Vision of the Prophet

[Excerpts from Zachary Wright, On the Path of the Prophet: Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Atlanta, 2005), p. 45-61. Posted with permission of publisher.]

In 1196/1784 Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was graced by the much anticipated fath al-kabir, or grand illumination/enlightenment. While residing in the desert oasis town of Abi Samghun, he saw the Prophet Muhammad “waking, not dreaming.” To understand the extraordinary nature of the new tariqa that had been unveiled, special emphasis must be given to the Prophet’s words to Tijani as they are recorded in the Jawahir al-Ma’ani:

And when he, God’s blessing and peace be upon him, initiated him in this Tariqa Ahmadiyya and [this] mode of life (sira) Mustafuwiyya Nabuwiyya (of the chosen Prophet), and Allah illuminated [al-Tijani] at his hands, may God’s blessing and peace be upon him, he [the Prophet] informed him that he was his educator (murabbi) and guarantor (kafil), and that nothing arrives from God except by his hands and at his mediation, may God’s blessing and peace be upon him. And he said to him, “You are not indebted for any favor from the shaykhs of the Path, for I am your means (wasita) and your support in the [spiritual] realization, so leave the entirety of what you have taken from all the tariqas.” And he said to him, “Hold to this tariqa without retreat (khalwa) or withdrawal from the people until arrives the station that is promised you, and you will attain your state without constriction, difficulty or excessive effort. And leave [or stop seeking from, itrak] the assembly of the saints.”

From this time on the Shaykh reportedly began having regular visionary contact with the Prophet, and his companions began hearing “from him what we had not heard before in regard to the sciences and the secrets.”[i] The time from 1196/1784 until his 1213/1798 arrival in Fes was marked by an increase in his following and the solidification of this new Tariqa Ahmadiyya Muhammadiyya as a distinctive order, with the completion of the order’s wird in 1200/1787, and the sense among his followers that their shaykh, due to his knowledge and miracles (which he ordered them to keep hidden), was of an unparalleled spiritual station.[ii]


In order to understand how it was that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani could have established a whole new Sufi order more or less on the basis of visionary experience (even if many of its elements resonated with the Khalwati, Shadhili and Qadiri traditions into which he had been previously initiated), it is important to examine the context of dreaming and visionary experience in pre-Modern Islamic history, and specifically the role of the dream or vision of the Prophet Muhammad. Even if modernist Islam seems to have inherited the Orientalist disdain for subjects such as visions and dreams, which writers such as Grunebaum would have us believe evidence the superstitious nature of the traditional Muslim mind,[iii] they nonetheless played a significant part in the shaping of Islamic identity and history. In her discussion of Ibn Abi al-Dunya’s Kitab al-Manam (Book of Dreams), Leah Kinberg attests to the “great prestige that dreams had in the classical period of Islam.”[iv]

While all dreams were of course not of value,[v] the true dream was thought to be an expression of an unseen reality. The Prophet once said, “Nothing is left of Prophethood but glad tidings.” On being asked, “What are glad tidings?” he replied, “True dreams (ru’yas, visions).”[vi] In traditional formulations such as that of al-Nabulsi, the dreamer’s soul (ruh) was thought to stretch out to “see through the light of God’s illumination what the archangel of dreams reveals to it. It then withdraws to return to the nafs, like the sun when it gets covered by a cloud.”[vii] It logically followed that the more purified the dreamer’s nafs or ego, the more clearly he could perceive and remember the unseen world of his dream. And since the true dream provided access to an unseen world that actually existed, a truly purified individual might have the veils lifted from his sight such that he would witness the hidden while in a waking state. Al-Ghazali maintained that after the seeker’s purification of his heart and complete absorption in God, “there begin the revelations and visions. The mystics in their waking state now behold angels and the spirits of the Prophets; they hear these speaking to them and are instructed by them.”[viii] The same is emphasized by Ibn ‘Arabi, “The person who undergoes unveiling sees while he is awake what the dreamer sees while he is asleep,”[ix] and, according to Chittick, it is rarely clear in Ibn ‘Arabi’s accounts whether his visions happen during sleep or wakefulness.[x] The same might be said of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, who also believed that visionary experience was a mark of distinction. For the truthful person, he said, the vision might go so far as to indicate his own end or destiny, in other words, what sort of fate had been written for him. The Jawahir al-Ma’ani reports in this regard that the Shaykh never had a vision but it came to pass.[xi] Thus he reported a dream from his youth where the throne for a great kingdom was erected for him to sit on, and when he sat he noticed himself in possession of a great many soldiers at his command.[xii] The Jawahir likewise reports Shaykh Tijani’s visions of the famous twelfth-century mystic Abu Madyan, who predicted for him the attainment of Qutbaniyya (the highest level of sainthood), as well as of the Prophet Moses, who spoke to him of God’s greatest name.[xiii]

