FADILATOU SHEIKH AL-ISLAM
FADILATOU SHEIKH AL ISLAM ELH. IBRAHIM ABDULLAH NIASS (RA)
Fadilatou Sheikh Al Islam Elh. Ibrahim Abdullah Niass (RA) [1900-1975] was West Africa’s most renowned Islamic scholar in the twentieth century. His followers numbered in the millions and comprised the largest single Muslim movement in West Africa (Hiskett, 1984). He was also well-known among the ulama and leaders of the broader Muslim world and a member of such organizations as the Muslim World League (Rabitat al-‘Alam al-Islami based in Saudi Arabia, of which he served as Vice President), the World Muslim Congress (Mutamar al-‘Alam al-Islami; Karachi, Pakistan), the Islamic Research Assembly (Majma’ al-Buhuth al-Islamiyya; Egypt) and the High Council of Islamic Affairs (Majlis al-‘Ala li al-Shu’un al-Islamiyya; Egypt). Following a trip to Cairo, Egypt, in 1961, he became widely known as “Sheikh al-Islam” after having led the Friday prayers in the prestigious Azhar Mosque.
Sheikh Ibrahim also maintained close relations with several prominent leaders in the independence movements during the 1960s, such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Ahmad Sekou Touré (Guinea) and Gamal Abd al-Nasser (Egypt). He campaigned tirelessly for governments to respect the rights of Muslims and the oppressed world-wide. He spoke out on several international causes, such as Israeli aggression toward the Palestinians, but he was also interested in interfaith issues and maintained good relations with Vatican representatives. He also became involved in social concerns, stressing racial equality and the rights of women. In regards to the latter, the Shaykh encouraged women to “compete with men in knowledge.”
Sheikh Ibrahim Abdullah Niass was born in rural Senegal, the son El-Hajj Abdullah Muhammad Niass. El-Hajj Abdullah (RA) represented the culmination of a long line of Islamic scholars in the Senegambia region, and was himself a well-traveled and consummate Sheikh, attracting students from all around the region as far away as Mauritania. Sheikh Ibrahim was educated primarily at the hands of his father, with full access to his father’s extensive library. Sheikh Ibrahim mastered at an early age from his father the full range of Islamic sciences: the Qur’an and its interpretation, the Hadith and their explanation, jurisprudence and Sufism.
In reference to his educational background and achievements, Sheikh Ibrahim said, “I learned Qur’an and Hadith first from my sheikh, my father, and he, from his father. I received an ‘ijaza (diploma from the majalis al-’ilm) first from my father in both Qur’an and Hadith, then from Abdur-Rahman b. alHajj-1-’Alawi (Mauritania) and another ‘ijaza from Sheikh Ahmad Sukayrij (Morocco) who himself had earned some six hundred ‘ijazas from six hundred different shaykhs whose names are mentioned in his book, where he writes, ‘The first one to whom I gave authorization in all these chains of transmission was the Khalifa al-Hajj Ibrahim Niass.’” Sheikh Ibrahim once said concerning his scholarly credentials: “What I have in the way of ‘ijaza and muqaddam authorizations would indeed fill a book.”
As for the content of his teaching, it was nothing more or less than the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and its revitalization. Throughout his life, the example of the Prophet was his means and end. Sheikh Ibrahim 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 wrote, “If I am asked, what is your madhhab (school of jurisprudence) and who is your beloved, I can answer that it the Prophet, and none other.”
Sheikh Ibrahim was the best example of a Sufi according to the description “The Sufi is the son of his hour (ibn waqtihi).” He will respond to the needs of the time. At every moment he is dealing with the requirements of that moment. 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 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 effort is aimed at continually moving forward. In the season of Ramadan he reads Qur’an and Hadith and presents their explanations. In the season of Hajj, he expounds the virtues of the Muslim pilgrimage. At the time of Mawlid, he recites the Prophet’s Sira or Biography.
All of this behavior characterized the Sufism of Sheikh Ibrahim. It was based on action and practice, traveling all over the Muslim world, giving speeches, writing pamphlets. In every endeavor, his goal was to direct Muslims to the right path (siratul mustaqim). Sickness did not bother him unless it halted his activity in behalf of spreading Islam. Indeed, his tasawwuf was not characterized by heedlessness and neglect (ghafla). It was based on real Islam, mastering the self (nafs) and ruling over it with Qur’an and Sunnah. His Sufism was producing and working in various fields of life on the farms, and so forth.
