(The late Shaykh Muhammad Salim Adud of Mauritania)
I’ve been blessed to meet and spend time with dozens of Muslim sages, scholars and teachers over the years. Many of them are quite extraordinary human beings, who possess qualities, gifts and secrets most of us can only hope to acquire. Their lives are dedicated to study, being scrupulous with themselves and serving others.
Below are some reflections on some of these meetings. They don’t representative an exhaustive list of everyone, but I included those who writing about came most easiest.
Whilst studying in Mauritania, a group of us took a 9 hour journey deep into the Mauritanian desert to visit Murabit al Hajj. When we arrived, we were taken to the tent where the Shaykh now rests, located right in the centre of the village. As soon as I walked in, I caught a glimpse of him lying on the ground, with a blanket to keep him warm from the crisp morning air. I was hit by a rush of emotion. I felt my eyes beginning to water and a lump form in my throat.
Now very weak and barely conscious, lying down clothed in a blue Daraa, we heard him reciting la illaha illAllah (There is no god but God) in a low, husky voice. He surprisingly wore a crown of soft white hair and had a fairly full beard. Despite being over 120, nothing about his appearance gives away his age – he looks almost 50 years his junior.
Doctors who treated him in Nouakchott in 2014 were amazed at discovering his heart’s health was identical to a healthy man of 25.
We knelt down beside al-Hajj and a village elder spoke to him calmly and quietly in his ear, introducing us and asking him to pray for us. He never opened his eyes, but the intonations of his dhikr changed; I could make out ‘Allahumma’ [‘Oh Allah’ – usually the beginning of a personal prayer/du’aa] and I gazed at his face. It was beautiful, tranquil and serene. He then drifted into unconsciousness, and we held his hand.
It was an experience we’ll never forget. You can read more about my experience in Mauritania here.
Hassan Didew: I had the honour to be invited for lunch with Shaykh Didew and his family in his home while in Mauritania. At the time I was studying Arabic with the sons, nephew and son in law of the late Shaykh Muhammad Salim Adud (pictured at the top), the uncle of Shaykh Didew. The family are decedents of the Prophet from Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson.
Despite sitting next to him over lunch, I was too shy to speak to him in my broken Arabic, but I really enjoyed his company. He was generous, serious and deeply hospitable, in fact, he gave me a bag of food and drink to last me and my wife for almost a week.
The Shaykh is a man of serious knowledge. He’s memorised more books than you’d think is humanly possible, and is deeply committed to what’s right, despite what his detractors may make of him. He is loved by many of the Sufis and the Salafis, and has deeply nuanced views on many issues. Despite not being a proponent of Sufism himself, and perhaps disagreeing with Shaykh Murabit al Hajj on some issues, he visits al Hajj as often as he can, knowing that he’s visiting a great man of God. Whatever differences Shaykh Didew has with others, he doesn’t let these differences get in the way of his love for fellow Muslims.
Mokhtar Maghraoui: I’d just finished praying at the RIS, an annual Islamic convention generally held in Toronto, and my friend Zakaria and I got up and started to walk towards the bazaar. As we walked off, we noticed a graceful-looking figure behind us. Crowds were starting to surround him. Young men, all wanting to shake his hand and talk to him, gazed at his luminous face in a state of humility. This saint-like figure was Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui, a man who instantly radiates a sense of composure, gentleness and love.
He was wearing a white, Moroccan Djellaba, or robe, with black stripes and a white turban fitted nearly around his head. After he greeted everyone around him, he turned his whole body to me, as if to give me his whole being, looked penetratingly into my eyes, shook my hand and gently hugged me. Our encounter was brief, yet powerful. For those few seconds he seemed to devote himself utterly to me, uninterested, it seemed, in anyone else, partaking in a prophetic quality that he seemed to have fully embodied.
Nuh Ha Mim Keller
I’m sitting in a large room decorated with Islamic art, on the second floor of a building tucked away on a quiet side road in Amman, Jordan. Worshippers are standing in prayer, chanting God’s name and talking quietly among themselves. But these are not just any Muslim worshippers. They are murids (disciples) who have come from across the world to live here under the tutelage of their spiritual master. The atmosphere is relaxed, peaceful and still. About 20 minutes pass when, suddenly, the door flings open. Immediately, everyone rises as an entourage of people swiftly walk in.