But the best sort of vision that might be hoped for by the pious Muslim, and what primarily concerns us in the case of Shaykh Tijani, is the vision of the Prophet Muhammad himself. There are a variety of Hadith attesting to the validity of seeing the Prophet in a dream. One says, “Seeing me in a dream is like seeing me in reality, because Satan neither incarnates nor impersonates me. Whoever has dreamt of me has actually seen me. And he who has dreamt of me will not go to Hell.”[xiv] Another Hadith states, “Who has seen me in a dream will see me in a waking state and Satan cannot take my form.”[xv]

We are not so much concerned here with the theological arguments surrounding the validity of seeing the Prophet in a waking state, and indeed it seems that visionary experience was well enough accepted in pre-modern Islamic societies that visionaries rarely bothered to explain the legitimacy of their visions, or to make much of a distinction between their occurrence in a dreaming or waking state. But it is important to note that Tijanis have been able to make a convincing defense of the legitimacy of visionary experience even if many in the Muslim world today might prefer more material or “rational” contact with their tradition. A paper prepared in 2002 by the Tijani zawiya of Heliopolis, Cairo, states that the passage of the prophets from this world does mean that they have died; they are alive in the barzakh, or between worlds.[xvi] According to the paper, one Hadith reports that the Prophet said God prohibited the earth from eating the bodies of the prophets.[xvii] Just as the Prophet Muhammad saw Moses standing in prayer in his grave and Jesus circumambulating the Kaba, so too can the righteous servants of God see the Prophet after his passing from this world.[xviii] As for a person taking knowledge from the waking vision of the Prophet, this is but a manifestation of God’s ability to instill knowledge directly to His servant, as in the Qur’an, “Fear Allah and He will teach you.”[xix]

The vision of the Prophet occupied a central position in Islamic history from an early date. An early Muslim scholar, Ibn Sirin (d. 728), devoted an entire chapter of his book on dreams, Tafsir al-Ahlam al-Kabir, to seeing the Prophet in a dream.[xx] The Kitab al-Manam of Baghdad’s Ibn Abi al-Dunya (d. 281/892) contains some forty-seven accounts of dreams of the Prophet.[xxi] The famous Sufi poet Abd al-Rahman al-Jami (d. 1492) even wrote a poem that would induce the dream of the Prophet.[xxii] Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti’s (d. 1505) book, Tanweer al-Halak fi imkan ru’yat al-nabiyy wal-malak (“The Enlightment of the Darkness in the Possibility of Seeing the Prophet and the Angels”), not only discusses the dream of the Prophet but elucidates the possibility of sitting with the Prophet in a waking state.[xxiii] The book entitled, History of the Uwaysis (c. 1600) of Khirghizia’s (Central Asia) Ahmad Uzgen, contains many references to the dream and vision of the Prophet.[xxiv]

Visionary experience dealing with the Prophet has served a variety of functions, from deciding theological or legal issues, to endorsing a particular scholar or his work, to investiture of political authority, to knowledge of future events or just commentary on a contemporary situation. The tendency of the Prophet to appear to pious Muslims in times of difficulty is affirmed by Goldziher in his study of the dream of the Prophet in Islamic history:

