When the Community Educates

Before giving my talk I wanted to say a few words about the magisterial presentation which Mohammed Mujtar gave us yesterday. As we know education has been one of the principal concerns of our Shaykh, Shaykh Abdalqadir – may Allah prolong his life – throughout his life. And I think that Sidi Mohammed Mujtar has probably absorbed and understood that teaching that the Shaij has given, particularly regarding the education of children, more than anyone else in the community. And yesterday he laid out for us comprehensively this understanding, which he has gained over these years. It is easy in these occasions to say “Oh yes, a wonderful paper!” And it might be possible to put it in a printed form in Islam Hoy or in some other paper. Or place it on a nice high shelf. But what I say about that talk yesterday is, that it’s a working paper!
I think that it should be studied paragraph by paragraph. It is intensely practical and totally possible to implement. I think that it should be studied, paragraph by paragraph, with a group of men and a group of women, particularly those who have children who need to be educated now, looking at it and studying it. Every part of it that can be put into practice should be put into practice. All of the things he talked about are not something that are miles over there, they are all something, which is possible to implement now. Otherwise what’s the use with what our Shaykh has been teaching if we don’t act by it?

Also I would like to say, before I start my talk, that Shaykh Ahmed has preempted me in almost everything that I was going to say. But I say it in slightly different way, so inshaAllah the message will be repeated in a different form.

The theme of this gathering “When the community educates” is, as it were, a double-edged sword: it involves the community becoming educated and the community educating others; although my contention is that both of these in fact amount to exactly the same thing. As we all know, Allah ta’ala tells us that He has only created us in order for us to worship Him and, as Abdallah ibn al-Abbas, radiya’llahu ‘anhu, and many of the great commentators of the Qur’an who followed him, said the word “worship” in this context means “know”; in other words the only reason we have been brought into existence is to come to know Allah ta’ala, our Lord and Creator. This means that our lives in this world can, in fact, be viewed as an education process, whose purpose is simply to gain more and more knowledge of the Divine Reality which is both our original source and final destination. This is made explicit by Ibn ‘Ashir in the beginning of al-Murshid al-Mu’in when he says: “The first duty of every responsible person capable of thought is to know Allah and the Messengers by the attributes set out in the ayats.” So a major part of human life involves engaging in this learning process and it must be undertaken if we want to properly fulfill the purpose for which we were created.

The attributes referred to by Ibn ‘Ashir in his great teaching poem are, of course, those derived from the Qur’an and specified by Imam al-‘Ashari as the basis of his system of ‘aqida which we adhere to. It is always worth repeating them since they are the bedrock on which our belief is based and they are: wujud – absolute existence, qidam – eternal preexistence, baqa – endless everlastingness, ghina – absolute wealth, mukhalafa’l-hawadith – differentiation from all created beings, and wahdaniyya of dhat, sifat and af’al – absolute unity of essence, attributes and actions. These attributes apply to the Divine Essence alone and are not shared by any creature. Alongside them are seven further attributes: ‘ilm – knowledge, qudra – power, irada – will, hayat – power, sam’a – hearing, basar – sight, and kalam – speech. These Divine attributes are necessary for the bringing into existence of created beings and are lent by Allah to those of His creatures He wills as He sees fit. As Ibn ‘Ashir makes clear all of us are required to thoroughly learn and understand these attributes and, as Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib made clear on many occasions, if we do so we will be free from any danger of shirk, of associating something else with the Divine Reality, at least in an open way, and thus be safe from committing that one action which is unforgivable, which removes us from any hope of aiming Allah’s mercy.

But the fact is that this intellectual grasp of tawhid, while it is clearly essential, is only a comparatively small part of what is involved in truly understanding the Divine Unity. Shaykh Abdalqadir has often mentioned to us the famous maxim of our deen “la tawhid biduni’r-rasul” – there is no tawhid without the Messenger. The first and obvious meaning of this is, of course, that were it not for our beloved Prophet, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, we would have no access to knowing about Allah’s unity at all. It is the very heart of the Message he brought from his Lord to mankind. Without him there would have been no possibility of our saying la ilaha illa’llah: no Messenger, no Message. But it goes much further than that. Sayyidatna Aisha, radiya’llahu ‘anha, told us that his character was the Qur’an, that he truly embodied Allah’s Message, and Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib says in the Diwan that he, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is the highest manifestation of Allah’s Names and the secret of His Attributes. In other words his understanding of the Divine Unity extended beyond any kind of verbal expression or merely intellectual grasp into the realm of actual experience, of active, existential demonstration. This is made explicitly clear in his words, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa salllam. “I was only sent to perfect noble qualities of character.”

