Saturday, July 12, 2008

Searching for Saints in Northern Morocco

I spent the last week, along with my wife Sara, her mother, and our two children, travelling in northern Morocco, the area south of Tetouan in the west to visit some of the Saints buried there. What follows is an account of this journey and some of my reflections on it. Also, several people have contacted me lately asking for instructions on how to get to some of these places, particularly the shrine of Ibn Mashish, only to be told that I do not have the slightest idea. This time, therefore, I decided to pay attention to the road and take notes. Those who do not have time to read my blather might then like to flit their eyes down to the instructions on how to get to these sacred places.


We caught the one o’clock train to Fes, arriving there at around 6pm. We had lived in Fes for a year in 2003-2004, so it was nice to be back. We checked into a hotel and found a grand taxi (basically a large car that usually sells its six places individually and follows set routes like a coach or bus, but which can also be chartered to go anywhere you like) to take us the next day. We were surprised to learn that Chaouen is only 3 hours or so from Fes – we had expected it would be a much longer trip.



We headed out first thing Monday morning. It is a simple route, just following the road to Ouezzane and then carrying straight on through it and beyond for another half hour or so. The taxi driver had on a cassette of the famous Moroccan singer Abdelhadi Belkhayyat; the song sounded rather familiar to me. After a moment I realised he was singing the Munfarija, a very famous Sufi poem. Fair enough, I thought.

We arrived in Chaouen (or Chefchaouen if you like, in any case the name is Berber and means ‘the horns’, referring to the twin peaks that tower above the town) at around midday.

We found a hotel and prayed Dhuhr, and then Sara and I set off for the cemetery, located on the hill to the east of town on top of which lies the famous ruins of the ‘Spanish Mosque’ so favoured by photographers and postcard designers. My intention for visiting the cemetery was to pay my respects to Hajj Mukhtar al-Ghumari, the Sheikh of Hajj Saeed, whose Zawiya in our hometown of Salé I frequent. Hajj Mukhtar took directly from Sheikh al-Alawi. Hajj Saeed once said of his Sheikh that in the physical world, he was unknown, but in the spiritual word, he was famous. This is reflected by his having no marker or tomb to commemorate his place of burial in the cemetery, and without Hajj Saeed I had no hope of finding his exact grave, so I made a general intention to visit the Sheikh and all the others interred on this beautiful spot in the mountains.


On Tuesday afternoon I went to visit the Patron Saint of Chaouen, Moulay Ali bin Rashid. I had noticed his tomb next to the large mosque on the main municipal street the day before, but had never heard of him. Sara and I entered the small graveyard next to the mosque and found a lady there, a descendant of the Saint as is usual, to open the tomb for us. I went in and greeted the Saint, and sat down by his head as my wife stayed with the lady and asked her about him. She told us that he was the founder of Chaouen, and originally came from the town of Moulay Abdessalam, which would be our destination for the next day. Chaouen was for centuries a secret community unknown to the Westerners, and used as a base for military attacks against the Portuguese occupiers of the town of Sebta (Ceuta) on the north coast, which is now in Spanish hands. I recited the Qur’anic chapter al-Waqi‘a,1 and then al-Ikhlas eleven times. I asked God to donate the reward of this to the Saint and to all His Saints, at the head of them the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace), and to all the Muslims and believers. I gave the lady a few coins for her trouble, as is customary, and then we left.


On Wednesday morning we chartered a taxi to take us to Moulay Abdessalam by way of the birthplace of Imam Abu al-Hasan Shadhili, which we had heard was nearby. From Chaouen, to get to the Imam’s birthplace we first took the road to Fes and Ouezzane, which is the right first exit (on the right, as they drive on the right in Morocco) at the roundabout just after the petrol station. After a short while there is a right turn signposted ‘Tanakoub’ (تنقوب) and ‘Ksar el-Kebir’ (القصر الكبير). There is also a sign for the birthplace of Imam Shadhili here, in Arabic only. The turn took us sharply uphill and almost doubled back, and then wound along through the hills for a while. After around 10 kilometres (half way to Tanakoub), there is a right turn down a dirt track which, although not signposted, leads to the village of Shtunaghin (شتوناغين).

