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A Man Apart

[Editors note: The following article is taken from the September 1985 AFRICA EVENTS magazine, and is concerning Al Hajj Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse.


Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse:

A Man Apart


     The late Al Hajj Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse of Senegal, Renowned Sufi Shaykh, was a most extra-ordinary man, He commands a large following in the whole of West Africa and beyond, including France and the U.S. Sayyid Omar Abdalla describes his encounters with the man.

       La ilaha illa-llah, Mashaa Allah, La Quwwata illa Billah. I first knew of Al Hajj al-Allama Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse through a magazine, Al Arab, which used to be published in Karachi under the able editorship of an Egyptian.

      I had read in the magazine that a highly spiritual man in Kaolack, Senegal was the cause for a padre (father) from Eastern Nigeria to embrace Islam. Eastern Nigeria was purely Christian and mainly Catholic. Islam was not allowed to enter there. British administrators co-operating very closely with the missionaries put up barriers against Islam entering Eastern Nigeria. Then it transpired that a well-educated padre had a dream that was to change the fortunes of Islam in Eastern Nigeria.

     This is what happened, and I heard this from the padre’s own tongue. I had met him in Makkah. He was a very impressive man, very huge and wearing a Turban. His English was fluent and good. I was so much impressed with him that I had to ask him, “Where are you from?” “I’m from Eastern Nigeria”, he said. And immediately I asked, “Are you Ibrahim Niasse, the priest who was converted by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse of Senegal and then took his name?” “Yes, indeed, I am”, came the reply. I met him again in 1965, at a conference of Muslim scholars from all over the Muslim World.

     The former padre related to me his dream. In his dream, he saw very impressive people high up in the sky. With the padre there were two people, one white and the other one black. But he was surprised because the white person, whom he thought might be a European, was not in European attire but was in Islamic dress. He had never met any Arab before. The white gentleman told him, “If you want to join those people up there in the sky, the only person who can take you, who can lead you and guide you to get there is this black person”.But the black person was in Islamic dress. So the padre said to the white man, whom he later realized was the Prophet himself, “How can this man take me there? I’m a Christian, he is a Muslim”.And he was told, “That’s your business. If you want to get there, there’s no other way”. He woke up. As he was an artist he sketched the faces of the two gentlemen who were with him, and then he ignored the dream. But the dream kept on recurring until he thought it was necessary for him to go out of Eastern Nigeria to seek out the black man.

     In Western Nigeria someone told him that his sketch of the black man resembled Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse of Senegal who lived in Kaolack. Having heard that, he decided there and then to go to Kaolack. He arrived at Shaykh Ibrahim’s house at 3 o’clock in the morning. He knocked at the door. The Shaykh’s children came out alarmed, thinking that he was a thief or an intruder.  “I just want to see your father”, said the padre, “that’s all there is. I’m quite a peaceful person”. Incidentally, all of Shaykh Ibrahim’s children are illustrious. They all have memorized the Qur`an, they are very learned, and they combine both secular and religious education, of course in the Western sense of the dichotomy.

     In Islam we don’t have the distinction between the religious and the secular. They are all one thing, all knowledge. And whatever helps you to approach God, to serve God, to develop your personality, is Islamic. Any knowledge which makes you do wrong, even if it is Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) or Tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism), is un-Islamic. And that is why you find in the Traditions of the Prophet, a prayer which says: “Allahumma  a`udhubika min `ilmin la fanyaa”, O Lord, I take refuge in you against knowledge which is not useful.

     There is no particular branch of knowledge that is not useful except knowledge that does not improve a person, or that does not make a person develop his personality and realize the existence of God and the unity of God and how to serve God, through serving fellow human beings. That is `Ilmin la Fanyaa (useless knowledge). No wonder Muslims in earlier times studied all sorts of knowledge, all branches of science, mathematics, they improved on them and put them on the right path, on the right way to become really scientific. But this is all digression.

     Back to Kaolack. Shaykh Ibrahim came out of his house and the first thing he said to the padre was: “Join Islam, embrace Islam”.“That’s exactly what I’m here for”, responded the padre.

