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Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi (1869–1934)

Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi was born in Mostaganem in Algeria, in 1869. He was an only son, with two sisters. Before his birth his mother dreamed that the Prophet Mohammed handed her a flower. Her husband interpreted this to mean they would be blessed with a pious son.

Al-'Alawi never went to school. At home he learned the Qoran from his father, coming to know almost nine tenths by heart. He was addicted to learning, and deeply religious by nature. Growing up he took up cobbling to earn a living , then turned to running a shop. His father died when he was sixteen.

His spiritual breakthrough came when he met Shaikh Sidi Muhammad Al-Buzidi. Up until this meeting Al-'Alawi had been involved with studying theology and developing minor miraculous powers, but now everything changed. Through his new teacher's spiritual guidance he awoke to who he really was: "Once this state has been realised, all the Lights of Infinite Life may penetrate the soul of the Sufi, and make him participate in the Divine Life, so that he has a right to exclaim: I am Allah". He saw directly into his innermost being, which is the One. As he said: "There is no longer any need to believe, when one sees the Truth."

Al-'Alawi spent fifteen years in service to the Shaikh. Encouraged by his master to teach, his shop more often resembled a zawiyah or spiritual centre than a trading establishment.

After his master's death Al-'Alawi was elected to succeed him as Shaikh. Yet he resisted this, and for several months in 1909 went off travelling with a disciple. He journeyed where the spirit led him, travelling to Tunis, Tripoli and Istanbul.

Al-'Alawi had not wanted to take over from his teacher. Later on he warned against teaching before one is ready: "Indeed, there is nothing better for the disciple than obscurity after attainment, and no harm is greater for him than fame at that moment, that is, at the moment of his entry unto God, not afterwards, for after his burial in the earth of obscurity there is no harm in the spreading of his fame inasmuch as the growth hath come after the roots were firm, not before, so that there is no doubt that he will bring forth in fullness."

Returning home to Algeria Al-'Alawi took up his responsibilities as Shaikh. As early as 1923 he was reported as having at least 100,000 disciples. Four years later this figure had more than doubled.

Al-'Alawi died in 1934.

Al-'Alawi was modest and self-effacing, yet he affected people profoundly. In his presence they felt the certainty and depth of his experience of God, and they understandably considered him a holy man.

(Quotations and biographical details from 'A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century. Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi', by Martin Lings, published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1961.)

Commentary by Richard Lang


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