THE WAY OF GRATITUDE (SHUKR)
[Excerpts from Zachary Wright, On the Path of the Prophet: Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Atlanta: African American Islamic Institute, 2005), p. 147-158. Posted with permission of publisher.]
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was not the first saint to stress the principal of shukr (giving thanks or being grateful) and its relationship to Divine grace, but his placement of shukr as the only door remaining to arrive to God seems unprecedented. The Shaykh’s ideas on this subject might be said to partly define the distinctiveness of the Tijaniyya order, and certainly they are the essential ingredient in understanding how he was able to supply “a distinct vision of the destiny of his followers.”[i] Indeed, it is through the concept of shukr that the Shaykh confronts the perceived corruption of the times and emphasizes the grace (fadl) or mercy of God and the course of its descent.
The Qutb al-Maktum or the Khatm al-Awliya’, being the closest saint to the Prophet and thus the most sincere in his praise (hamd or shukr) to God, becomes the receptacle and distributor of Divine favor or grace flowing through the Prophet. The appearance of such a position in a corrupt age, near to the End of Time, is no accident, but a favor from God, “which He bestows on whom He will, and God is the possessor of the highest bounty (fadl).”[ii] Thus, for Shaykh Tijani, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya was a path of grace in a corrupt world whose core practice defined the essential behavior of the Prophet and the purpose of the Islamic message, that of giving thanks or praise to God.
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani places giving thanks on par with faith itself by citing the Qur’an, “What can Allah gain by your punishment, If ye are grateful (shakartum) and ye believe? Nay, it is Allah that recogniseth (all good) (Shakir), and knoweth all things.”[iii] It is useful in this regard to recall the semantics behind the opposite of belief, the word kufr; usually translated as “disbelief,” but also meaning “to cover up” or “to be ungrateful.”[iv] Thus the act of being grateful was the recognition and exposing or opening of oneself to Divine favor, which Shaykh Ahmad Tijani endowed with the greatest importance:
The closest of the doors to Allah is the door of Shukr, and who does not in this time enter through it, does not enter. [This because] the ego-selves (nafs) have become thick and they are not affected by spiritual exercises and devotions or obedience, nor are they restrained by accounting (hisab) or argumentation. So if one wants to become immersed in happiness and blessing, he should absent himself from all of that and end his distance [from God], and all goodness promised from God we find connected with having no other desire than to give thanks. For as the Most High has said: “If ye are grateful, I will add more (favors) unto you.”[v]
Such a passage also helps to explain the Tijani de-emphasis of excessive asceticism. For Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, the action of giving thanks, saying alhamdulillah, or praising God, was obviously intimately connected with the path of the Prophet as well as being the ultimate expression of servitude before God. The emptying of the self of every desire except to praise or render thanks to God defines the closest station of proximity to God, where dwells the Prophet himself. Thus Shaykh Hassan Cisse comments, “Because of the humility displayed by the Prophet, the blessings and peace of Allah upon him, before his creator, Allah granted him the highest position in the hereafter, known as ‘the Praiseworthy Position.’”[vi]
It is from this station of selfless proximity that flow God’s favors to the rest of the saints and to creation. Shukr is the most important action for the servant to receive this grace: the servant must never believe that it is only through the merit of his good deeds that he may attain the good favor of God. Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, as was mentioned previously, cautioned the aspirant not to “err in pride in believing himself full of good qualities.” The Shaykh himself used to entreat God, “I come, bringing no knowledge and no piety, rather all is defilement, my Lord, with me.”[vii] This idea was of course not new, and Hakim al-Tirmidhi once described the Prophet’s own preeminence “because of what is contained in his heart, not because of his works.”[viii] The idea of grace (fadl) thus implies the complete submission of the servant to permit God’s own action. According to Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, the saint becomes a letter (harf) among the letters (huruf) emanating from the Divine Essence, thereby “permitting him a direct action.”[ix]
According to Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s emphasis on shukr and the grace (fadl) of Allah finds its parallel in the Hadith, for the Prophet once said nobody would enter Paradise except through the mercy of God. When asked if that included himself, he replied even himself.[x] Indeed Shaykh Ahmad Tijani himself declared, “We have nothing but the grace (fadl) of Allah and His mercy.”[xi] The Shaykh delimited within this grace from God the guidance and intercession of the Prophet and the presence of the saints, or the people of God (ahl-Allah), “those who call on their Lord morning and evening, seeking His Face.”[xii] Such grace was necessary because the servant was painfully unable, especially in the present time, to fulfill God’s commands by his own efforts. As the Jawahir poses the question, “Are you capable of fulfilling all the obligations of the Law, the explicit and the implicit? Are you able, without assistance, to triumph over your passions?”[xiii]
Clearly what is meant by shukr is the recognition of God’s grace and beauty, an essential action to avoid His punishment. In the words of the Shaykh,
If Allah wishes the destruction of a servant, He empowers him to His [decreed] blessing, [but] without adding to it … and if He wills mercy to a servant He makes known to him His blessing and makes him eager to show gratefulness and to avoid denial, and this [gratefulness] is the source of all good.[xiv]
Elsewhere, the Shaykh likens gratefulness to love for God, for “the source of love is the witnessing of [God’s] beauty and beneficence.”[xv] He was thus concerned to enumerate to his followers the grace or mercy of God. These passages of the Jawahir present a deeply compassionate idea of the Divine.