It is no uncommon thing in Islamic literature to find both theological doubts and questions of practical controversy solved by the decision of the Prophet, who appears in a dream … decisions which extend as well to isolated cases affecting individuals, as to matters affecting the interests of the community at large.[xxv]

There is not the space to cite all the relevant examples here, but a few of the more prominent include Umar ibn al-Khattab, who learned from the Prophet in a dream not to kiss his wife while fasting,[xxvi] Uthman ibn ‘Affan, whose dream of the Prophet predicted for him his own assassination the night before he was killed,[xxvii] and Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (Umayyad Khalif, d. 102/720), who dreamed of God’s judgement in the presence of the Prophet between Ali and Mu’awiya ibn Abi Suffyan and later of the Prophet (together with Jesus, Abu Bakr and Umar) supporting his policy of tolerance towards Christians.[xxviii] Indeed, it would seem that crucial junctures of Islamic history often had their outcomes influenced by a guiding dream of the Prophet. The Andalusian conqueror Tariq ibn Zayd dreamed of the Prophet and his companions entering Andalusia before his own fateful incursion into that country in 93/711.[xxix] Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ash’ari (d. 324/936) founded the Ash’ari school of theology in opposition to the dominant Mu’tazilite doctrine on the repeated urging of the Prophet in a number of dreams.[xxx] The Prophet also appeared on other occasions to solve minor points of legal dispute, such as the number of prayer cycles in the superogatory early morning prayer (salat al-duha).[xxxi] Ibn al-Subqy’s important fourteenth century work containing the biographies of prominent Shafi’i legal scholars frequently details how the Prophet appeared to clarify an unclear ijtihad (legal interpretation) or to solve a practical problem.[xxxii] Likewise did certain trends of Sufism gain ascendancy in part through the dream of the Prophet, such as sobriety in mysticism[xxxiii] or the emphasis on loving the Prophet.[xxxiv]

Even if the dream of the Prophet was always a significant event in Islamic history, at a certain point, perhaps from the sixteenth century, it seems the emphasis on its occurrence increased, and in particular, the accentuation of the waking vision of the Prophet became more prevalent. There is of course the case of Uways (d. 657 C.E), who lived during the time of the Prophet and became Muslim through visions of the Prophet without ever having met him.[xxxv] It is from Uways that the term “Uwaysi transmission,” meaning learning from the Prophet or a saint through visionary contact, has gained currency. Other early figures, such as Imam Shafi’i (d. 9th century C.E.), reportedly used to see the Prophet in a waking state.[xxxvi]

Likewise the vision of the Prophet was a frequent enough occurrence within Sufism for centuries prior to Shaykh Tijani. Abu Maydan, Ahmad Rifa’i, Abd al-Qadir Jilani, Ibn al-‘Arabi and al-Shadhili’s first khalifa, Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, all reported waking visions of the Prophet. Al-Jilani’s emphasis on the true teacher’s guidance from the Prophet almost seems comparable to later formulations of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya: “A living teacher must have connection with our master the Prophet of Allah (SAW), that is, if he is truly the inheritor of the state of the Prophet. In his teaching he receives guidance from the Prophet and is taught to be a true servant of Allah.” Al-Jilani later clarifies that such guidance is obtained through direct contact with “the spirit” of the Prophet.[xxxvii] Al-Mursi’s statement that, “By God, were the Messenger of God concealed from me for a twinkling of the eye, I would not count myself among the Muslims,” is often quoted by Tijanis as an earlier manifestation similar to what their Shaykh would himself later claim. The famous Tadhkira al-Awliya (Memorial of the Friends) of ‘Attar (d. 1221) speaks of a whole class of “Uwaysi” Sufis, who learned from the Prophet directly and therefore had no need of another instructor.[xxxviii] The renowned Hadith scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) reportedly met with the Prophet on numerous occasions to question him about the validity of various Hadith, but urged his close companions to conceal the fact until after his death.[xxxix]

