The Poetry of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse

Love Poems from Islamic Africa:
A Translation of the Poetic Corpus of Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse

Collaborative Translation Project:
initiated November 2020, expected completion Fall 2024

Research Team

Ousmane Kane, Professor, Harvard University
Zachary Wright, Associate Professor, Northwestern University in Qatar
Oludamini Ogunnaike, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia
Adnan Wood-Smith, Graduate Student, Harvard University
Fakhruddin Owaisi, Instructor, Madina Institute, South Africa (External Advisor)

Project Overview

This translation project aims to produce a full translation of the collected Arabic poetry of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, the “Shaykh al-Islam” of West Africa and certainly one of the leading shaykhs of the Tijaniyya in the twentieth century. The translation team has selected the 800-page Afaq al-shiʿr ʿinda al-Shaykh Ibrahim Niyas (edited Muhammad b. ʿAbdallah al-Tijani, 2018), the first full compilation of Shaykh Ibrahim’s voluminous poetry. This project brings together a number of scholars with a demonstrated commitment to this work. It was initiated in the fall of 2020 and has an expected completion date (inshahallah) in the fall of 2024.

From the earliest days of Sufism, poetry has been a favored means of expressing the mystical states (aḥwāl) and forms of existential knowledge (maʿārif) of the Sufi path that resist discursive description. “In allusion there is meaning not contained by clear expression,” wrote the great 13th century Egyptian Sufi poet Ibn al-Fāriḍ, and in his famous wine-ode, the poet further explains, “The subtlety of vessels, in reality, comes from the meanings they contain, and these meanings are enhanced by their vessels’ subtlety.” As a medium of speech that permits and even thrives on ambiguity, paradox, aporia, metonymy, and surprising connections, Sufis throughout the ages have found poetic expression to be a felicitous outward expression of an inward mystical consciousness in which everything is alive, connected and even paradoxically united with everything else and the basic binaries between self and other, speaker and spoken-to, outward and inward, one and many, are broken down. The influential 13th-century Andalusian Sufi and poet, Ibn al-ʿArabī, known as the Shaykh al-Akbar or “Greatest Master,” thus called poetry “the language of the saints.” Moreover, the very sounds and rhythms of Sufi poetry have been understood to aid in the realization of the forms of the mystical knowledge and states they encode and evoke. The formal features of Arabic and African language poetry also lend themselves to group recitation and chanting, which is the ritual context in which this literature is most commonly experienced in West Africa and the diaspora.

Despite the wide proliferation of Arabic Sufi poetry in West Africa, this genre of literature remains remarkably understudied and underrepresented in academic research. Yet for West African Muslims, the poetry of Sufi masters has always been a means of not only acquiring knowledge of spiritual realities, but also of self-formation and transformation, of defining and cultivating the fullness of the human potential. For this reason, it is imperative that writings such as those of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse be available in English especially for understanding the literary but also the intellectual heritage of Africa. Shaykh Ibrahim’s poetic oeuvre stands as a classic of the African humanities, and while widely recognized as such among Muslim Africans, this has yet to be appreciated by Europhone audiences due to the paucity of translations.

The Spirit of Etiquette

(Ruh al-adab)

Translation by Zachary Wright

Says Ibrāhīm, the son of al-Ḥājj ʿAbd-Allāh
our glowing moon

Having started with the name of God and praise, 
To God, owner of all might, greatness, and glorification

An advice from me to my brothers: 
Adhere to the (Sufi) path of the Tijaniyya. 

The way of pure grace and (divine) satisfaction, 
Established on the Prophet’s example (sunna) and the Qurʾān

Persist in the regular litany of this path
By this success is obtained with all certainty (taḥqīq)

You will not profit in taking this path 
Except that you continuously seek righteousness. 

Perfecting its prescribed conditions
Exemplifying its honored conduct (ādāb)

Exalting all its people
Particularly the special ones: to them, be obedient

When you begin the litany’s remembrance (wird)
Oblige yourself with discipline (adab) as much as possible

Refine yourself outwardly and inwardly
With refinement does a man ascend to high stations

Invoke the presence of the shaykh who trained you
And likewise his shaykh without doubt

Maintain concentration and stillness
Also, seclusion helps in drawing near (to God).

Seek for a spiritual trainer (murabbi), well informed, of sound advice
Complete in gnosis, a righteous imam

Turn yourself over to him, and do not contrive schemes on your own
Be always like a dead person (bathed by the mortician), and you will be informed

Do not oppose him, even if there seems a contradiction
Be always a follower.

