Sidi Abu Madyan al-Ghawt (d. 594/1179)

Sidi Abu Madyan Shuayb ibn al-Hussein al-Ansari was born into a lower-class family in the suburban town of Cantillana near Seville around the year 509/1115-16. According to the autobiographical traditions transmitted by at-Tadili, he was orphaned at a tender age and worked for his brothers as a shepherd until an overwhelmingly desire for religion drove him to study the Islamic sciences in Morocco. Stopping first in Marrakech, he enrolled himself in the regiment of the Andalusian soldiers assigned to guard the Almohad capital during the reign of Ali ibn Yusuf ibn Tashfin.

After completing this contract, he took the money he had earned and travelled to Fez, where he joined the study circle of Sidi Ali ibn Harzihim (d. 559/1164). Here he received the patched cloak (khirqa) into the Ghazalian tradition of orthodox mysticism and spent a number of years studying the works of al-Ghazali, al-Muhasibi, and al-Qushayri,

So I turned toward Fez and attached myself to its mosque-university (the famous Jami’ Al Qarawiyyine), where I learned to make the ablution and the prayer and sat in the study circles of legists and hadith specialists. I retained nothing of their words, however, until I sat at the feet of a Shaykh whose words were retained firmly within my heart.

I asked whom he was and was told, ‘Abul Hassan [Ali] ibn Harzihim’. I went to this Shaykh and told him that I could memorise only what I had learned from him alone and he said to me, ‘These [others] speak with parts of their tongues, but their words are not worthy [even] to call the prayer. Since I seek [only] God with my words, they come from the heart and enter the heart.

While in Fez, Abu Madyan also studied in the al-Qarawiyyine under Sidi Abul Hassan Ali ibn Ghalib al-Qurashi ( the noted “Sidi Ali Boughaleb” of Fez; a disciple of Sidi Ahmed ibn al-Arif ; d. 568/1153) and the most notorious of the Sufi activists of Almoravid Sijilmasa Sidi Abu Abdellah Daqqaq who like Sidi Abul Hassan Ali ibn Harzihim (d. 544/1129) appears to have followed the lifestyle of malamatiya, for his statements provoked criticism from official ulama and Sufis alike. Some of these statements, like Sidi Harzihim’s, included the open proclamation of his holiness.

Unlike, Ibn Harzihim, however, whose “path of blame” was based on a reputation for socio-political activism, Daqqaq’s malamati behaviour more often recalls that of such familiar eastern figures as Sidi Abu Yazid Bastami (d. 261/846) and Sidi Hussein ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 309/894).

This impression is reinforced by the fact that Sidi Daqqaq’s defenders judged his utterances as permissible only because they were made under the influence of ecstatic spiritual states (hal, pl. ahwal). Although he was supported by Sidi Ahmed Ibn al-Arif Tanji (d. 536/1121) and Sidi Abul Hakam ibn Barrajan Ishbili (d. 536/1121), Sidi Daqqaq was at times criticised by other mystics. This can be seen in the following satirical poem, which was written against Sidi Daqqaq by one of his Fasi Sufi contemporaries,

Say to the little man among the powerful,
“Poverty is the most excellent trait of the free.”
Oh complainer to man about the poverty granted by his Lord,
Can you not complain about a [truly] heavy load?
Oh, what vestments of piety you profess to wear!
If your Lord had only wished, you would come before Him naked”

Despite this rebuke, which accuses Shaykh Sidi Au Abdellah Daqqaq of the very un-Sufi practice of denying poverty and piety-oriented style of Sufism, later hagiographers claimed that his status as a holy man was confirmed in repeated dreams of the Prophet Sidna Mohammed (peace and blessing be upon him). Although neither the date nor the circumstances of his death have been recorded, it is likely that Sidi Au Abdellah Daqqaq also met his end at the hands of the Almoravid authorities.

Shaykh Sidi Au Abdellah Daqqaq took Sufism from Sidi Abi Amrou Tilimsani and Shaykh Sidi Abi Abdellah Mohammed ibn Omar al-Asam. His tomb outside of Bab al-Gisa on the Andalusian side of Fez was venerated for many centuries, partially because of the reputation of his most important disciple, Sidi Abu Madyan Shuayb al-Ghawt.

