” Let’s talk about sayyiduna shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, the Hanbali Sufi, rahimahullah. Who were his early followers? What is the history behind the transmission of the Qadiri tariqa? What does him being Hanbali entail? And most importantly, is wilaya confined to one school of scholastic theology (kalam)?
In my original post, I stated:
“Later the Qadiriyya (named after the Hanbali scholar ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaylani) also grew to become immensely popular across much of the Muslim world. However, despite what some may imagine, the success of the Qadiriyya wasn’t an instant one, but a gradual development, and it was by far overshadowed by the more popular Rifa’i order.”
Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir (1077–1166) was born in Gilan, near the Caspian Sea, in what is today Northern Iran. It is due to this fact that he in Arabic is known al-Jili, al-Jilani, and al-Kilani. Since Arabs tend to modify names to sound more Arabic (in fact, most cultures adopt localized pronunciations of foreign names), it is often pronounced as al-Jaylani or al-Kaylani.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir moved to Baghdad i 1095, at the age of 18. That was the very year that the great Shafi’i faqih and Ash’ari theologian imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali entered into his self-described whirlwind of a spiritual crisis. He left his post as headmaster of the Niżamiyya, where he was replaced by his brother shaykh Ahmad al-Ghazali (the known Sufi teacher of shaykh Abu al-Najib al-Suhrawardi, who also studied, and later himself taught at the Niżamiyya).
As far as we can tell, shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir had no interest in studying at the Niżamiyya, rather, he learned the Hanbali madhhab in Baghdad at the school of shaykh Abu Sa’id al-Mubarak al-Mukharrimi (or al-Makhzumi, d. 1119), a Hanbali faqih, and the first shaykh from whom he received the Sufi khirqa. He also studied the Islamic sciences under Ibn ‘Aqil (also a Sufi, who wrote a work in veneration of al-Hallaj), and the son of Qadi Abu Ya’la, among many other teachers, receiving a well-rounded education in the Hanbali madhhab.
He later attended the circles of the Sufi shaykh Abu al-Khayr Hammad al-Dabbas (d. 1131), under whom he received his Sufi training proper. It has been reported that shaykh al-Dabbas was illiterate, unable to both read and write. When he started to attend the gatherings of shaykh al-Dabbas, his disciples disliked the presence of shaykh al-Jilani, due to him being a Hanbali.
The Shaykh spent some 25 years as a wanderer in the desert, and in the year 1127, at the age of 50, he re-emerged as a highly popular preacher, teaching the Islamic sciences at the Hanbali madrasa of his teacher shaykh al-Mukharrimi. In his own lifetime it seems that he was known primarily for being a preacher, teacher, and later headmaster of a Hanbali madrasa, not a Sufi ribat. In this regard he stands in contrast to shaykhs such as Abu al-Najib and Ahmad al-Rifa’i. The shaykh didn’t dressed in the clothes commonly associated with the Sufis, but instead wore the garb of the ‘ulama, and his primary following was from the Hanabila, who were but a minority.
The three works ascribed to him that are generally considered authentic; al-Fath al-Rabbani, Futuh al-Ghayb, and al-Ghunya, were likely put to paper by his sons and students. These works contain distinctively Hanbali teachings, a fact that was was troubling to later Ash’ari-Sufis, who were pressed to claim that the Hanabila had tampered with the texts. The problematic nature of this argument should be apparent, for the only way that the Hanabila could have gotten away with tampering with the texts in the first place was if they were the primary recipients, transcribers, and transmitters of the works. In fact, the Hanbali scholar Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya was the first to author a commentary on one of shaykh al-Jilani’s works, al-Fath al-Rabbani. To the best of our knowledge, historically speaking, shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani was as Hanbali as it gets. That is not to say that he wasn’t a Sufi, rather that the post-Wahhabi distinction, often linking Sufism to Ash’arism, is historically inaccurate.
Many who today will tolerate no disagreement whataoever in regards to shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani being al-Ghawth al-A’dham and Sultan al-Awliya, having his foot firmly placed on the neck of every wali, are the same people that call misguidance and unbelief the very teachings that shaykh al-Jilani himself most likely taught and believed. While we cannot pinpoint his exact opinion on every single issue, it is clear that he found himself within the general framework of the Hanabila. There is an extremely important lesson here; wilaya is not confined to the rigidity of a narrow school of scholastic theology (kalam).