He then embraced Islam, stayed with Shaykh Ibrahim for sometime, learned the main principals of Islam, and the ritual practices required. After that he returned to Nigeria as a Muslim and with a new nam, Ibrahim Niasse, the name of his Shaykh, the man who helped him convert to Islam.

     There were two churches in Eastern Nigeria that the padre was the responsible for looking after. But now he was a Muslim. He burned them down to make things easy. When he was taken to court for such a sacrilegious act, burning down places of worship, he told the English judge, “Mind you, I did not do that as a contempt of religion, of Christianity. I did that because I used to worship in those two churches, and I was in charge of those churches, which were built as a result of my efforts. Now I am a Muslim. I can’t pray in there. I have demolished the churches to build mosques instead so that I can go in and pray. If I were to go back to Christianity I shall burn down the mosques and build churches again”. The case was dismissed.

     From what I read in Al Arab and what the man himself told me, within six months 6,000 people in Eastern Nigeria had embraced Islam. Shaykh Niasse of Eastern Nigeria was a tremendous person who made gigantic efforts with enormous enthusiasm to serve Islam, to spread Islam, and to explain Islam. And he did that very successfully.

     When I read about this in Al Arab, I decided that whenever I was anywhere in Europe I would go to Senegal to see Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse of Kaolack, the man who possessed such spiritual powers. In 1961 or 1962 when I was up at Oxford, I received an invitation to go to Ghana to attend the conference on The World Without the Bomb organized by a committee in Yugoslavia and sponsored by Kwame Nkrumah.

     I decided immediately, that it was an opportunity for me to go and see Ghana. It was not very easy because the Commonwealth scholarship I had did not allow people to be away from England for more than two weeks, during the teaching period and even during vacations. Anyway, I managed to get to Accra. The driver who was to take me around Accra decided that he would show me some of the buildings that the senior British administrators used to live in. He took me to one very imposing building, and outside the house I found people performing the zikr saying La ilaha illa-llah, La ilaha illa-llah, La ilaha illa-llah (There is no God but Allah).

     I recalled that at one time, during the same period of Nkrumah, one of Zanzibar’s pre-independence politicians who was going to Ghana went to say good-bye to al-Imam al Habib `Umar bin Sumeyt, our Grand Shaykh. He was as Grand in East Africa as Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse was in West Africa, or probably more as Shaykh Ibrahim himself said. Sayyid `Umar said to the politician: “You’re going to Ghana. You’ll find people of our party there. When you have taken what you want to take for your party, then take for our party because you’ll find our people there”. When I saw the zikr I said to myself, “this is the party of Al Habib `Umar, the party of La ilaha illa-llah”.

     The car stopped there. Someone approached and I asked him what was happening. He told me that there was a very great Shaykh inside the building. “A great Shaykh? Could I meet him?” “Let us go and inform him about it”, the man replied. Then he went inside and came out with a positive answer.

     I went in and found a very impressive, highly dignified gentleman with a copy of the Qur`an in his hand. I was surprised because I thought he was a Ghanaian and I had not met any Ghanaian Muslim back in England. When I was there earlier between 1951 and 1953, I hardly met any Muslim Ghanaians, and I though that there were very few Muslims in Ghana.  But of course this time I discovered that there were a lot of them. The reason why I did not see any of the educated Ghanaians who were Muslims in England was that education was left in the hands of Christian missionaries. One or two people whom risked sending their children there had them converted. Education was made a means of converting people to Christianity.

      I was surprised to see that Shaykh. And I said, “Are you a Ghanaian?” He said he was not. “I am from Senegal”. I asked him if he knew Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse. He said that he knew him well because he was he. He was one of those invited to join the conference. Nkrumah used to get on very well with him. He used to take his advice because Shaykh Ibrahim knew a lot about the world and its ways. He was well versed both in diplomacy and politics and was deeply mystical. Very well read in Islamic subjects - fiqh (jurisprudence), tawhid (unity of God) and tasawwuf (mysticism). In him all sorts of learning merged in one whole. He was an internationally respected figure.

     He went to China as the Shaykh of Islam of West Africa. It was during the time of Mao-Tse-Tung and he was well received. He used to get on very well indeed with King Faisal and President Gamal Abd al-Nasir. He reconciled the two of them when they fell apart. I remember to have seen him in Makkah sitting besides King Faisal at the grand Party that the King throws for all the pilgrims. I can now call to mind a picture that was taken at al-Azhar which has Gamal Abd al-Nasir sitting next to Shaykh Ibrahim. They were attending Friday prayers.