Indeed Allah has mercy on a servant for the sake of only one quality … if He finds one trait of goodness in you, such as modesty, generosity or something of love, for example, or a peaceful heart or truthfulness of speaking, or something of this in your actions for His sake, He has sympathy for you and takes you by the hand.[xvi]
But even this is not enough to express God’s mercy, and later the Shaykh simply declares, “Allah shows mercy without a reason.”[xvii] Such an emphasis has subsequently provided the basis for a tradition of tolerance within the Tijaniyya, for God’s mercy or rahma is present everywhere in the creation, even among wrongdoers or non-Muslims.[xviii] Shaykh Ahmad Tijani once said, “Wrongdoing is only an accident where the sick person remains enveloped by the love of his Creator; his fate is between the Hands of his Lord. No other except God will know how to declare his fate.”[xix] Consequently the Shaykh often urged his followers to “ignore the evil of people.”[xx] Such a general emphasis on tolerance or not delving into another’s shortcomings has been expanded by some Tijani scholars to include those who reject Sufism or the Tijaniyya, and thus has implications for the modern division between Sufis and anti-Sufis. Shaykh Hassan Cisse advises Tijanis not to attack those hostile to them in the manner they themselves are attacked, since “it is just ignorance” that allows some other Muslims to label Sufis or Tijanis as unbelievers. Such behavior for any Muslim, concludes the Shaykh, “is dangerous, and very sad.”[xxi]
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s emphasis on the mercy or grace of God situated within the context of emptiness of the self presents the classic juxtaposition between hope and fear of God. On the one hand, we find the Shaykh assuring his followers of the unending mercy of the Creator, but in the majority of correspondences we find him encouraging them nonetheless in the fear of God. Critics of the Tijaniyya are quick to isolate his assurances of mercy of God or His salvation from the totality of his teachings.[xxii] In the context of the Jawahir‘s cautioning of the aspirant against God’s anger or even misguidance (makr Allah), it must be admitted that this seems to make about as much sense as taking in isolation the Prophet’s assurances of salvation for anyone who once uttered the profession of faith, “There is nothing worthy of worship but God” (la ilaha ill-Allah), without considering the hadith that not even the Prophet will enter Paradise without the mercy of God.
