Despite his importance, no substantial study has been devoted to the career of Abul Abbas Sidi Ahmed ibn Idriss al-Hassani al-Araichi al-Fasi (d. 1252/1837); most accounts of him appear by way of a preface lo studies or his pupils. And yet through his teachings, pupils, and family, he was undoubtedly one of the key religious figures of the 19th century Arab Muslim world. Indeed, his influence, direct and indirect, appears to have stretched from North Africa to Indonesia.

Three of his pupils from his immediate circle established major brotherhoods, the Sanussiya, Khatmiya, and Rashidiya, from which stemmed several other orders. Of his descendants one branch established a local dynasty in southern Arabia that survived until 1933 when it was incorporated into the Saudi stale, while another branch, somewhat belatedly, established an Idrissiya in Upper Egypt and the Southern Sudan. Also significant is the influence exercised by Ibn Idriss through those of his pupils who founded not majororders but local schools propagating his teachings such as the

Egyptian Sidi Ali Abdelhaqq al-Qusi, or, who under his influence founded or revitalised local or family orders, such as the Majdhubiya and Ismailiya in the Northern or western Sudan respectively. Finally, his influence was not confined to his family and pupils; in the course of his travels, he initiated or gave ijazas, both general and for specific text, or corresponded with many scholars including such figures as Mohammed Hassan al-Madani (d. 1847) and Mohammed ibn Ali Shawkani (d. 1834).

Yet Ibn Idriss remains an enigma. That he was very influential is beyond doubt; why, is less easy to explain. His doctrinal position was not unique; others held the same or similar positions. He wrote relatively little; his teachings are known largely through the writings of his students and contemporaries, his few surviving letters, and through his litanies and prayers. The explanation must lie in his personality; not so much what he taught, but how he taught it. That, rather than doctrinal originality, best explains the enormous authority he exercised over his students and contemporaries and why established scholars so eagerly sought ijazas from him.

While the several accounts we have of him simply take his spiritual authority for granted, his letters underscore its pastoral nature. In letters to his closest pupils, such as his near contemporary, al-Sanusi, or the much younger al-Uthman Mirghani, he writes as a wise and loving master guiding them along the mystical path; to his humbler followers, he gives simple and authoritative rulings on a variety of matters that were both great and small.

Toward a biography

Ibn Idriss was born into a holy family at Maysur in the district of al-`Araich (Larache) on Morocco’s Atlantic coast; the date of his birth is given as either Rajab 1173/February-March 1760 or 1163/1749-50, the latter date supported by Idrissi family tradition. He was a descendant through the Imam Idriss b. ‘Abdellah al-Mahd of the Sharifian Idrissi dynasty, sometime rulers of Fez (788-974).

After the usual Quranic studies, Sidi Ahmed went at the age of about 20 to study at the Qarawiyyin mosque school in Fez. There he studied a wide range of subjects under a number of teachers, who included Sidi Mohammed at-Tawdi ibn Souda (d. 1209/1794), al-Majidri (or al-Mijaydri) al-Shinqiti, Sidi Abul Mahawib Abdelwahhab Tazi (d. 1198/1783), and Abul Qacem al-Wazir. Other teachers referred to in the sources include Abdelkarim Yazghi (d. 1784) and Mohammed Tayyeb ibn Kiran (d. 1812). Ibn Kiran was later to teach al-Sanusi. Among the texts Ibn Idriss studied were the works of Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani (d. 1499) and the Asanid of Ibn Suda from the latter’s period of study in Egypt.

It was from among the same teachers that Ibn Idriss took his Sufi affiliations; he was initiated into the Khadiriya by al-Tazi and into the Nasiriya Shadhiliya by al-Wazir, while al-Shinqiti taught him the famous prayer attributed to Sidna Ali ibn Abi Talib, al-Hizb al-Sayfi. In other words, Ibn Idriss received an education that combined the formal religious sciences, apparently with an emphasis on tafsir and hadith, with the mysticism of the brotherhoods. He soon began to form a circle of students around him, to whom he inveighed against the innovations (bida’) of popular Sufism (Tasawwuf sha’abi), exhorting to go back to the sources (usul) of belief, the Quran and Sunna.

