Shaykh Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdullah Niyas al-Kawlakhi (q.s.): His Life & Wisdom
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
The following was translated by Ustadz Adnan Adrian Wood-Smith from an Arabic article by Shaykh Hadi ibn Muhammad al-Mukhtar an-Nahwi.
Shaykh Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdullah Niyas al-Kawlakhi (q.s.) was born on Thursday, 15th Rajab 1320 AH, October 1902, in Tayba, which is a small village near Kaolack, in Senegal. He grew up in the care of his father, the great scholar and warrior Shaykh ‘Abdullahi ibn Muhammad ibn Madimba (r.a.). He recited the Qur’an with him until he had memorised it fluently in the recitation of Warsh, and then went on to learn different sacred sciences. His high aspiration and consistent, wholehearted engagement in seeking knowledge propelled him to become deeply versed in all branches of the sacred sciences, manifest and hidden. His father was his only teacher.
His superiority became clear while he was still young. As a youth, he gained distinction in his knowledge of commentary on the Qur’an and all its related sciences, as well as in ahadits sciences, jurisprudence, the foundations of jurisprudence, the linguistic sciences, and Sufism. He became an authority in all of these sciences, and before he reached the age of 30 he was giving benefit to many—people from all kinds of countries, Arab and non-Arab, came to him to drink from his knowledge. Scholars came before the generality of Muslims bending their knees in his presence, drinking from the pearls of his knowledge, yearning for knowledge of the spiritual greats and of how to discipline and purify the self. For them, he was an ocean without shore, a fountain of sweet water that never tires, a locus of comprehension that made great ones seem small in comparison.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) busied himself with guiding, teaching, and refining humanity, and the village he founded, Medina Baye, located just outside of Kaolack, became a lighthouse of knowledge and rectification. But Shaykh Ibrahim’s (q.s.) call did not stop here; he toured Africa, the Muslim lands, and many other countries, promoting the religion of Allah (s.w.t.), calling to Islam with beautiful words, and spreading his knowledge amongst the masses, debating with scholars in order to give and receive benefit.
He visited different centers of knowledge and of Islam, including Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Al-Azhar in Egypt, the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and China, and he belonged to several global organisations dedicated to the promotion of Islam. He was the vice president and later president of the World Muslim Congress in Karachi, a founding member of the Muslim World League, a founding president of the African Union’s Organisation of Preachers of Islam, a founding member of the Federation of the Universities of the Islamic World in Rabat, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo, a member of the Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, and a member of the Higher Islamic Council in Algeria, as well as serving in other organisations.
In an interview he gave with the Saudi newspaper, Al-Bilad Daily, in the 1970s, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) articulated the aims of his global efforts: calling non-Muslims to enter into the religion of Allah (s.w.t.) and leave polytheism and other false religious practices, striving to raise the consciousness of Muslims, advise them, guide them, and increase their faith, enlisting all possible energies in propagating the language of the Qur’an, calling for deepening the feeling of Islamic fraternity, connecting one’s preaching with global Islamic movements and organisations, and counteracting forces that aim to corrupt Muslims, such as Christian evangelical movements and hidden Zionism.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was known as a person of his knowledge throughout the Muslim world. He was honoured and distinguished in all kinds of Muslim countries, and visited almost all of them, as well as Muslim communities in other countries. He met with the Muslim scholars of his time, and had mutually beneficial relationships with them.
One of the countries he visited the most was Saudi Arabia, where he made the pilgrimage to Allah’s (s.w.t.) Sacred House dozens of times. He also visited Cairo ten times. He had strong connections to the heads of Al-Azhar University, such as Shaykh Muhammad Mahmud Shaltut (r.a.) and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud (r.a.), both former presidents of Al-Azhar. The scholars of Al-Azhar honored him by giving him the title “Shaykh al-Islam.” It’s said that Shaykh Shaltut (r.a.) was the one who gave him this title.
They honoured him another time by requesting him to lead the jumu’ah prayer in Al-Azhar, in the month of Safar, 1381 AH, 21st July 21 1961, and he was the first black African to have this honour. After the prayer, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali (r.a.) commented on Shaykh Ibrahim’s (r.a.) khutbah, saying, “We rest assured regarding the future of the Muslim world as long as there are the likes of our eminent guest Shaykh al-Islam Shaykh Ibrahim amongst the Muslims.”
