Checkout: Biography of Shaykh Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdullah Niyas al-Kawlakhi (q.s.)
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Who Is Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdullah Niyas Al-Kawlakhi (q.s)
Shaykh Ibrahim Niyas (q.s.), as the name is transliterated here from the Arabic, is more commonly known “Ibrahim Niass”. It also written as “Ibrahima Niasse” in French, and “Ibrayima Nas” in Wolof. Formally, he is Shaykh al-Islam al-Haj Ibrahim ibn al-Haj ‘Abdullah at-Tijani al-Kawlakhi Niyas (q.s.) in Arabic.
He was a major leader of the Tijani Sufi order in West Africa. His followers in the Senegambia region affectionately refer to him in Wolof as “Baye”, or “Father”.
He is the founder of the Ibrahimiyyah branch of the Tijaniyyah. In Arabic, we designate ourselves as the people of al-Faydhah at-Tijaniyyah, “The Divine Flood of the Tijani”.
In Wolof, the Tijani of Senegal call themselves Talibe Baye, meaning “Disciples of Baye”. Outsiders often refer to his disciples as Naseen, which in Wolof means “from the family of Nas”, although his disciples do not use this designation.
He was born in the village of Tayba Naseen, spelled “Taiba Niassene” in French, between the Senegalese city of Kaolack and the border of Gambia. He was the son of Haj ‘Abdulay Naas (q.s.), the main representative of the Tijani order in the Saalum region at the beginning of the twentieth century.
When Shaykh Ibrahim Niyas (q.s.) entered upon the Sufi path, he took the Thariqa’ Tijaniyyah from his father. The step was momentous, for it was within this thariqa’ that he was to play a major role.
It was a role without parallel since Shaykh ‘Umar ibn Sa’id al-Futi Thal’s (q.s.) earlier role in the spread of the Tijaniyyah. Beginning with his father, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) received many appointments as a muqaddam in the Tijaniyyah.
Before he passed away, his father instructed Shaykh Muhammad Mahmud ash-Shinghity (q.s.) of Mauritania to appoint his son a muqaddam. Shaykh ash-Shinghity (q.s.), however, told Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.), “You have no need for an ijazah from a creature because you have your Appointment from the Creator.”
He had additional appointments from al-Haj ‘Abdullah ibn al-‘Alawi (q.s.) of Mauritania and Shaykh Muhammad al-Hafizh at-Tijani (q.s.) of Egypt as well as Shaykh Ahmad as-Sukayrij (q.s.) of Morocco, the closest link to Shaykh Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad at-Tijani (q.s.) in silsilah.
He certified that Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was khalifah of the thariqa’s initiator, Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.). Of himself, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) once said, “What I have in the way of ijazah and muqaddam authorisations would indeed fill a book.”
Although he was the youngest of his father’s children, shortly after his father’s death in 1922, he became the most outstanding among them.
He became, in fact, the most important murabith within his father’s house and throughout the area. For the first time since the epoch of the founder, Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.), we find, within the thariqa’, an international grouping of Muslims.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was a staunch advocate of restoring the proper ritual observances of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) pure sunnah. Some had become careless and begun to omit some of the recommended practices of the Prophet (s.a.w.).
This was particularly true with reference to the swalah. For such things, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) truly revived the sunnah.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was educated primarily at the hands of his father, with full access to his father’s extensive library.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) mastered, at an early age, the full range of religious sciences; the Qur’an and its interpretation, the ahadits and their explanation, jurisprudence and Sufism.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) said, “I learned Qur’an and ahadits first from my shaykh, my father, and he, from his father. I received an ‘ijazah first from my father in both Qur’an and ahadits, then from ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn al-‘Alawi, and another ‘ijazah from Shaykh Ahmad Sukayrij, who himself had earned some six hundred ‘ijazat from six hundred different shuyukh whose names are mentioned in his book, where he writes, ‘The first one to whom I gave authorisation in all these chains of transmission was the khalifah, al-Haj Ibrahim Niasse.’”
As for the content of his teaching, it was nothing more or less than the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and its revitalisation.
Throughout his life, the example of the Prophet (s.a.w.) was his means and end. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) used to say, “If the best of mankind, the Prophet is moving, even I shall follow him step by step; and the day he stops, from there I shall never move.”
Elsewhere in a poem, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) wrote, “If I am asked, what is your madzhab and who is your beloved, I can answer that it is the Prophet, and none other.”
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was the best example of a Sufi according to the saying by Shaykh Muhyi ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.), “The Sufi is the son of the hour.”
He is the “son of the hour” because he will respond to the needs of the time. The Muslim who is greatest in understanding is he who submits to the rule of his hour. That is, he gives everything the position it requires in action and speech.
He honours the moment and the ‘ibadah of that moment. He is a person moving with time in a circle. He does not attempt to stop time, not to become stagnant in it, nor to regress in it. His efforts are aimed at continually moving forward.
At every moment, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) dealt with the requirements of that moment. In the season of Ramadhan, he read Qur’an and ahadits and presented their explanations. In the season of haj, he expounded the virtues of the pilgrimage.