Some might contend that the above statements of renowned Sufis do not necessarily mean a waking vision of the Prophet, but neither is the intimacy with the Prophet and the direct nature of their contact with him that is revealed in their statements explained by the simple dream. In any case, in Sufism the distinction between the waking and dreaming state, between the Prophet’s spirit (ruh) or his actual self (dhat), rarely seems to have been made, so there is no basis to reject to the Tijani claim that the waking vision of the Prophet was an event witnessed before Shaykh Ahmad Tijani by some of the greatest Sufis.

But even if reports of the vision of the Prophet are available from earlier periods of Islamic history, it is hard to dispute Julian Baldick’s point that such reports increased from the sixteenth century onwards.

The position of the Uwaysi is really, as we have seen, the position of every Muslim with regard to Muhammad: like Uways himself, the believer has not met the Prophet in the flesh, but wishes to know him and learn from him. Given the political and economic decline of Islam from the sixteenth century onwards, it is understandable that the Uwaysi phenomenon should have gained in importance from then on.[xl]

While visionary experience cannot necessarily be explained by decline, it is apparent that reports of the Prophet’s appearance attained a level of increased circulation in all parts of the Muslim world. This seemed to be the case from Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624)[xli] and Shah Waliullah (who wrote a treatise devoted to hadith taught by the Prophet to a scholar in a vision)[xlii] in India to the Maghreb, where waking visions of the Prophet were reported by such diverse sources as the Moroccan Grand Qadi Abu Zayd Abd al-Rahman al-Tamanarti (alive 1633)[xliii] to the Sufis of the Jazuliyya and Nasiriyya orders, among others.[xliv] Indeed we find in the Ibriz, the book concerning Abd al-Aziz al-Dabbagh which contained most of the essential elements of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya phenomenon and which had a large influence on eighteenth-century Sufism, that the waking vision of the Prophet seems such a part of the scholarly understanding that the Ibriz‘s author does not feel obliged to explain Abd al-Aziz al-Dabbagh’s tendency to postpone answering a question posed to him until he had occasion to consult the Prophet.[xlv] And even if modernist distaste for intangible phenomena has perhaps occasioned a decline of the dream’s integral importance in Islamic societies, pious and well respected Muslim leaders, as well as ordinary people, still report visionary contact with the Prophet. A special 2002 Ramadan program on Egyptian national television reported that the popular Egyptian Shaykh Muhammad Mutwali al-Sharawi (d. 1998), whose weekly television program enthralled millions around the Muslim world, saw the Prophet on his deathbed, greeted him out loud and repeated the Islamic testimony of faith.

It is difficult to speculate as to the reasons for the apparent rise in frequency of the vision of the Prophet. Certainly, it could be said that Muslims generally have seen themselves in a state of increased decline the further history progresses from the time of Prophet, since a widely accepted Hadith predicts just this. So perhaps, as Baldick states, pious Muslims’ longing for the Prophet’s countenance augmented according to the increased need for guidance in an uncertain time. In any event, this was evidently the case with Shaykh Ahmad Tijani, who spoke specifically of the difficulty of attaining knowledge of God in his time. The much needed exception was provided in the grace channeled through the saints on account of their close proximity to the Prophet, a proximity which manifested through frequent visionary contact with him.[xlvi]

