspondence with the Shaikh. That is, in writing ask for instruction about the path and follow them practically. Then write back his/her condition and do as instructed. This has to be done for a considerable period of time. Then if (there has been genuine spiritual benefit and improvement in one’s religious state) a desire to commit then ask for bayiah and accept whatever the Shaikh replies.
Shariat wa Tariqat, page 65-66
(1) Background culture, ethnic origin, socio-economic status, educational level, depth of experience and many other factors mold an individual’s personality and how he deals with others. Until and unless it is blatantly haram activity it is best to make an excuse.
(2) In our era three areas in particular should be looked into, being lax in sins of speech, unrestricted intermingling of sexes and dubious financial dealings.
(2) One should make sincere dua for facilitation of this process.