By Jamillah Karim
|Photo Credit: Hajji Hassan|
Love led me to this path. The sublime thing that stirs love in the heart, we call beauty. Beauty, then, is what brought me here.
Perhaps I owe it to the beloved souls that taught me my first lessons in beauty. “Black is beautiful!” my father protested. “Jamillah means beautiful on the inside,” my mother insisted, never once claiming to be an Arabic scholar.
The goal of the path, Tariqah Tijaniyyah in my case, is nothing other than Allah. And since we come from Allah to return to Allah, the earthly journey to the path indeed begins with our first teachers: our parents.
My parents came to Islam from the Nation of Islam when they followed Imam W.D. Mohammed (R) into mainstream Islam in 1975. I was born a year later.
Fast forward 39 years later to 2015. With shining pink dhikr beads, I am sitting in the Tijani masjid, or zawiya (the Sufi term for a place of spiritual retreat), in my hometown of Atlanta. The state of my heart has driven me here. The great Sufi poet and scholar Rumi captures my heart’s condition precisely, “The lightning of love for the beloved has shot into this heart.”
I had learned through my studies both at Duke and Zaytuna that the Sufi scholars were the masters of the heart. When we seek to purify our hearts, to make them beautiful, and to fill them with the love of God, we are pursuing the level of devotion described as ihsan, beauty. Only with teachers and loving companions can one excel in this path.
When Allah favored me with the ardent desire for this path, I turned to women for guidance—various women with teachers from several different turuq (paths) and ethnic backgrounds. Ultimately, there is no explanation for why I chose this tariqah. Allah chooses.
I believe, however, that growing up in the W.D. Mohammed community greatly influenced my attraction to this tariqah. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I found this path beautiful because of how my eye, my heart, and even my ear had been groomed in my home community.
Because of my religious roots, I easily embraced that it was a Black African who brought the great Tijani fayda, or flood, that Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, from Algeria, predicted. Thanks to Imam W.D. Mohammed, I had not been brainwashed to believe that only Arabs and Persians could be the greatest scholars and saints of all time.
Even the rhythm of the dhikr resonated with me because I was nurtured to value Africa’s cultures and to believe that they adorned Islamic practice, not tainted it. And finally, but probably most importantly, the sisters and brothers in the zawiya made me feel at home, many of whom I already knew from my local WDM masjid community.
Ziyarah, a universal practice
The connections between my new Sufi community and my home community continued to emerge. I had been in the tariqah now for six months. My dear friend Sumayya called to see if I was available to speak at the Shaykh Hassan Cisse Ziyarah to be held in December 2016 in Detroit. “Shaykh Mahy will be there, and like every Tijani in the country,” she said convincingly.
I imagined that the Ziyarah, Arabic for a “visit” or “visitation,” would be similar to a childhood ritual that I describe in my book American Muslim Women. “Whenever Imam W. D. Mohammed visited a city, his followers would flock there from all the nearby regions to hear him speak.” This ritual included “dressing in your finest clothes” and “seeing all the faces in your community.”
It is no surprise that the concept of ziyarah would emerge as a common thread because the practice of visiting the blessed is universal. Ziyarah, or visiting sacred places and people, living or dead, was a widespread practice in pre-modern societies, among both Muslims and Christians, Sufis and non-Sufis.
Ziyarah continues to be a common practice across various Muslim cultures in various shapes and forms. As Hajja Ayisha Jeffries Cisse noted, “For the Sufi, it can be a visit through our worship or in our memories. The Ziyarah of Imam Shaykh Hassan Aliou Cisse (R) in America is a sacred journey of our Spirit to his memory and his legacy.”
Indeed, the universal practice of ziyarah has taken on an expression unique to African American Muslims through the Annual Shaykh Hassan Cisse Ziyarah, which first took place in December 2010. Nasrul Ilm America has organized the Ziyarah annually to commemorate the life of Shaykh Hassan Cisse, the preeminent spokesperson of the Tariqah Tijaniyyah before his passing in 2008.
Shaykh Hassan (R) was a consummate Islamic scholar and guide, emerging from a long and vibrant legacy of learning in West Africa. He was the first grandson and spiritual heir of Shaykh Al-Islam, Al-Hajj Ibrahim Niasse, who led the largest single Muslim movement in twentieth-century West Africa.