In a speech in the 1960s, Sheikh Ibrahim addressed a group of Muslim youth and said, “For the youth, I thank you all for your papers. And I am here to tell you to go ahead and be in the vanguard of things. Surely the future of every nation is based on its youth. But it is not based upon all of them, not upon every individual, but only on the intellectual ones, the educated ones with good character, good manners, and zeal. As for the youth lacking education and good character, he is like a seed unfertilized. So make every effort to seek and do your best to acquire more knowledge, not only Islamic knowledge, not only mathematics and its branches, but also be part of and cooperate with those whose zeal is to discover the unknown and unseen things of this world.”
Throughout his life, Sheikh Ibrahim’s character was based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, a fact verified by prominent Muslim leaders who knew him. For example, we note in the letter of Sheikh Muhammad al‑Hafiz al‑Tijani – the Egyptian who was known as the foremost man of Hadith in his age – the words:
“Praise belongs to Allah, after Allah has blessed us by binding us in love: this humble servant Muhammad al-Hafiz al-Tijani and the Hujja, the cornerstone of the religion, the sea of confidence, the believer in Allah, my brother and the brother of my spirit, my master Abi Ishaq, Sheikh Ibrahim ….”
In his greeting, it is important to note that Sheikh al-Hafiz uses the word Hujja, or “the proof”, as a form of address. The scholars of hadith have ranked the scholars who work in this field. Each rank has a specific name. For example, the muhaddith is the narrator of hadith who reads traditions based upon narration and report. The hafiz has memorized hadith to the number of one hundred thousand along with their explanation. But the Hujja has memorized three hundred thousand hadith with their explanations and chains of transmission from the Prophet. Likewise, a 1961 letter from the Secretary General of the Muslim World League in Mecca, the late Sheikh Muhammad Surui Al‑Sabban, addresses Sheikh Ibrahim as follows:
“The Owner of Virtue, The Member of the Islamic Conference, Brother Sheikh Ibrahim Niass well‑respected, Assalamu Alaikum. Peace be upon you, and the mercy of Allah, and His Blessing be upon you. The pioneers have left the Hijaz, along with the propagators of the religion. They also left with the jurisprudence/understanding (fiqh) of the Hijaz, and now it remains with you, Sheikh Ibrahim. The old style of reading the Qur’an has also left the Hijaz, but you have remained reading the word of Allah with this same style of Hijaz, the style of Nafi Mawla Abi Nu’aym. Indeed, you are of the real people of Medina in both Fiqh and Qur’an. These are the proofs of your steadfastness, and it is not the pride from within me, but the pride is for you and by Him. You have believed and steadfastly you have protected and spread the religion and become victorious.”
This speech was delivered by Sheikh Ibrahim for the celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlid) in Medina-Kaolack, Senegal on July 19, 1965.
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Praise be to Allah, who has honored and favored us by sending our master Muhammad to us. Allah’s prayer and peace is upon him, now as it was with the previous generations. On his account, Allah said, “And We have not sent you (O Muhammad) except as a mercy to all the worlds” (21:107). Through him, Allah gave us the gift of His revelation, His clear path for those striving for righteousness. With him, Allah has sent the religion of truth, “so that He may exalt it above all religions” (61:9).
May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, upon his family, upon his virtuous companions, and upon all those who follow him to the Day of Judgment.
On this occasion of the Mawlid – the remembrance of the birth of light itself, the eye of bountiful deliverance in this world and the next – let us renew our attachment to the faith of Islam, the everlasting religion of Allah. Indeed, Allah’s satisfaction lies in our refusal of anything other than Islam. As in the Qur’an, “He who follows another religion besides Islam, his religion will not be accepted of him” (3:85).
Islam is the belief in One God. The resignation to the Will of Allah is the realization of justice among the people. The Qur’an reveals that all of the Prophets of Allah have used the same word to describe their religion: al-Islam or “submission.” Islam is surely the universal religion, encompassing all the other religions. The stains of man cannot obscure or modify its essential beauty. Islam was the belief and method of worship prescribed for Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. Its meaning has not changed: release yourself into the worship of Allah, and do not divide yourselves to its purpose. As for those religions the Qur’an mentions as having been altered by later followers, these religions had already become irreparably distant from the essential truth of Islam before becoming nullified by successive revelations. The last revelation, which abrogates the previous revelations, is the religion of Muhammad. “This community of yours is one community, and I am your Lord, so worship Me!” (21:92).