For the shaykh’s mistake is more upright and appropriate,
Than the (opinion of the) aspirant (murīd), according to the people of sound reason

Do not turn to other than him in the universe,
And be as if there was no universe

For there is nothing for the aspirant other than this saint (al-Tijānī),
Along with the Prophet, and surely his Lord the Most High.

As long as there is other than this in his heart, he will not attain
The knowledge (maʿrifa) of the Patron Lord, this I say with all certainty.

Be at all times with the Shaykh to gain,
Be tenderly in love to prosper

In proportion to your love for him, will be received
His spiritual assistance (amdād): this the (Sufi) people have said

Spend of your acquired and inherited wealth in seeking his satisfaction
And respond promptly to his direction, then you will hold true

And satisfy your shaykh, even if weeping
For surely he guides you to good

Be urgently covetous of your time
Be warned you will tested with the affliction of loss (naqṣ)

When you see the manifestation of divine beauty (al-jamāl)
Do not overstep the bounds: be content with the manifestation of transcendent majesty (al-jalāl)

For all of this is by the rendering of divine decree
Exalted is He to be blamed for what He does

Do not be anguished when you witness
Harm from the created things, you were created for this (test)

Hurt flows from them so that you do not rely on them
Rather on God is your reliance

When tested with difficulties and afflictions
Be patient: surely felicity and relief will come to you.

For after every night there is day
And after every hardship there is ease

Indeed, after every hardship there is double ease
As related from Aḥmad al-ʿAdnān (the Prophet Muḥammad)

If you know that, you will be pleased:
In every time, God’s decree (ḥukm) remains

If you ask something and are left without
He knows the harm in it, but you do not

From His grace (luṭf), he deters what is harmful
So level not accusations against our Lord, or you will be forsaken

Were mankind to know the (mercy of the) Merciful
He would meet afflictions a smiling man

Do not seek power (ʿizz) among the creation
Without being empowered by the Sovereign, not ever.

Do not exalt in the favors you are given
Rather exalt in Him who gives, if you are of sound reason

Every favor will perish, except Him who confers favor
For He is that which remains, for all time

Do not despise any Muslim, and mention not
The faults of any man, lest your own faults be exposed

Perhaps one in old tattered garments, covered in dust:
The Lord would fulfill his invocation, as has been narrated

Do not harm a Muslim, even if harm is wrought
Persistently by his hand, rather be forgiving

My brother, harm not the servants of God
And all in this creation are but the servants of God

You would not be pleased with him who mistreats your (own) servant
Even if he is does wrong: fear then your Lord.

Persist in sadness and the thought of death,
Nor forget the questioning of the dead (in the grave)

You must precede (all actions) with learning
Be able to distinguish the divine law

By my life, knowledge is the leader of all action
As transmitted from Ṭa-Ha, the best of Prophets

O seeker: obtain four types of knowledge
First being knowledge (ʿirfān) of the Lord Possessor

Second is to know what is involved
In the worship (of God), by this you will actualize (knowledge)

Third is to know the condition of the (lower) soul (nafs):
Its treachery, intrigue, and manipulation

The soul has its fault, as does the heart
And the spirit (rūḥ), this without doubt

And (fourth), O seeker, is surely good conduct (adab)
For it is the door for every seeker

Be God-fearing, a brother of humility
You will not in humility be humiliated

Knowledge (ʿilm), wealth (ghinā), fertility (khiṣb) (are words that) came
With low vowels established in them

While ignorance (jahl), poverty (faqr) and sterility (jadb) came
With high vowels established in them.

These are signs if you reason
Recognize the inspiration

The flood does not settle on the mountains
Nor on trees, disregarding (their heights)

Do not be satisfied with yourself; nor ask
Nor fear other than the Lord: disregard everything except Him

Be not arrogant, my brother, nor jealous
And be not ostentatious; rather to your God straightaway proceed

Pride arises from (having) knowledge, or lineage
Or the group (to which one belongs), or acts of obedience, or possessions

(But) disobedience that brings humiliation is better
Than obedience that results in pride

You will never be free from blemish,
Except by means of a gnostic shaykh, possessed of assistance

Hold tightly to the protection of the shaykhs
If you would attain lofty exaltation

The best of shaykhs, in all time, without limit
Is our Imam al-Tijānī, endowed with great virtues

The isthmus (barzakh) of every gnostic, and their foundation
He is to them the fountainhead and the sun