In the whole of human history there has been no greater educator, no greater teacher, than the Prophet Muhammad, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. He gave all his Companions a complete and comprehensive education. He taught none of them how to read or write. He taught none of them how to count or calculate. What he taught them was Allah’s deen and, in particular, tawhid, the pure knowledge of the Divine Unity on which the deen is based and which is its goal and purpose. He did this by word, by demonstration and by direct transmission. Allah ta’ala says about this in His Book: “For this We sent a Messenger to you from among you to recite Our Signs to you and purify you and teach you the Book and Wisdom and teach you things you did not know before.” And what did this perfect education process produce? “The best nation ever to be produced before mankind…” who: “… enjoin the right, forbid the wrong and believe in Allah.” In other words, a group of people who embodied in the completest possible way what it really is to be a human being. They fulfilled to a greater extent than any other human community the purpose for which they were created: the worship of Allah. They were people who knew Allah better than any other group of people before or since. The important point is that this knowledge was not so much in what they said, although there were among them those who could express it with great eloquence, it was rather in what they were, in what they did; they were shot through with it, it shone through in the way they behaved – both among themselves and towards other people.

It may well be that they did not even realise this themselves – it was something that had become a natural part of them – but it was something that was immediately apparent to other people when they came into their company. Allah’s guidance of them at the hand of His Messenger, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, and by means of the circumstances and situations they were confronted with, transformed them; they were not the same as other people. Whereas the gaze of most people was confined exclusively to the things of this world, they were people whose eyes really were on what lies beyond it. They truly did not want what other people wanted. It was this that made other people both love and fear them. It communicated itself to others in a direct way and above all it was this that, by Allah, enabled them to dominate the greater part of the known world in a single lifetime and brought the greater part of its population into Allah’s deen, so that their descendants have remained Muslim down to the present day. I am not, by saying this, intending to exalt the first community into being a kind of unattainable ideal, I am simply saying that the true education of any Muslim community necessarily involves the radical inward transformation, which is exemplified by them in the highest possible way.

A true story illustrating this, which is particularly pertinent to us, is one you will probably have heard before but which, nevertheless, I think bears repeating in the present context. A couple of years ago Shaykh Ali and I were driving from Touroug to Tinjdad accompanied by Sidi Muhammad, the son of Sidi Muhammad bel Qurshi. As we approached Mellab, which is about half way between the two places, Sidi Muhammad pointed out a simple tomb standing on a hill just behind the village and then proceeded to tell us the story of the wali buried within it. In his youth he had been a brutal thug who had terrorised the whole region with his lawless behaviour. One day, when he was about to engage on some particularly nefarious enterprise, he decided to have something to eat before setting out. So he sat down in a local eatery and shouted at the owner to bring him a bowl of harira and be quick about it. The cauldron of that day’s batch of harira was just on the point of being ready and not wanting, because of his violent reputation, to keep his customer waiting a moment longer than necessary, brought a bowl of boiling hot soup to him immediately. Being in a hurry he lifted the bowl straight to his lips and, scalding them, roared out to the owner of the place to come straight away. Shaking, the poor man came and stood in front of him. The man got up, pulled open the cook’s jellaba at the neck, poured the scalding soup down his bare chest, and stormed out.

Some time later this same violent individual, on a journey to Fez, met with some of the fuqara of Sidi Ahmad al-Badawi, the khalifa and successor in our line of Moulay al-‘Arabi ad-Darqaw. They persuaded him to come and meet the shaykh. His heart was moved by the encounter, he entered the tariqa, and ended up spending a considerable time in the shaykh’s zawiyya in Fez, learning the deen and deepening his knowledge of Allah. Eventually the time came for him to return to Tafilalet and before he left he went for a final meeting with his shaykh. He asked Shaykh Ahmad what he could do to atone for his previous criminal behaviour and he was told that he should pay back anything he had stolen and requite anyone he had harmed in whatever way he could. On his return to the desert, remembering what he had done with the boiling soup, he went once more to the soup kitchen and ordered another bowl of piping hot harira. Nervously the owner asked him if he really wanted it hot. “As hot as possible,” came the reply. So the cook once more brought him the soup straight from the bubbling pot and presented it to him. The man immediately rose to his feet and, opening his own jellaba at the neck, asked the restaurant owner to pour it down his bare chest. He did not do that but instead ran out to the main square of the village and called on the inhabitants to gather round. “People of Mellab,” he called out in a loud voice, “You should all take the hand of Sidi Ahmad al-Badawi. He has turned a venomous snake into a harmless frog.”

