Tariqa Muhammadiyya

[Excerpts from Zachary Wright, On the Path of the Prophet: Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Atlanta: African American Islamic Institute, 2005), p. 39-44. Posted with permission of publisher.]

In order to understand the historical context for the emergence of the Tijaniyya, it is useful to trace the development of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya idea until its flowering in the end of the eighteenth century with the appearance of several Tariqa Muhammadiyya “movements” (besides the Tijaniyya, the Khalwatiyya in Egypt or the followers of Ahmad Ibn Idris in the Hijaz, for example). To summarize the essential elements, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya came to mean: emphasis on the external Sunna of the Prophet, use of concept of the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya, experience of the waking vision of the Prophet and restriction of the disciple to one transcendent tariqa. According to American University in Cairo Professor Mark Sedgwick, these ideas, though not always found together, seem to have been evidenced much prior to the eighteenth century in such thinkers as Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) and Abd al-Karim al-Jili (d. 1402), Ahmad Imad al-din al-Wasiti (d. 1311) and Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al-Birgawi (d. 1573), and in the context of Moroccan Sufism with some of the branches of the Shadhili order such as the Jazuliyya.[i]

It is thus possible to trace the development of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya phenomenon until its more or less final version that culminated at the end of the eighteenth century. Ibn ‘Arabi and his student al-Jili did not themselves use the term Tariqa Muhammadiyya but they were famous for elaborating the idea of the Muhammadan Light (Nur Muhammadi), the Muhammadan Spirit (Ruh Muhammadi) and the Muhammadan Reality (Haqiqa Muhammadiyya). Ibn ‘Arabi and al-Jili advocated a form of spiritual concentration on the Prophet’s dhat or essential reality, which was endowed with a singular power to reflect fully the Divine Countenance.[ii] Al-Wasiti was a Shadhili Sufi and student of Ibn Taymiyya who paid lip-service to Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of the idea of the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya, but who nonetheless emphasized the Muhammadan Spirit (ruh), which continued to remain present to provide guidance to the community. He himself left his own Shadhili tariqa affiliation in preference for the all-assuming “Tariqa Muhammadiyya:” following the spiritual path of the Prophet.[iii] The Ottoman Turk Muhammad al-Birgawi wrote a book called al-Tariqa al-Muhammadiyya wa al-sira al-Ahmadiyya in which he condemned the perceived excesses of popular Sufism and argued that the only legitimate Sufi order was the Muhammadan Path, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, to which the entire Muslim community should belong.[iv] The Shadhili-Jazuli Shaykh ‘Abdullah al-Ghazwani (d. 1529) also wrote on the idea of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya as an alternative term to refer to the madhhab al-sunna al-Muhammadiyya (the school of the Muhammadan Sunna). Al-Ghazwani combined Ibn ‘Arabi’s and al-Jili’s ideas of the saint’s absorption (or annihilation) in the Muhammadan essence (dhat) with an emphasis on the necessity of the saint’s involvement in society, although his use of the term Tariqa Muhammadiyya has more to do with the latter emphasis than the former.[v]

Scholars closer to Shaykh Tijani’s time who expressed the ideas of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya in an increasingly comprehensive manner included Abd al-Aziz al-Dabbagh (d. 1719), Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (d. 1731), Mustafa Kamal al-din al-Bakri (d. 1749), the Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad al-Hifni (or Hifnawi, d. 1767), Muhammad al-Samman (d. 1775) and Mahmud al-Kurdi (d. 1780). Al-Dabbagh emphasized the ability of the saint to attain direct contact with the essence (dhat) of the Prophet in a waking vision, and added that a scholar who had attained this vision was permitted to transcend the madhhab (school of jurisprudence) in the interpretation of the Shari’a.[vi] Al-Nabulsi is credited with rescuing the term Tariqa Muhammadiyya from the anti-Sufi implications of al-Birgawi’s work. The famous Damascene Qadiri and Naqshabandi scholar was a proponent of Ibn ‘Arabi who emphasized the spiritual component of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (including visionary contact with the Prophet) as well as the importance of the external Sunna of the Prophet. He also spoke against the excesses of popular Sufism, but warned against the practice of takfir (excommunication) that had become the vogue of Birgawi’s followers, the Kadizadelites.[vii]