So the best of all (Sufi) paths by consensus
Is therefore his path without dispute

Impossible it is to combine it with another
Who says such will suffer deprivation in the afterlife

For he has lied, and fabricated falsehoods against Allah the majestic
Indeed I say: this litany (wird) is (uniquely) dignified

Adhere to the remembrance of this litany
Then by my life I swear: guided will be your arrival (in the divine presence)

There is (also) “The Orison of Humility” and “The Prayer of Opening”
And “With Allah is Illumination”

And other (prayers) collected by the distinguished folk (al-rijāl)
The mature ones of this path, should they confer them

But only in earnestness are their secrets obtained
Not with leisure or by (false) indulgence of the distinguished

But rather it is by obligating oneself with what they give
And following their instruction continuously

Prefer not the conversation of peers
To sitting in the presence of your shaykh, O annihilated one!

And there, do not hunger for secrets
The secret is not obtained in public

Cling to him (your shaykh) always
From him you will gain what you seek

Success from him is also by contagious energy
As confirmed by men (of knowledge), so be alert

Who does not attain knowledge (maʿrifa) of the Merciful (Lord)
His life has been wasted however long he lived

I created the creation (Allah said) to worship Me
“To worship Me” means to “To know Me”

Spare no effort to obtain this gnosis
Then you will see the Merciful’s astonishing proximity

He is manifest in everything, upon everything, and by everything
Before it, and after it, for all time

If you desire increase in faith
Then repent sincerely, and follow it with (the way of) excellence

Do not hate a Muslim, nor get angry
Except at the debasement of the refined sacred law

Adhere to the night prayer and to a hungry stomach
Eating what is lawful and pure also counts (to increase faith)

Be a good counselor to your brothers, and (mostly) stay silent
Accompany the people of chivalrous virtue among those brought near

A man is in the religion of his close associate
If righteous, he too will be righteous even if foolish

Remember the scale (of divine judgment), and the unrolling of the scrolls
And the unending sorrow in hellfire

(Remember also) the beautiful companions (ḥūr) in Paradise
In close proximity (to God), in beautiful dwellings

So persist in wiping away sin
The most effective (method) being the invocation of blessing on this (religion’s) axial pole

Also is the (prayer of) seven (musabaʿat al-ʿashr), morning and evening
And assistance (in erasing sin) is found in repeating the (words of the) call to prayer (adhān)

Various remembrances have been brought in this (Sufi) school (madhhab)
(Such as) our invocation of blessing on the exaltedly dignified (Prophet)

(And) the “prayer of glorification” (ṣalāt al-tasbīḥ), and glorification (of God) by itself
(And) contemplation of the Qurʾān, caught up in admiration

And two prayer cycles (rakʿa) in fear (of God)
(And) walking to the mosque covers over mistakes

Also is the perfection of ablution (wuḍūʾ)
And guiding a blind person, also fulfilling a person’s needs

And reflective counting of the sea’s waves
(And) take every opportunity to shake the hands of Muslims

(Likewise) a person’s filling Ramadan with fasting
And the night prayer, (all) will erase his sin

Perform the greater and less pilgrimages (ḥājj and ʿumra), and secretly give charity
From wealth earned lawfully, such is blessed charity indeed

(Also is) teaching a child, and praying in straight rows
All of this is mentioned in the (holy) pages (of the Qurʾān)

Here are the defects that harden the heart:
Love of leadership is the worst vice

(Also dangerous to the heart are) mockery, slander, and evil sitting companions
Indecency, scandalmongering, and a wicked ego-self

So follow not the self’s vain desires
Nor chase after the world: rather restrain yourself

Be like a blanket in the house, and withdraw from everyone
Do not delight in (vain) talks or quarrels

Overlook peoples’ faults
Make every effort to ignore them

Give of (your) wealth in charity for the sake of Allah
Visit the tombs of Muslims without limit

Do not swear oaths unless restricted
To the will (of Allah) if you should so swear

Here ends the brotherly advice
In shortened form, matching today’s people

In the year forty-two
After thirteen hundred (after Hijra)

I name this poem “the spirit of moral conduct”
For what it contains of wisdom and refinement

Pleading forgiveness from those of understanding
Verses uttered by an empowered youth

For a son of twenty-one years
(May such be) an acceptable excuse, perfectly commendable

So may all the believers benefit from this poem
By the blessing of the best of Messengers, O Lord!