This was to be the consistent theme of his teaching throughout his life. Ibn Idriss seems to have become a figure of controversy, becoming involved in disputes with the ulama at the Qarawiyyin. This may be the reason why, in the middle of 1212/1797-98, Sidi Ahmed set out with an entourage from Fez on the pilgrimage; he was never to return to Morocco. Travelling via Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, he stopped at Benghazi, where he taught people from Jabal al-Akdar and Barqa.

He then took a boat from Benghazi directly to Alexandria, arriving apparently in early 1798, some few months before Bonaparte’s invasion From Alexandria he travelled up to Cairo where he gave a series of public lectures at al-Azhar which huge audiences attended, a number of whom went with him when he continued on to Mecca at the end of 1213/1798-99 or the beginning of 1214/1799-1800.

Sidi Ahmed was to stay in Mecca, except for the years spent on his two, possibly three, extended visits to Upper Egypt, until his enforced departure for the Yemen in 1243/1827-28. From the outset, he appears to have encountered hostility from the Meccan ulama, but to have enjoyed the support and patronage of the Sharif Ghalib ibn Musa, emir of Mecca between 1788 and 1814. It was the latter who granted Sidi Ahmed the palace (saray) of al-Jaafariya in Mecca for the use of himself and his followers.

Emir Ghalib was himself driven out of Mecca by the Wahhabis under Sa’ud ibn Abdellaziz in 1803, but the latter is said to have treated Ibn Idriss with the greatest respect, giving him a silk robe and protecting his followers. Interestingly, Sidi Ahmed only left Mecca in 1813, the year that the Wahhabis were expelled from the holy city by the forces of Mohammed Ali Pasha. Together with Sidi al-Uthman Mirghani, he crossed the Red Sea to al-Zayniya, a village near Luxor (al-Uqsur) approximately half way between Qina and Isna. Al-Zayniya was apparently a religious centre of some importance as well as being at the end of some short desert crossing from the Nile to the Red Sea coast. Ibn Idriss may have visited al-Zayniya before; in his Bulaq, Mohammed Hijrasi suggests that during his first stay m Egypt he visited Upper Egypt where he was initiated into the Khalwatiya by Sidi Hassan ibn Hassan Bey al-Qina’i, a student of the Qutb Mahmoud al-Kurdi (d. 1186/1771).

This latter is credited to have initiated his master Sidi Abdelwahhab Tazi as well as Moulay Abul Abbas Ahmed Tijani (d. 1230/1815). It was during this apparent second visit, between 1813 and 1817, that al-Uthman Mirghani was permitted by In Ibn to undertake a dissemination journey (nashr) through the northern and western Sudan, a journey that was lo lay the foundations of the Khatmiya tariqa.

Sidi Ahmed returned to Mecca in 1817. But conditions there were beginning to turn against him; there was continuing tension between the Sharifian Zayd clan, to which his patron Ghalib belonged, and the occupying forces of Mohammed Ali. Ten years later, in 1243/1827, matters finally came to a head. Mohammed Ali transferred the position of emir from the Zayd to the ‘Awn clan, while the Meccan ulama seemed to have used the demarche to bring charges of heresy against Sidi Ahmed ibn Idriss.

In the same year, Sidi Ahmed was forced to leave; he set out for the Yemen with all his pupils except for al-Sanusi who stayed behind to act as his master’s agent in Mecca. Ibn Idriss’ reputation was already known in the Yemen and the contrast between his reception by the networks of scholarly clans there and hostility of the Meccans is striking. Indeed, one recent study, describes Ibn Idriss coming as contributing to a Sufi revival in the Yemen. But among the Yemeni scholars were ulama who had attained the highest rank of ijtihad; in other words, whose doctrinal position was very close to that of Ibn Idriss.