Although Abu Madyan received his formal initiation into Sufism at the hands of Ibn Harzihim, there is a little doubt that the greatest influence of his spiritual development came from Sidi Abu Yaaza Yalnur (d. 572/1157)—whom he visited for few days only—unless Ibn Harzihim and the other masters of Abu Madyan paved for him the way to inherit the secrets of Sidi Abu Yaaza in a short period of time:

At the beginning of my spiritual journey, I attended the circles of several spiritual masters. When I heard the explanation of a Quranic verse or a saying of the Prophet, I used to immerse myself in it completely. I would flee to an uninhabited place [on Mount Zalagh] and apply myself to the exercises to Which God had inspired me following my absorption in what I had heard… And thus I lived for a certain time.

Later I heard about the spiritual master Abu Yaaza and his miracles (karamat), about which the people were speaking. My heart was filled with love for him and I joined a party of fuqara (poor in spirit, e.g. those following a spiritual path), who were setting out on a journey in order to visit him.

When we arrived at his place, he greeted everyone expect me, and when a mean was brought, he excluded me from it. Three days did I remain thus, tormented by hunger and assailed by doubts. Then I said to myself: when the master rises up, I will rub face on the spot he was sitting.

When I raised myself up, I found that I was blind. Thus I remained; and I wept all night long. In the early morning the master called my name and came to me. ‘O my Lord’, I said to him, ‘I have become blind and can no longer see!’ He stroked my eyes with his hand and my sight immediately returned.

Then he stroked my breast with his hand, and all doubts departed from me. At the same time my pangs of hunger vanished, and I perceived many wonders that his blessing had worked for me. Later on I begged his leave to depart from him in order to fulfil the requirements of the pilgrimage. This he granted me, and said: ‘On the way you will meet a lion, pay no heed to it. If, however, fear overcomes you, say to it: “For the sake of the holiness of the men of light, depart from me!”’ And thus it came to pass.

By the time he founded his own centre for Sufi instruction, Rabitat az-Zayyat (Hermitage of the Oil Seller) in the city of Bujaya after returning from the Arab East and being introduced to the Qadiriya at the hand of Moulay Abdellqadir Jilani (d. 563/1148), Abu Madyan had assimilated all of the major traditions of Moroccan mysticism. Under Ali ibn Harzihim, he learned the ways of orthodox mysticism through the writings of al-Muhasibi, al-Qushayri, and al-Ghazali.

The usul-based methodologies of juridical Sufism were also part of his training from Sidi Ali Boughaleb, via the latter’s master, Ibn al-Arif. The rural Sufism of the ribats of Dukkala was made known to him through the doctrines of the Nuriyya tradition, which he learned from his master Abu Yaaza.

The activism of the Moroccan Malammatiya was also part of his background, via both Ibn Harzihim and the enigmatic Abu Abdellah Daqqaq. Both the biographical and the doctrinal record reveal that no other Shaykh in this period had a more electric spiritual and intellectual formation than did Abu Madyan. More than any other mystic of his time, he stands as the axial figure of early Maghribi Sufism –an assertion proven by the popularity of his written works, the large number of his disciples, and a doctrinal influence that can be felt even today.

A factor contributing to Abu Madyan’s fame was his accessibility to all types of people, from scholars to common labourers. This openness may have been a reason why the collective recollection of this saint become associated with the populism of Tariqa Qadiriya. Biographical sources reveal that during his lifetime, Abu Madyan, like Moulay Abdellqadir Jilani, was as well known for his public discourses as he was for his private teachings.

During these public “sessions of admonition” (majalis al-wa’adh), petitioners would ask him questions about mysticism, the Shari’a, or the religious sciences in general. In answering these queries, he would tailor his response to his audience’s needs, often coming up with aphoristic answers that were later assembled into a collection titled Uns al-wahid wa nuzhat al-murid (The Intimacy of the recluse and the pastime of the seeker).

Abu Madyan was also renowned for comprising poetic odes on various aspects of Sufi doctrine. Many of these poems were recited in “audition” (sama’) sessions attended by the Shaykh and his disciples. Several of his most famous odes, such as Al-Qasida an-nuniya (The Ode in [the letter] nun) are regarded as literary master pieces and are still recited in the Maghrib.

Abu Madyan’s widespread notoriety and high level of social engagement did not sit well with the Almohad authorities in Bujaya, who viewed his activities with suspicion. When accusations of sedition by the Shaykh’s enemies proved too strident to ignore, the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur summoned the now aged Sufi master to his capital for questioning.