And make it purely for the sake of Your noble countenance
O Gracious, Compassionate and Merciful Lord

Be not deluded from memorizing this poem
Only because I am young and from a non-Arab land

For Allah favors whom He wills
And Allah surely wills, and possessed is He of great favor

As has been said by the illustrious servant
Of Ṭaha (Muḥammad), Aḥmad (Bamba) the Mālikī (scholar):

Black skin cannot be associated
With immature foolishness or deficient understanding

O Lord, by the blessing of the guiding Prophet
Protects us from the evil of enemies

Grant us perfect divine cognizance
And everything we desire, by the best (descendent) of ʿAdnān

Cover our faults with Your veil of beauty
And vanquish our enemies with Your mighty force

Praise to God who has brought (me) close
(And) facilitated my poem, and an excellent Patron Lord is He

Then prayer and salutations of peace
On the Prophet, the chosen, best of mankind

Upon him and his family and pious companions
So long as every patient one attains (divine) cognizance

The Best of Humankind

(from Sayr al-Qalb)

Translation by Ousmane Kane

The best of humankind has given me from his virtue, no wonder
Is he not the best of all creatures, unlike anyone else?

I came to him late in the night with my son
Only the two of us kneeling before his door, as I had hoped

I addressed my beloved, and because of his nearness
I felt as if my dream of meeting the best of all beings had come true

Drowning in the ocean of his love, I said,
“Greetings to the one who rode Ṭirf and Qaṣwā”

I imagined that I had touched Muhammad
And that he hugged me openly, what a lovely repose!

A blessing be upon the best of creations, the chosen of all creatures
The one who dispelled injustice and calamity

Greetings and Peace from a lovelorn servant 
From the farthest country in the West, seeking refuge with the Chosen One 

May Allah honor you and grant you peace
My life is free from sin and futility

May Allah honor you and grant you peace
My love will always be for the Trustworthy One, without distraction

May Allah honor you and grant you peace
May you save my progeny from misguidance and temptations

As I was leaving him, my tears fell abundantly
At a time when a young man’s tears would be of no benefit

I said farewell to him and took Allah as witness in his presence
That in truth I refuse idolatry and vile passions 

I bear witness that there is no lord but Allah and
Taha is my chosen guide and my strongest support 

After I left him, I could enjoy no other place 
Nor could I enjoy Najd, nor could I enjoy Arwa 

All the beauty and the greenery of Riyadh
And its pleasant climate, however unparalleled it may be

Will it make me forget ʿAqīq and Khandaq
The Mount of Uḥud and Salʿ, or the well of Aris and the drink it gave?

What a pleasant sojourn I had after that in Mecca
Alone in Ḥaṭīm, and the station of Abraham we had to ourselves

How sweet was it, my Lord, to humbly prostrate before Your door
Imploring the Majestic Lord to forgive us

I kissed the right hand of the Truth, may He be exalted!
Following in the footsteps of the Chosen One, the Hashemite

To Zamzam, to Mīzāb al-Raḥmah, to the Ḥijr, to Ṣafā,
These were moments of internal and external purification

I kept invoking Allah, nothing exists except Him
In front of me, behind me, like one who has achieved annihilation

I implored Him for protection, forgiveness, and accepted repentance,
Guidance, success, and safety from all ills

As well as His acceptance, victory, and contentment,
A vision of Him in the midst of the Gardens, as I long for

May He who brought back Taha to Mecca
Bring Ibrahim back to the Chosen One, his refuge

May Allah honor and grant peace to Ahmad, the chosen one
An honor by which my dwelling is beautified

May Allah honor and grant peace to his noble family and blessed companions
A prayer by which benefit floods forth without measure

Chosroes’ Iwan

(from Sayr al-qalb)

Translation by Oludamini Ogunnaike

Was it Chosroes’ Iwan that was crushed, heralding
the emergence of my Prophet, and Chosroes’ evanescence?

O Chosroes Anushirwan, when Muhammad came with
His greatest signs, was it your castle that he saw?

O Chosroes Anushirwan, when Muhammad came
Did the rivers run dry? Or did they gush forth?

O Chosroes Anushirwan, when Muhammad came
Did not the Magi come to you extolling him?

O Chosroes Anushirwan, when Muhammad came
Reciting, reminding, warning and giving glad tidings

Had not the idols prostrated to God, speaking [of his coming]
And the soothsayers had told of what was hidden?

