A Brief Biography of Shayk Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir ath-Tharabulusi ar-Riyahi (q.s.)

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ 

The following was taken from “A Brief Biography of Shaykh Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir ath-Tharabulusi ar-Riyahi (q.s.)”, by Ustadz Muhammad Naswir ad-Din Andrea. 

Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.), the Imam of the Zaytuna University and the Maliki Shaykh al-Islam of Tunis from 1832, stands in the later Ottoman period of intense social and intellectual change as one of the most noteworthy testimonies to the richness of Zaytuna scholarship.  He was an enlightened mufti, a dedicated and innovative teacher and an accomplished poet.  He also discretely cultivated a profound spirituality throughout his life, and was the man who introduced the Thariqa Tijaniyyah in Tunisia. 

Shaykh Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdullah Niyas al-Kawlakhi (q.s.) said about him: “Were Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani to have no other follower but Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Riyahi, it would suffice us as proof to also follow him.” 

His full name was Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir ibn Ahmad ibn Ibrahim ath-Tharabulusi ar-Riyahi (q.s.).  He derived the nisbah “ath-Tharabulusi” from his great grandfather Ibrahim, a Qur’anic teacher who had moved with his family from Libya to join other members of his tribe, Banu Riyah, who had settled since in the hilly region of Teboursouk, in the inland of Northern Tunisia.  Ahmad, son of the latter and grandfather of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.), had later moved to Testour, an ancient town in the hills that dominate the Medjerda valley, rebuilt in 1609 by Muslims and Jewish fleeing from Andalusia after the Reconquista.  Here, in Testour, Ibrahim was born in 1767 to ‘Abd al-Qadir, a son of Ahmad, who, like his father and his grandfather, earned his living - according to the sources, a rather poor one - by teaching the Qur’an. 

After having memorised the Qur’an from his father when he was in his late teens, sometime between 1782 and 1785, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) was sent out to pursue higher studies in Tunis.  He settled in the madrasah of the Hawanit al-‘Ashur ward, a western quarter of the Madina.  He attended courses in all the major religious and philological disciplines at the Hawanit al-‘Ashur Madrasa, and then at the Zaytuna, the oldest center of Islamic learning in North Africa, which had been established in the eighth century and functioned as a major hub of Maliki legal thought.  Under Ottoman rule, a parallel system of Hanafi law had been established, and the two legal doctrines were taught at the Zaytuna and practiced by the Tunisian courts.  A Maliki Shaykh al-Islam supervised the Maliki qudhat, while a Hanafi one headed the Hanafi judiciary. 

At Zaytuna, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) studied with the most renowned scholars in Tunis of his time.  Among his teachers were Mufti Muhammad al-Mahjub Maliki (r.a.), Mufti Isma’il at-Tamimi (r.a.), Mufti Muhammad Bayram II (r.a.), Imam Hasan ash-Sharif (r.a.), Imam Ahmad Abu Khris (r.a.), Shaykh Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Fasi (r.a.), Shaykh Swalih al-Kawwash at-Tunisi (r.a.), Shaykh ‘Umar al-Mahjub (r.a.), Shaykh Thahir ibn Mas’ud (r.a.).  He quickly attained great recognition for his sharp intelligence and for the passion with which he devoted to study. After obtaining ijazat in the major disciplines, he was encouraged by his masters to accept students of his own, which he did some time in his late twenties under one of the pillars of the Zaytuna mosque, as was customary.  He specialised in the teaching of grammar, prosody, rhetoric, and Maliki fiqh.  It is related that one day his former teacher, Shaykh Thahir ibn Mas’ud (r.a.), while commenting on Mukhtaswar ibn Sa’d, overheard Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (r.a.) teaching the same book to another group of students a few meters away.  He interrupted his own lesson, and sent his students to listen to his former pupil’s explanations. 

Later on, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) would also start teaching Qur’anic exegesis, the Ash’ari theological tafsir by Imam Naswir ad-Din Abu al-Khayr ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar al-Baydawi (r.a.), for which he had obtained an ijazah from Shaykh Swalih al-Kawwash (r.a.), and ahadits from Swahih al-Bukhari, with the commentary of Imam Shihab ad-Din Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qasthalani (r.a.).  Among his students were a number of influential persons in the intellectual and political life of Tunis in late nineteenth century, such as the historian and Ministerial councilor Ahmad ibn Abu Dhiyaf, Muhammad Bayram V, Shaykh Mahmud Qabadu (r.a.), and the poet, al-Baji al-Mas’udi. 