He went first to Mukha in the far south where he stayed for four months, before moving to Zahn: where he was the guest for nearly a year of the town’s mufti Abderrahman ibn Sulayman al-Ahdal (d. 1835). From Zabid he travelled north via Bayt al-Faqih and al-Hudayda to al- Qutay and Bajil. His progress along the coastal region of the Yemen seems to have been marked by extraordinary enthusiasm; wherever he went, he initiated into his order or gave ijazas for a wide range of texts, mainly the canonical collection of hadith and Ibn Hajar. His position was undoubtedly enhanced by a warm recommendation from the great Yemeni scholar, Mohammed Shawkani, whom he did not actually meet but with whom he corresponded.

Among those he taught was, for example, the Qadi of Bait al-Faqih, Abderrahman ibn Ahmed al-Bahkali

(d. 1836). To the young al-Hassan b. Ahmed Akish Damidi (d. 1872), he taught the Risala (Letters) of Abul Qacem al-Qushayri (d.467/1052) and Ibn Ata’Allah Sakandari’s (d. 709/1294) Hikam (Spiritual Aphorisms); to Abu Bakr ibn Abdellah al-`Attas (d. 1866) his prayer, as-Salat al-A’adhamiya. But these were by no means the only scholars he met; both Yemeni and Idrissi sources give many more.

There were, however, to be in the Yemen echoes of his deputes it Fez and Mecca. Abu Bakr ibn Mohammed Tihami (d. 1843), hearing that Ibn Idriss had rejected the exoteric (dhahir) interpretation of certain Quranic verses, “since it did not concern to Sufi principles (qawa’d as-sufiya),” wrote a refutation called Talbis Iblis, “The Devil’s Deceit,” the title recalling Ibn al-Jawzi’s teaching mocking attack on Sufism in his lime. To this, another Yemeni scholar, Ibrahim ibn Yahya Damidi, responded with a counter-blast. Harmony prevailed in the end; al-Hassan Akish records, (Tihami) came into contact with our Shaykh through some of his students and received a pardon. The pardon was both requested and expected by Tihami, since he was one of the eminent, and slander upon the reputation of the ulama is a mortal poison.

The doctrinal difference seems to have disappeared in the face of Ibn Idriss’ spiritual status. After nearly two years of travel, Ibn Idriss came, in 1244/1828, to the town of Sabya in the district of `Asir. ‘Asir’s ruler, Ali ibn Mujathlhil (d. 1834) welcomed him and gave him a grant upon which to live. Now an old man, Ibn Idriss seems to have decided to settle in Sabya. Once more, as before in Fez and Mecca, his teaching begin to provoke opposition, this lime from a group or Wahhabi-inspired ulama led by one Nasir al-Kubaybi.

Matters, came to a head just over a year later, when in Jumada 11 1245/November 1829, Ibn Mujathlhil ordered a public debate (munazara) to be held between al- Kubaybi and Ibn Idriss, a debate recorded verbatim by al-Hassan Akish. The debate is too long to be analyzed here, but characteristic is Ibn ldriss’ criticism to Mohammed ibn Abdelwahhab, We do not deny his merit. His intention was righteous in what he did. He eliminated innovations and unfortunate practices, but that mission was smeared by excess. He declared those Muslims who had a belief in anything other than God Most High to be unbelievers, and moreover allowed them to be killed and their property to he seized without justification.

Ibn Idriss died in Sabya on 21 Rajab 1253/21 October I837. Of his descendents, one branch later emerged as the Idrissi dynasty of `Asir, while another branch, founded by his sons Mohammed and Abd al-`Ali propagated what became the Idrissiya Tariqa in Upper Egypt, based on al-Zayniya, and around Dongola and Omdurman in the northern Sudan, where they settled and still live. Ibn ldriss’ teachings

Ibn ldriss’ teachings fall within the parameters of two fundamental doctrinal positions: as regards fiqh; a rejection of taqlid and the madhabs, and a return to the Quran, the Sunna, and the ijma’a of the Companions; as regards Sufism, an emphasis on the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) as the way to God. The two positions were, of course, two sides of the same coin; a purer Islam emphasising the believer’s own personal way to salvation and “intellectual honesty.”