In any case, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was enthusiastic to proclaim, based on what the Prophet reportedly told him, the wonder of God’s mercy to his followers. Those who took his wird (the Tijani litany) and loved him are thereby a beloved of the Prophet and would not die before becoming one of God’s saints (wali).[xxiii] But such statements can not be considered unique to the Tijaniyya. The Prophet appeared to such saints as Abu Madyan, Ibn ‘Arabi, Muhammad Zawawi and al-Nabulsi to shake their hands and inform that others who shook their hand, sometimes up to the seventh person, would be saved from Hellfire.[xxiv] The Egyptian Tijani Shaykh Muhsin Shalaby contextualizes such an idea by citing the hadith where a wrongdoer is granted Paradise simply for giving a thirsty dog some water, and pointing out that the mercy of God is such that it sometimes appears as if “Allah is using any excuse to send people to Paradise.”[xxv] In any case, Shaykh Hassan Cisse explains the possibility of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s pronouncements by saying they came not from him, but were statements made by the Prophet himself. Unless one is willing to accuse the Shaykh of lying on behalf of the Prophet, despite his having knowledge of the hadith where the Prophet said that anyone lying concerning him should prepare his seat in Hellfire, there is no choice but to accept the Prophet’s announcements as they were reported by the Shaykh.[xxvi]
Whatever Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s emphasis of God’s mercy, it apparently never eclipsed his stress on the necessity of having fear of God. The Tijani disciple should therefore not “take the promise of salvation as a trick to be safe from the punishment of God for his sins.” In this case, God would veil him from the remembrance of God’s grace and its means of distribution through the Prophet and the saints. “If so, God clothes his heart in ignoring us until he maligns us, and if he maligns us, God makes him die an unbeliever… [his] heart must be ever fearful of the punishment of God.”[xxvii] Even those most beloved of God, according to the Shaykh, never stop fearing Him, “Because the Prophets and the Saints themselves, despite their elevated ranks, did not believe themselves sheltered from Divine anger and always strove in the purification of their souls.”[xxviii]
The idea of accessing God’s grace through contact with the Prophet was understood by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani to have a relationship to a new era of Islamic history. The Shaykh seemed concerned that the knowledge of God’s favor or grace, itself perhaps the most important inheritance from the Prophet, was in danger of obscuration by the corruption of the times. Specifically he was anxious about the prevalence of sin and the Muslim’s increasing inability to live according to God’s command. He warned his disciples, “Know that nobody in these times can keep away from sin since it falls on human beings like heavy rain, but do acts of penitence, the most assured of which is Salat al-Fatih.”[xxix] Elsewhere he urged his disciples to have patience with the corruption of the times in the following terms:
This time is one in which the bases of divine ordinance have been destroyed …; and it is beyond the capacity of any person to carry out God’s command in every respect in this time, except those attired in knowledge of Him or who approach it. However, things being what [as] they have been described, and as the servant has no escape from that in which God has placed him, the gray is better than the black. Abstain from acting contrary to God’s command as much as it is within your powers, and carry out His ordinance as much as possible; but do for yourself numerous acts of penitence day and night.[xxx]
In such a time the saint, or “those attired in knowledge of Him,” had a particularly important role to play. The saint, as was explained previously, was for Shaykh Ahmad Tijani the true inheritor of the Prophet, so his presence among the people, especially in difficult times, served as an opening to God’s favor or grace that would not otherwise be available given the near impossibility of fulfilling Divine ordinance in such a time. The legal scholars were thus unable by themselves to pass on the Islamic message to the people, and the Jawahir asks the negatively rhetorical question, “The ‘ulama of today, are they capable of transmitting guidance to the people?”[xxxi] The saints alone, due to their access to God’s grace through spiritual relationship to the Prophet, were capable of serving the people in this regard. The Shaykh was of course not implying the saints had the power to change to the law to fit the new age, but only that his position as ibn waqtihi, the son of his time, required him to act within Divine ordinance “according to what his time requires”[xxxii] in order to maintain access to God’s grace.
It is tempting to conclude that what the Shaykh meant by the corruption of the times was the onset of modernity and the beginnings of non-Muslim colonial control of Muslim societies. But even if Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 can be seen in hindsight as ushering in a new era for the Muslim world, it is doubtful Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was speaking of the encroaching age of European modernity when he spoke of the corruption of his age. There is no reference to the Europeans in the Jawahir, nor to any of the elements of European style modernity, such as increasing technological progress, secularization, urbanization, etc. More likely the Shaykh, as with many an Islamic reformer before him, saw his own time as the most recent, lowest state of deterioration from the time of the Prophet; a time whose corruption was itself testament to the approaching End of Time. For Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, the most serious result of this decline was the disappearance of the people of knowledge who were capable of providing guidance to the Muslims.[xxxiii]
Such a notion of guidance or grace in a corrupt age defines the historical purpose the Shaykh saw his own Tariqa Muhammadiyya as playing from his own time until the Last Day. It is with such a notion that is found the most valuable definition of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya as both an abstraction and an historical phenomenon. Thus, for Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya was a path of grace through contact with the enduring, guiding spirit of the Prophet, seeing its culmination in the formation of the Tijaniyya order as a favor from God to face the difficulties of a world full of transgression and increasingly bereft of knowledge.