The pathway which would eventually lead Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) to join the Tijaniyyah developed out of his early search for knowledge in Tunis.  Esoteric sciences, however, were probably already part of his family legacy: indeed the esoteric sciences associated with ‘ilm al-huruf, Arabic letters of the Qur’an, were integrated into his ancestors’ study and transmission of the Qur’anic sciences.  In any case, while pursuing his training in other classical Islamic sciences in Tunis, he simultaneously evidenced strong Sufi inclinations.  He first embraced the path of Imam Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Abdullah ash-Shadzili (q.s.), the famous Moroccan saint who visited Tunis, where his thariqa’ is still very popular.  He devotedly pursued this path under the direction of his master Shaykh ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn al-Bashir al-Mashish (q.s.). 

Some years later, his encounter with the Moroccan Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim ibn al-‘Arabi al-Barradah (q.s.), one of the closest companions of Shaykh Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad at-Tijani (q.s.), would lead him to embrace the Tijani path.  Shaykh ‘Ali Harazim (q.s.) had come to Tunis en route to accomplishing the pilgrimage, after having been confirmed as a consummate ‘arif billah by Shaykh Ahmad Tijani (q.s.) and sent from Fez to spread the new order. 

Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) met Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) in Zaytuna after a premonitory dream, and then invited the Moroccan Sufi to be his guest in the Madrasah ‘Ashuriyyah.  Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) was gifted with many karamah, and some intense events marked the acquaintance of the two, probably deeply affecting the young Zaytuna professor.  It is related that one night, Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.), woke up Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.), and told him: “Wake up and ask God what you desire, for this is the time of the answered prayer”.  Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) wrote down fourteen implorations, amongst them “to be granted constant vision of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.)”, “obtaining complete ma’rifah”, “to be granted mastery in exoteric and esoteric sciences”, “to be granted a wife who will assist me”, “pious children”, and “to die as a believer”.  It seems that God did indeed grant Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) his supplications through the intermediary of Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.). 

Notwithstanding the intense period of acquaintance with Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) and the latter’s close affiliation with the Tijaniyyah, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) did not ask for actual initiation into the new order until he met Shaykh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadzili (q.s.) in a dream encouraging him.  Then, after he had asked permission the shaykh who had initiated him into the Shadziliyyah, Shaykh al-Mashish (q.s.), he took the Tijani pact at the hand of Shaykh Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Iyyashi as-Sukayrij (q.s.).  Ta’tir an-Nawahi bi Tarjamat ash-Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi mentioned a document showing that Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) took the thariqa’ from Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) in 1216 AH / 1801-2 CE.  It is not clear how long had the two been acquainted before.  According to the Ta’tir al-An’am fi Ta’bir al-Manam, the two met at the Zaytuna in 1211 AH / 1796 CE.  Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) would have sojourned in Tunis, then, for five years.  According to Shaykh Ahmad Sukayrij (q.s.) in the Kashf al-Hijab fi ;Ilm al-Hisab, however, Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) only left Fez in 1801.  If the second date is correct for Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim’s (q.s.) travel, he was hosted by Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) for some months, and not for five years. 

Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harazim (q.s.) would soon leave Tunis to proceed his journey eastwards, but a providential coincidence gave the young professor and fresh Tijani initiate the opportunity to visit the Pole of the order he had just joined.  In 1803, an insistent drought in Tunis prompted the Bayk to send a mission to Morocco, in order to convince the Sulthan Mawlay Sulayman, who had enacted a protective measure against the exportation of Moroccan crops, to sell a certain quantity of crops that would allow Tunisia to overcome the food crisis.  Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) was selected to conduct the mission, bringing a letter written by Mufti Isma’il at-Tamimi (r.a.).  He stayed at the court of Sulthan Mawlay Sulayman, to whom he also dedicated a panegyric, and engaged in a fascinating poetical challenge with the learned men of his court.  At the end, he had laid the foundations for long-lasting intellectual relations with some of the leading scholars of Fez.  While in Fez, he also visited Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.), about whom he would later remember, “I have never met anybody whose qiyam and whose sujud lasted longer than his.”  He received further instruction in the Tijani path from Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.) himself, whom he would later praise with the following verses, extracted from his Qaswidah as-Siniyyah: 

“The succor of creation, Abu al-‘Abbas,

Whose essence is too exalted to be disclosed on paper.