This is the refuge we are offering to the whole world – Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans – “Let us come to an understanding between us and you, that we should not worship anything apart from Allah, and that we ascribe no partners to Him and take no other protector besides Him. If they turn their backs on this, tell them: ‘Bear witness that we have submitted to Allah as Muslims’” (3:64).
Islam’s doctrine is simple, and its principals are not limited by a particular time or place. Indeed, there is nothing worthy of worship apart from Allah. Muhammad, Allah’s peace and blessings upon him, is Allah’s servant and messenger. All human beings are equal: there is no privilege for the white man over the red, yellow or black man except by righteousness (taqwa). Righteousness, as the Qur’an says, is simply to obey the commands of Allah and to avoid His prohibitions.
Islam emphasizes the importance of the family, for its rights are inextricably bound to the society and world at large. Islam has clarified for us all social relations, from the individual’s duty to himself, to his duty to his family, to his society and to the government.
Incumbent on each individual, whether man or woman, is good conduct and manners (ādāb). The Prophet said, “The most perfect of believers is the most perfect in manners.” Allah Himself praised His Prophet by saying, “Surely you have the most exalted of character” (48:4). And Aisha said, “His character was the Qur’an.” His behavior is an example for other men, and all creatures. A good Muslim strives to improve his character, and to benefit his fellow man.
In Islam, the basis of familial relations is love and leniency. Allah says, “Among His signs is that He has created for you a pair from yourself, as source of tranquility, placing between you (husband and wife) love and leniency” (30:21). Allah also said, “Your wives are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them” (2:187). And He said, “Wives have rights the same as those invested in their husbands …” (2:228). However, “Men are the protectors of women” (4:34). This pre-eminence relates to men taking care of women and their administration of the family, a function indispensable in the family unit as with other associations.
Islam regards society as the reunification of the members of the same body. For this reason, Muslims must be preoccupied with the welfare of the needy and the poor, providing assistance to them through charitable endeavors. Allah said: “Provide assistance to each other, for the sake of righteousness and the awe of Allah” (5:2).
In relation to authority, Allah says, “Their affairs are determined by mutual consultation” (42:38). Allah sets the standard for those in authority with the example of the Prophet: “With the grace of your Lord, you have been conciliatory and easy with them. If you had been rude or hard of heart, they would have detached themselves from you. So look past their faults and forgive them. Consult with them in matters, and when you have decided, seek the support of Allah” (3:159).
Our Lord is One. And we are all descendents of the same person: Adam. O Muslims of the East and the West, let us value this immense treasure. It contains all we need for peace, prosperity and progress. There is no safety, no salvation and no peace for the one who does not attach himself to this single rope of Allah. “Hold to the rope of Allah in unity, and be not divided among yourselves” (3:103). And the best of advice comes from him who has first followed his own advice, for it is impossible to instruct others before first instructing yourself.
O People of Islam! Those of us who have left the principals of our religion to ape the customs of non-Muslims have met with ruin. Materialism can only feed the ego, not the spirit; and without the spirituality of Islam, there is only devastation. In this time especially, let those who believe make their hearts humble before Allah and grateful for the truth He has sent down. Let us not be like those who received the scriptures of old, but were impatient with the decree of Allah, and their hearts became hardened and corrupt.
The Muslim community flourished in the beginning of its history because it followed the prescriptions of the Holy Qur’an. And Allah does not change the state of a people until they change their own internal condition (13:11). If we are to protect ourselves from the manifest threats to our communities looming on the horizon, we must revisit our past methods. Let us be united under the banner of mercy and benevolence to attain the security of the two abodes.
The call to Islam, by giving sincere advice and discouraging ugliness and injustice, is obligatory on Muslim preachers. And what a blessing it is for such preachers to emerge to from an entire community of Muslims calling to goodness, cooperating in righteousness and benevolence, and prohibiting injustice and transgression.
In a hadith related by Ali, the Prophet said, “What would become of you if your daughters should become spoiled and your wives debauch?” His followers asked, “O Messenger of Allah! How could that happen?” The Prophet said, “This and much more will befall you if you allow the blameworthy to become virtuous and the virtuous to become blameworthy.”
It is reported by Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi that Abu Sahlaba asked the Prophet about the verse: “I recommend you to your purified selves.” The Prophet said, “Commend and assist one another with the good, and prohibit the bad. If avarice is obeyed and lust followed, the world will be turned upside down, and everyone will be amazed at what he will see. I recommend you to your purified selves.”
