Luminaries V -— Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs
Bismiʾllahi ʾr-Raḥmāni ʾr-Raḥīm wa ʾṣ-ṣalātu wa salām ʿalā Rasūlihi ʾl-Karīm
When we decided to create this series titled Luminaries, I was undecided as to whom I would write about. So I thought, what does Luminary actually mean? For me, a luminary is someone that has reached the status of sainthood and then gone that one step further. The word luminary is derived from one of two Latin words; lumen meaning “light”, or lucere meaning “to shine”. Interestingly, lumen is also a unit of measurement of; yes you guessed correctly, light (more specifically visible light). My teacher Dr ‘Umar Fārūq ‘Abd-Allāh says that a person’s heart is a receptacle of light, every time you do good, your heart fills with light. Hence, a luminary’s heart is full of light, to be specific: epiphanic light. This light is so strong that it radiates and illuminates all those that come into contact with it.
No one typifies this more for me than Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs al-ʻArā’ishī al-ʻAlamī al-Idrīsī al-Ḥasanī.
One of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs’s students Imām Muḥammad ʻUthmān al-Mīrghanī wrote, “One time, toward the end of his stay in Mecca, I looked at him while he was sitting next to one of the doors of the Masjid al-Ḥarām. I looked at the greatness of his spiritual state and the lights that surrounded him. I saw that such light was coming out of his noble beard, that if the light from a single hair of his beard traveled across the world it would turn all of its inhabitants into awliyāʾ.”
Ibn Idrīs was born into a pious family in the suburb of Maysūr in the district of al-ʻArā’ish near Fez in Morocco in 1750. He was a direct descendant of Sayyidīna Ḥasan b. ʿAlī, the grandson of the Prophet (ﷺ). He was often referred to (by modern academics) as the “enigmatic saint” as very little was known about him (in comparison to the great influence he had on the Muslim world), and he did not leave behind a compendium of written work. It said he was also bestowed with another name, this time by the Prophet (ﷺ) himself, the name was al-Shifā’ meaning the healing. Most of the information available on Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs is through works compiled by his students.
Even before he had reached adulthood, Ibn Idrīs would seclude himself and devote most of his time to worship and contemplation. He memorized the Qurʾān and several other important Islamic texts before moving to Fez and attending al-Qarawiyyīn at the age of twenty. He excelled at Fez, and went on to become a teacher at al-Qarawiyyīn within 10 years. He became very close to a Mauritanian scholar called Muḥammad Limjaydrī b. Ḥabībullāh, he would go on to play an important role in the spiritual development of Ibn Idrīs. Shaykh Limjaydrī was impressed with Ibn Idrīs that he introduced him to his own teacher, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Tazī. Shaykh al-Tazī was struck by the eloquence of Ibn Idrīs and the tremendous power he had in his voice. Ibn Idrīs took three paths from al-Tazī: the ancient Sufi paths, the Shādhiliyya and Nasqshbandiyya, as well as a new spiritual path called the Khaḍiriyya which was initiated by the great Shaykh ‘Abd al-Azīz Dabbāgh. Both al-Dabbāgh and al-Tazī were saints in their own right, and had seen the Prophet (ﷺ) in many dreams, they themselves had taken knowledge, and paths directly from the Prophet (ﷺ); al-Tazī now wished to bring Ibn Idrīs to this level.
Ibn Idrīs recounts seeing the Prophet (ﷺ) in a vision and received his own litanies, three to be exact: a formula for remembrance, one for ṣalawāt, and the other to seek forgiveness from God. The Prophet (ﷺ) then said to him, “O Aḥmad, I have given you the keys of the heavens and the Earth; saying them once is equal to the greatness of everything that is in this world and the next, many times over.”
At the age of forty nine, Ibn Idrīs moved to Mecca, stopping on his way in Algeria, Tunisia and also Libya, he lectured whenever he could, the talks often centred on ‘ilm (knowledge) and Sufism. His intention was to spend the rest of his life in the two holy mosques; he taught extensively in Mecca, but also in Madīnah and Ṭā’if. A common criticism of some Sufi orders is that people believe they leave behind the Qur’ān and the Sunnah or deviate away from it altogether, however Ibn Idrīs was a staunch advocate of the Qurʾān and Sunnah. One time his student Muḥammad b.ʿAlī al-Sanūsī said to him, “Dictate to me your lineage so that I may record it.” He replied, “My lineage is the Book and the Sunnah. Look, and if you find me upon the Book and the Sunnah, then say: ‘Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs is upon the Book and the Sunnah.’ That is my lineage.”
