What is Silsila-i Aliyya?
The word silsila means a series, line, or chain that is constituted by mutually connected and closely related things. After murshîd-i kâmils, that is, those who double as an Islamic scholar and a spiritual guide, educate their disciples and their disciples have gained the competence to educate other people as well, they give them khilâfah ([certificate of] authority to instruct others) and a written warrant (called ijâzah) certifying that they have the qualifications. Afterwards, they, too, start to educate disciples and give them a written warrant when they reach such a stage. This chain of connection goes back up to our master the Prophet.
The silsila (chain) which includes such religious superiors as Bahaaddîn-i Bukhârî, Imâm-i Rabbânî, and Mawlâna Khâlid-i Baghdâdî is termed Silsila-i ‘Aliyya, which means the Exalted Chain. It is also termed Silsilat-uz-Zahab, which means the Golden Chain.
An Islamic scholar does not grow like grass or mushrooms sprouting in the earth. One who does not have a master and a written warrant cannot be an Islamic scholar. Having a silsila that can be traced back to the Messenger of Allah is a sine qua non. For example, each Islamic scholar, such as Hadrat Imâm-i Rabbânî and Hadrat ‘Abdul Qadir al-Ghaylânî, has a certain chain of masters until this chain reaches back to our master the Prophet. Only such a person should be followed, and only such a person’s books should be read. We must not read the books of all writers indiscriminately even if what they write may be correct. Those who cannot find a person of this sort must read the books of an Islamic scholar who is authorized in the above-mentioned manner, that is, whose chain of masters is known and who has a written warrant. Reading his books, they must accept him a spiritual guide for themselves.
The reason why different silsilas exist today is because disciples took on different courses even though their masters had not given them caliphate or a written certification. Hadrat Imâm-i Rabbânî declared the following four centuries ago: “Travelers of this exalted way have become lonely, desolate, and they have decreased in number. Heresies having been mixed with the paths of today’s men of tarîqah (Sufi order), and thus, they having been corrupted, the great men who have been holding fast to Allah’s Messenger’s sunnah are no longer recognized. On account of this unawareness and because the majority of the travelers of this way are short-sighted, they have mixed this exalted way with heresies. Through these heresies, they have tried to win the hearts of the people. By doing so, they thought that they would mature the Islamic religion. They have been trying to demolish, lose this exalted path” (Vol. II, Letter 62).