The number of Shaykh Ibrahim’s (q.s.) followers in different parts of Africa and elsewhere has been estimated at around 30 million. This included a large number of Mauritanians of noble and prophetic lineage, from families known for their esteem, knowledge, and moral rectitude. At the forefront of them were Shaykh Muhammad ibn an-Nahwi al-‘Alawi (r.a.), Shaykh Shaykhani Manna Abba ibn Muhammad ibn at-Tulba (r.a.), Shaykh al-Hadi ibn as-Sayyid ibn Mawlud Fal (r.a.), Shaykh Muhammad al-Mishri ibn ‘Abdullah ibn al-Haj (r.a.), Shaykh ‘Abdullah al-Jayjabi (r.a.), Shaykh Muhammadin ibn Ahmad at-Tulba (r.a.), Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Jakani (r.a.), Shaykh Wijah ibn ar-Rabbani (r.a.), Shaykh ‘Abdullahi Sakhu (r.a.), Shaykh ‘Abdullahi Jah (r.a.), and Shaykh Muhammad al-Hasan ibn Ahmad al-Khadim (r.a.).
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) had ties to the late president Jamal ‘Abd an-Naswr, and met with him several times. After the Arab defeat of June 1967, Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) sent a letter to President ‘Abd an-Naswr in which he elucidated to him what to do next and how to achieve victory. He said, in the letter, “It’s upon us to follow the line of victory shown by ‘If you help Allah, He will Grant you victory’ (Qur’an 47:7) and ‘Hold fast to the rope of Allah together and do not split into factions’ (Qur’an 3:103). So fear Allah, my brother …” he continued, “… and follow the path of your commander-in-chief, Our Master Muhammad (s.a.w.), who says, ‘My Lord Gave me a lesson in good manners, and perfected my manners,’ and whose character was the Qur’an. ‘Lower your wing to the believers who follow you’ (Qur’an 26:215). ‘Out of a mercy from Allah, you were gentle with them, and had you been rough and hard-hearted they would have dispersed from around you, so pardon them, seek forgiveness on their behalf, and seek their advice in your affairs’ (Qur’an 3:159). Journey upon this line upon which victory itself journeys…” He ended the letter with, “… and you must stand at the door of Allah in fervent need and supplication.”
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) placed great importance on memorising, studying, and explaining the Qur’an, as well as raising generations upon it. He gave an explanation of it several times in Arabic and in the local Senegalese language, Wolof. He used to encourage his children and disciples to memorise the Qur’an at an early age, and to be consistent in reciting it throughout the night and at the ends of the day, as was his custom. He used to complete an entire reading of the Qur’an at least twice every week — he read a seventh every day, then memorised in the night what he had read during the day.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) founded a number of schools for memorising the Qur’an, in which Senegalese, Mauritanian, and Azhari Egyptians taught. He said in this regard, in a line of poetry:
“Make memorisation of Your Noble Book,
My miracle until the great meeting with You.”
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) had much regard for Arabic. One of the most important signs of this was his refusal to send his children to the French school during the destructive French occupation, despite the pressures that were placed on him by the French. He sent his children to the esteemed Al-Azhar University, from where they graduated as preachers of Islam and teachers. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) founded an institute for teaching Arabic and the sacred sciences in his village, to which he summoned delegations of teachers from Al-Azhar. This institute continued to give and spread knowledge of Arabic, with generations after generations graduating from it. These days, Shaykh Ibrahim’s (q.s.) children and grandchildren are in charge of it, and it has an educational delegation from Mauritania, consisting of several teachers instructing different levels.
Because of his vast knowledge, the scholars of Senegal chose Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) to write a report for the government in which he articulated his view regarding the law of personal statutes, which the government had prepared and requested the scholars’ opinions regarding it. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) wrote a report on the law in which he expounded a number of comments. Most importantly, he noted that the law contained sections and subject matter related to marriage, divorce, pregnancy, inheritance, and the determination of lineage, which are issues that have been described in detail by Islamic sacred law in a way in which no further detail could be given and that leaves no need to develop it further — therefore, a Muslim is not allowed in these matters to leave the four well-known sources of Islamic sacred law: the Book of Allah (s.w.t.), the sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.), scholarly consensus, and legal analogy. The article also requested the Senegalese government to translate the law in full into Arabic so that the scholars could see it and study it.
The Arabic news media paid special attention to the life and missionary activity of Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.). Several newspapers ran interviews with him and prepared articles and reports about him and about his school, his Sufism, and his status amongst the Muslims in West Africa and beyond. Some of the publications that wrote about Shaykh Ibrahim (RA), his life, and his missionary activity were Al-Azhar Magazine, Almussawar Magazine, Al-Ahram, Al-Messa, Akher Saa, Al-Akhbar, and Rosa El-Youssef in Egypt, Al-Anba in Morocco, Al-Bilad in Saudi Arabia, and El-Shaab in Mauritania.