We went along this dirt track for a while and then began to feel we had come the wrong way (the driver had never been there before himself). We told him we wanted the birthplace of Shadhili, and he became surprised and said that he thought we wanted Shtunaghin. We had never heard the name of the town before (we had agreed the destination with the manager of the taxi stand, who had then passed in on to the driver), and so there was a little confusion. The driver decided what we actually wanted was the village of Zawiya (الزاوية) which was a long drive away. He reversed down the dirt road, and we continued on towards Tanakoub and through it, and on for another forty minutes or so on the same road, heading for a town in the distance with a tall minaret. We came to a fork in the road in which the left turn was signposted ‘Ksar el-Kebir’, and took the right fork. After around ten minutes we crossed a rather frightening stone bridge that twisted across a small gorge, and pulled up next to a large mosque, which cast its shadow over a small group of houses with roofs made of corrugated iron. This didn’t look like the place we wanted. We got out and asked a man standing by the mosque where we were. He told us we were at the grave of Sidi Yusuf al-Talidi. I was not familiar with that name. ‘This is wrong’, I said, ‘we want Shadhili, not Talidi.’ The taxi driver began to argue a little with the local man and his friends. While I tried to follow their difficult accents, I realised I was being very rude to the Saint buried here by stating so boldly that I didn’t actually want to see him. I excused myself and went in to visit his tomb, behind the mosque. I recited Surat al-Ikhlas eleven times, and donated the reward to the Saint as before. I then went out and talked a while with the man we had asked before. ‘You’re writing a book, yes?’ he asked. I allowed that this was so. (This was not incorrect, as I do hope to write a book about the Saints of Morocco if I can find anyone who wants to publish it) ‘So get out your pen’, he said. I did as he asked. He bade me write, ‘Sidi Sheikh Yusuf al-Talidi, from the tribe of Khammas.’ I wrote it, and thanked him.

The taxi driver had consulted the others and realised that the place we wanted was in fact the place we had been an hour previously, at the end of the dirt road, in Shtunaghin.

(Later, when I arrived home, I looked up Sidi Yusuf al-Talidi. He was a disciple of Sidi Abdullah al-Ghazwani, on the Jazuliyya branch of the Shadhili Tariqa, from Imam Jazuli, author of the Dala’il al-Khayrat. The name of the town, Zawiya, is of course derived from the presence of his tomb there.)

As we left, the driver told me that he had brought a group of Gulf Arabs to this same town a few years previously, and that the large mosque and domed shrine were new additions which had been funded by a source in Kuwait. God works in mysterious ways, I thought.

We headed back towards Tanakoub and beyond. As we drove up through the mountains, I looked at the stunning view of the valley floor and the imposing, muscular mountains facing us across it, and thought about all the Awliya who had their origins in this small corner of the world, and whose teachings and spiritual heritage can now be found in just about any place where there are Muslims. How could so many Saints have come from these small mountain towns? Looking at the scene before us, and the inexpressible beauty of this manifestation of God’s Glory, I understood how it could be possible.

We found the dirt track again, and this time followed it all the way to the end, about 30 yards further than where we had got last time. We stopped near a small wilderness of large boulders and twisted trees with wide canopies, and made our way across it to the small, white building that stood alone in the midst of them. This was the birth place, and later the khalwa (place of spiritual retreat) of Imam Shadhili. We took a few photographs in a hurry, as the battery was about to finish. I chanted the Testimony of Faith, as is customary when visiting any zawiya or house of a faqir, and entered the building. There is a grave in the centre, but not that of Imam Shadhili, who is buried in Egypt of course. This had led to some confusion on a television program about the region we had seen a few weeks before, where this place had been confidently announced as the grave of Imam Shadhili, which had me somewhat apoplectic with rage because of its inaccuracy. But then again, I had failed to recognise the site two hours earlier despite being only a few dozen yards from it, so I couldn’t really talk, could I?