At the time of Mawlid, he recited the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) sirah. All of this behaviour characterised the Sufism of Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.).
It was based on action and practice, traveling the Muslim world, giving speeches, writing pamphlets, and reviving the adzkar. In every endeavour, his goal was to direct Muslims to the Swirath al-Mustaqim.
During his youth, he moved with his father to the city of Kaolack, where they established the zawiyah of Lewna Naseen.
After his father’s death in Lewna Naseen, his older brother, Shaykh Muhammad al-Khalifah (r.a.), became his father’s successor, but due to his charisma and precocious knowledge, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) gained a large number of disciples, and tensions arose between his own disciples and those of his older brother.
In 1929, while farming in the family fields of the village of Koosi Mbitteeyeen, a young Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) announced that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) had revealed to him the secrets of ma’arifat, and that anyone who wished to know God should follow him.
In 1930, after the swalah of ‘Iyd al-Fithr, a fight broke out between his disciples and those of Shaykh Muhammad al-Khalifah (r.a.).
He immediately knew that he would have to move with his disciples. That evening, he set out with a small group of his closest disciples to find a new place to live, and the next day they began to establish a new zawiyah in Medina Baye, a village that was later incorporated into the growing city of Kaolack.
During the following years, he divided his time between farming and teaching in Koosi Mbitteeyeen during the rainy season and teaching in Medina Baye. During the summer of 1945, he reestablished himself in his father’s house in his birth village of Tayba Naseen, rebuilding the village after a fire destroyed much of it.
His fame quickly spread throughout the countryside and most of his father’s disciples ultimately became his disciples in spite of his junior status in the family.
In an unlikely role reversal, several leaders of the Arab ‘Idaw ‘Ali tribe in Mauritania, the same tribe that introduced the Tijani order to West Africa, became his disciples, including Shaykh Muhammad wuld an-Nahwi (r.a.), and Shaykh Muhammad al-Miswri (r.a.).
Thariqa’ at-Tijaniyyah al-Ibrahimiyyah, as Shaykh Ibrahim’s (q.s.) disciples came to known, flourished and gained large number of followers throughout the 1930s and 1940s across North and West Africa.
In the 1937, on meeting with Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) during the haj, the Emir of Kano in Nigeria, al-Haj ‘Abdullahi Bayiru (r.a.) made a declaration to follow and became his disciple.
That incident gained Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) the allegiance of many of the prominent Tijani leaders of Northern Nigeria and a lot more who were not Tijanis during the time.
One of his closest disciples and father of Sayyidah Bilkisu, one of the youngest wives of the Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.), was a prince from Okene, the first High Commissioner of Nigeria to the UK, al-Haj ‘Abd al-Malik ‘Aththa’.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) became a renowned shaykh ath-thariqa’ throughout the Hausa areas of West Africa and ended up with far more disciples outside of Senegal than within it.
By the time of his death in 1975 in London, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) had millions of followers throughout West Africa. The Thariqa’ at-Tijaniyyah al-Ibrahimiyyah had become the largest branch in the world.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) played roles that were extraordinary coming from an esoteric scholar that lived somewhere in the semi-arid zone of the tiny belt of the Senegambia.
He fought for the independence of Black Africa through his relentless direct contact with leaders and communities of many African states in the post-independence era.
Immediately after the end of World War II, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) embarked upon the laborious task of seeking the unity of the continent and preparing it for autonomy.
In his celebrated work, al-Ifriqiyyah li al-Ifriqiyyin, published in 1950, he opined elaborately that Africa “must be governed by its own children.”
Indeed, the quest for true freedom was considered by Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) to be the purest obligation of all men of ample discretion, knowing no religious boundaries, and this was exactly the statesmanship of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in Madina.
After the death of Shaykh Ibrahim’s (q.s.) father, al-Haj ‘Abdullahi (q.s.), Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) returned to Kaolack to offer his condolences to the family.
al-Haj ‘Abdullahi (q.s.) passed on to his Creator in 1929. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) declared then, during the Mawlid of the Prophet (s.a.w.), that he was the spiritual inheritor and khalifah of Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.),
the Swahib al-Faydhat at-Tijaniyyah. His eldest brother and khalifah of their late father asked whether Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was well to which he responded in the affirmative.
But his brother declared that Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was affected by jinn, and that people should assist in exorcising him. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) firmly declared that he was of sound body and mind, and said all he said was with authority.
His brother denied him outright and instructed his students to do likewise. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) continued to call people to Allah (s.w.t.) and taught them all forms of the religious sciences.
He met stiff resistance and decided to relocate to Koosi, a village founded by his father, where he continued his spiritual mission.
He attracted a large following from all parts of Africa. People had come to drink from his ocean of knowledge and spiritual illuminations.
The enmity of some Islamic scholars had for him was so great that when he came back to his home town in Kaolack, he was stoned and stopped from praying inside his father’s mosque.
After much opposition and oppression, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) decided to migrate away from Kaolack and find his own settlement due to the difficulties his students and him were experiencing in carrying out their religious and other daily activities.