The last report on Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was published by Al-Ahram in Egypt, on the 27th December 1999. Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) is the only black African religious leader to have a special file at Al-Ahram. Arabic radio stations also paid attention to his work, and several interviews were conducted with him, such as an interview that Egyptian Radio did with him on the 16th March 1961.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) authored several beneficial books regarding Sufism, the spiritual path, jurisprudence, and language, such as Kashif al-Ilbas an Faydhah al-Khatm Abu al-‘Abbas, “The Removal of Confusion Concerning the Flood of the Saintly Seal Ahmad Tijani”; Ruh al-Adab, “The Spirit of Good Morals”’; “The Path to Peace Regarding Keeping a Spiritual Station, Gift for the City-Dwellers Regarding the Rites of Haj particularly by Plane”; “The Stars of Guidance Regarding Our Prophet (s.a.w.) Being the Best One to Call to Allah and Guide”; “The Decisive Proof Regarding the Radio Broadcasting of the Qur’an Being Permissible”; “The Removal of Blame from the One Who Raises His Hands and Clasps Them in Prayer in Imitation of the Master of Beings”, and “The Children’s Gift Regarding the Realities of Actions”. He also wrote several anthologies of poetry, most of which are in praise of the Prophet (s.a.w.).
The eminent Iraqi scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Mahmud as-Sawwaf (r.a.), said, “Shaykh Ibrahim Niyas is the greatest of this region’s scholars — indeed, he is the strong man who stands firm in the face of all of the currents that go against Islam. He has a great station and wide influence amongst the Senegalese and other Muslim populations, and many have come to Islam at his hands.”
The Egyptian ahadits scholar, Shaykh Muhammad al-Hafidz (r.a.) said, after mentioning several descriptions of Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.), “To put it concisely, he is the light of this age.”
Shaykh Shaykhani at-Tulba (r.a.) said in a poem in which he praises Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.):
“Has a Sun appeared in the night whose rising is good fortune,
While it is not the affair of the Sun to appear in the night?
Or do we receive water from rain clouds normally spurred on by lightning,
While we fear neither lightning from them, nor thunder?
Or has the Shaykh of the age managed to guide everyone,
All people, white and black?”
The great scholar, Imam Muhammad ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn as-Salik ibn Bab al-‘Alawi (q.s.) said:
“You are from a people who are the people on whom
Heights are built, upon firm foundations,
And from those whose knowledge is too great for
Paper and pen and breaths of men.
It suffices you that Allah Clothed you with recognition of Him,
And recognition of Allah is the best of clothing.”
The leader of gnostics, Shaykh Muhammad al-Mishri ibn ‘Abdullah al-‘Alawi (q.s.), said:
“By your life, neither the Sun at its zenith at the afternoon’s beginning,
Nor the full Moon on the brightest night of the month,
Is clearer, or higher, or has a more perfect station,
Than the Shaykh, whether in time or in place.”
In describing him in another poem, he said:
“Those who describe cannot describe him
His good qualities too exalted, to properly praise him is rare.”
The teacher of the generation, t Shaykh Muhammad Fal Bah ibn ‘Abdullah (q.s.) said:
“From Ibrahim, the Sacred House, and the place of sa’iy, I grazed
On gardens of gnosis, the sweetest grazing place.”
“He has a scrupulousness that rendered the recommended obligatory,
As he rendered disliked matters, out of scrupulousness, forbidden
His exhortation, were it to touch a firm rock,
Out of its force the firm rock would cry.
O reader of Qur’an, who perfects its art
And reads it in tenths and reads it in sevenths.”
“And you renewed the knowledge of sacred law after it was wiped out,
When the darkness of ignorance had almost eclipsed the sacred law,
For Allah has verses whose secrets were Veiled,
But now have been uncovered for us in their glory.
You are a full Moon, may we never lose your illumination,
And you stand out a single number to which we find no pair.”
He passed on 15th Rajab 1395 AH, July 1975, in London, where he had sought treatment. Senegal and Africa trembled at his death. He was buried in the town he founded, known as Medina Baye, outside of Kaolack in southeastern Senegal, and his solemn funeral was attended by an innumerable amount of people. He spent his life preaching, promoting Islam, spreading knowledge, guiding humanity, and striving to bring victory to the causes of the Muslims, especially the issue of Palestine, and he was a strong opponent of Israel’s penetration in Africa. He left behind him a school of preaching that radiated the light of Islam in all areas of the world.
Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) was a Sufi who held fast to the Book of Allah (s.w.t.) and the sunnah of His Prophet (s.a.w.), and he was one of the most important spiritual masters of the Tijani thariqa’ in Africa in the twentieth century. If people complained to him about the transgressions of some of those who claimed to be Sufis, he would repeat the famous words of his shaykh, Shaykh Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad at-Tijani (q.s.), founder of the Tijani thariqa’: “If you hear something about me, weigh it on the scale of our sacred law. If it is an accordance with it, then act on it, but if it goes against it, then leave it.”
The life goals of Shaykh Ibrahim (q.s.) could perhaps all be summarised by a line of his poetry:
“I want to please the Creator by granting victory to His religion
And set an example for the next generation.”
In another line of poetry, he displayed his commitment to following the Prophet (s.a.w.) and never deviating from his example:
“When the Best of Creation walks I walk behind him,
And if he stops, then I stop as well.”