Greetings of peace to the light of God that
Overshadowed, by his lights, the lights of Chosroes and Caesar

Greetings of peace to he who brought, while he was in Mecca,
A light by which Chosroes’ Iwan was cracked

Greetings of peace to being’s secret and its symbol
For God’s alone is what is more exalted, and precious, and dazzling

Greetings of peace to he who came, while existence, all of it,
Was darkness, and from his lights it was illumined

Greetings of peace to him from a lovelorn servant
In Baghdad, exhausted from having spent the night in sleepless contemplation

So he who razed this castle while he was a babe in Mecca
Will not leave behind any appearance of that infidelity

So he who razed this castle while he was in Mecca
Will raze the castles of infidelity whenever he is remembered

Upon him be the blessings of God and then His peace too
For I see that the lot of Muslims is abundant fortune

Upon him be the blessings of God and then His peace too
And the share of the enemies of religion is a scourge of destruction

May God reward the Darkness of the Night

(from Shifa al-Asqam)

Translation by Adnan Wood-Smith

May God reward, on my behalf, the darkness of the night and its gloom
For in it the lover’s effusive passion can find somewhere to go

He spends the night watching the stars while all others are sleeping
He arranges pearls—nay, he arranges something even more resplendent

He has remembered the Best of Creation, Taha, Muhammad
Beautiful of visage he was, bright-skinned, and dark-eyed

He was immense, immense in character, generosity, and charity
Compassionate, an intercessor who delivered from the gloom of disbelief

That is the one who, were it not for him, nothing would exist
And were it not for him, we would have had no path to journey to the Truth

He called all of creation to the Patron Lord with every action he took
And for His sake he would set out in the morning, evening, and night

They scorned him and harmed him in every way they could
Then he led everyone towards the pure faith and brought them into it

He strove against them, for Allah’s sake, in the utmost of striving
And brought light to all lands, and illumination

All that they met with at Badr—did that not befall them?
The pristine religion dawned in brightness

Likewise, they came to Uhud and returned smitten with a blow
They turned back and fled when fear upended them

He led a mighty army to the valley (of Makkah)
Then the disbelievers were abased and brought low with fear and hope for mercy

O my Lord, by the status of the Trustworthy Prophet and his companions, grant me
The full extent of what I desire, bringing me to felicity

Upon him be God’s prayer, and then His peace
Along with his family, his noble companions, and those granted salvation

Tears into Pearls

(from Taysir al-Wusul)

Translation by Zachary Wright

Enslaved in love, the heart turns away from everything else
Bound in longing for the Prophet, bewildered

I spent an entire night sleepless, singing poetry
In remembrance of him who was pure goodness from beginning to end

So I write (these verses) at night, while my neighbors sleep
And from my eyes, tears rain down.

Describing him is like arranging pearls to form words
A pearl perfectly formed: he is the full moon

Muḥammad is the key to all illuminations, my master
He is the seal of all Messengers, their end and their predecessor

By him did all Prophets obtain their needs
By him are the cosmological presences adorned, so venerate and exalt him!

(He was) a messenger from the Patron Lord, when Adam did not exist
And he will remain a messenger, forever magnified

His formation was as a treasure of the Real, the One
And from this (treasury) he came to us as a distributor and apportioner

Every Prophet’s miracle is the miracle of Muhammad
All affairs (emerge) from him and (return back) to him

Ṭā Hā, Muḥammad: he is the sum of all bounties bestowed by the enthroned Lord
And the mercy of the Merciful, so honor him!

Bearer of glad tidings and a warner, equitable in distribution
Generous, noble, open-handed benefactor

The most trustworthy exemplar, the elect of all (divine) messengers
The beloved of God on the Throne, from the beginning to the end (of time)

The clouds rained from the brightness of his countenance
By him was the night’s dark ignorance illuminated

His light enlivened the hearts of all creation, and animated their tongues
And he purified and taught them

By God, there is no other like (the Prophet) Aḥmad
Aḥmad is a unique jewel that can never be reproduced

On him be God’s blessing, then His peace
And on his family and honorable companions, ever increasing (…)

If you should ask concerning my beloved and my master—
Surely it is Ṭā-Hā, the beloved of Allāh, and none other

My moments and hours I’ve spent in remembrance of him
Invoking blessings and praise; so from him I became illustrious

Who competes with me in ardent love for our Prophet
Has desired a thing impossible and forbidden

Like the one who wanted to bring back yesterday today, or sought

A stairway to take him to the moon or to the midday sun.