I sat by the tomb and did a few circles on the rosary, saying ‘there is no god but God’, and then recited al-Ikhlas eleven times and asked God to donate the reward to Imam Shadhili, and all who followed his path, and to all the Muslims and believers. I looked at the walls of the building, where people had written simple prayers and invocations: ‘Glory be to God’, ‘Lord forgive me and my parents,’ ‘God is great’. I heard the sound of children playing from outside, and then three kids came in, two boys and a girl. One of the boys, around ten years old I would say, came up to me and kissed my hand; I kissed his own simultaneously, greeting him as a faqir. He then disappeared, and then returned with his playmate and encouraged him to greet me in the same way. I then stood up to leave, and greeted the girl on the way out. I climbed the small hill singing the Testimony of Faith, and the children watched me for a moment, and then went back to their game.

Sara told me she had asked the children who was buried inside, and they had told her it was someone named ‘Tabulsi’ or some such thing, they seemed unsure. We got back in the taxi, and I told the driver the story of how Imam Shadhili had walked all the way to Iraq searching for the greatest Sheikh of his time, only to be told that he in fact ought to look back in Morocco, on top of a mountain named Jabal Alam, only a short journey from his own hometown – a journey that we now set out to cover, with a rather more comfortable form of transport than they enjoyed back then, it must be admitted.

Moulay Abdessalam

We returned to Chaouen to start all over again. This time we took the road to Tetouan, and continued until we reached the small market town of Bani Hassan, whereupon the driver informed us he knew a short-cut along a seldom-traversed road up through the forest. Instead on continuing on in the direction of Tetouan, we took a left fork towards the end of the town and headed further up into the mountains. This road takes you all the way to Moulay Abdessalam, and is indeed quick and virtually empty – so don’t go this way at night, as if you break down you are unlikely to be found until morning. It is possible to follow the Tetouan road as well, until you find a turning for Moulay Abdessalam. If you are coming from Rabat or Casablanca, you should first go to Larache (العرايش) and then follow the road to Tetouan and Bani Arouss (بني عروس).

The driver told us that the woods we were traversing were still home to monkeys, wolves and wild boars, although these latter two only came out at night. The road twisted and turned up through the thick forests, and I began to become excited as we got closer to our destination. We stopped at a mountain spring, and the driver assured us that the water was excellent, and we might want to fill up our bottles. We went over to a small pool covered with a stone roof. The driver drank first and then returned to the car. We looked at the water. It seemed clear, although it was virtually still, not fast-flowing. I took a cup and drew some, it was perfectly clear despite the algae-covered plants, so I drank it. Sara then noticed a blue-grey frog sitting at the corner of the pool with its legs splayed, looking like nothing so much as a tired businessman finally enjoying a dip in the jacuzzi after a long day, and regarding us with an expression of faint curiosity.

We decided not to drink any more water.

After another half-hour or so, we reached a right turn with a sign saying ‘Moulay Abdessalam 2km’. We took it. We passed a few houses with cows grazing outside looking as peaceful as can be, and it occurred to me that although the three years since I had last come here had been a whirlwind of changes and events for me personally, this place had not changed in the slightest, and was not likely to do so any time soon. A few minutes later we found ourselves at the car park near the large mosque at the end of the main street of the village. We thanked the driver, apologised for the inadvertent extension to our journey, and agreed to pay him a little more than we had first agreed because of this. ‘Never mind’, I said to him, ‘I got a chance to visit the Saint.’ ‘Yes’, he said, ‘it was destined for you. He wanted to see you, and so he called you to him.’ I told him that I hoped this was so.

We went down and found a house to rent (there are no hotels, but people rent out their houses to visitors). We chose the same one we had stayed in three years previously. This time they had running water, whereas before we had to use a well, so things had changed a little. We prayed our Dhuhr in the house, and then I went up to visit the Saint. I cut through the graveyard immediately above the town and climbed to the top of the mountain, stopping only to catch my breath and reflect on what a pansy I am for not being able to climb 50 yards of mountain without hyperventilating, whilst old women like the one who passed me by right then could climb all day without becoming tired. I took in the view from the west side of the mountain as I caught my breath, and then climbed the rest of the way up to The Most Beautiful Place On Earth.

