Shaykh Ibrahim Riyahi

Ibrahim al-Riyahi (1767-1850), the Imam of the Zaytuna University and Maliki Shaykh al-Islam of Tunis from 1832, stands in the later Ottoman period of intense social and intellectual change as one of the most noteworthy testimonies to the richness of Zaytuna scholarship. He was an enlightened mufti, a dedicated and innovative teacher and an accomplished poet. He also discretely cultivated a profound spirituality throughout his life, and was the man who introduced the Tariqa Tijaniyya in Tunisia.

Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975) said about him: “Were Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani to have no other follower but Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Riyahi, it would suffice us as proof to also follow him.”

His full name was Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. ‘Abd al-Qadir b. Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Tarabulusi al-Riyahi. He derived the nisba al-Tarabulusi from his great grandfather Ibrahim, a Qur’anic teacher who had moved with his family from Libya to join other members of his tribe (Banu Riyah) who had settled since in the hilly region of Teboursouk, in the inland of Northern Tunisia. Ahmad, son of the latter and grandfather of Ibrahim al-Riyahi, had later moved to Testour, an ancient town in the hills that dominate the Medjerda valley, rebuilt in 1609 by Muslims and Jewish fleeing from Andalusia after the Reconquista. Here, in Testour, Ibrahim al-Riyahi was born in 1767 to ‘Abd al-Qadir, a son of Ahmad, who, like his father and his grandfather, earned his living (according to the sources, a rather poor one) by teaching the Qur’an.

After having memorized the Qur’an from his father when he was in his late teens (some time between 1782 and 1785), Ibrahim was sent out to pursue higher studies in Tunis. He settled in the Madrasa of the Hawanit al-‘Ashur (Houanet Achour) ward, a western quarter of the Medina. He attended courses in all the major religious and philological disciplines at the Houanet Achour Madrasa, and then at the Zaytuna, the oldest center of Islamic learning in North Africa, which had been established in the eighth century and functioned as a major hub of Maliki legal thought. Under Ottoman rule, a parallel system of Hanafi law had been established, and the two legal doctrines were taught at the Zaytuna and practiced by the Tunisian courts. A Maliki Shaykh al-Islam (Bash-mufti) supervised the Maliki qadis, while a Hanafi one headed the Hanafi judiciary.

At the Zaytuna, Ibrahim al-Riyahi studied with the most renowned scholars in Tunis of his time. Among his teachers were Muhammad al-Mahjub (Maliki Bash-mufti), Isma’il al-Tamimi (who succeeded the former as Maliki Bash-mufti), Muhammad Bayram II (Hanafi Bash-mufti), Hasan al-Sharif (Chief-Imam of the Zaytuna), Ahmad Abu Khris, Muhammad al-Fasi, Salih al-Kawwash, ‘Umar al-Mahjub, and Tahir b. Mas‘ud. He quickly attained great recognition for his sharp intelligence and for the passion with which he devoted to study. After obtaining ijazas in the major disciplines, he was encouraged by his masters to accept students of his own, which he did some time in his late twenties under one of the pillars of the Zaytuna mosque as was customary. He specialized in the teaching of grammar, prosody, rhetoric, and Maliki fiqh. It is related that one day his former teacher Tahir b. Mas‘ud, while commenting on the Mukhtasar of Sa‘d, overheard Ibrahim al-Riyahi teaching the same book to another group of students a few meters away. He interrupted his own lesson, and sent his students to listen to his former pupil’s explanations.

Later on, Shaykh Ibrahim al-Riyahi would also start teaching qur’anic exegesis (the Ash‘ari theological tafsir by Baydawi, for which he had obtained an ijaza from Shaykh Salih al-Kawwash), and hadith (Bukhari, with the commentary of Qastallani). Among his students were a number of influential persons in the intellectual and political life of Tunis in late nineteenth century, such as the historian and Ministerial councilor Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf, Bayram V, Mahmud Qabadu, and the poet al-Baji al-Mas‘udi.

The pathway which would eventually lead Ibrahim al-Riyahi to join the Tijaniyya developed out of his early search for knowledge in Tunis. Esoteric sciences, however, were probably already part of his family legacy: indeed, the esoteric sciences associated with Arabic letters of the Qur’an (‘ilm al-huruf) were integrated into his ancestors’ study and transmission of the Qur’anic sciences. In any case, while pursuing his training in other classical Islamic sciences in Tunis, he simultaneously evidenced strong Sufi inclinations. He first embraced the path of Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, the famous Moroccan saint who visited Tunis, where his Tariqa is still very popular. He devotedly pursued this path under the direction of his master Sidi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Bashir Mashish.

