Luminaries II -— Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība
By Dawud Israel
Imām al-Junayd said that the stories of the righteous are the marshaled soldiers of God. I found the autobiography of the 18th century Moroccan Ṣūfī Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība to be full of stories and lessons that motivate one to strive as if they were a soldier of God. Beyond usual hagiography, Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība gives us an account of the details of his life, his upbringing, how he struggled, his spiritual development, and his miracles. I found many aspects of his life similar to those of the early Imāms of Islam – his learning, his imprisonment, his traveling, and his routines. He brings much of the early days of Islam back to life, when the himmah (exertion) for Islam was far greater. This is relevant to our time when due to the chasm of time it has become difficult to bring that level of zeal to our diīn.
His grandmother was a majdhūba and had numerous miracles attributed to her serving the people of Tetuan. When his mother was carrying him she often repeated: “Oh God grant me virtuous progeny!” and repeated this after each prescribed prayer and during the whole month of Ramadan. Her prayers were answered and from the time he started going to school he would go to the mosque in the middle of the night and remain there until dawn.
His beginnings on the path
He had zeal for Islamic knowledge and received ījāza from his teachers to teach in various Zāwīyas. The Ḥikam of Ibn ‘Aṭā’illāh had piqued his desire for taṣawwuf early on and after spending many years as a student of Islamic learning (aalim), he desired to delve deeper into taṣawwuf.
In the mornings he would read ¼ of the Qurʾān in the day and ¼ of the Qurʾān at night in addition to making dhikr of God’s Name. Then he became connected to prayers of peace and blessings upon the Prophet (endless peace and blessings be upon him) until he could repeat the whole Dalā’il al-Khayrāt by heart. He desired to possess the Qurʾān, learned to read it in the 7 modes of recitation and would complete 14 khatms of the Qurʾān every month. This lasted for 3-4 years. Then he married and started teaching while continuing this routine for 15-16 years before meeting Shaykh al-Buzidi.
What we can take away from this is that many years may pass in a high level of ibādah until one’s soul becomes ready to undergo a greater transformation. From this we can see how much perseverance and exertion is required in coming near to God. Rather than relying on a murshid in the beginning, he sought God with whatever means God had given him, for God is enough for His servants. This can be seen as preparation for his spiritual opening later on at the hands of Shaykh al-Buzidi.
Around this time he saw Shaykh Abū’l Ḥasan as-Shadhili in a dream saying “Persevere! By God, there will be 44 learned men who will receive knowledge from you!” Many times we may feel escapist, as if its best if we just abandon the dunyā and simply worship God in khalwa. Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība felt this way too and even though he sought to abandon everything for spiritual pursuits, God intended for people to benefit from him. The lesson from this is that God may plan something different for us, for us to benefit people in a way perhaps no one else can benefit them. It may also suggest that guiding and teaching people the dīn is a crucial part of one’s spiritual development.
What his Shaykh said about him
Shaykh al-Buzidi said about him: “Sidi Aḥmad has the qualities of detachment, scrupulousness, trusting God, constancy, forbearance, contentment, serene submission, piety, compassion, generosity and magnanimity.”
To which Shaykh Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība replied: “Master you are already talking about Sufism!”
Shaykh al-Buzidi: “That is just exterior Ṣūfīsm, there is still interior Ṣūfīsm which you will know later God willing!”
Here the Shaykh is talking about a view of taṣawwuf and tazkīyya that is different from the usual Muslim discourse of the outer and inner, the Ẓāhir and the bāṭin. Here he is speaking of layers to spiritual purification beyond what is outer and inner, but what is even more inner and even deeper than what we understood the spiritual to be.
Luminaries I -— Imām Abū Qāsim al-Junayd
When I received the invitation to write in the Luminaries Series, I was surprised that I thought of Imām al-Junayd first before someone like Imām al-Ghazālī. Imām al-Ghazālī is well known and widely quoted. His books serve as immense sources of wisdom and prescriptions for how one can purify their heart and elevate their station with their Lord. After the words of God and the words of the Beloved (ﷺ), we often hear the words of Imām al-Ghazālī when it comes to setting on the path of purifying our hearts. But now as I think of it, in our times we desperately need to get to know Imām al-Junayd.
