He was a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad through Fatima Zahra’s first son Hasan and later through Mawlay Idris, the celebrated founder of Morocco. His father was Sidi Muhammad, a prominent scholar and his mother, Aisha, was the daughter of Muhammad b Sanusi (no known relation to Muhammad al-Sanusi, the founder of the Sanusiyya), and was noted for her piety and generosity.
The young Tijani continued in the scholarly tradition of his family and city, memorising the Qur’an by the age seven before turning to the study of jurisprudence (fiqh and usul al-fiqh), Prophetic traditions (hadith), explanation of the Qur’an (tafsir), Qur’anic recitation (tajwid), grammar (nahw) and literature (adab), among other branches of the traditional Islamic sciences. According to the Jawahir, the sheikh mastered all of these fields at a very young age, in part due to the force of his resolve but also because of the quality of his teachers.
The obvious destination for any seeker of Islamic knowledge in the Maghrebi context was Fes, the long-established political, intellectual, cultural and religious capital of the area. According to the Jawahir, the young Sheikh Tijani spent his time in Fes studying hadith and generally seeking out the people of piety and religion. Even from the time of Sheikh Tijani’s first visit to Fes, the young scholar’s ascendent motivation seemed to be the attainment of a spiritual opening (fath). So when another of his teachers, Sidi Muhammad al-Wanjili (d. 1185), a man known for his saintliness, predicted for him a maqam (spiritual station) of Qutbaniyya (Polehood) similar to that of Abu Hasan al-Shadhili, but that his fath would come in the desert, Tijani hastened his departure from Fes. He spent some time in the desert of Zawiya before returning to Ain Madi, only to leave his home soon again to return to al-Abyad before moving on to Tlemcen. His activities during this time consisted of teaching Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and Hadith in whatever town he happened to be staying while continuing an apparently rigorous practice of asceticism, including frequent fasting and superogatory worship. During his stay in Tlemcen, he received through Divine inspiration greater assurance of his coming grand illumination. In 1773 he left for hajj.
Sheikh Ahmad Tijani’s journey East brought him also to Tunis, home of the famous Zaytuna mosque and university, which predates both the Azhar in Cairo and the Qarawin in Fes. It seems he made enough of an impression on the scholars there for the Emir, Bey Ali to offer him a lucrative permanent teaching position at Zaytuna. But the emir’s request had the opposite effect on Sheikh Tijani to that which was hoped for and, reportedly not wanting to accept dependence on state authority, he continued his journey East.
Arriving in Mecca just after Ramadan in 1774, Sheikh Ahmad Tijani stayed long enough to accomplish the rites of the hajj. During his stay there he also, as was his custom, sought out the people of “goodness, piety, righteousness and happiness.” His search led him to a mysterious saint from India, Ahmad b Abdullah al-Hindi, who had made a vow to speak to no one except his servant. On knowledge of Tijani’s presence at his house, al-Hindi sent him the message, “You are the inheritor of my knowledge, secrets, gifts and lights,” and informed the pilgrim that he himself was to die in a matter of days (it came to pass on the exact day al-Hindi had predicted for himself), but that he should go visit the Qutb (Pole) Muhammad al-Samman when in Medina. He accomplished the ziyara (visitation) to the Prophet’s tomb, where “God completed his aspiration and longing” to greet the Prophet.
The beginning of a distinctive “Tijani” order can be located with the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad to Sheikh Ahmad Tijani in a waking vision. This occurred in 1784, in the desert oasis of Abi Samghun. The Prophet informed him that he himself was his initiator on the path and told him to leave the sheikhs he had previously followed. The sheikh then received the basis of a new wird and was given permission to give “spiritual training to the creation in [both] the general and unlimited (itlaq).” The Prophet told him: “You are not indebted for any favour from the sheikhs of the Path, for I am your means (wasita) and your support in the [spiritual] realisation, so leave the entirety of what you have taken from all the tariqas.”
Sheikh Ahmad Tijani and a group of his closest companions took up residence in Fes beginning in 1213/1798. By the time of his arrival in Fes, Sheikh Tijani’s fame as a scholar possessing religious charisma or blessing (baraka) had spread throughout the Maghreb, so that his entry into the city was a matter of some importance for the political and religious establishment. The Sheikh was met by a delegation of scholars selected by the sultan. The relationship that developed between Sheikh Tijani and Sultan Mawlay Sulayman is important in understanding the religious personality of both men. After a series of tests to ascertain the veracity of Tijani’s claims to sainthood, such as giving the saint money in a manner he would not have been able to accept as a man of religion, Mawlay Sulayman became closely linked to the newcomer, appointing him to his council of religious scholars and giving him a large house (“the House of Mirrors”). The sultan’s initiation into the Tijaniyya has often been denied by non-Tijanis, but Tijanis have maintained his discipleship to their Sheikh. Tijani tradition has chronicled a series of letters between Sheikh Tijani and the Sultan clearly indicating a sheikh-disciple relationship. In one exchange, the sheikh writes the sultan urging him to fear God and keep to His command and then informs him of the some of the benefits of the Tijani wird as told him by the Prophet, and tells him of the proper manners for experiencing the vision of the Prophet.
The sheikh’s time in Fes was largely occupied with the solidification of the tariqa and the training and sending out of muqaddams (propagators). Before the end of his life, he had attracted thousands of followers and sent out muqaddams as far as Mauritania. Before the completion of the Tijani zawiya, his followers met at the sheikh’s own house, the House of Mirrors. This house can still be visited today.
Established in Fes, the sheikh’s following continued to grow, prompting him in 1215 (1800), by order of the Prophet, to begin construction of the Tijani zawiya that still serves as a place of congregation for the order to this day.
Sheikh Ahmad Tijani passed from this world in 1230 (1815) at the age of eighty. He left behind him a firmly established order, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya emphasis of which inspired many of his later followers to renew and spread Islam in diverse communities far from the mother zawiya in Fes. Sheikh Ahmad Tijani was buried in his zawiya in Fes, which today remains a centre of congregation for Tijanis around the world.]]>