"….He has not placed any Hardship upon you in Religion…" [TM Qur'an  22:78]

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The man who was to become the most influential figure of the developmental period of North African Sufism, Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari, who was called by later biographers the ‘Shaykh of Shaykhs, Imam of the Ascetics and the Pious, Lord of the Gnostics, and Exemplar of the Seekers’, and who remains known to posterity as ‘Abu Madyan the Nurturer’ (al-Ghawth), entered the world in inauspicious circumstances. Born around the year 509/1115-16 at the fortress of Cantillana in the region of Seville (Ishbiliya) in Muslim Spain, the future shaykh was orphaned early in life by the unexpected death of his father and suffered cruel treatment and exploitation at the hands of his elder brothers. Fortunately, Abu Madyan’s own account of the often difficult, formative period of his intellectual development is available to the modem student of Sufism via the efforts of a near contemporary, the Moroccan biographer Abu Ya’qub Yusuf ibn Yahya at-Tadili (d. 627/1229-30), who reproduced many of the shaykh’s autobiographical comments in his Kitab al-tashawwuf ila rijal at-tasawwuf, written a short time after the latter’s death:

I was an orphan in al-Andalus. My brothers made me a shepherd for their flocks, but whenever I saw someone praying or reciting [the Qur’an], it pleased me. I would come near to him and found a sadness in my soul because I had not memorized anything from the Qur’an and did not know how to pray. So I resolved to run away in order to learn how to read and pray.

I ran away, but my brother caught up with me, spear in hand, and said, ‘By God, if you do not return I will kill you!’ So I returned and remained for a short time. Then I strengthened my resolve to flee by night. I slipped away at night and took another road [from that which I had originally followed]. My brother [again] caught up with me after sunrise. He drew his sword against me and said, ‘By God, I will kill you and be rid of you!’ Then he raised his sword over me in order to strike me. I parried him with a piece of wood that was in my hand and his sword broke and flew into pieces. When he saw [what had happened] he said to me, ‘Oh my brother, go wherever you wish’.

Upon leaving the region of Seville, the young Abu Madyan traveled south for three or four days, until he reached a hillock near the sea, upon which he found a tent. An old man (shaykh), wearing nothing except what was necessary to cover his nakedness, emerged from the tent and walked toward him. Thinking that the younger man was a captive who had fled from a Christian raiding parry, he asked Abu Madyan about his situation. When told of the young man’s desire to learn the fundamentals of Islam, the shaykh allowed him to remain in his company for a few days.

Then he took a rope, tied a nail to its end, threw it into the sea, and pulled out a fish, which he cooked so that I could eat it. I stayed with him for three days, and whenever I was hungry he would throw that rope and nail into the sea and pull out a fish. Then he would cook it and I would eat it. After [three days had passed] he said to me, ‘I see that you covet honor (amr). Return to the city, for God is not [properly] worshipped except with knowledge.’

Heeding his ascetic companion’s advice, Abu Madyan returned to Seville, from whence he proceeded to Jerez (Sharish) and Algeciras (al-Jazira al-Khadra’). From Algeciras he crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier (Tanja) and went from there to Ceuta (Sabta), where he labored for a time in the employ of local fishermen. Impatient to gain the knowledge he so earnestly desired, with the little money he had earned Abu Madyan next traveled to Marrakesh (Marrakush), then the rapidly growing capital of the Almoravid state.

Upon arriving in Marrakesh, Abu Madyan was recruited by these mercenaries and drafted into the regiment of Andalusians that was charged with defending the Almoravid capital. The shaykh apparently suffered further exploitation during the period of his military service, for he mentions that other, more experienced soldiers would regularly steal his wages, leaving him only a little with which to provide for his needs. Finally, someone said to him, ‘If you want to devote yourself to religion, go to the city of Fez (Fas).’

So I turned toward [Fez] and attached myself to its mosque-university (the famous Jami’ al-Qarawiyyin), where I learned to make the ablution and the prayer and sat in the study circles of legists and hadith specialists. I retained nothing of their words, however, until I sat at the feet of a shaykh whose words were retained firmly within my heart. I asked whom he was and was told, ‘Abu’l-Hasan [Ali] ibn Hirzihim’. [I went to this shaykh] and told him that I could memorize only what I had learned from him alone and he said to me, ‘These [others] speak with parts of their tongues, but their words are not worthy [even] to call the prayer. Since I seek [only] God with my words, they come from the heart and enter the heart.’

© The Islamic Texts Society 2002-2005

The Way of Abu Madyan 
Arabic-English parallel text.
Translated by: VINCENT J. CORNELL
Published by Islamic Text Society 1996 

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