Some years later, his encounter with the Moroccan Sidi ‘Ali Harazim, one of the closest companions of Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, would lead him to embrace the Tijani path. ‘Ali Harazim had come to Tunis en route to accomplishing the pilgrimage, after having been confirmed as a consummate ‘Arif billah (Gnostic) by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and sent from Fez to spread the new order.

Ibrahim met Sidi ‘Ali Harazim in the Zaytuna after a premonitory dream, and then invited the Moroccan Sufi to be his guest in the Madrasa ‘Ashuriyya. ‘Ali Harazim was gifted with many karamat (miraculous signs), and some intense events marked the acquaintance of the two, probably deeply affecting the young Zaytuna professor. It is related that one night ‘Ali Harazim woke up Ibrahim and told him: “wake up and ask God what you desire, for this is the time of the answered prayer”. Ibrahim wrote down 14 implorations (amongst them “to be granted constant vision of the Prophet Muhammad (sAws)”, “obtaining complete ma‘rifa“, “to be granted mastery in exoteric and esoteric sciences”, “to be granted a wife who will assist me”, “pious children”, and “to die as a believer”). It seems that God did indeed grant Ibrahim his supplications through the intermediary of Sidi Ali Harazim.

Notwithstanding the intense period of acquaintance with Sidi ‘Ali Harazim and the latter’s close affiliation with the Tijaniyya, Ibrahim al-Riyahi did not ask for actual initiation into the new order until he met Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili in a dream encouraging him. Then, after he had asked permission the shaykh who had initiated him into the Shadhiliyya, Sidi al-Mashish, he took the tijani pact at the hand of Sidi ‘Ali Harazem.

‘Ali Harazim would soon leave Tunis to proceed his journey eastwards, but a providential coincidence gave the young professor and fresh Tijani initiate the opportunity to visit the Pole of the order he had just joined. In 1803, an insistent drought in Tunis prompted the Bey to send a mission to Morocco, in order to convince the Sultan Moulay Sulayman, who had enacted a protective measure against the exportation of Moroccan crops, to sell a certain quantity of crops that would allow Tunisia to overcome the food crisis. Ibrahim al-Riyahi was selected to conduct the mission, bringing a letter written by Isma‘il al-Tamimi. He stayed at the court of Moulay Sulayman, to whom he also dedicated a panegyric, and engaged in a fascinating poetical challenge with the learned men of his court. At the end, he had laid the foundations for long-lasting intellectual relations with some of the leading scholars of Fez. While in Fez, he also visited Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, about whom he would later remember: “I have never met anybody whose qiyam and whose sujud lasted longer than his.” He received further instruction in the Tijani path from Shaykh Ahmad Tijani himself, whom he would later praise with the following verses, extracted from his qasida siniyya:

The succor of creation, Abul-‘Abbas [Ahmad al-Tijani], Whose essence is too exalted to be disclosed on paper.

The spirit of existence, the pole, center and support of being; Its secret radiating to men.

The symbol of existence, secret of the Truth; its talisman, its hidden content, its treasure, locked away in a safe-box.

The reality of being, substance of the secret; its summation, the flood of God, without doubt or objection.

And also, in his qasida mimiyya:

If you say: how is it [that he is the Seal of the Saints], when he has only come in this late age?

Can one who follows be superior to one who came before?

I would say: the Prophet, while being the last, has surpassed
All those who possessed an elevated rank among mankind.

Finally, Ibrahim al-Riyahi set to return to Tunis, after a successful achievement of his diplomatic mission as well as of his spiritual goal.

The fact that, at about 35 years of age, he was selected for such a delicate diplomatic mission, demonstrates that the Tunisian political authorities had already started to notice the young scholar. Only a few months before, however, Shaykh Ibrahim al-Riyahi had been very close to abandoning Tunis and looking for a teaching career abroad: notwithstanding the position of teacher at the Zaytuna, in fact, his financial situation had not allowed him yet to marry and settle, and the young professor in his early thirties was still living in his old student room at the Madrasa ‘Ashuriyya. It was thanks to the intervention of Yusuf Sahib al-Taba‘, Minister and Privy Seal of the reigning Bey Hammuda Pasha, that Ibrahim al-Riyahi definitely gave up his plans of leaving Tunis. Yusuf Sahib al-Taba‘ offered him a house and arranged a marriage for him, and thus Ibrahim could settle in a street of the Houanet Achour ward, where the first tijani zawiya in Tunis would also be built shortly later, hosting today the founder’s mausoleum. Yusuf Sahib al-Taba‘ was one of the major brains behind the reforms of Hammuda Bey, which aimed at opening a space of freedom for the Tunisian Regency from Algerian tutelage and growing European influence. The presence of scholars such as Ibrahim al-Riyahi in Tunis was part of this overall strategy aimed at increasing the economic and cultural prestige of the capital of the Regency. In 1814, when a new complex of mosque and madrasa was built by Yusuf Sahib al-Taba‘, Ibrahim al-Riyahi was offered the position of teacher of hadith there.

