By Zakariya Wright
Address at the Forum for the Followers of the Tijaniyya
Fes, Morocco, June 28, 2007

(The italicized introductory remarks were given in Arabic, but the rest of the speech was given in English)

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and blessing and peace on our master Muhammad, the opener of what was closed, the seal of what preceded him, he who makes victorious the Truth by the truth, the guide to Your most straight path, and on his family, may this prayer be equal to his merit, for surely his worth is exceedingly great.

O brothers in Allah, fellow lovers of the Prophet, and those who hold fast to this overflowing zeal (himma), the most trustworthy handhold, our shaykh, our teacher, our means of access, the hidden pole, the seal of saints, Mawlana Ahmad Tijani, may Allah be pleased with him.

I have been asked to speak on the subject of learning and Islamic education in this Tariqa Muhammadiyya. Since I will speak mostly from the perspective of Western academia, I will offer my remarks in English with your permission.

Those of us from America, I must say first of all, join in offering sincere thanks to his majesty the king, commander of the faithful, the noble descendant of the Prophet, Muhammad VI, may Allah assist him. We would also like to thank his excellency, Professor Ahmad Tawfiq, and the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, for this blessed gathering, and for this opportunity to meet with our beloveds, the adherents of the Tariqa Tijaniyya from the farthest ends of the earth, and with our brothers, the Muslims of Morocco.

I begin with praising God for gathering us here in this blessed land of knowledge, light and grace; for bringing us together here during these few short days for no other reason than our love for Him, for His Prophet Muhammad, for His saints, and for each other. It is also my honor to thank his majesty Muhammad VI, amir al-mu’mineen and the beloved country of Morocco for hosting us with such generosity and graciousness. May Allah reward you all from Himself, and may this conference continue to increase us in love for each other and in knowledge of Him and the path to Him.

The subject of learning or education and the Tariqa Tijaniyya is becoming increasingly relevant in the context of not only what we ourselves are doing on a day to day basis, but what our detractors say we are not doing. It would be no exaggeration to say the Tariqa Tijaniyya has been one of the most slandered of the Sufi orders, both in so-called “reformist” Salafi circles and even in Western academic literature. Common to such polemics is the tendency to cite Tijani scholars out of context or even to attribute false beliefs to them. There is perhaps no area where anti-Tijani polemics has done more to obscure the reality of Tijani practice than in the field of learning. One work, for example, claims that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani believed “it was preferable to cease taking interest in religious learning,” and even that “it was imperative to ban all religious learning.”[1]

By religious learning here we are of course referring to the classical Islamic sciences: Qur’an, hadith, jurisprudence (fiqh), exegesis (tafsir), methodology (usul), theology (‘aqida or kalam), literature (adab) or purification of the self (tasawwuf). The subject of the relationship of the Tijaniyya to education thus becomes essential in evaluating allegations of the order’s departure from the Islamic tradition. In the end, this is a pragmatic question of day to day practice. From the perspective of the historian, after all, what is important is not so much the claims made on either side of an argument, but the “facts on the ground.”

A cursory examination of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s own teachings and practice, or even a short visit with contemporary Tijani scholars around the world, many of whom are assembled here today, demonstrate the absurdity of the alleged disjunction between the Tijaniyya and learning. Shaykh Tijani himself was an extremely precocious student, and it is reported that by the age of twenty people began flocking to him on account of his vast erudition in the classical sciences. The profound depth of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s own learning aside, Shaykh Tijani was frequented by some of the most learned men of his age. His followers included the Shaykh al-Islam of the Zaytuna University, Ibrahim Riyahi, and many other imams and eminent scholars. It was no accident then that the Sultan of Morocco at the time, Mawlay Suleyman, who was well trained as an Islamic scholar and, according to the historian Mohamed el-Mansour, “continued to govern more like an ‘alim (religious scholar) than a statesman,”[2] should have been particularly impressed with Shaykh Ahmad Tijani. It is well known that the Sultan gave the Shaykh a house in Fes and appointed him to his council of religious scholars; and it seems clear that the Sultan in fact himself joined the Tijaniyya, along with his son Abd al-Salam and several of his advisors. In one letter from the Sultan to Shaykh Ahmad Tijani reprinted in the Kashf al-Hijab of Qadi Ahmad Sukayrij, the Sultan asked the Shaykh to help him experience the vision of the Prophet, and addresses the Shaykh as “the ransom of our parents, our master and our shaykh and our Muhammadan example, Abu ‘Abbas Sidi Ahmad.”

Later Tijani followers have emulated the example of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and his companions by spreading the light of knowledge all over the world. Shaykh al-Islam Ibrahim Niasse, the great Tijani shaykh from Senegal, explained the historically close relationship between the Tijaniyya and knowledge through the exhortation of Shaykh Tijani himself. Once when Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was asked if false statements would be attributed to him, he replied in the affirmative and said, “If you hear something from me, weigh it on the scale of the Shari’a: if it balances take it, if not, leave it.” The business of weighing on the scale of the Shari’a, Shaykh Ibrahim explained, belonged to the ulama or scholars. In other words, if one would be a Tijani, one must also strive to be a scholar, must strive vigorously after knowledge. Although the Tijaniyya has never discriminated against those of lower social status, Shaykh Ibrahim insisted that the Tijani cannot be ignorant, cannot remain a person of the street. And certainly in this time when the Tijaniyya is sometimes unjustly maligned, seeking knowledge, says Shaykh Hassan Cisse, is incumbent on all Tijanis simply as a means to differentiate the truth from the falsehood.