The spirit of existence, the pole, center and support of being;

Its secret radiating to men.

The symbol of existence, secret of the Truth; its talisman,

Its hidden content, its treasure, locked away in a safe-box.

The reality of being, substance of the secret; its summation,\The flood of God, without doubt or objection.” 

And also, in his Qaswidah Mimiyyah: 

“If you say: how is it, when he has only come in this late age?

Can one who follows be superior to one who came before?

I would say, ‘The Prophet, while being the last, has surpassed

All those who possessed an elevated rank among mankind.’” 

Finally, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) set to return to Tunis, after a successful achievement of his diplomatic mission as well as of his spiritual goal. 

The fact that, at about 35 years of age, he was selected for such a delicate diplomatic mission, demonstrated that the Tunisian political authorities had already started to notice the young scholar.  Only a few months before, however, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) had been very close to abandoning Tunis and looking for a teaching career abroad: notwithstanding the position of teacher at the Zaytuna, in fact, his financial situation had not allowed him yet to marry and settle, and the young professor in his early thirties was still living in his old student room at the Madrasah ‘Ashuriyyah.  It was thanks to the intervention of Yusuf Swahib at-Taba’, Minister and Privy Seal of the reigning Bayk Hammudah Basha, that Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) definitely gave up his plans of leaving Tunis.  Yusuf Swahib at-Taba’ offered him a house and arranged a marriage for him, and thus Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) could settle in a street of the Hawanit al-‘Ashur ward, where the first Tijani zawiyah in Tunis would also be built shortly later, hosting today the founder’s mausoleum.  Yusuf Swahib at-Taba’ was one of the major brains behind the reforms of Bayk Hammudah, which aimed at opening a space of freedom for the Tunisian Regency from Algerian tutelage and growing European influence.  The presence of scholars such as Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) in Tunis was part of this overall strategy aimed at increasing the economic and cultural prestige of the capital of the Regency.  In 1814, when a new complex of mosque and madrasah was built by Yusuf Swahib at-Taba’, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) was offered the position of teacher of ahadits there. 

The behaviour of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) towards the political authorities — a mixture of good sense, firmness and dignity — constitute one of the most fascinating traits of his biography.  His relations with political authorities recalls the Muslim adage, “the best of the salathin is the one who looks for the company of the scholars, and the best of the scholars is the one who keeps himself far from the salathin”.  In 1806, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) refused the position of qadi offered to him by Bayk Hammudah Basha to replace Shaykh ‘Umar al-Mahjub (r.a.), with whom the Bayk was rancorous after the latter had publicly sent him an allusive critique during a Friday sermon at the Zaytuna.  Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) had to escape to Zaghwan to seek refuge in a zawiyah which enjoyed the right of asylum in order to escape the Bayk’s offer.  He returned to Tunis only after the latter had given the position to another former teacher of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.), Mufti Isma’il al-Tamimi (r.a.). 

While political authorities tried to play on the hierarchy of the ‘ulama to manipulate the scholarly class, the refusal of a scholar in such a circumstance was meant as a counter-strategy to cement the body of the ‘ulama class, thereby preserving its independence vis-à-vis political power.  In 1816, Husayn Bayk II invited him at the Bardo Palace to confer on him the teaching of Tafsir al-Baydawi at the Zaytuna after the death of Shaykh Muhammad al-Fasi (r.a.).  When Husayn extended his hand towards him to have it kissed, Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.), instead, shook it.  Nervously, the son of the sovereign asked him: “What did you come to do here?”. 

Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) answered promptly, “Nothing: but you have invited me, and here I am.” 

The attitude of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) was in no way exclusive to him, but was shared as part of the etiquette of the Zaytuna scholars of the time, in a time they were struggling to maintain their independence as supervisors of the judiciary and custodians of a religious legacy.  The biographies of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi’s (q.s.) teachers also abound with similar incidents.  It was not an attitude of proud defiance, but one of prudent and dignified distance.  Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) himself often wrote praise poems lauding the actions of salathin that he judged as favourable to the interests of the community and to religion.  Through a wise dosage of loyal service and prudent distance, scholars ensured that, when entrusted with delicate roles in the judiciary, they would be in a position to play their part without excessive interference from the private interests of the Bayk’s court. 

