PRAYER ON THE PROPHET (SALAT ALA L-NABI)
[Excerpts from Zachary Wright, On the Path of the Prophet: Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Atlanta: African American Islamic Institute, 2005), p. 104-108. Selections have been edited for the purpose of this site and reproduced with the permission of the publisher.]
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was particularly concerned with the explaining the benefits of offering prayer on the Prophet, which he declared to be the best form of nafila (supererogatory worship).[i] He explained further,
As for he who perseveres in the prayer on the Prophet, may Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him, even if he is attributed all the faults committed by all the inhabitants of the earth, while adding to them without end, from the creation of the world until its ending, Allah – may He be praised and exalted – will forgive him these faults in the ocean of His forgiveness and grace (fadl).[ii]
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s emphasis on sending blessings on the Prophet was not lost on later Tijani scholars. Muhammad al-‘Arabi bin Sa’ih posits the practice as one of the primary reasons for the Tijaniyya being called Tariqa Muhammadiyya in the first place: “The axis around which turn the means of arrival (suluk) in our Tariqa Muhammadiyya is sending a great number of blessings and peace upon the Messenger of God … and this while seeking the presence of his noble countenance.” According to Ibn Sa’ih, sending prayers on the Prophet grants the Tijani aspirant the ability to actually be with the Prophet. First, the aspirant will be thinking about the Prophet while sending prayers on him, then he will be visualizing him before his eyes while sending prayers on him. Next, the Prophet will become continually present to him, both sleeping and awake, in the “eye of his heart.” Finally, the aspirant will see the Prophet with his actual eyes, in a waking state. This last group is divided in two, those who perceive the spirit (ruh) of the Prophet, and those who see “the reality of his person (dhat), as if they were with him in his life.” In other words, salat ‘ala-nabiyy within the Tariqa Muhammadiyya Tijaniyya is meant to link all aspirants with the actual presence of the Prophet Muhammad.
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was especially keen to enumerate, based on what the Prophet had told him, the benefits of Salat al-Fatih. Revealed on a sheet of light to Muhammad al-Bakri (d. 1545) during a retreat inside the Ka’ba in search of the best way to send blessing on the Prophet, this prayer is “equivalent to the recitation of all prayers of glorification to God (tasbih) that have ever been said in the universe, all Sufi prayers or remembrance of God (dhikr), every invocation (du’a) long or short…”[iii] The text of the prayer is as follows:
O Allah, bless our master Muhammad, who opened what was closed, who sealed what had gone before; the helper of Truth by the Truth, the guide to Your straight path, and on his family, may this prayer be equal to his immense position and grandeur.[iv]
The value of the prayer seems largely based on its believed Divine origin and because of its description of the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya, the light by which God “opened,” or brought the creation from non-existence into being.[v]
Prominent Salafi reformers have sometimes taken Tijanis’ love for Salat al-Fatih out of context to claim Tijanis believe this prayer is better than reciting the Qur’an or other obligatory acts of worship in Islam. Most often quoted in this regard is the statement in the Jawahir al-Ma’ani that one recitation of the prayer on the Prophet called Salat al-Fatih is equivalent to reading the Qur’an six thousand times. The argument of course is that the Qur’an, being the word of God, is better than any prayer created by men.
It is important to contextualize the above statement concerning Salat al-Fatih with Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s own perspective on the Qur’an from the Jawahir. In general, it is apparent that many of the Shaykh’s statements recorded in the Jawahir were concerned with elaborating on the bounty of Allah connected with the specific rewards for the recitation of certain prayers or verses of the Qur’an. He said, for example, that each letter of the Qur’an contains the reward of all the other prayers of the creation. There are certain chapters, such as al-Fatiha (the Opening), al-Qadr (the Night of Power) and al-Ikhlas (Pure Faith), to which he gives special weight, often quoting Hadith. Reading Surat al-Ikhlas 100,000 times, for example, will protect a person from Hell-fire. Although he often cited known hadith, he emphasized that this knowledge of the great benefit of certain verses was gained directly from the Prophet in waking vision. And he did not limit himself to speaking of the benefit of the Qur’an, but also elaborated on the reward for repeating the Muslim testimony of faith (Shahada), the canonical prayer, the night prayer, dhikr, fasting or giving charity, for example.