As many works of history have recently observed, the Tijaniyya has been at the forefront of education, especially on the African continent. The French colonial administrator Paul Marty observed as early as 1917 that the Tijani zawiya in Senegal had become “a veritable popular university. It has formed a considerable quantity of Qur’an school masters who have spread out across lower Senegal, forming in turn a new pleiad of masters thus greatly contributing to expanding the rudiments of Muslim instruction.”[3] The expansion of the Tijaniyya in Northern Nigeria contributed to a renaissance in education in traditional centers of learning such as Kano. Figures like Wali Suleiman, the advisor to Emir Sanusi, both of whom later became closely associated with Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, were instrumental in reviving and adapting Islamic traditional education to modern times. According to one author, as headmaster of the leading juridical school in Kano and possessing comprehensive knowledge of all the Islamic sciences, Wali Suleiman “did more than just reproduce the traditional style. The aim of the school was to produce men who knew thoroughly the letter and spirit of the Shari’a, and who could deal with the Shari’a on the basis of sound comprehension.”[4]

The same might of course be said about the vast number of Qur’an schools, majalis al-ilm and madrasas established all over Africa by Tijani scholars: in a time of great upheaval and while many in the Middle East proper were abandoning the traditional methods of knowledge transmission, Tijani scholars in West Africa particularly continued to impart the letter and spirit of the religion, allowing Muslims to adapt to a changing world while soundly grounded in their traditions. A perfect example of this was the untiring teaching of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse in Senegal, who attracted a renowned cadre of scholars from all over West Africa and even from Egypt. The city of Medina-Baye which he established in 1929 can best be described even today as one giant school training an elite class of scholars who have since spread all over the world.

The Tijaniyya has also become associated with providing unprecedented educational opportunities for Muslim women in Africa, as has observed Alaine Hutson in an article entitled, “The Development of Women’s Authority in the Kano Tijaniyya.”[5] The same conclusion was reached by a study of the educational initiatives instituted in Niger by the Tijani woman scholar Sayyida Oumul Khadiri Niass, the daughter of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, in an article entitled, “Islam and Female Empowerment among the Tijaniyya in Niger.”[6] The same could be said of Sayyida Maryama Niass who has opened an important Islamic school for women in Dakar.

The contemporary involvement of the Tijaniyya with education cannot escape the mention of Shaykh Hassan Cisse’s African American Islamic Institute. Established in 1988 as a UN recognized Non-Governmental organization, the Institute has been active in such diverse fields as poverty alleviation, women’s rights, health care, natural resource development; and of course, education. The Institute’s central school in Medina-Baye Kaolack, staffed by scholars from around the African continent and beyond, has produced a great number of successful students who have gone on to study at Azhar university, in Morocco or other centers of Islamic scholarship. Several American students who learned the entire Qur’an in Medina Baye have since returned to their home country and established their own Qur’an schools in cities such as Atlanta and New York.

Nor have Tijanis remained limited to traditional Islamic education. Tijani scholars such as Dr. Ousmane Kane, Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Dr. Suleyman Nyang have become respected professors at such elite American universities as Columbia, Northwestern University and Howard University.

This brief overview of the relationship between the Tariqa Tijaniyya and education is enough to definitively deconstruct the alleged unorthodox or unlearned nature of the Tijaniyya sometimes found in anti-Tijani polemics. But the purpose of this presentation is not simply to refute the absurd postulations of a few writers. The subject of learning goes beyond the few years we spend in school as youth, beyond the books a few of us manage to write, beyond the diplomas and conferences. The greatest proof of the Tijaniyya’s constitutive relationship to learning within the Muslim community has been the continued emergence within the Tariqa of true knowledgeable men and women, whose very presence embodies the entirety of the religion, who are in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. And this of course is the grace or fadl God has granted the paradigmatic saint of this Tariqa, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani: that this Tariqa Muhammadiyya would continue to connect us to the true spirit of Islam, to the presence of the Prophet Muhammad himself. I conclude with a citation from the Jawahir al-Ma’ani where Shaykh Ahmad Tijani described the true scholar as the walking essence of the religion itself. He said of such a scholar:

Allah gives him the power of Divine light, and if a thousand issues of the time were exposed to him, each with no text concerning it, he would establish every issue on its [relevant] text … if the earth were to lose this person, then the hujja, decision or proof of Allah would fall on His creation. But this is not the case except for the completed one … [whom] Allah has supported with His grace (fadl).[7]

Alhamdulillah, it is a true testament to the legacy of our mawlana al-Qutb al-Maktum, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, that we have gathered with us today some of the world’s greatest scholars. Indeed, it has only been at the hand of this gracious and learned Shaykh, Imam Hassan Cisse, that I myself have been awakened from the sleep of ignorance and placed in Islam’s circle of mercy and moreover, light within light, been inspired to walk this path of knowledge, this Tariqa Muhammadiyya Ahmadiyya Ibrahimiyya Tijaniyya. And our last supplication is always to praise Allah, Lord of all the worlds.

[1] Jamil Abun-Nasr, The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World (Oxford UP, 1965), p. 20, 43.

[2] Mohamed el-Mansour, Morocco in the reign of Mawlay Sulayman (London, 1990), p. 134.

[3] Paul Marty, Etudes sur l’Islam au Senegal (1917), p. 186. Marty is here referring specifically to the zawiya of al-Hajj Malik Sy, but he makes similarly positive assessments of the educational efforts of al-Hajj Abdoulaye Niasse in the Sine-Saloum region.

[4] John Weir Chamberlain, The Development of Islamic Education in Kano City, Nigeria, with emphasis on Legal Education in the 19th and 20th Centuries (PhD Thesis, Columbia University, 1975).

[5] Alaine Hutson, “The Development of Women’s Authority in Kano Tijaniyya, 1894-1963,” in Africa Today, March, 1999.

[6] Pearl Robinson, “Islam and Female Empowerment among the Tijaniyya in Niger,” Research note, September, 2005.

[7] Jawahir al-Ma’ani, p. 214.