He lamented the deterioration of Islam and Muslims in general; he wanted to revive forgotten practices and teachings of the Prophet (ﷺ) no matter how small. He would often send his best students as missionaries to Muslim lands to revive them and their societies; they were in essence healers, this would be his lasting legacy. Later in his life he moved to Yemen. He was aging and felt obliged to pass on as much knowledge as possible. Some scholars have said that the revival of Sufi thinking in Yemen was brought about by the arrival of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs.
Ibn Idrīs was an independent Mujtahid, this is a term that we rarely come across now, but basically his understanding of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth was so succinct that he could extract his own opinions. His aptitude in ḥadīth was tested several times by Meccan scholars, much like Imām al-Bukhārī, they attempted to throw him by mixing the chains of narrators and Prophetic statements, but he answered each and every one of them with the correct chains all the way back to the Prophet (ﷺ). He had proved himself to be a master in the Islamic sciences.
Ibn Idrīs wanted people to receive everything directly from the Prophet (ﷺ), this is why he called his path al-Ṭarīqa al- Muḥammadiyya – in this path the Prophet (ﷺ) himself is the Shaykh. It is important to note that for all the orders, the leader is always inevitably the Prophet (ﷺ), but this path was ground breaking in the sense that Ibn Idrīs did away with intermediaries.
Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs’s originality lay in his humility, in his conscious effort in wanting to follow the Prophet (ﷺ) in every action with the utmost sincerity. He was a luminary that was intent on giving and reviving the Prophet (ﷺ) in people’s lives and homes. He wanted God and the Messenger (ﷺ) to be the centre of everyone’s lives. I can’t help but feel this is precisely what we are lacking now: the presence of God and His Messenger (ﷺ) in our daily lives.
Ibn Idrīs left behind four core principles that encapsulate his teachings and most importantly, his way, clearly.
- To remember, before every word or action, that God will question one concerning that action.
- To perform every word and action for God alone.
- To make one’s heart a home for mercy toward all Muslims, great or small, and to give them honour and respect, which is their right.
- Good character, to treat one’s family and household and all of creation kindly and gently.
“The greatest portion of our aim is in following the Prophet (ﷺ) footstep after footstep.”
“Sufism is to empty the heart of anything but God.”
“Leave aside rest and sleep, and stand up for God, may He be praised and glorified, on the foot of sincerity.”
“May your tongue habituate itself to the remembrance of God Most High, so that it overwhelms your heart…”
“Indeed there is nothing more harmful to a true faqīr than his hope in people, for hope in people is a sword which cuts man off from God.”
“We are slaves of God, journeying towards God, fearing nothing save God, hoping in nothing save God, clinging to nothing save God, and placing trust in nothing save God.”
Ibn Idrīs is a true luminary and the light he had can still be seen penetrating the hearts and minds of many to this day. This transcendent light today is carried through his students who went on to form their own paths, such as Muḥammad b.ʿAlī al-Sanūsī (d. 1859), Ibrāhīm al-Rashīd (d. 1874), Muḥammad ʻUthmān al-Mīrghanī (d. 1852), ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Maḥmūd (d. 1874), and among later figures, Ṣāliḥ al-Jaʾfarī (d. 1979).
One Harvard study said,
“The Idrīsī tradition gave birth to leaders of holy wars, men who established religious states, and a number of important centralised ṭarīqahs…. Its success was such that observers at the end of the nineteenth century felt that it was the source of much of the Islamic dynamism of the time.”
In my opinion, the greatest gift that Ibn Idrīs left was given to him in a vision by the Prophet (ﷺ)
“There is none worthy of being worshiped save God and Muḥammad is the Messenger of God, with every glance and every breath, as many times as all that is contained in the knowledge of God.”
In one of his letters to his student Muḥammad al-Madjdhūb, Ibn Idrīs said,
“May God let you reach His Light, where there is no more darkness.”
May this light penetrate our hearts and allow us to follow the way of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs, the Muḥammadan way. (ﷺ)
[Note: I have made slight edits to the original post. Clarifications were added with the use of round brackets. I have also changed one of the links embedded in the article to a more direct source for the quotation used.]