Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība
By Dawud Israel
Imām al-Junayd said that the stories of the righteous are the marshaled soldiers of God. I found the autobiography of the 18th century Moroccan Ṣūfī Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība to be full of stories and lessons that motivate one to strive as if they were a soldier of God. Beyond usual hagiography, Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība gives us an account of the details of his life, his upbringing, how he struggled, his spiritual development, and his miracles. I found many aspects of his life similar to those of the early Imāms of Islam – his learning, his imprisonment, his traveling, and his routines. He brings much of the early days of Islam back to life, when the himmah (exertion) for Islam was far greater. This is relevant to our time when due to the chasm of time it has become difficult to bring that level of zeal to our diīn.
His grandmother was a majdhuba and had numerous miracles attributed to her serving the people of Tetuan. When his mother was carrying him she often repeated: “Oh God grant me virtuous progeny!” and repeated this after each prescribed prayer and during the whole month of Ramadan. Her prayers were answered and from the time he started going to school he would go to the mosque in the middle of the night and remain there until dawn.
He had zeal for Islamic knowledge and received ījāza from his teachers to teach in various Zāwīyas. The Ḥikam of Ibn ‘Aṭā’illāh had piqued his desire for taṣawwuf early on and after spending many years as a student of Islamic learning (aalim), he desired to delve deeper into taṣawwuf.
In the mornings he would read ¼ of the Qurʾān in the day and ¼ of the Qurʾān at night in addition to making dhikr of God’s Name. Then he became connected to prayers of peace and blessings upon the Prophet (endless peace and blessings be upon him) until he could repeat the whole Dalā’il al-Khayrāt by heart. He desired to possess the Qurʾān, learned to read it in the 7 modes of recitation and would complete 14 khatms of the Qurʾān every month. This lasted for 3-4 years. Then he married and started teaching while continuing this routine for 15-16 years before meeting Shaykh al-Buzidi.
What we can take away from this is that many years may pass in a high level of ibādah until one’s soul becomes ready to undergo a greater transformation. From this we can see how much perseverance and exertion is required in coming near to God. Rather than relying on a murshid in the beginning, he sought God with whatever means God had given him, for God is enough for His servants. This can be seen as preparation for his spiritual opening later on at the hands of Shaykh al-Buzidi.
Around this time he saw Shaykh Abū’l Ḥasan as-Shadhili in a dream saying “Persevere! By God, there will be 44 learned men who will receive knowledge from you!” Many times we may feel escapist, as if its best if we just abandon the dunyā and simply worship God in khalwa. Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība felt this way too and even though he sought to abandon everything for spiritual pursuits, God intended for people to benefit from him. The lesson from this is that God may plan something different for us, for us to benefit people in a way perhaps no one else can benefit them. It may also suggest that guiding and teaching people the dīn is a crucial part of one’s spiritual development.
What his Shaykh said about him
Shaykh al-Buzidi said about him: “Sidi Aḥmad has the qualities of detachment, scrupulousness, trusting God, constancy, forbearance, contentment, serene submission, piety, compassion, generosity and magnanimity.”
To which Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība replied: “Master you are already talking about Sufism!”
Shaykh al-Buzidi: “That is just exterior Ṣūfīsm, there is still interior Ṣūfīsm which you will know later God willing!”
Here the Shaykh is talking about a view of taṣawwuf and tazkīyya that is different from the usual Muslim discourse of the outer and inner, the Ẓāhir and the bāṭin. Here he is speaking of layers to spiritual purification beyond what is outer and inner, but what is even more inner and even deeper than what we understood the spiritual to be.
His miracles in his own words
“I remember once when I was invoking God’s name in my house. The books were sitting on a shelf above me. Just then I saw a little bird up there, completely devoid of feathers as if it had just been born. He was moving his beak vigorously, opening it and then closing it over and over again, such that I realized that he was also invoking. I stood up and got closer to him, but he kept up with his invocation. When I tried to reach out to him, he withdrew and disappeared from my sight. I looked everywhere in the room, but the bird was not to be found. One of my disciples was there, sitting across the doorway. I asked him, but he assured me that he had seen nothing. That is when I realized that the bird was an angel.”
I had gone to pray in a room near the tomb of Sidī Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Fahhar during Laylatul Qadr and found myself alone in the dark room, when I was suddenly surrounded by birds: there were in front of me and behind me, with others fluttering above my head. I paid no heed, but I knew that they were angels that had come to greet men during that night.
One day when I went to visit my mother’s people, in the mountains, noon came earlier than I expected, but I could not find any water. I thought to myself: “There are saints who have had miracles happen; for example, they have seen water flowing out of a wall. Oh God, provide us with water so that we might perform ablutions!” Just then, I heard the trickling of water above the road and went toward the spot: water was flowing down the mountain and I did my ablutions. When we reached the spot in question, I told my brother that I had found water there; but when we looked we could find nothing but dryness.
While I was exercising in the Casba mosque – I was still a bachelor at the time – it happened that I finished my teaching of a book. To celebrate the event, I gave the muezzin, Sidī Muḥammad al-Sagir, two or three small bushels of flour with which he prepared a meal. From sundown to the evening prayer, he did not stop serving guests: one group got up, and another replaced them. Mysteriously, enough food was left that the mu’addin took it home. His family and his neighbors ate it, after which he told me: “It was a true marvel! And to think that I was under the impression you were not giving me much flour at all!”
Another time when I had gone to the Qarawīīn Mosque in Fez during Laylatul Qadr, I remained to make invocation after the dawn prayer and suddenly saw a man walking between the columns saying “La ilaha illallah; the market is finished (insarafa l-suq)!” I retorted: “There is still the Living One, who does not die!” He then disappeared from my sight and replied: “What you say is true!” Then he added: “I composed a book in which I wrote, ‘so and so said,’ ‘so and so said’ and did I get results?” Then he continued: “If you want to write, let it come from you!” I understood that he was referring to a work that I was writing in which I was repeating lots of things the ancient authors had said; he was bringing my attention to the fact that I should use my own faculties of thought to take out what was inside me.”
Select advices from his letters
“Wandering is indispensable for the faqīr who is beginning the way. Travelling reveals faults and purifies souls and hearts; it expands one’s character and, thanks to it, knowledge of the King and Creator is broadened. In fact, the traveler contemplates a new ray of divine light every day, and encounters aspects that he did not know and that were unfamiliar to him. His knowledge and his intellectual horizon are stretched. They say that the faqir is like water: if he stays in the same place too long, he stagnates and putrefies.”
Every time you see someone indulging in one of these practices, using hashish or tobacco, for example, flee and say, “I take refuge from him in God!” The person is a demon among the human demons, sent by God to try the initiates, to see if they remain firm on the straight path or if they stray. Beware of following them, of allowing yourselves to be seduced by their words or of letting yourselves be trained by them toward easiness or toward arbitrary interpretations, for you would risk seeing your good actions invalidated and would be running toward your loss.
Know how to restrict your means of subsistence as much as you can, and be content with the subsistence that becomes your lot. Subsistence of the body is, as a matter of fact, guaranteed and, however paltry it might be, and it suffices. Do not be greedy except for subsistence of the spirit, which is the invocation of God, visiting Shaykhs and brethren, and the service one renders them: of this subsistence do not be satisfied with either less or more; any more than with meditation or contemplation, if you have an aptitude for it, because they are the means of acquiring the Great Richness, the Supreme Success which is obtained only by intense dedication of the heart and of the body. Peace!
Peace and blessings be upon Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība!
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