The reason the incident in this story holds such significance for us is that, had it not taken place, we would not be sitting here today. Following it many of the people of Tafilalet did indeed enter the tariqa and because of that Shaykh Ahmad al-Badawi sent his khalifa, Sidi Muhammad Larbi, to plant “sweet dates” there. He established his great zawiyya at Gawz near Rashidiyya and from him came first Shaykh Larbi al- Huwari in Tinjdad, then Shaykh Sidi Muhammad b. ‘Ali in Marrakesh, then Shaykh Sidi Muhammad b. Al-Habib in Fez and Meknes and then Shaykh ‘Abdalqadir as-Sufi in a large number of places, including, of course, here in Granada.

This was not, however, why I included the story in my talk today. I did so because it clearly illustrates the true nature of the authentic education process of Islam I referred to earlier and, in particular, what happens when knowledge of Allah’s unity is absorbed into the being and becomes expressed in terms of action and behaviour. Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’illah says in his Hikam: “No action arising from a heart free of this world is insignificant; no action arising from a heart desiring this world is fruitful.” Because of the real education this wali of Mellab received at the hands of his shaykh in Fez and the internalisation of the knowledge of tawhid that is an essential part of it, his comparatively insignificant action on his return to the desert had huge repercussions which are still making themselves felt in the present time.

This is why nearly every derse given by Shaykh Muhammad b. al-Habib warned those present of the dangers of hidden shirk, of a knowledge of tawhid that was confined to the intellect and did not extend into everyday experience, that did not see the Provider in the provision or the true Benefitter in the benefit received. There is no doubt that Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib was one of the last bastions of that pure unadulterated traditional transmission of Islam that had been going on uninterruptedly for twelve hundred years since the time of the first community. In other words he was entirely untainted by the modernist worldview that has proved so corrosive to a true understanding of tawhid and that has now pervaded every aspect of education, including that of virtually every Muslim.

His successor, our own shaykh, Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, may Allah prolong his life and restore him to robust good health, was, on the other hand, educated entirely within the modernist ethos and yet, using the sword of his enlightened intellect and his awakened heart, managed to cut himself free from its imprisoning straitjacket and reopened the way to an authentic understanding of tawhid in the present time. In my talk “Root Islamic Re-education” at last year’s gathering I tried to indicate how his highlighting of the work of the physicist, Heisenberg, and the philosopher, Heidegger, mapped out an escape route from the dead end maze of the Newtonian/Cartesian view of existence that for more than two hundred years has fraudulently held almost the whole human race in its thrall and, by its dogmatic insistence on the laws of cause and effect, made it virtually impossible for people to gain a true understanding of the Divine Unity. But how much more he has done to clear a path for the authentic expression of Allah’s deen in the present age.

In his seminal text Root Islamic Education he showed how centuries of sterile accretion have left the Muslims bogged down in a stultifying mire of paralysing detail that makes any forward momentum for the deen almost impossible to achieve. His remedy: to go forward into the future by returning to what in a felicitous phrase he calls the “brute wisdom” of the timeless, primal model of Madinan Islam in its first manifestation. His tireless efforts to expose the venomous, corrupting nature of the usurious economic system that now has the whole world in its unrelenting grip and his insistence on the restoration and correct implementation of the pillar of zakat and the minting of gold and silver coinage as a way to combat it have borne fruit in many ways. His work to decipher the political deception and psychological underpinnings of today’s world is unprecedented and unmatched.

When I met him in Cape Town after this year’s moussem he spent twenty minutes recapping the themes contained in his latest book, “The Entire City”. He talked of the Massacre of the Huguenots, Greek and Roman mythology, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the complete inadequacy of the Freudian thesis, but all of these things as having a direct relevance to the future of Islam in the here and now. In a way this new book is a summing up of many themes he has discussed in previous works but what must be understood is that none of it is an arid academic exercise. It is all directed to one and only one purpose: opening the way for the correct understanding and implementation of Allah’s deen in this time.