In conclusion, it seems evident that visionary contact with the Prophet prior to Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was far from unprecedented. Even closer examination of the nature of these prior visions reveals that the specific characteristics of his own experiences, such as asking the Prophet for advice or the receiving of particular prayers, or even the saint and his followers being promised intercession or salvation by the Prophet (such was reported in the Maghrebi context by Muhammad al-Jazuli, the fifteenth century founder of the Jazuliyya order, and Muhammad ibn Nasir, seventeenth century founder of the Nasiriyya order),[xlvii] all were elements of Tijani’s visions which had been reported by visionaries before his own time. Neither did Shaykh Tijani’s visions transcend the bounds of orthodox or acceptable visionary experience, established in formulations such as that of Imam Nawawi (thirteenth century C.E.), who objected to visions being used as the source for practices contradicting the Sunna.[xlviii] The only new development with Shaykh Tijani’s visionary relationship to the Prophet Muhammad was perhaps simply one of degree. The intensely personal and vivid descriptions of his meetings with the Prophet represent a degree of intimacy difficult to be matched, and certainly with no other saint having visions of this kind had such a compelling and lasting effect on the visionary concerned and the inheritance he left behind …

A widely quoted description of Shaykh Tijani’s visionary relationship to the Prophet is the following provided in al-Fath al-Rabbani:

Among the graces with which God honored him (Shaykh Ahmad Tijani) was the waking vision of the Prophet, continuously and ever, so that it was never absent from him for the twinkling of an eye. And his questioning of the Prophet on everything and asking for counsel in small things and great, and undergoing training at his hands. This is the highest of all graces granted to the people of knowledge.[xlix]


[i] Jawahir, p. 26.

[ii] Jawahir, p. 26.

[iii] Grunebaum declares that, “As a result of our [Western] scientific advancement we have become able to afford a renunciation long overdue…” in rejecting the significance of dream or visionary experience. “To us, the symptomatic, revelatory, ‘prophetic’ significance of the dream points inward to the dreamer (and to his society), not outward into areas of reality inaccessible by rational or ‘natural’ means. (In fact, to many of us the existence of such areas of reality has become quite doubtful).” G.E. Von Grunebaum, “Introduction, the Cultural Function of the Dream as illustrated by Classical Islam,” in Grunebaum and Caillois ed.s, The Dream and Human Societies (Berkely and Los Angeles: UC Press, 1966), pp. 20-21.

[iv] Leah Kinberg, Ibn Abi al-Dunya: Morality in the Guise of Dreams, a Critical Edition of Kitab al-Manam (Leiden: Brill, 1994), p. 15.

[v] The Prophet explained three different types of dreams, that inspired by God, that inspired by Satan, and that coming from the talk of the self still active after sleep. See Yehia Gouda, Dreams and their Meanings in the Old Arab Tradition (New York: Vantage Press, 1991), pp. 3-4.

[vi] Hadith reported by Abu Hurairah, recorded in Bukhari, quoted in Gouda, Dreams, p. 5.

[vii] Nabulsi, Taatirul Anam fi Taabir al-Manam (Introduction to the Scented Sleep and What our Dreaming Mind Expresses), quoted in Gouda, Dreams, p. 4.

[viii] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error and the Attachment to the Lord of Might and Majesty. Montgommery Watt, Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali (London: Unwin Brothers, 1953), p. 61.

[ix] Muhiyy al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat al-Makkiyya, quoted in William Chittick, Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabi and the problem of religious diversity (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 84.

[x] Chittick, Imaginal Worlds, p. 90.

[xi] Jawahir, p. 27.

[xii] Jawahir, p. 27.

[xiii] Jawahir, pp. 27-28.

[xiv] Hadith of Bukhari, quoted in Gouda, Dreams, p. 281.

[xv] Hadith of Bukhari, quoted in “Ithbat jawaz ru’ya sayyidina rasulullah salla Allahu aleihi wa salam fi al-yaqzha ba’da intiqalihi ila al-rafiq al-‘ala” (“The proof of the permissibility of seeing our master the Messenger of God, the blessings and peace of God upon him, in a waking state after his passage to the Most High Companion.”) (article prepared for author by the Tijani Zawiya of Heliopolis, Cairo, Ramadan, 1422/2002), p. 1.

[xvi] “Ithbat,” p. 3.

[xvii] Hadith reported by Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majjah and Ibn Hayyan. “Ithbat,” p. 4.

[xviii] “Ithbat,” p. 4.