In his rejection of taqlid, Ibn Idriss was doctrinally very close to the Wahhabis and Shawkani. He expounded his own distinctively mystical interpretation of the Quran and hadith. This, naturally, brought him into conflict with the Meccan ulama. According to his disciple Sidi al-Uthman Mirghani, “He was rejected by the people of Mecca and the reason for their rejection (inkar) was reliance (`amal) on the Sunna in a much as he did not follow a madhab, but relied only on the Book of God and the Sunna.”

His assertion of ijtihad appears in all his scholarly encounters, with the Meccans, with the Egyptian Ahmed al-Sawi (d. 1825), or in the Yemen. What is less clear is whom he considered qualified to exercise ijtihad; certainly not every Muslim. Shaykh Ibn Idrissi points out, “As for the ijtihad of the Companions and the successors (at-tabi’in) following the example of the Messenger (peace and blessing be upon him), it is not a matter within the capacity of everyone.” His rejection of taqlid seems to have been paralleled by a distaste for its experts. He states, “Beware of those who ascribe to themselves learning (ilm) without acting in accordance with it… and have traded their faith for the world.”

Central to his mysticism was the concept of Tariqa Mohammediya, namely that there was only one “way,” that of the Prophet, who alone could act as intermediary between the seeker and God. Sidi Ahmed Akish Damidi reports, He, the teacher (at-ustadh) said, “The leaders of this tariqa took their way through intermediaries (bi-wasita), but I took my tariqa  from the Messenger (peace and blessing be upon him), without any intermediary; thus my way is the Mohammediya Ahmediya; its beginning and its end is the Mohammedian light.”

The dogma of Tariqa Mohammediya was not, of course, new, but it did lay great stress on sanction by Prophetic revelation, a dogma fundamental to Ibn Idriss and his students. As one example, a Sudanese saint, Sidi Mohammed al-Majdhub (d. 1832) was initiated into the Khatmiya by al-Uthman Mirghani during the latter’s journeys in the Sudan. Subsequently, he went to Mecca and studied with Ibn Idriss. While in the Medina, the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) appeared to him, ordering him to leave the Khatmiya and return to the tariqa of his ancestors, the Shadhiliya (after the Moroccan

Sidi Abul Hassan Shadhili; d. 656/1241). He returned to the Sudan, settling at Sawakin on the Red Sea coast, where he established a zawiya from which he propagated his own order, known as the Mohammediya Shadhiliya Majdhubiya. Ibn Idriss’ method of teaching seems to have been essentially informal. A circle grew up around him, be it in Fez, Mecca, or Sabya; his relationship with his students varied no doubt in proportion to the latter’ age, learning, and status in the mystical way. Thus, his letters to Sidi Mohammed ibn Ali Sanusi seem much more as between equals relatively than those to Sidi Uthman Mirghani, which are written very much from walid to walad (a father to son).

Indeed, in one letter to Sidi Mirghani, he urges him to be guided by Sanusi, since the latter was “a true likeness of us” (nuskha shabiha minna). There was no formal hierarchy or distinctive dress, although he did occasionally present the Sufi liver (khirqa) or send one of his gowns “as a blessing and likeness {tahabbub).” His form of teaching was the majlis or open lecture. Sidi Ibrahim ar- Rashid (d. 1874) records that on one occasion he held six majalis in three days; two a day, one after the evening prayers, the other after the morning prayers.

The forty or so surviving letters to and from Sidi Ibn Idriss conform the impression of extraordinary spiritual status; the series of letters to and from Sidi Uthman Mirghani are within the classical tradition of the spiritual master guiding a novice who oscillates between exaltation and self-doubt. To others he writes on more prosaic matters. Thus in two letters to a student in Sudanese Nubia, he rules on the admissibility of amputating an otiose finger, on the use of burnt date stones as a cure for diarrhoea, on whether one should pray ever the bier or one who has neglected virtue (tariq salah), and on the leaning of a writing tablet (law’h), upon which

Quranic verses have been written against the wall. The latter point gives a good illustration of his style of argument. There is no objection to this. Indeed, the tablet upon which is written the Quran has, its origin from the earth. And the earth has its origin from the water. And the earth has its origin from the Light of our Lord Mohammed (peace and blessing be upon him). And the origin of everything is pure, and leaning the tablet against the wall is likewise, and the Book likewise.”