[Excerpts from Zachary Wright, On the Path of the Prophet: Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Atlanta, 2005), p. 81-85. Posted with permission of publisher.]

“Know that Sufism is compliance with Allah’s command and avoidance of His prohibitions, externally and internally, with regard to what pleases Him, not what pleases you.”[1]

It is clear from the primary sources containing Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s ideas and behavior that he possessed a profound respect for the legal value of the Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet and his companions, as well as (though to a lesser extent) for the inherited tradition of scholarly interpretation of these sources. As was shown earlier, he was trained in the sciences of the Qur’an and Hadith and prior to his becoming a shaykh al-tarbiya (of spiritual instruction), he spent most of his time during his travels teaching Qur’anic tafsir (interpretation) and Hadith. The Jawahir al-Ma’ani itself provides evidence of this emphasis, with frequent reference to Qur’an and Hadith throughout the work. Of the 246 pages in the Jawahir‘s 2001 Cairo edition, fifty-four are concerned specifically with explanation of certain verses of the Qur’an, twenty comment only on Hadith, while another ten are concerned with specific questions of fiqh. It seems many of Shaykh Tijani’s students were attracted to him for his knowledge of the traditional Islamic sciences, even if they did not always stay long enough to receive initiation into his path. The celebrated Tariqa Muhammadiyya shaykh Muhammad al-Sanusi (1787-1859) testified,

I learned from him [Tijani], and I took the Qur’an from him, and he told me that he had taken it from the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), asleep and awake. And he excelled in following his, may God bless him and grant him peace, example in all actions, and he honored me by letting me take the Qur’an from him, by this noble sanad, after he had taken it from him [the Prophet].[2]

In a work translated as, “Lumières sur la Tijaniyya et les Tijan,” the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975) quotes the statements of several notable scholars from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt more or less contemporary to Shaykh Ahmad Tijani (but who were not known to have formerly entered the order) attesting to the level of his erudition.[3] As we have seen, his early circle of followers contained many distinguished faqihs, such as Ibrahim Riyahi (later to become Tunisia’s head Mufti and rector of Zaytuna), Muhammad al-Hafiz of Mauritania and Ibn Mishry of Algeria. Later Tijanis have been no less energetic in the field of Islamic law, as evidenced by the activities of such men as the Moroccan jurist and traditionalist Muhammad al-‘Arabi al-Sa’ih (d. 1892), the Mauritanian scholar Ahmad al-Shinqiti (d. 1913), the Marakeshi Qadi Ahmad Sukayrij (d. 1949), Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (who in 1961 received, for his Islamic scholarship and efforts to spread Islam, the title “Shaykh al-Islam” from the Azhar), the Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Hafiz (d. 1978) and the former Mufti of Albania, Hafiz Sabri Cocki. With the spread of the Tijaniyya in places like West Africa, the order has sometimes become more famous for its Islamic scholarship than anything else.[4]

Shaykh Ahmad Tijani himself provides the model for the respect for the Shari’a many of his later followers would come to represent. When asked if false statements would be attributed to him after his death, he replied in the affirmative and urged his followers to use the criterion of the Shari’a to determine the truth: “If you hear anything attributed to me, weigh it on the scale of the Shari’a. If it conforms, accept it, otherwise reject it.”[5] Ali Harazem al-Barada writes about his Shaykh, “We find him stern (shadid) concerning the religious obligations … and he often says, ‘The best of remembrances (adhkar) is the [servant's] remembrance of Allah at the command of his Lord and His prohibition.’”[6] He demanded of his disciples that saintly miracles be kept hidden and elaborated that “An act of righteousness is better than a thousand miraculous feats.”[7] He was reportedly particular about the performance of the canonical prayer, emphasizing that it should be made in congregation and at its proper time, saying, “No work is better than prayer (salat) in its proper time.”[8]

According to the Jawahir, the Shaykh did not neglect the external sciences and his knowledge in this area included the theology of God’s oneness (tawhid), Qur’anic interpretation (tafsir), Prophetic traditions (Hadith) and biography (sira), and other traditional sciences such as grammar and poetry; in fact sharing with the ‘ulama “the entirety of their knowledge.”[9] But, as is illustrated from al-Sanusi’s statement about Shaykh Tijani’s knowledge of the Qur’an, it seems that he did not make a great distinction between esoteric and external knowledge, holding that the “external sciences return in their entirety” to the reality of the esoteric sciences.[10] Specifically, the study of the Qur’an and Hadith, which helps to instill the fear of Allah, serve to separate the aspirant from the frivolity of the material world (dunya), thereby allowing him to behave “as if he is seeing the afterlife between his hands.”[11] The inner state of the worshipper before his Lord should be one of utmost sincerity and purity “in order to accomplish an act of pure adoration and satisfaction of Divine laws.”[12] The contemporary Senegalese Tijani Shaykh Hassan Cisse explains in this regard the place of the Shari’a within the real knowledge of God (ma’rifa):

The importance of this knowledge [Shari'a] is that it is used to service and maintain the ma’rifa (reality, beauty and magnificence) of Allah already acquired. It is a means of revisiting Allah through primary worship like prayer, fasting, alms giving and pilgrimage, and secondary worship like marriage/divorce, commerce/economics, etc.[13]

It is clear that Shaykh Tijani held the classic Sufi opinion of the essential link between the Shari’a and the esoteric reality (Haqiqa). “It is incumbent on the truthful person,” he said, “to immerse himself in the esoteric reality (Haqiqa) while working with the external Shari’a, keeping to the regulations, and that is the straight path in following the Messenger.”[14]

[1] Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, cited in Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, Kashf al-Ilbas; in Pearls from the Divine Flood: Selected Discourses of Shaykh al-Islam Ibrahim Niasse (Atlanta, 2006), p. 48.

[2] Ahmad al-Sharif (grandson of al-Sanusi), Al-Anwar al-qudsiya fi muqaddimat al-tariqa al-Sanusiya, quoted in Knut S. Vikor, Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge, Muhammad b. Ali al-Sanusi and his Brotherhood (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1995), pp. 59-60.

[3] Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, “Lumieres sur la Tijaniyya et les Tijan,” chapter entitled, “Elonges des Savants a l’endroit de Ahmad al-Tijani.”

[4] Barbara Callaway and Lucy Creevey, The Heritage of Islam, Women, Religion and Politics in West Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1994), p. 46.

[5] Ifadat al-Ahmadiyya, p. 12. See also Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Translation and Commentary of the Spirit of Good Morals by Shaykh of Islam Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (Michigan: A.A.I.I., 1998), pp. 12-13.

[6] Jawahir, p. 35.

[7] Benabdellah, La Tijania, p. 75.

[8] Jawahir, pp. 59, 36.

[9] Jawahir, p. 40.

[10] Jawahir, p. 40.

[11] Jawahir, p. 40.

[12] Jawahir, quoted in Amadou Makhtar Samb, Introduction a la Tariqah Tidjaniyya ou Voie Spirituelle de Cheikh Ahmad Tidjani (Dakar: Imprimerie Saint-Paul, 1994), p. 89.

[13] Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Spirit of Good Morals of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, p. 17.

[14] Jawahir, p. 51. This statement is reminiscent of Imam Malik’s famous diction, related by Shaykh Hassan Cisse, “He who practices Sufism (tassawuf) without understanding and observing the Fiqh (law) corrupts his faith, while he who understands and observes Fiqh without practicing Sufism corrupts himself. But he who combines the two has indeed proven to be true.” See Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Spirit of Good Morals by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, p. 23.