Despite the great value of Salat al-Fatih, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani makes clear it is not meant to take the place of reading the Qur’an. Offering prayer on the Prophet is a supererogatory act, while the reading of the Qur’an is obligatory. To leave reading of the Qur’an, being the basis of the Shari’a, is to incur the wrath of God, while Salat al-Fatih can be left or taken as the person desires.[vi] The relationship is further contextualized by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s description of the benefit of saying Allah’s greatest name. Reciting this name once is equal to one recital of the Qur’an’s opening chapter (al-Fatiha), one whole reading of the Qur’an or saying Salat al-Fatih 6,000 times.[vii] By implication, as many later Tijanis have pointed out,[viii] reciting the Fatiha or the entirety of the Qur’an is 6,000 times greater than Salat al-Fatih.
In any case, insists Shaykh Hassan, it is true there is nothing better than the Qur’an, but in terms of the fault-filled servant of God, it is sometimes better for him to say any form of prayer on the Prophet than to read the Qur’an. This is because the Qur’an, according to Hadith, can be cursing its reader if he is not obeying its dictates not to fornicate, steal, lie, back-bite, etc., whereas there is no such Hadith that a person can be sending a prayer on the Prophet and it cursing him. To the contrary, one Hadith states that Allah is sending ten prayers on the person for every one he is sending on the Prophet.[ix] A similar opinion was in fact expressed by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani himself, who described two classes of readers of the Qur’an, one who acted upon what they read and another who did not. For the former, the Qur’an was the best for them, for the latter, prayer upon the Prophet was more beneficial.[x]
The accusation against the Tijaniyya in this regard suffers from the common polemicist tendency to quote one’s enemies out of context instead of examining the ideas and actions of Tijani scholars themselves. Tijanis have been some of the foremost advocates of Qur’an memorization, recitation and exegesis wherever they have come to live. Shaykh Ahmad Tijani himself urged his disciples to read two hizbs (1/30th) of the Qur’an every day.[xi] The Shaykh’s companion, Ibrahim Riyahi, reportedly used to require Tijanis to read a similar amount.[xii] Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse also used to ask his disciples to also read two hizbs of the Qur’an a day, and he himself used to recite the whole Qur’an twice every week, once reading and once from memory.[xiii]
[i] Jawahir, p. 64. This is reminiscent of some Hadith, such as that reported by Ibn Mas’ud and contained in al-Tirmidhi, “The nearest people to me on the Day of Rising will be those who have said the most prayers on me,” or that reported by Ubayy ibn Ka’b and contained in al-Tirmidhi where the Prophet urges Ubayy to spend all of his extra prayer time sending blessing upon him. See Qadi Iyad ibn Musa, Ash-Shifa (trans. Aisha Bewley, Muhammad Messenger of Allah, Granada: Medinah Press, 1991), pp. 259-260.
[ii] Jawahir, cited in Triaud, “La Tijaniyya, voie infaillible,” p. 180.
[iii] Jawahir, p. 57.
[iv] As has been noted by Tijanis, the text of this prayer is very similar to a prayer on the Prophet written by Ali ibn Abi Talib. See Sheikh Abubakar Abayawo, Toriqat Tijaniyat: the way of Allah and His Messenger from the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (S.A.W.) (Ilorin, Nigeria, unknown date), pp. 42-43. Shaykh Abayawo quotes from Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, v. iii, p. 510.
[v] Jawahir, p. 60; Kitab al-Jami’, b. I, p. 41.
[vi] Jawahir, p. 59.
[vii] Jawahir, p. 32.
[viii] Interview with Abdelaziz Benabdellah, Rabat, Morocco, October, 2002.
[ix] Interview with Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Medina Kaolack, Senegal, November 2002, and February 2003.
[x] Kitab al-Jami’, b. I, pp. 50-51.
[xi] Ifadat al-Ahmadiyya, p. 28. See also Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, Kashf al-‘Ilbas, pp. 84-85, for a discussion of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s great respect for the Qur’an.
[xii] Benabdellah, La Tijania, p. 45.
[xiii] Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, “Lumières sur la Tijaniyya,” p. 5. Also interview with Shaykh Hassan Cisse, Medina Kaolack, Senegal, August, 1997.