You know you are dealing with a special person when much of his personal biography is lost, and no major text of his was left behind, yet scholars from all streams within the Islamic Tradition quote his counsels throughout their various works. Across the intellectual divides within the Muslim Ummah, one can find the influence of Imām al-Junayd scattered throughout. In fact, for one to gather a collection of the counsels of Imām al-Junayd, they have to pick up the works of scholars like Imām al-Ghazālī, as well as the works of scholars like Imām Ibn Taymiyyah and step outside their familiar comfort zone of only reading for one type of scholar. It is a true testament to the sincerity of a scholar that more than a millennium after his passing, and no available books attributed to him; he still manages to bring divided Muslims together on a common ground.
Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd ibn Muḥammad al-Zajjaj was born in 220 A.H./830 C.E. in Baghdad, Iraq and was raised there. His family was originally from Nahavand, the capital of Nahavand County in the Ḥamdān Province in Iran. His father used to sell glass bottles, which is where the family name “al-Zajjaj” comes from.
An incident at the age of seven marked the path Imām al-Junayd would eventually be named the “Sulṭān” of. As he was playing in the presence of a gathering of scholars, his maternal uncle, al-Sarī al-Saqaṭī, asked him, “Young man, what is thankfulness?” The young al-Junayd replied, “That you do not disobey God with His blessings.” al-Sarī remarked, “I fear that your only share from God would be your tongue.” The weight of this remark was so great that Imām al-Junayd said later in his life, “I have continued to cry over the remark that al-Sarī directed at me.”
As this story implies, Imām al-Junayd began his studies at a very young age. His intelligence and insight qualified him to achieve the status of muftī by the time he was merely 20 years old. One contemporary scholar said about Imām al-Junayd, “I saw a scholar among you in Baghdad called ‘al-Junayd’ who my eye has never seen anyone like him. The linguists would attend his gathering for his rhetoric, the philosophers for his precision, the poets for his eloquence, and the theologians for his meanings.” Another scholar remarked, “We did not see among our scholars one who combined between much knowledge and spiritual presence other than Abū al-Qāsim. Most of them have either a lot of knowledge but little spiritual presence, or some have much spiritual presence but very little knowledge. Al-Junayd had a dangerously immense spiritual presence and copious amounts of knowledge, such that if you experienced his spiritual presence you would assume it outweighed his knowledge, and if you saw his knowledge you would assume it outweighed his spirituality.”
Imām al-Junayd is unique in this way among the luminaries in his combination of knowledge and spirituality. If there is such a thing as “Sufi’izing Salafism and Salafizing Sufism,” it is embodied in the person of Imām al-Junayd. He was one to act upon authentic evidence from the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth, while at the same time preserve the spirit of the text in a way that many of us seek to accomplish today. One important counsel of Imām al-Junayd states, “Whoever does not memorize the Qurʾān, does not write the Ḥadīth, and does not gain an understanding of both is not to be followed, because our path is restricted by the Book and the Sunnah.” To fulfill this counsel the Imām offered another one to set the seeker on the right path, “The beginning of knowledge is from scholars, the middle of it is action, and the end of it is from the Exalted.”
Imām al-Junayd was highly concerned with translating knowledge into action. As he said in one of his counsels, “We did not take Sufism from hearsay. Rather, we took it from hunger, abandonment of dunya, and severing familiar luxuries. Because Ṣūfīsm is the purity of relationship with God.” This statement of Imām al-Junayd should not be confused with not enjoying the pleasures of life. It is known that he was a successful merchant in Baghdad and earned his own provisions. However, he did not allow the luxuries of this life to take over his heart, which he preserved for God in keeping with the statement in the Qurʾān, “The day on which neither wealth nor property will avail, except him who comes to God with a sound heart” [26:88-89].