The behavior of Ibrahim al-Riyahi towards the political authorities — a mixture of good sense, firmness and dignity — constitute one of the most fascinating traits of his biography. His relations with political authorities recalls the Muslim adage, “the best of the Sultans is the one who looks for the company of the scholars, and the best of the scholars is the one who keeps himself far from the Sultans”. In 1806, Ibrahim al-Riyahi refused the position of qadi offered to him by Bey Hammuda Pasha to replace Shaykh ‘Umar al-Mahjub, with whom the Bey was rancorous after the latter had publicly sent him an allusive critique during a Friday sermon at the Zaytuna. Ibrahim al-Riyahi had to escape to Zaghwan to seek refuge in a zawiya which enjoyed the right of asylum in order to escape the Bey’s offer. He returned to Tunis only after the latter had given the position to another former teacher of Ibrahim, Isma‘il al-Tamimi.

While political authorities tried to play on the hierarchy of the ‘ulama’ to manipulate the scholarly class, the refusal of a scholar in such a circumstance was meant as a counter-strategy to cement the body of the ‘ulama’ class, thereby preserving its independence vis-à-vis political power. In 1816, Husayn Bey II invited him at the Bardo Palace to confer on him the teaching of Tafsir al-Baydawi at the Zaytuna after the death of Shaykh al-Fasi. When Husayn extended his hand towards him to have it kissed, Ibrahim, instead, shook it. Nervously, the son of the sovereign asked him: “What did you come to do here?”, and the Shaykh answered promptly: “Nothing: but you have invited me, and here I am”.

The attitude of Shaykh Ibrahim was in no way exclusive to him, but was shared as part of the etiquette of the Zaytuna scholars of the time, in a time they were struggling to maintain their independence as supervisors of the judiciary and custodians of a religious legacy. The biographies of Riyahi’s teachers also abound with similar incidents. It was not an attitude of proud defiance, but one of prudent and dignified distance. Ibrahim al-Riyahi himself often wrote praise poems lauding the actions of Sultans that he judged as favorable to the interests of the community and to Religion. Through a wise dosage of loyal service and prudent distance, scholars ensured that, when entrusted with delicate roles in the judiciary, they would be in a position to play their part without excessive interference from the private interests of the Bey’s court.

In 1823, Husayn Bey II chose to raise Ibrahim al-Riyahi to the position of Maliki Bash-Mufti, the highest rank in the Tunisian judiciary hierarchy. The Shaykh initially refused and only accepted after the Bey repeated insistence. A number of the fatwas he issued during the 27 years he served as Mufti are reported in his biography, the Ta‘tir al-nawahi. In religious issues, he was a scrupulous Maliki. In social issues, he always tried to implement the principle that “Religion enjoins ease”.

He was often also solicited on social and political matters. When he was asked by Ahmad Bey to give his advice on the measures the Bey had adopted that enjoined the release of a number of enslaved blacks and the abolition of slavery in the Regency, he commended the decisions describing them as “totally legitimate, and worthy of being upheld by all reasonable and soundly educated minds”.[8]

In 1838, he was again entrusted with an official mission, this time to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul, in order to ask for the exoneration of Tunis from an annual tribute and for the recognition of the partial autonomy of the Regency. Before praising him by a poem which exalted his ascendancy and the accomplishments of his ancestors, he addressed the Sultan standing, refusing the customary bowing, and reciting the following verse of the Qur’an: “O David! We did indeed make of you a viceregent on earth: so judge between men in truth, nor follow your lusts, for they will mislead you from the path of God; and for those who wander astray from the path of God there is grievous punishment, for they forget the Day of Account”.

In 1839, he was appointed as First Imam of the Zaytuna. He was the first person in Tunis who combined the position of Maliki Shaykh al-Islam and that of First Imam. From the pulpit of the Zaytuna, he used to enjoin to people zuhd (asceticism), but also to reprimand the economic policies of the Bey when he felt compelled to do so.[9]

Other travels of Shaykh Ibrahim al-Riyahi include the Pilgrimage to Mecca and the visit to Medina. He also had occasion to visit the Algerian town of Tamasin to pay his respects to the Khalifa of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, Sidi Ali al-Tamasini.