In 1823, Husayn Bayk II chose to raise Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) to the position of Maliki Bash-Mufti, the highest rank in the Tunisian judiciary hierarchy.  Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) initially refused and only accepted after the Bayk repeated insistence.  A number of the fatawa he issued during the 27 years he served as mufti are reported in his biography, Ta’tir an-Nawahi.  In religious issues, he was a scrupulous Maliki.  In social issues, he always tried to implement the principle that “religion enjoins ease”. 

He was often also solicited on social and political matters.  When he was asked by Ahmad Bayk to give his advice on the measures the Bayk had adopted that enjoined the release of a number of enslaved blacks and the abolition of slavery in the Regency, he commended the decisions describing them as “totally legitimate, and worthy of being upheld by all reasonable and soundly educated minds”. 

In 1838, he was again entrusted with an official mission, this time to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul, in order to ask for the exoneration of Tunis from an annual tribute and for the recognition of the partial autonomy of the Regency.  Before praising him by a poem which exalted his ascendancy and the accomplishments of his ancestors, he addressed the sulthan standing, refusing the customary bowing, and reciting the following verse of the Qur’an: 

سُوۡرَةُ صٓ

يَـٰدَاوُ ۥدُ إِنَّا جَعَلۡنَـٰكَ خَلِيفَةً۬ فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ فَٱحۡكُم بَيۡنَ ٱلنَّاسِ بِٱلۡحَقِّ وَلَا تَتَّبِعِ ٱلۡهَوَىٰ فَيُضِلَّكَ عَن سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ‌ۚ إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ يَضِلُّونَ عَن سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ لَهُمۡ عَذَابٌ۬ شَدِيدُۢ بِمَا نَسُواْ يَوۡمَ ٱلۡحِسَابِ (٢٦) 

O David!  We Did indeed Make you a vicegerent on Earth: so judge you between men in truth (and justice): nor follow you the lusts, (of your heart), for they will mislead you from the Path of Allah: for those who wander astray from the Path of Allah, is a Penalty Grievous, for that they forget the Day of Account. (Surah Swad:26) 

In 1839, he was appointed as First Imam of the Zaytuna.  He was the first person in Tunis who combined the position of Maliki Shaykh al-Islam and that of First Imam.  From the pulpit of the Zaytuna, he used to enjoin to people zuhd, asceticism, but also to reprimand the economic policies of the Bayk when he felt compelled to do so. 

Other travels of Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) include the pilgrimage to Makkah and the visit to Madina.  He also had occasion to visit the Algerian town of Tamasinto, pay his respects to the khalifah of Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.), Sidi ‘Ali ibn ‘Isa at-Tamasini (q.s.). 

Among Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi’s (q.s.) many writings were dozens of poems, collected in a published Diwan, including praises of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and of Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.); elegies for his teachers, as Mufti Isma‘il at-Tamimi (r.a.), Shaykh Thahir ibn Mas’ud (r.a.), Imam Ahmad Abu Khris (r.a.); a touching eulogy for his son, Shaykh Muhammad ath-Thayyib (r.a.), a brilliant scholar himself, killed by an epidemy of cholera in 1850; a dazzling devotional text on the Prophet (s.a.w.) titled Narjasa al-‘Anbariyyah fi asw-Swalati ‘ala Khayr al-Bariyyah; a writing in the defense of the sound Ash’ari creed of Shaykh Ahmad at-Tijani (q.s.), in response to a writing by an Egyptian; a versification of the Ajurrumiyyah; and a refutation of the Wahhabi doctrine; numerous khuthab, fatawa and answers to legal problems.  He also revived the celebration of the Mawlid an-Nabawi in Tunis and wrote a short text for the occasion. 

Shaykh Ibrahim ar-Riyahi (q.s.) died shortly after his son, from the same cholera epidemic.  The last of the many favours that he received from God was that he was destined to leave the world on the night of 27th Ramadhan 1266, 06th August 1850. 

The following is from Tawaswswul bi Sidi Ibrahim ar-Riyahi at-Tunisi: 

“Fragrant oil from an ancient tree,

Fed by the water of the Maliki stream,

This and still more, I swear, Si Brahim,

You are; and still more, that I can hardly see.

Evident proof of the saintly Seal,

Enraptured in Truth, unbending in law,

Give me the words to plead Who all knows,

Once and for all my faults to conceal.

On the Prophet of mercy may endlessly fall,

Plentiful blessings and favors from Him,

Whose presence I trail, Sidi Brahim,

And then I forget then I crave then I call.”


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