He has almost single-handedly blasted a way through the smothering miasma of modernism, hacked a path through the clinging, almost impenetrable undergrowth of scientific materialism, to create a clearing in which Islam may once more find a truly authentic expression. He has dragged Islam, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first Century. I say “kicking and screaming” because so many of the Muslims have failed to see that their approach to the deen is entirely inapplicable and irrelevant to the present time. Indeed many ‘ulama do not seem to realise that, notwithstanding their addiction to smartphones and social media, they are still trying to live in a world that actually ceased to exist two hundred years ago.

To some extent it might be said that, in our dealings with our shaykh, we have been a little like the Bani Isra’il when they said to Sayyidina Musa: “So you and your Lord go and fight. We will stay sitting here.” I say “to some extent” because the fact that we are sitting here today makes it clear that all of us have managed to cling on to his coat tails and follow him on the tremendous trail he has blazed. We may not always understand exactly what he is getting at, in fact our heads may be left spinning by some of the things he says, but all of us here are, alhamdulillah, aboard the ship he captains and, will, provided we stay on board, be brought safely to land. Also there is a kind of understanding that penetrates directly to the shaykh’s intention and I know from experience that many of you have that and have reached, in any case, the place he wants us to be.

A word of warning: recent events have made it clear in a way that was perhaps not the case before, that our beloved shaykh will not be with us for ever, although may Allah postpone for many years yet to come the day he leaves us. The teaching he has given us over these years is irreplaceable, inestimably precious and essential if we want to see Allah’s deen properly established in ourselves and the world around us. He has had to fight continually against all the odds to bring it to us and we are going to have to fight tooth and nail to take it on, preserve it, and pass it on. It will require us to constantly swim against the flow, to row against the current, and that will mean unremitting hard work. He has never allowed us to take things at face value and has unceasingly decoded the world for us and to some extent taught us how to do the same. Continuing to do this will demand constant effort and often put us in an uncomfortable position, even vis a vis other Muslims.

So I warn myself and you against being tempted to take on a more simplistic view of the world, against beginning to see things in a more superficial way, against any voices that might suggest that Shaykh Abdalqadir’s view of things is over complicated, or that some of the things he wrote or talked about were not really that relevant or important. This could unfortunately happen all too easily and before we knew it much of our shaykh’s teaching could be swept under the carpet or placed to one side as an interesting irrelevance. Before we knew it we might find ourselves going with the flow alongside so many others, Muslims and non-muslims, hurtling unheedingly towards the black hole of nihilistic oblivion that is the unconscious destination of so many in our time. We need to cling for dear life, if necessary with our fingernails, to the teaching he has given us and do everything we can to keep it safe and pass it on to everyone we can.

And this brings me back to where I started. What Shaykh Abdalqadir has essentially done is restate for us the basic teachings of Allah’s deen in the way that is needed and appropriate for the present age. As all his rightly guided predecessors have done, he has called us to a pure understanding of the Book and Sunna within the context of the time in which he lives and alhamdulillah by Allah’s generosity we have responded to that call. At the heart of that teaching lie the three great classical texts: the Quran, the Muwatta, and the Shifa. This is, of course, more than sufficient for an in depth understanding of the deen but, following the example of a few of those who came before him, whenever he has seen the need for the elucidation of a specific issue springing out of situation faced by the community at a particular moment, he has written a book or article of explanation and guidance, showing us how the matter relates to Islam and how we should act to incorporate it into our practice of our deen. This has been our outward education.

As for our inward education, that internalisation of tawhid I referred to earlier, we have all witnessed generation after generation, whom our shaykh has taken in hand, and none of us has emerged unaltered. We have been refined and ennobled by our contact with him in ways we sometimes fail to realise ourselves. Because of our familiarity with one another we tend to take all this for granted. But it is the very “gold” that Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib talked about us having, the quality that when other people see it they want it for themselves. And how many times have I heard people say after visiting one of our communities, “I wish we had what you’ve got.” This is the real da’wa and in essence it is nothing other than embodied tawhid, a faint reflection of the Names and Attributes of Allah shining through more or less purified hearts, the result of a true Islamic education. For this reason Shaykh Abdalqadir has singled out two elements that he considers absolutely essential for the future of Islam in this age: ‘asabiyya and futuwwa. What he means by ‘asabiyya is a group of men and women bound indissolubly together by no other bond than their love for Allah and His Messenger and what he means by futuwwa is that nobility of character that the Messenger of Allah came to perfect and that is at once the hallmark of true humanness and a pale reflection of the Divine Reality Itself.

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