Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri

Light Upon Light in Damascus

Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri left this world on Tuesday 8 June 2004 in
Damascus after a lifetime of serving Islam and Muslims. Thousands came to
his funeral on Wednesday at the mosque of Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn al-'Arabi in
the Salihiyya quarter. Among the people who prayed over him and buried him
were those who knew him as a father, friend, religious scholar, teacher,
mystical poet and vocalist, and Sufi sheikh. I knew him as the latter.

Twenty-two years ago, we had come out of this mosque together after visiting
the shrine of Sheikh Muhyiddin, and I watched for a moment as he stopped to
buy some apples from a cart in front of the mosque. He took the plastic bag
from the seller and filled it with the worst apples he could find - nicked,
bruised, and worm-holed - which he chose as carefully as most people choose
good ones, then paid for and with a smile shook hands with the man before we
went up the hill to the sheikh's home. Small and lithe, he had a light
complexion, penetrating eyes, aquiline features with expressive lips, and a
trimmed mustache and full beard. He dressed elegantly, wearing a few turns
of white and gold cloth around a red fez on his head, a knee-length suit and
vest over a shirt without a tie, and trousers tapering to the ankles. As we
climbed higher and higher, I wanted to carry the bag, but he wouldn't let
me, saying that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had said,
"The one who needs a thing is the one who should carry it." When I reflected
on his strange "shopping," I realized that it had been to save the apple man
from having to throw any out. The incident summed up the sheikh's
personality and life, which was based on futuwwa or "putting others ahead of

Many who knew him regarded him as a wali or friend of Allah, and surely his
long decades of service to others had much to do with it. His wife bore him
five sons and five daughters, and he was preceded to the afterlife by her
and a son. Originally a weaver by trade, he had been instrumental in
unionizing workers in the present century in Damascus, and served on the
committee that led the Syrian Textile Workers' Union in a successful
forty-day strike for workmen's compensation. He had represented Syria in the
United Arab Workers' Union, and led an active public life. Earlier this year
in the month of Rabi' I, he had received recognition at the Burda [Prophetic
Mantle] annual poetry awards given by the United Arab Emirates for
outstanding service to the Umma of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him
peace). With the apples and everything else he did, he was always teaching
students the inner sunnas of the character and states of the Prophet (Allah
bless him and give him peace), to whom he referred everything. "I am just a
parrot," he told us.

I once came to Damascus to complain about one of the brethren in Jordan, and
after checking into a hotel, went to the tiny room and bookshop of Sheikh
'Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi off the courtyard of the Darwishiyya Mosque. Sheikh
'Abd al-Rahman would drop in after the noon prayer each day to visit with
his friends, and I found him there and gave my Salams, but before I could
say anything, he said, "How is your ego getting along with So-and-so?"
mentioning the person by name. I was abashed for a moment, then said,
"Praise be to Allah." The sheikh replied, "Praise be to Allah," then talked
about the importance of being with true and honest people, and avoiding
those who spoke badly of others.
Despite such incidents, the sheikh would say, "The person of the sheikh is a
veil," and never drew attention to himself, but to Allah and to the sunna of
His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace). He stressed learning the
traditional sciences, and would not permit disciples' ignorance of fiqh or
'aqida. He never went to school, because as an orphan brought from Homs to
Damascus by his older brother, he had to earn his keep by running errands,
and taught himself how to read and write by looking at the signs above the
shops whose owners' names he knew. When he later got a job as a weaver, he
used to sing his own rustic religious compositions to popular tunes, keeping
time to the loom he worked at. A fellow worker heard him, and told him that
he should study Classical Arabic. "What is Classical Arabic?" he asked, and
the man took him to Sheikh Husni al-Baghghal, who educated him in Shafi'i
fiqh and Arabic grammar. He studied these and other traditional subjects
with sheikhs of the time such as Muhammad Barakat, 'Ali al-Daqar, Isma'il
al-Tibi, and Lutfi al-Hanafi.

Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman told us that when Husni al-Baghghal caught
tuberculosis, before the era of antibiotics, he was put in quarantine, which
his student defied by visiting him. His teacher told him he was risking his
life, and in reply, seeing that the sheikh had a candy in his mouth, 'Abd
al-Rahman asked if he could see it for a moment. The sheikh gave it to him,
and the young man popped it into his own mouth, telling him that according
to tenets of faith ('ilm al-tawhid), "causes do not bring about effects by
themselves, but only by Allah's will." The illness proved terminal to the
sheikh, but Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman survived.

His long association with sheikhs of learning bequeathed him a lifelong
respect for Islamic knowledge and a habit of "making sure" before answering
any question about religion. "What the Imams have recorded is our religion,"
he used to say, and when I once asked him what dhikrs one should recite
after the prescribed prayer, though he had prayed all his life and was over
seventy at the time, instead of answering he reached to his bookshelf, found
Imam Nawawi's Kitab al-adhkar, and read several sahih hadiths from it.
Throughout the 1980s, whenever I would ask him about a hadith or verse of
the Qur'an, he would always reach for a reference work and in his patient
way open it up and find something about it. Though he knew many of the
answers, I had to be taught to use references, so he taught me. This became
apparent in later years, when he came to answer me more freely from his own
Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili, whose order the sheikh belonged to, would not
let his disciples beg, but had them earn their own livelihood, and Sheikh
'Abd al-Rahman also emphasized the importance of having a trade to earn
one's living by the work of one's hands. He used to say, "I hope to pass on
from this world without having taken a single piaster from anyone: I don't
even take from my children."

Born in Homs in 1910, he came to Damascus at three, and worked first as a
stableboy, then as an errand boy, then as a weaver, then as a foreman, then
as a supervisor of textile mills. When the textile industry was nationalized
under socialism, he was but two years away from retiring and receiving his
pension, and was now asked to head the industry. He told the government that
"nationalization is theft," and he would have nothing to do with it, for
which he was fired and forfeited his pension. He later found a position as a
teacher of tenets of faith at a religious academy, where he taught until he
was over eighty years of age and could no longer walk to work.
While still in his twenties, Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman took the Shadhili path
from Sheikh Muhammad al-Hashimi, the representative in Damascus of Sheikh
Ahmad al-'Alawi of Mostaganem, Algeria. He remembered meeting Sheikh
al-'Alawi in 1932 on his visit to Damascus after the hajj. Sheikh al-'Alawi
had sat in the Shamiyya Mosque after sunset to give a lesson, and the young
weaver had looked askance at the sheikh's socks, which were French, not of
the plain-spun local manufacture. Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman told us: "I said:
'Look at those socks. This man is supposed to be a sheikh?' Then he began to
speak on the aphorism of Sidi Ibn 'Ata' Illah
Do not leave the invocation of Allah (dhikr) because of your lack of
presence with Allah therein, for your heedlessness of invocation is worse
than your heedlessness in invocation. It may well be that He raises you from
invocation with heedlessness to invocation with attentiveness, and from
invocation with attentiveness to invocation with presence of heart, and from
invocation with presence of heart to invocation in which there is absence -
from anything besides the Invoked, 'and that is not difficult for Allah'
[Qur'an 14:20].
"His commentary was something else. When he finished and the nightfall
prayer ('isha) came," Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman smiled as he remembered, "I said
to myself, 'This sheikh can wear any kind of socks he likes.'"

In subsequent years, until Sheikh al-Hashimi's death in 1961, Sheikh 'Abd
al-Rahman became the head munshid or singer of mystic odes, at the hadra or
public dhikr - the sama' or audition advocated by Junayd and his circle as
well as the modern Shadhili tariqa. Sheikh al-Hashimi also authorized him to
give the general litany (wird al-'amm) of the tariqa to others. Although
later in the sixties the brethren urged Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman to teach them,
and he had been authorized at the time by both Sheikh Muhammad Sa'id
al-Hamzawi of Syria and Sheikh 'Ali al-Budlaymi of Algeria, he did not use
either authorization to teach, until Sheikh Muhammad Sa'id al-Kurdi of
Jordan - whom Sheikh 'Abd al-Rahman had introduced to Sheikh al-Hashimi in
the 1930s and been his fellow disciple with - made him his authorized