     Shaykh Ibrahim was a man whose prayers have been answered. His favorite prayer was “O our Lord give us of this world the good things of this world and give us the good things of the next world and protect us from the punishment of hell-fire”.

     Immediately we became very close. If I can let my audacity run away with me, I will say that we became very good friends from that particular day. We used to meet while I was in Ghana and I used to cantilate to his some religious qasidas, especially those from the anthology of al-Imam al-Mujaddid Al-Habib Abdalla ibn Alawi al-Haddad and al-Imam al-Kabir al-Habib Ali ibn Muhammad al-Habshy. I remember that he was absolutely spiritually intoxicated and he lost his balance when I recited this, “Lidh li fil `ilmi inni bil fanaa atlaqtu qaidee.” “If you know the knowledge of the knower, with knowledge of annihilation your chains are unlocked.”

     This is taken from the Diwan of al-Habib al-Murshid, al-Imam al-Kabir Ali ibn Muhammad al-Habshy. I also used to recite this from the anthology of al-Imam al-Mujaddid al Habib Abdalla ibn Alawi al-Haddad, “Anaa mashghoolun bilaylaa, `an jamee`al kauni jumlahu fa’idhaa qulta min dhaa, qul huwas sabbul maulahu.”                                    

     When I recited the first he was overwhelmed, and he said he did not know in which world he was. He absolutely was out of the material world  - his essence. Shaykh Ibrahim expected to keep on repeating these qasidas from the anthologies of as-Sadat al-Alawiyyah.

     I asked him all about the conversion of his namesake who was in Eastern Nigeria, and who in turn converted thousands of Muslims. Shaykh Ibrahim confirmed the truth of the whole story.

     I was in Senegal again to attend a conference on the teaching of economics. I was then the Principal of Muslim Academy in Zanzibar. On arrival the very first thing I did was to go to Kaolack to see the Shaykh. I was told he had gone to a neighboring country to open a mosque but would be returning to lead Friday prayers. When the time for prayers came his Khalifa took me to the mosque and put me right in front of al-mihrab (the pulpit). I found the Shaykh delivering the Friday sermon. What a pleasure it was, when while coming down from the pulpit to lead prayers, he turned and faced me. He said, “Ahlan Wassahlan, how is Shaykh `Umar”,  that was the first thing he asked me. By that he meant Sayyidina al-Imam al-Habib `Umar ibn Ahmad ibn Sumeyt.

     In these countries, when someone is called a Shaykh, he is really a Shaykh in knowledge, in upbringing, in training people, in guiding people on the path to God.

     We went home in the afternoon, and from a rather ornate cupboard he brought out the photo of al-Habib `Umar, the very one I gave him. Then he gave it to his Khalifa, who was equally bawled over. And then Shaykh Ibrahim took the picture reverently and put it back where it was. I mentioned the incident to al-Habib `Umar, and he said “Aha! We have known him now and we shall pour into his heart spiritual endowments”.

     That is the testimony to al-Habib `Umar’s great stature. For after all, Shaykh Ibrahim was a great personality in many spheres, political, diplomatic, spiritual, widely respected by people in all walks of life, and highly regarded throughout the world including China, and yet there he was paying homage to al-Habib `Umar.

     Once he was passing through Rome, when someone approached him and asked him to go and see the Pope. Shaykh Ibrahim said it was a wonderful idea, but “the Pope must come to me”, he said, “I represent Muhammad, upon whom be peace and blessings of Allah, and he represents Christ, upon whom be the peace and blessings of God, and Muhammad is greater than Christ. If he won’t come to me, then I won’t go to him.”   *** Copyright Sayyid Omar Abdalla Africa Events September 1985.

This article, The Eternal Islam, and The 17th Anniversary of the Disappearance of Shaykh Ibrahim were published in Newsletters of The African American Islamic Institute, in 1998, but the newsletters were not distributed. You may contact us by e:mail for copies. Insha-llah.




Al Hamdu li-llah.