The annual Ziyarah functions as an opportunity to visit with Shaykh Hassan by celebrating his legacy, to visit with Shaykh Mahy Cisse, his youngest brother and spiritual heir (may Allah bless and preserve him), and to visit with other murids (students of a shaykh). In his speech at the 2007 International Tijaniyyah Conference in Fes, Shaykh Hassan emphasized fellowship as a central component of Ziyarah:
“In the spiritual path, the meeting of the brothers and sisters is more important, even than making the awrad, the remembrance of Allah. Because of what? The dhikr, if you miss it, you can make it up another time. But the meeting with your brother or sister, if you miss it, that’s it--you missed it, finished! You cannot make it up. You cannot bring these people back.”
Similarly, Shaykh Mahy Cisse has described the Ziyarah as the gathering of lovers. “We make Ziyarah to show our love for our shaykh.” He shared the following at the 2016 Ziyarah in Detroit:
“Allah loves Ziyarah. The Prophet (S) said, ‘A man was traveling to a village to see a brother. An angel appeared to him in the form of a human being and asked him, “Where are you going?” He said, “I am going to this village to see such and such.” He said, “Do you have business with him?” He said, “No, I just love him for the sake of Allah.” The angel told him, “Allah sent me to tell you that He loves you because you love your brother.”’
“Everybody here can have it [the divine love rewarding brotherly love] because everyone came here for the sake of love, and that love is for Allah, tabarakah wa ta’ala (T).
“The real mashayik, if you love them, but they know this love is not for Allah (T), they don’t love that. They love to see people love them for the sake of Allah. If you love them for the sake of Allah, you will follow in their footsteps, [which] is to follow the way of Rasul Allah (S), and your ending will be their ending….This is the real love.”
The Detroit Ziyarah
I traveled alone to Detroit. I had never met Malia, the sister hosting me, but when she picked me up, she immediately remembered me. “I was at the lecture you gave at Howard.” I’ve experienced this again and again in the path: the realization that other murids and I have already crossed paths.
I anxiously hoped we would make it in time for dhikrul jumu’ah and wazifah. Murids eagerly anticipate Ziyarah as a time to perform our awrad (litanies) in the company of our shaykh.
|Photo Credit: ThirdEyeLenz|
My anxiousness was amplified by the fact that I was new to the Tijani community. And, I admit, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was now in one of those “other” Black Muslim communities. It’s no secret that Muslims outside the WDM community have made judgements about our imam and community. And from our side, we’ve held our own set of assumptions and stereotypes about other groups.
But as Malia and I bonded on the drive that seemed like forever, those false walls were falling inside. And then came the moment when I knew the whole thing was divine. We arrived at the masjid for dhikrul jumu’ah, and it was the Muslim Center, a mosque community that identifies with the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed!
The sign above the door was adorned with the emblem that signaled home for me, a red Qur’an with the pages spread open to appear as wings, held up by the words in Arabic, “There is none worthy of worship but God, and Muhammad (S) is the Messenger of God.”
This is the emblem that Imam Mohammed chose for the community’s newspaper to signal the change in direction. And again the connections flooded in. Detroit is where the Nation of Islam started. The Muslim Center evolved out of Temple #1, the first Nation mosque. The Muslim Center demonstrates radical growth, love, and unity as it warmly opens its doors to the Tijanis (and other Sufi communities). It mirrored the radical flow of love and serenity in my heart. Just when I nervously opened myself to a new community, Allah made everything feel like home.
Now inside the Muslim Center, the multiple conversations around the prayer space, the laughter, and the embraces indicated that we had missed the dhikr. Smiles greeted me from both new and familiar faces, followed by heartfilled hugs. After praying ‘Isha, the conversation turned to visiting Shaykh Mahy.
It was between 8 and 10 pm when we arrived at the house where Shaykh was staying. It was bustling with men and women. The first familiar face was a brother I grew up with in Atlanta. We exchanged words, and then Malia and I were immediately directed to the room where Shaykh greeted visitors.