[xix] “Ithbat,” p. 2.

[xx] Gouda, Dreams, p. 21.

[xxi] See Kinberg, Ibn Abi al-Dunya.

[xxii] Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 1985), p. 79.

[xxiii] Sa’di Abu Habib, Hayat Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (Damascus: Dar al-Manahil, 1993), pp. 154-156.

[xxiv] Julian Baldick, Imaginary Muslims: the Uwaysi Sufis of Central Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 1993), p. 1.

[xxv] Ignaz Goldziher, “The Appearance of the Prophet in Dreams,” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1912), p. 503.

[xxvi] Al-Ghazali, Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (trans. T.J. Winter, Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1989), p. 156.

[xxvii] Toufic Fahd, La Divination Arab (Leiden: Brill, 1966), p. 81.

[xxviii] Fahd, Divination, pp. 297-298. Of the former dream, God decided in favor of Ali, but forgave Mu’awiya.

[xxix] Fahd, Divination, pp. 288-289.

[xxx] Abu al-Qasim Ibn ‘Asakir, “The Exposure of the Calumniator’s Lying concerning what has been imputed to the Imam Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash’ari,” in Richard McCarthy, The Theology of al-Ash’ari (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1953), pp. 152-155.

[xxxi] This in a dream to Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Jaziri (10th cent C.E.), the doubt was solved in favor of Imam Malik’s opinion. See Goldziher, “Appearance of the Prophet,” pp. 503-504.

[xxxii] Abu Nasr ‘Abd al-Wahhab Ibn al-Subqy, Tabaqat al-Shaf’iyya al-Kubra (10 volumes, Cairo: Hijr, 1992). Interview with Muhammad Serag, April, 2003. Serag wrote a paper on the subject.

[xxxiii] This in a dream to Abu Sa’id al-Kharraz, to whom the Prophet counseled against beating oneself while making dhikr. See al-Ghazali, Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, p. 163.

[xxxiv] This in a dream to Ahmad al-Kharraz (d. 899), whose repetition of Rabia al-Adawiyya’s profession that her love for Allah left no room for loving the Prophet, was told by the Prophet in a dream, “He that loves God must have loved me.” See Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger, p. 130.

[xxxv] Baldick, Imaginary Muslims, pp. 16-21.

[xxxvi] Sa’di Abu Habib, Hayat Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, p. 155.

[xxxvii] Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, The Secret of Secrets (trans. Tosun al-Helveti, Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1992), p. 113.

[xxxviii] Baldick, Imaginary Muslims, p. 25.

[xxxix] Abu Habib, Hayat Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, pp. 154-156.

[xl] Baldick, Imaginary Muslims, pp. 226-227.

[xli] Baldick, Imaginary Muslims, p. 26.

[xlii] Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger, n. 58, p. 281.

[xliii] Jonathan Katz, “Visionary experience, Autobiography and Sainthood in North African Islam,” in Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies (v. 1, 1992), p. 99.

[xliv] Katz, Dreams, Sufism and Sainthood: the Visionary Career of Muhammad al-Zawawi (Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. xv, 100, 102, 226-227.

[xlv] Ahmad ibn Mubarak Lamati al-Sijilmasi, Al-Ibriz min Kalam Sidi ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Dabagh (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub, 1998), p. 57.

[xlvi] Kitab al-Jami’, b. I, p. 71.

[xlvii] Katz, Dreams, Sufism and Sainthood, pp. xv, 226-227.

[xlviii] Goldziher, “Appearance of the Prophet,” p. 506. Tijani scholars themselves agree upon the same limits of visionary experience. Shaykh Hassan Cisse maintains that a vision is not of general applicability if it contradicts the established Shari’a (Interview in Medina Kaolack, Senegal, November 2002).

[xlix] Ahmad al-Shinqiti, Al-Fath al-Rabbani, translated in Constance Padwick, Muslim Devotions: a study of prayer manuals in common use (London: SPCK, 1961), p. 150.