The Khalwati Shaykh al-Bakri was the student of al-Nabulsi, and although his use of the term Tariqa Muhammadiyya is not known, he experienced visionary spiritual initiation,[viii] spoke against some aspects of popular Sufism[ix] and required the disciple’s exclusive affiliation with one Sufi order.[x] Al-Bakri in turn initiated al-Hifni as well as al-Samman. Al-Samman wrote a book explaining the notion of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, as previously discussed, involving all the elements mentioned above, except that he, like Shaykh Tijani, did not specifically reject the madhahib nor did he de-emphasize the role of the spiritual guide.[xi] Mahmud al-Kurdi (d. 1780) received the Khalwatiyya from al-Hifni and from al-Bakri himself, and although he was not such a prolific writer as al-Samman, he was known to have experienced the waking vision of the Prophet and to have emphasized Sufism’s relationship to the Shari’a.[xii]

The end of the eighteenth century also witnessed the popularization of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya in India. The Naqshabandi Sufi Muhammad Nasir ‘Andalib (d. 1758), a spiritual descendent of Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), reportedly received the fundamentals of the idea from a vision of Hasan ibn ‘Ali, an idea he later transmitted to his successor, Mir Dard (d. 1785). There exist no known contacts between the Indian and Arab versions of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, but Mark Sedgwick concludes that the Indian rendition, emerging slightly after its Arab counterpart, “could hardly have arisen independently.”[xiii] Due to the fact the Arab manifestation of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya is more easily traceable and was perhaps more influential, what concerns us here is the phenomenon as it developed in the Middle East.

In the Middle East proper, the Tariqa Muhammadiyya thus sprang from such diverse sources as Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Wasiti, al-Birgawi, al-Dabbagh and al-Nabulsi to culminate in the end of the eighteenth century with the Khalwati masters such as al-Kurdi and al-Samman. It was these Khalwati shaykhs who were in turn primarily responsible for passing on the idea to be implemented in heretofore unprecedented proportions by the likes of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and Ahmad ibn Idris and their followers.


[i] Mark Sedgwick, Heirs of Ahmad Ibn Idris, revised version, chapter II, “Tariqa Muhammadiyya.” Sedgwick’s thesis has recently been published by Brill (2005): Saints and Sons: the Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000.

[ii] Ibn ‘Arabi writes in his Futuhat al-Makiyya, “Know that you do not have [this perfection] and you do not have this constitution which belongs to Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and that no matter how much the Real discloses Himself to you in the mirror of your heart, your heart will only show you what is according to its own constitution and the form of its shape … So cling to faith and follow him! Place him before you like the mirror in which you see your form and the form of others. If you do this, you will know that God must disclose Himself to Muhammad in his mirror.” See Valerie Hoffman, “Annihilation in the Messenger of God: the Development of a Sufi Practice,” in International Journal of Middle East Studies (31, 1999), p. 353.

[iii] Eric Geoffroy, “Le traité de soufisme d’un disciple d’Ibn Taymiyya: Ahmad ‘Imad al-din al-Wasiti (m. 711/1311),” in Studia Islamica (82, 1995), pp. 92-93, 95. Also Mark Sedgwick, A Sufi Reform of Islam, the Defeat of the Rashidiyya (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

[iv] Sedgwick, The Heirs of Ahmad Ibn Idris, pp. 36-37.

[v] Vincent Cornell, Realm of the Saint, Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), pp. 219, 227.

[vi] Bernd Radtke, “Ibriziana: Themes and Sources of a Seminal Sufi Work,” in Sudanic Africa (7, 1996), pp. 113-158.

[vii] Sedgwick, Heirs of Ahmad Ibn Idris, pp. 38-39.

[viii] Sedgwick, Heirs of Ahmad Ibn Idris, p. 39.

[ix] Radtke, “Sufism in the 18th Century,” p. 341.

[x] Jabarti’s History of Egypt, pp. 99-100. Also, Ifadat al-Ahmadiyya, p. 36.

[xi] Radtke, “Sufism in the 18th Century,” pp. 327-328.

[xii] Jabarti’s History of Egypt, pp. 98-112.

[xiii] Mark Sedgwick, Heirs of Ahmad Ibn Idris, revised version, chapter II, “Tariqa Muhammadiyya.” For more on the Tariqa Muhammadiyya in India, see Arthur F. Buehler, Sufi Heirs of the Prophet, the Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), p. 72.