It is obligatory to send Muslim missionaries to exemplify Islam to the non-Muslims. For those who say such is contrary to Islam, consider the hadith of Umar ibn ‘As in al-Tabarani. The Prophet said, “Similar to Jesus sending out his apostles, I am sending out Muaz Ibn Jabal, Salim Abi Huzayfa, Ibn Mahbir and Ibn Mas’ud.” A man said, “Are not Abu Bakr and Umar better suited as missionaries?” The Prophet answered: “But I cannot do without them, their place with me is as the sight and hearing to the human body.”
Muslims, particularly the scholars, must take up this mission to call all human beings to what will benefit them. For indeed, a day is coming when fortune and children will not benefit a person, and only he who comes before Allah with a clean heart will be saved (26:88-89).
Rulers of the Muslim world must do their best to realize the unity of the believers, both in speech and action. The ranks of the Muslims must not exclude any one on the basis of race or skin-color. To be related through religion is above all other relationships. Islam condemns all racial and tribal divisions.
I invite all the rulers of the world exercising authority over Muslims, whether they themselves are Muslim or non-Muslim, to avoid implementing measures in contradiction with the Noble Qur’an. Muslims will never support an action undermining the honor of Islam. These rulers must enact severe penalties for those practicing usury. Allah has made commerce lawful but has prohibited usury, warning that He will nullify its gains, and multiply the fruits of charity (2:276). Usury holds no benefit in the next life, nor does it provide any benefit to the economies of nations here and now.
O Muslims! Many people in Africa and Asia have become newly independent from colonial domination. But national sovereignty does not guarantee them any stability. Oppression and injustice still infect their societies, without Muslims being able to escape. Some Muslims have been so nauseated by the situation that they have even preferred to be ruled by non-Muslim governments. However, the inequality and injustice against which they are revolting cannot be ascribed to Islam itself, but only to reactionary leaders far from the true principals of their religion.
I pray that Allah preserve the Muslims from the misdeeds of the unjust. The Prophet, as reported in Bukhari, said, “There are three types of injustice: that which is never forgiven by Allah, that which can be pardoned by Allah, and that which Allah never fails to redress.” The injustice which is never forgiven is shirk, or associating partners with Allah. The injustice which Allah may pardon is that committed by servants against themselves in leaving the prescriptions of Allah. The injustice which Allah never fails to redress is that committed against one’s fellow human being.
Beware of injustice, for if it persists, it can only bring destruction. A believer can live for a long time with those of no faith, but he will not last long with the unjust. Many of today’s leaders manipulate every means at their disposal for unjust purposes.
I cannot end this talk without reciting a relevant passage from the Qur’an, the Book which is sufficient as a constitution for the entire world: “Follow the straight path as has been ordained on you. Do not follow the vain doctrines of those without faith. Say, I believe in the scripture that has been sent down. He has ordered me to deal fairly with you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord, the recompense of our deeds is for us, and the recompense for your deeds is for you. Let there be no argument between us and you: Allah will decide between us, and to Him we are returning” (42:15). The meaning of these verses is clear, no person or society can misunderstand them.
I am proud, on these days of celebration for the Muslim world, to gather with all Muslims, including my Arab Muslim brothers here. The ethnic diversity at our celebrations should not be surprising, because we are all brothers through Islam: our actions are related, our hopes and sufferings are one. My hopes for salvation for myself and for you all are with Allah.
I conclude with a prayer to Allah the Most High, that He reform, assist and raise up the people of Muhammad, wherever they may be throughout the world, until they become exalted through governing themselves by what Allah has revealed. May Allah grant you prosperity in this life and the next, and may we all attain His salvation and benediction.
“He has ordained for you the same way of religion which He had enjoined on Nuh (Noah), and that We have now revealed to you (O Muhammad), and which We had already enjoined on Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses) and 'Iesa (Jesus), saying: ‘Establish the Religion and be not divided in it’” (Qur’an, 42:13).
“O you who believe! Guard your souls”, about which Abu Bakr al-Saddiq reports the Prophet’s explanation, “When the people see a wrongdoer committing a wrong and do not seize his hand to restrain him, it is most likely that Allah would inflict them with His chastisement” (in Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and Nisai; contained in Riyad al-Salihin, chapter 24, hadith 199)