And of course, another connection was made, this time related to gender. Sitting around Shaykh, the women outnumbered the men. Within arms reach of Shaykh, women remained in his proximity even after they greeted him. I, in turn, greeted him and asked two questions. He answered them, and made dua for Allah’s ease for me in the path.
|Photo Credit: ThirdEyeLenz|
The gender interaction in the space certainly sustained my sense that I had left home only to return. Sure, there were gender boundaries but also signs that the boundaries were soft and flexible. A brother, for example, selling dresses and scarves from Senegal, sat comfortably among the women, his customers. A wife sitting with her husband in the midst of brothers, for they were her brothers too. This movement across gender lines indicated that women were valued and their voices were fairly heard, what I had been accustomed to in my home community.
Commemoration Night: Shaykh Mahy Cisse and Shaykh Abdul Karim Yahya
The commemoration program was filled with speeches on the legacy of Shaykh Hassan (R), dhikr, poetry of praise on the Prophet (S), and recognition of community members’ work and service. The stellar choice of speakers made the night exceptionally memorable; however, there were two talks that especially stood out to me as a new murid still internalizing Sufi concepts and practices.
The first talk was by Shaykh Abdul Karim Yahya. He gave an excellent explanation of why we seek a shaykh as part of the prophetic tradition. This practice stands upon the concept of seeking “our opening through those who have seen the one we did not see.”
This concept is grounded in a hadith in Bukhari and Muslim that ends, “A time will come where a people will go forth [fighting], and they will say, ‘Is there anyone among you who saw someone who kept the company of someone who kept the company of Allah’s messenger (S)?’ And it will be said, ‘Yes,’ and so their opening will be granted.”
What Shayky Abdul Karim imparted was that “those who see those who saw those who preceded them, it is as if they saw them or they gained that opening and that benefit.” This is the concept of asanid, chains of connection going back to the Prophet Muhammad (S).
Shaykh Abdul Karim continued with gracious recognition of the light and beauty he saw in our teachers:
“It’s not adab to mention one’s tariqah in the company of other turuq, but I’ll just say that Allah privileged me to study in the city with a group of the prophetic family that’s known as the highest concentration of ahl bayt on this earth and gaze at them and their way.
“And then we met the likes of Imam Joseph, and we saw here what we saw there. And in his sons, we saw here what we saw there. And when we had the opportunity to make hajj with Shaykh Mahy, we saw what we heard in the biographies of like twelfth-century imams that this great imam--you will have a legal question and you’d be looking for him. Go among the common people and you will find him!
“We made hajj with Shaykh Mahy, and he doesn’t want me to say this, but understand those from whom you are taking [because otherwise you may not realize his station because of Shaykh’s practice to sit with the common people]. On the hajj, he was an obscurity just lying among the African brothers.
“These asanid take us back to Allah’s Messenger (S). Imam Salim Joseph alluded to this when he spoke, and Shaykh Mahy will not mind me saying this. See in Shaykh Mahy, Shaykh Hassan. And see in him, Shaykh Ibrahim. And see in them, Sayyidina Rasul Allah (S), because to the extent of your honesty, your genuineness, the various links in that chain will dissolve and you will connect more and more to Allah’s Messenger. As our Imam al-Haddad said, ‘So through the real, let us take the knowledge of their path, hand to hand, up to the station of prophecy.’”
|Photo Credit: ThirdEyeLenz|
Shaykh Mahy closed the program with beautiful remarks. I especially gained from his explanation of the arrangement of dhikr in the Tijani awrad:
“Everyone comes to this gathering wearing nice clothes. Why? Because you want to meet Shaykh, you want to meet brother. So what do you think if you want to go to the presence of Allah (T)? That’s why in the awrad of tariqah, you start with istighfar. You empty yourself of all the bad things. That is the nice clothes you wear to go into the presence of Allah (T).
And no way do you get to the presence of Allah (T) without passing through the door of Rasul Allah (S). “The Prophet Muhammad (S) said, ‘Allah is the giver, but I’m the distributor.’ So no way you can get anything without passing through Prophet Muhammad (S).
“This is what awrad Tijaniyyah teaches you. After istighfar, you say salat ‘ala an-nabi because you want to enter into the presence of Allah (T)...You make salat ‘ala an-nabi, and that salat will guide you to the presence of Rasul Allah (S) first because he will take the darkness--‘you take humanity from the darkness into the light’ [recited in Arabic]. The real nur, the real light, is Rasul Allah (S). After salat ‘ala an-nabi, that will raise you to get to la ilaha illallah...This is the way of our tariqah.”
To Be Continued