One fateful morning, after fajr, he informed his students and all those who wished to follow him to leave Kaolack. After obtaining permission from the colonial officers governing Kaolack administrative area, he migrated about 3 miles east of Kaolack and camped by a big tree which was to become his home.
His town is now called Madinatu Kaolack. Later the same year, he went for his haj.
Upon returning back from the pilgrimage, he began of building his own mosque, converting people to Islam, educating the Muslims and reviving the sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.).
These activities were not confined within Senegal but were carried out throughout North and West Africa. His style, methodology and spiritual zeal had made all and sundry flock to him to quench their thirst from the overflowing flood of knowledge.
His detractors were greatly alarmed by his success. They conspired against him and lied to the French administrator of the region that Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was trying to build an army to rebel against French colonial rule.
This was a claim Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) easily dispelled and was allowed to continue to with his teaching and preaching.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) travelled throughout the world in order to spread Islam. He was instrumental in turning Senegal into a Muslim majority country.
In Ghana alone, he converted no fewer than eight thousand Christians and pagans to Islam. He was feared as a “terror” by Christian missionaries in West Africa.
He was not only an erudite and versatile scholar but also a prolific writer who wrote over 70 books on various subjects including fiqh, Arabic language and grammar, ethics, taswawwuf, sirah, tafsir and many other Islamic disciplines.
He was a poet of the highest order composing eight anthologies. He was awarded the title of “Shaykh al-Islam” by the head of al-Azhar, Imam Muhammad Mahmud Shaltut (r.a.).
This title is only given to Islamic scholars who have attained a level of competence and mastery in at least 25 disciplines in the religious sciences.
He advocated for mass education for both males and females. In reference to this, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) said in a speech that “women should compete with men in knowledge”.
It is because of this that women of the path are found to be well versed in Qur’an and ahadits. Suffice to say that all his daughters have memorised the entire Qur’an and are scholars in their own right; they engaged in the continuous education of women and children throughout sub-Sahara Africa.
He also established a zawiyah in Kaolack which is now an institute that is affiliated with al-Azhar, through which thousands of students all over the world attend to complete their studies.
This was imitated by his disciples who established many of these zawiyat all over Africa, causing literacy to be improved.
At a time when the Muslim world were still rejecting the recitation of Qur’an over the radio and other electronic gadgets such as loudspeakers, he issued a fatwa that not only was it permissible, but compulsory for Muslims to embrace these inventions because they promote piety and helped to spread Islam.
He was among the first West African Islamic scholars to write a book explaining the rules of pilgrimage to Makkah for those traveling by plane.
Not only did Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) emphasise Islamic knowledge, he also encouraged Western education as is evident in the speech he gave for the Mawlid at Kaolack in 1386 AH where he addressed the Muslim youth saying, “Go ahead and be vanguard in all things, for the future of nations is based on its youth, and make every effort to seek and do your best to acquire knowledge; not only Islamic knowledge and mathematics but also be part of and co-operate with those whose zeal is to discover the unknown and unseen things of this world.” By the last part, he meant the sciences.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was a distinguished member and official of global Islamic organisations. He attended various Islamic international conventions whose central theme was mostly on da’wah.
Contrary to the claims of detractors and scoffers who tried to taint the thariqa’ as being bid’ah, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) deserves full credit for reviving the neglected sunnah of placing the hands over the chest while praying in swalah amongst the Malikiyyah; he wrote Raf’al Malam explaining his position.
He even had pictures of himself praying with his hands over the chest to confirm to the sub-Saharan Muslims that this is the right way, setting an example that got wide acceptance.
Television was not a luxury enjoyed by millions of Africans then, so this as the only way.
He contributed towards the socio-political stability in countries he visited with his methods and preaching of tolerance and mutual respect.
For example, he sowed seeds of love and understanding, cementing trust among the various tribes through promoting inter-tribal marriages in Nigeria and international marriages in other West African countries.
A significant number of inter-tribal marriages between the Hausa and Yoruba are found among those of the thariqa’. Other examples include marriages between Morrocans, Senegalese, Algerians and others.
He preached religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence with people of other faiths. It is worthy of note that in addition for advocating for the welfare of Muslims in countries he visited, he also gave advise to Christian leaders on ensuring political stability and peace as was the case with Kwame Nkrumah, the former president of Ghana; General Yakubu Gowon, the former president of Nigeria and Leopold Singore, the former president of Senegal.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) had great disdain for oppression and transgression prompting him to write several treatises on the plight of colonised people worldwide.
In one of his famous pro-freedom treatises, al-Ifriqiyyah li al-Ifriqiyyin, “Africa to the Africans”, mentioned above, he accurately predicted that Africans will rule Africans, alluding to the end of colonialism, in his time.
Shortly after the publication of this treatise, many African countries gained independence.
He caught global attention because of this treatise, especially among Middle Eastern leaders who invited him for discourses and advice on several occasions.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) passed away in 1975, in London. By then, he had millions of followers and the thariqa’ had grown tremendously.
He was succeeded by his closest disciple, Shaykh ‘Ali Sis (r.a.) and his eldest son, Shaykh ‘Abdullahi Ibrahim Niyas (r.a.). The thariqa’ is currently lead by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani Niyas.