[i] Triaud, “La Tijaniyya, une confrérie musulmane pas comme les autres?” in Triaud and Robinson ed.s, La Tijaniyya, p. 14.
[ii] Qur’an, 62:4, quoted in the Jawahir, p. 28.
[iii] Qur’an, 4:147. The translation is that of Yusef ‘Ali. See Jawahir, p. 48.
[iv] Toshihiko Izutsu, The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran, A Study in Semantics (Japan, 1959), p. 38.
[v] Jawahir, p. 48. The Shaykh quotes the Qur’an, 14:7. The translation is that of Yusef ‘Ali. The verse continues, “But if ye show ingratitude (kafartum), truly My punishment is terrible indeed.”
[vi] Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Spirit of Good Morals of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, pp. 55-56.
[vii] Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, Ahzab wa Awrad, cited in Padwick, Muslim Devotions, p. 215.
[viii] Radtke and O’Kane, The Concept of Sainthood, p. 203.
[ix] Jawahir, quoted in Benabdellah, La Tijania, p. 110.
[x] Interview with Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Medina Kaolack, Senegal, February, 2003. There are plenty of examples from the Islamic tradition that speak of the idea of grace: “And ye have no good thing but it is from Allah” (16:53) or “And were it not for the grace and mercy (fadl) of Allah on you, not one of you would ever have been pure: but Allah doth purify whom He pleases” (24:20). Ibn al-‘Arabi writes, “Mercy is acquired in two ways, by obligation, as in His saying, ‘I will ordain it for those who are God-fearing and give alms (Qur’an 7:156),’ together with the intellectual and practical qualities he attributes to them, or by Divine Grace, which is unlike any [human] action, as in His saying, ‘My Mercy encompasses everything (Qur’an 7:156),’ so that ‘He might forgive you your earlier and later sins (Qur’an 48:2),’ and ‘Do what you will I have forgiven you (Hadith qudsi reported by Ibn Hanbal).'” See Ibn ‘Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom (translated by R.W.J. Austin, New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 226-227.
[xi] Jawahir, p. 47.
[xii] Qur’an, 18:28, see Jawahir, p. 47.
[xiii] Jawahir, quoted in Berque, L’intérieur du Maghreb, p. 249.
[xiv] Jawahir, p. 47.
[xv] Jawahir, p. 50.
[xvi] Jawahir, p. 47.
[xvii] Jawahir, p. 47.
[xviii] For some reported favorable Tijani views on Christians, see Abun-Nasr, The Tijaniyya, pp. 58-59.
[xix] Jawahir, quoted in Benabdellah, La Tijania, p. 110.
[xx] Jawahir, p. 191.
[xxi] Interview with Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Medina Kaolack, Senegal, August, 2001.
[xxii] See Triaud, “La Tijaniyya, voie infailible.”
[xxiii] Jawahir, p. 54, 55.
[xxiv] Jonathan Katz, Dreams, Sufism and Sainthood, pp. 224-226.
[xxv] Muhsin Shalaby, interview, Fes, Morocco, December, 2002.
[xxvi] Shaykh Hassan Cisse, interview, Rabat, Morocco, March, 2003.
[xxvii]Jawahir, p. 56.
[xxviii] Ifadat al-Ahmadiyya, quoted in Samb, Tariqah Tidjaniyyah, p. 202.
[xxix] Jawahir, quoted in Abun-Nasr, The Tijaniyya, p. 42.
[xxx] Jawahir, p. 190. The translation is Abun-Nasr, The Tijaniyya, p. 42.
[xxxi] Jawahir, quoted in Berque, L’intérieur du Maghreb, p. 250.
[xxxii] Jawahir, p. 161.
[xxxiii] Jawahir, p. 214.