It was on this forced journey to Marrakech in 594/1179 that Abu Madyan died in the western Algerian city of Tlemcen and was buried in the nearby cemetery of Rabitat al-Ubbad. In the following generations, his tomb became a major stop on the overland pilgrimage route from Morocco and was a symbolic bone of contention between the Marinid and Zayyanid states. The ornate mosque of Sidi Bu Madyan, constructed next to the tomb by the Marinid Sultan of Fez Abul Hassan in 739/1339, stands today as one of the finest examples of Hispano-Maghribi architecture in the Maghreb.

The way of Abu Madyan, as depicted in the Shaykh’s extant writings, owes an unmistakeable debt to the mystical traditions of Moroccan Nuriyya and Ghazaliya in addition to the Amghariya of Abu Abdellah Amghar of Ribat Tit al-Firt. Particularly important was the ethical fraternalism of futuwwa which was central in Moroccan Sufism as it was in Sufi classics of Khurasan.

Characters similar to the way of Abu Madyan can be found in Kitab al- futuwwa (Book of Sufi chivalry) by Sidi Abu Abderrahman as-Sulami, whose writings were well-known in the Maghrib by the Almoravid period. One cannot but recall the pastoral ethos of Moroccan Sufism when as-Sulami writes:


“Futuwwa involves the movements toward God (al-hijra ila Allah) in one’s heart and soul… [following the way of Lot]…who turned away from the his city and moved towards his Lord”.

Traces of the teaching of Abu Madyan can also be discerned in the following sayings: ” Futuwwa is awareness of the rights of one who is above you, other than you, or alike to you; and that you do not turn away from your brothers because of a fault, a quarrel, or knowledge of a lie.

He who loves his brother should see his [brother’s] obstinacy as loyalty and his rejection as acceptance and must not hate him in any state or moral condition” (Sidi Abu Amr Dimashqi [d. 320/932) ). ” Futuwwa means putting morality (akhlaq) into practice” (Shah ibn Shuja Kirmani [d. before 300/912-13]).


Bidayat al-murid (Basic principles of the Sufi path), a handbook for novices that reproduces Abu Madyan’s teachings, contains numerous references to early masters of futuwwa such as al-Fudayl ibn Iyyad and Shah ibn Shuja Kirmani. Consistent with Abu Madyan’s accent on fraternal ethics was his emphasis on social engagement.

This outward orientation of ethico-religious expression is significant because it suggests that “the interiorisation” of the spiritual life, so often regarded as essential to the formal essential to formal definition of Sufism, comprised only part of the ‘amal (work) of a Maghribi saint. For Abu Madyan, the distinction between the outer (dhahir) and inner (batin) aspects of reality was not understood to mean that interiority, being more “real” that quotidian concerns, was the sole criterion of meaningfulness.

Instead, his way followed an Islamic “middle path” between the sacred and the profane: a spiritual method in which all aspects of person’s life (outer and inner, public and private, wordly and spiritual) complemented each other as a part of a single reality. Abu Madyan regarded the dhahir/batin dichotomy as both a rhetorical device and a divine truth.

If Sufism is the essence of Islam, and if Islam is a way of life, then outer practice, ‘amal, must complement, and not oppose, inner knowledge, ‘ilm. Giving too much weight to either outer practice or inner knowledge might upset the balance required for spiritual growth.

For Abu Madyan, the behavioural example of the Sufi Shaykh was a matter of paramount importance. The spiritual’s masters relationship to his disciples was comparable to that of the Sultan among his subjects or a doctor among his patients. The value of the true “knower of God” was that such a person could intervene in human lives and teach others the way to eternal bliss (sa’ada). However, a false or misguided Shaykh might cause his followers to be lost in eternal sorrow (saqawa).

Because of the Shaykh’s potential to cause harm, Abu Madyan insisted that all who claim this rank be free of vanity and pretence. “Beware,” he said, “of one whom you see advocating in the name of God a state which is not outwardly visible, ” for “the most harmful of things is companionship with a heedless scholar, an ignorant Sufi, or an insincere preacher.”

Like the ninth-century Sufi al-Muhasibi, Abu Madyan saw the ego (nafs) as the main obstacle to self-awareness. Because the nafs thrives on desire, the most effective weapon against it is hunger, for hunger weakens the desire for eternal existence that gives rise to the ego’s stratagems. Essential to the systematic practice of hunger was fasting.

Fasts performed by Abu Madyan and his followers included (in addition to the obligatory fast of Ramadan) abstaining from food during the months of Rajab and Sha’ban, the hadith-based Fast of David, and a supplementary fast of three days per month that was done at an individual seeker’s discretion. The most distinctive regime practiced by Abu Madyan was the sawm al-wasil, the “fast of intimate union,” a forty-day fast modelled on the austerities of Sidna Moses, peace be upon him, in the Egyptian desert and those of the Prophet Sidna Mohammed (peace and blessing be upon him) in the cave of Hira’ prayer to revelation.