Among his many writings were the following:

  1. Dozens of poems, collected in a published Diwan [10] (praises of the Prophet [sAws] and of Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani [rAh]; elegies for his teachers, as Isma‘il al-Tamimi, Tahir b. Mas‘ud, Ahmad Abu Khris; a touching elegy for his son Muhammad al-Tayyib, a brilliant scholar himself, killed by an epidemy of cholera in 1850);
  2. A dazzling devotional text on the Prophet [sAws] titled al-Narjasa al-‘anbariyya fi al-salati ‘ala Khayr al-bariyya;
  3. Glosses on the commentary by Fakihani to the Qatr al-nada;
  4. A writing in the defense of the sound Ash‘arism of Sidi Ahmad al-Tijani, in response to a writing by an Egyptian;
  5. A versification of the Ajurrumiyya;
  6. A refutation of the Wahhabi doctrine (this document is apparently lost; it was written as a response to Ibn Sa‘ud’s letter reaching the Regency and calling for either joining the movement or prepare to fight);
  7. Numerous khutbas, fatwas and answers to legal problems.
  8. He also revived the celebration of the Mawlid nabawi in Tunis and wrote a short text for the occasion.

Shaykh Ibrahim al-Riyahi died shortly after his son, from the same cholera epidemic. The last of the many favors that he received from God was that he was destined to leave the world on the night of Ramadan 27th, 1266 (August 6th, 1850).

Tawassul bi-Sidi Ibrahim al-Riyahi al-Tunisi

Fragrant oil from an ancient tree
Fed by the water of the Maliki stream
This and still more, I swear, Si Brahim,
You are; and still more, that I can hardly see.

Evident proof of the saintly Seal,
Enraptured in Truth, unbending in Law
Give me the words to plead Who all knows
Once and for all my faults to conceal.

On the Prophet of mercy may endlessly fall
Plentiful blessings and favors from Him
Whose presence I trail, Sidi Brahim,
And then I forget then I crave then I call.

[1] On Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, see the relevant article on

[2] Ibrahim Niasse, al-Bayan wa-al-tabyin ‘an al-Tijaniyya wa-al-tijaniyyin. French translation (Lumieres sur la Tariqa Tidjaniyya) available on line (

[3] Tahar Djaziri, La Régence de Tunis d’après l’action et les oeuvres de Sidi Ibrahim Al-Riahi (1750-1850), Thèse de doctorat d’État, 1995 (Paris IV – Sorbonne), V. II: 443-44. In addition to this thesis, the other sources I have consulted are: Samia Chemli, Vida y obras de Ibrahim al-Riyahi (Túnez, 1766-1850), Trabajo de Investigación de Doctorado, 2006 (Universidad Complutense – Madrid); ‘Umar al-Riyahi, Ta‘tir al-nawahi bi-tarjamat al-‘allama Ibrahim al-Riyahi (al-mutawaffa 1266 h), 1993 Tunis: al-Maktaba al-‘Atiqa. Other sources in Arabic that report information on Ibrahim al-Riyahi include: Ahmad Sukayrij, Kashf al-hijab; Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf, Ithaf ahl al-zaman bi-akhbar muluk Tunis wa-‘ahd al-zaman; Muhammad al-Sanusi, Musamarat al-zarif bi-husn al-ta‘rif. My special gratitude goes to the present head of the zawiya, Sidi ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Riyahi, for facilitating access to the written sources and providing me with additional oral information.

[4] For short biographies of all the shaykhs of Ibrahim al-Riyahi, see Djaziri, La régence…: V. 1: 134-143; v. 2: 447-457.

[5] ‘Umar al-Riyahi, in his Ta’tir al-nawahi, gives 1211 (1796) as the date of

[6] All the sources report these implorations, based on Muhammad al-Sanusi who relies on a manuscript by Ibrahim al-Riyahi.

[7] ‘Umar al-Riyahi in the Ta’tir a-nawahi mentions a document showing that his ancestor Ibrahim al-Riyahi took the Tariqa from Sidi ‘Ali Harazim in 1216 (1801-2). It is not clear how long had the two been acquainted before. According to the Ta‘tir, the two met at the Zaytuna in 1211 (1796). Sidi ‘Ali Harazim would have sojourned in Tunis, then, for five years. According to Shaykh Ahmad Sukayrij in the Kashf al-hijab, however, ‘Ali Harazim only left Fez in 1801. If the second date is correct for ‘Ali Harazim’s travel, he was hosted by Ibrahim al-Riyahi for some months, and not for five years.

[8] Djaziri, La Regénce…, p. 514.

[9] For some interesting examples, Djaziri, La régence..pp. 518 and ff.

[10] Ed. by Muhammad al-Ya‘lawi and Hammadi al-Sahili, Tunis: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami 1990.

By Zakariya Wright