Heading the entourage is Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, the murid’s spiritual guide. Sitting at the front of the class in a light green robe, he dons a white beard and wears a relaxed face, vacant of any emotion. One glance at him is enough to gather that he seems disinterested in worldly preoccupations. Addressing the room of male disciples (his female students are in a room parallel and can hear via speakers), he speaks in a deep and unwavering tone.
Keller begins the evening with dhikr, invoking or remembering God. He slowly breathes in, then in one long, slow exhalation says the divine name “All-ll-aa-hhh” – in unison, everyone joins in. After repeating this for a minute or so, the crowd stands up. People link hands and form two concentric circles. Singers begin to read spiritual poetry and a powerful sacred dance begins, known as the hadra.
The inner circle, consisting of what seems like Keller’s more advanced students, becomes particularly enrapt in the sacred dance. The murids rise and fall in a bowing motion, repeating the names of God. Everything is in unison and nobody is out of rhythm. As it goes on, the bowing becomes faster and faster, more intense and the students begin to look intoxicated, in particular, Shaykh Nuh.
The murids respond with an equal amount of energy as they rise and fall quicker and quicker.
Suddenly, it all stops.
Everyone sits down calmly as if nothing happened. In a muffled voice, Keller, who doesn’t seem to be fully present – his mind and spirit are somewhere else – begins to deliver a talk. Everyone listens attentively before going home.
One day after class, during a spiritual retreat in Turkey I attended in 2013, Shaykh Abdal Hakim patiently lined up behind his students to get some water. When he arrived at the water dispenser, instead of taking a new plastic cup, he reached into the bin, where everyone had been throwing their used-plastic cups into, took one out and used it to drink from. Nonchalantly, he walked off, not caring if anyone saw him do that. During the trip, I was also often surprised to see him, completely unassumingly, right in the midst of a large group of students during lunchtime in the canteen, blending in, sitting quietly, as if he was one of them.
The man is a gem. He combines deep knowledge of the faith, with asceticism: when you’re around him, you get the feeling that he really understands and lives by this faith – he is detached from this world and doesn’t seem to care much for people’s opinions of him.
I occasionally whatsapp Dr Umar and I’m always pleasantly surprised that he replies to me everytime! Not just with a simple message, but a voice note. He clearly respects every human being and makes whatever time he has for people. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with him on retreats over the years, and he tries his best to memorise people’s names. He is a very intelligent man, but he never makes you feel intellectually inferior to him.
I had been watching Shaykh Hamza talks for years before I first met him. So I was delighted to find him grounded, sincere and approachable when I first met him. My admiration only increased after I spent one-to-one time with him, where I had the opportunity to ask him some personal questions. Shaykh Hamza has been trying his best for the last 40 years to help the Ummah, and everyone who knows him personally will attest to this.
Over the past few years, many of the great men of Morocco have left this world. But Maula Hashim is one of the few that’s still with us. A student of the great Mohammed ibn al Habib, he’s a quiet, gentle, kind man, who moves slowly and has a lightness about him. He lives in a large home in Meknez and regularly has visitors, who he serves himself. While a group of us visited him recently, he talked to us about the importance of brotherhood and loving each other for the sake of God. He spoke little, but his words were impactful – a characteristic of the Prophet. Increasingly frail and now quite sick, this may have been the one and only time I’d get to see him.
Sidi Ismail Filali Baba:
Also known as Hajj Ismail, he’s known for his playfulness, charisma and ability to keep you at his home for as long as he wants (those that know, will know what I’m talking about). He’s also the man who Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s mother took her Shahadah with.
I visited him on my recent trip to Fes and spent five hours in a dhikr gathering with him. During the gathering, he’d keep a close eye out on anyone who he felt was becoming lazy, and would slap them or even throw things at them to get their attention back. Despite his strictness in gatherings, it all came from a place of love and compassion.
In a time when Islamic scholarship is coming under scrutiny for the actions of some, it’s important to remember that the vast majority are good, sincere people and heirs of the Prophet. Each one, in their own way, represents and carries certain traits of the luminosity and wholeness of our Prophet, and whatever negative we may see in them, is there primarily to show us our own flaws. It’s only the Prophet who we ultimately follow and emulate as the best example and the perfected figure.
While we may be disunited, our institutions slightly failing and extremism on the rise, our scholars are still, by and large, people to revere and look up to – and that’s something to rejoice about.