One of the most important issues Imām al-Junayd dealt with were the rampant claims of love of and nearness to God that many were making during his time. To the Imām, claims negate sincerity and lead to arrogance. Moreover, claims of elevated stations and nearness to God are not permitted as the Qurʾān states that only “God knows who is purified” [53:32]. For these reasons we read another counsel of Imām al-Junayd reminding us that, “Whoever sticks to the path with sincerity, God will suffice them from making empty claims.”
The extent to which Imām al-Junayd went with regards to claims was to remind Muslims not to be overtaken by miraculous demonstrations known as karāmat. The true measure of anyone in Islam is not based in fantastic events that occur to them. Rather, we measure on the scale of righteousness, which is defined by how one upholds the injunctions and abstains from the limitations that God has set.
It is not that Imām al-Junayd rejected miracles of saints. He rejected having miracles as a measure of anything relevant to our estimation of whether someone is righteous or not. Here we realize the importance of having knowledge in Islam. Imām al-Junayd warned us in one of his most famous counsels, “If you see a man sitting cross-legged suspended in the air, do not follow him until you see his actions with regards to commands and prohibitions. If you see that he upholds all the commandments, and avoids all the prohibitions, then believe in him and follow him. But if you see him not upholding the commandments, and not avoiding the prohibitions, then avoid him.”
One can spend a great deal of time commenting on the scattered pearls of wisdom we have from Imām al-Junayd. But even he would not approve of us spending our time in this way. As one of his companions relates a dream he had of the Imām after he passed away in 297 A.H./ 910 C.E., in which he asked him, “What did God do with you?” The Imām replied, “Those indications have fallen, the counsels have become hidden, the knowledge has disappeared, the appearances have been withered, and nothing has benefitted us except for a few cycles of prayer we used to perform before the break of dawn.”
One day a group passed by and cursed ʿĪsa (ʿalayhi as-salām), ʿĪsa responded by saying, “Peace be unto you.”
His disciples observed this and where taken aback by his response, they were confused, so they asked, “They curse you and you greet them?”
ʿĪsa replied by stating that, “Vessels can only pour forth what they contain.”
Sayyiduna Ḍirār ibn Ḍamra describing Sayyiduna ‘Alī ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allāh be pleased with them both):
"He was, may God be pleased with him, farsighted and of mighty strength. His words were decisive, and his judgment just. He liked coarse food and short clothes, felt estranged from the world and its beauty, and was intimate with night and its darkness. I bear witness that I saw him once when night had fallen, and the stars had risen, wakeful in his prayer-niche, like a man that had been stung, restless as though wounded, weeping sorrowfully, holding his beard, and saying, 'O world! Deceive other than myself! Is it for me that you beautify yourself? Is it to me that you manifest yourself? I have divorced you thrice; there can be no return, for your span is short, your worth insignificant, and your danger great! Ah! The scarcity of provision, the length of the way, and the estrangement of traveling!'”
From “Knowledge and Wisdom” by Imām ‘Abdullāh Al-Ḥaddād
The great Persian theologian, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī said that discoveries are without enjoyment if they are not shared, and even a child, upon discovering something new, runs frantically to find someone to share it with. As adults, we love to share knowledge because we know, deep down, that it doesn’t belong to any individual but to everyone.
A life lived in conflict against the ego is filled with blessings; a life lived in pursuit of its claims is a curse.
The greatest reality of life is death, it is a harsh and honest truth. It waits for no one. One day our beautiful parents will die, it is a sad bitter truth, that this great shroud of blessings will depart. When that day comes, we need to know what to do: the rites, how to perform ghusl, the funeral prayer…everything. It is customary sometimes for sons to lead the funeral prayer itself. So although, it might be sad to think about, prepare, not just for your own ʾākhirah, but for your parents one too.
Don’t wait until you see your parents carried out of the masjid in a box to realise what your true responsibilities are. Don’t wait until that largest gate of Paradise is closed to realise how easy it could have been to enter through it.
May Allāh have mercy on our parents, bless them and allow us to serve them.