Shaykh al-Jilani must have had an inspiring personality, and he does seem to have been immensely popular as a preacher. Bahjat al-Asrar, authored by shaykh Nur al-Din al-Shattanawfi (d. 1314), written over a hundred years after shaykh al-Jilani’s demise, is perhaps the most extensive biography of the era. The work describes the shaykh’s life, including his many karamat. Al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) stated that the book contains truth mixed with falsehood. It includes miracle stories of shaykh al-Jilani, such as him flying in the air, and making the lamps and dinnerware dance due to the crowd not being moved by his speech. Shaykh Taqi al-Din al-Wasiti (d. 1343) further called it a book of lies, and sought to establish that the author himself was indeed a known liar. Miracle stories continued to be concocted about the honorable shaykh al-Jilani to the point that it became almost impossible to seperate truth from falsehood in most cases. Shaykh Muhammad Abu al-Huda al-Sayyadi al-Rifa’i (d. 1909) stated that no other shaykh in Islamic history has had so many lies ascribed to him as shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, rahimahullah. What many seem to fail to understand is that the greatest karama is istiqama, which is something that shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir had from what we can tell. Hence, such fabrications add no further credit to him, but instead serve as a thick fog, veiling us from the honorable shaykh al-Jilani, his character as well as the karamat that he did indeed perform.
In his own lifetime, Sufis do not seem to have ascribed to him en masse, rather to shaykhs such as Ahmad al-Ghazali, Abu al-Najib al-Suhrawardi, and Ahmad al-Rifa’i. And for quite some time, the Qadiri tariqa was generally not mentioned alongside the Suhrawardiyya and the Rifa’iyya, two other Iraqi orders.
In Iraq, the faction associating themselves with the shaykh was centered around his tomb in Baghdad. While few ribats existed within the coming generations after his demise, it took at least two centuries before it became a popular tariqa. Sons of the shaykh, namely ‘Abd al-Razzaq and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (alongside faithful students) do seem to have dedicated themselves to their father’s legacy, such as compiling the above-mentioned books. However, anything remotely resembling a tariqa would have been confined to a smaller group of disciples centered around his sons and tomb, and had little influence outside of Baghdad. The descendants of shaykh al-Jilani received at least sporadic support from the Abbasid caliphate, such as having a ribat built for them. It seems, however, that the Mongol invasion put an end to their prominence.
Ibn Battuta, writing in the 14th century, mentions the many Rifa’i ribats, not only in Iraq, but even in Turkey and the Caucasus. Qadiri ribats, not so. In fact, when he wrote about his visit to Baghdad, he did not even mention the tomb of shaykh al-Jilani, which indicates that it was not a major attraction. The tomb appears to only have (re-)gained prominence during Ottoman rule, the empire being known for supporting Sufism. In areas with a strong Shi’ite presence, it further served as a strategical move to counter the popular Shi’ite shrines, and to promote Sunnism to the Shi’ite population.
In contrast to other tariqas, such as the Suhrawardiyya, Rifa’iyya, Shadhiliyya, and Naqshbandiyya, the different Qadiri branches seem to have lacked common principles and awrad, finding themselves borrowing from other tariqas, and only later composing their own material. Qadiri shaykhs produced little literature of their own, and Awarif al-Ma’arif of shaykh Abu Hafs al-Suhrawardi often served as the standard manual of the tariqa.
In India, the tariqa was established by shaykh Muhammad al-Ghawth (d. 1517), but even then it seems to have been rather isolated, and never gained the popularity of the Suhrawardi and Chishti orders. It was as late as the 17th century that the tariqa took firm root in Anatolia, where shaykh Isma’il al-Rumi (d. 1631/43) is said to have established over 40 Qadiri centers.
It appears that the Qadiri order manifested itself similar to the already existent orders in a given location. It was established based on the reputation of shaykh al-Jilani, not transmitted principles and awrad (or the shaykh’s books for that matter). This is likely why, in contrast to tariqas such as the Suhrawardiyya, Rifa’iyya, Shadhiliyya, and Naqshbandiyya, no two Qadiri branches are even remotely similar. The Qadiri tariqa is hence centered around shaykh al-Jilani’s person (as perceived), and his fame as a wali, rather than on his teachings and methodology.
And Allah knows best.
Servant of the Seekers,
Isa Husayn Johansson n