The disciple who performed the sawm al-wasil would first repent all sins, take a bath, and pray two prostrations. The Sufi would then go into seclusion for forty days, abstaining from all food (including what was normally taken at night) and subsisting only on water. Constantly repeating the first part of profession of faith (La ilaha illa Allah “There is no God but Allah”), the disciple would leave the retreat only to answer the call to nature, attend Friday prayers, and sleep whenever forced by exhaustion to do so.

The purpose of the sawm al-wasil was to instil in the disciple a firm reliance on the will of God (tawakkul). In later generations, Abu Madyan was to be memorised by North African Sufis as the master tawakkul par excellence. Among the more than 160 of his aphorisms that have survived to the present day, those dealing with tawakkul are second in number only to those having to do with asceticism.

Closely linked to tawakkul were the related concepts of quiescence (khumul) and acquiescence (sukun). Attaining complete quiescence meant the cessation of all-ego motivated thoughts and desires, so that the heart would open itself up to divine inspirations: “The heart has no more than one aspect at a time, such that when it is occupied with a certain thing, it is veiled from another. Take care that you are not attracted to anything but God, lest He deprive you of the delights of intimate converse with Him.”

Abu Madyan’s characterisation of his disciples as “sultans” and “amirs,” and the “Party of God” (hizb Allah) firmly situates his doctrines within the tradition of futuwwa as practiced by Moroccan teachers and contemporaries. It also explains why his activities were viewed with suspicions by Almohads. Since Ibn Toumart also referred to his followers as the Party of God, the Mahdi’s successors could hardly have been comfortable with a Sufi rival.

Ironically, these fears may have been exacerbated because the social doctrines of Ibn Toumart and Abu Madyan were so much alike. For Abu Madyan, an aspirant’s spiritual progress could never be separated from his social responsibility: “Sufism is not the [mere] observance of rules, nor does it consists of degrees or stages. Instead, Sufism consists of personal integrity, generosity of spirit, the emulation of what has been revealed, knowledge of the [divine] Message, and adhering to the way of the prophets. He who deviates from these sources finds himself grazing in the gardens of Satan, submerged in the ocean of lusts, and wandering in the darkness of ignorance.”

The mystic who embarked on the way of Abu Madyan was no withdrawn ascetic, lost in the contemplation of God while ignoring the injustices that beset the Muslim community. Instead the mystic was a full participant in social life, who used discipline and detachment from the world to maintain a constant vigilance over oneself and one’s neighbours: “The true Sufi must be neither jealous, egotistical, nor arrogant with his knowledge nor miserly with his money.

Rather, he must act as a guide: not confused, but merciful of heart and companionate with all of creation. To him, every person is as [useful as] one of his hands. He is an ascetic: everything is equal to him, whether it be praise or blame, receiving or giving, acceptance or rejection, wealth or poverty. He is neither joyful about what comes to him nor sad about what has been lost.

Sidi Abu Madyan left many successors. Among the noted ones who spread his Sufi Tradition the names of Sidi Abderrazaq Jazouli (d. 592/1177), Sidi Abu Mohammed Salih al-Majiri (d. 631/1216), Sidi Malik Baqqiwi Rifa’i, Sidi Mohammed ibn Harazem (“Grandson of Sidi Ali ibn Harzihim” and teacher of Sidi Abul Hassan Shadhili; ; d. 633/1218). Unlike some Moroccan Sufis who preferred to stay home, others went abroad.

One of these masters is the enigmatic Idrissid sharif, Sidi Ali ibn Maymun al-Fasi (d. 917/1502), the Madanite Shaykh who expanded the Way of Abu Madyan in Syria and Turkey. After he studied in Fez, Sidi Ali al-Fasi travelled to Tunisia where he met his master Sidi Ahmed Tibbasi (d. 929/1506).

This latter was connected to Shaykh Abu Madyan through Sidi Ahmed ibn Makhlouf Shabbi (d. 888/1473), Sidi Abdelwahhab Hindi, Sidi Abu Moussa Sadrati and Sidi Ahmed Mawrawi. After the Shaykh’s death, the Madanite al-Fasiya managed to penetrate Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine thanks to al-Fasi’s outstanding disciple Sidi Mohammed Khawatiri (d. 932/1517) and his heirs Sidi Ali Ibn Arraq and Sidi Alwan Hamawi (d. 936/1530).