I have done my best before to express my feelings about this place, even writing a poem if you can stand it, but I still have no idea how to describe the tomb of Moulay Abdessalam ibn Mashish. The Sheikh is buried on the spot where he used to live, having deliberately chosen the mountaintop so he could worship in seclusion (the town did not exist at that time, for reasons I will explain shortly). Ibn Mashish is in many ways the Patron Saint of Moroccan Sufism in the same way that Moulay Idris I is the Patron Saint of the Moroccan state, and so you might expect there would be a huge mausoleum here with a bulging green dome and lots of white marble. Yet setting aside the question of the practicality of building such a thing in a place like this, there is simply no need; for God Himself has provided the Saint with his own dome, a magnificent cork oak tree spreading its boughs and branches over the simple white stone walls of the tomb and beyond.

The trunk of the tree is growing from the centre of the tomb, which contains Ibn Mashish, his son Muhammad, and a man who used to serve him.2 Whether or not the tree is growing directly from the Saint’s heart in actuality, it is certainly a powerful symbol of the great spiritual lineage that grew from a man who never sought to be known, and who only ever had one disciple as far as can be established, and who was largely unknown to his contemporaries (Tadili does not mention him in his Tashawwuf, nor is there any suggestion that Ibn Arabi or Abu Madyan had ever heard of him although they all lived at the same time in essentially the same place). Yet there are men whom God simply will not allow to go unnoticed by His creatures, and Ibn Mashish is certainly one of them. The tree that grew from his grave is a compelling symbol of this. It is a most splendid example of Sacred Architecture designed and built by the Creator Himself; I can say without hesitation that it is the most beautiful structure I have ever seen, or am ever likely to see, unless God decrees that I perform the Hajj.

Around the tomb, covering a space of perhaps 100 square metres, the floor is covered in slabs of cork taken from the nearby forest, secured down with nails made of the hard oak wood found under the cork skin. This provides a surface soft enough to walk on without shoes to preserve the sanctity of the tomb, without needing a roof to be built to keep off the rain, as the use of carpets would demand.

I took off my shoes and began to sing the Testimony of Faith as I approached the tomb, stopping when I reached the stone wall. I greeted the Saint, placed my hand on the wall and kissed it. Some might object to this, but it seems to me that the correct etiquette when greeting a Saint is the same whether he is alive or dead,3 and when we greet a living Sheikh, we take their hand and kiss it, and kiss their head; such should be the case with those who have passed on, too. I then sat down in the shade of the tree and recited Surat al-Waqi‘a and the litanies of the Tariqa. I asked God to donate the reward of this to the Saint and all His Saints, the foremost of them being the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace), and to all the Muslims and believers. I then simply sat and enjoyed the company of the Sheikh.

There is a poem by a Japanese poet of the 15th Century named Issa, which reads:

The cool breeze
comes winding and wandering.
At last it’s here.

I had cause to dwell on this poem during the short period of time I spent with the Saint this week. Aside from its plain exoteric sense, the poem was intended to convey a sensual meaning, and therefore also a spiritual one. The tranquillity and inner peace that comes with the satisfaction of a deep longing is one of the highest states of human existence, and this is manifested in both the sensory and the spiritual, as indeed are all things of true significance. The relief of cool, clear water after a long thirst; the embrace of two lovers after a long separation; what else are these but reflections of the true inner peace, the true relief that comes from a meeting with the Divine? Is this not their purpose – to give us a taste of what is truly possible?

Sheikh Moulay Sulayman, of the Alawi Tariqa, said in one of his poems, ‘To yearn is to arrive.’ That is, when one truly yearns for God, one finds Him in the same instant; as disciples of the path, we are not attempting to reach the object of our yearning, but rather to develop this yearning in the first place: we do not ‘want God’ as such, rather we ‘want to want God’, since if we truly wanted Him with all our being, He would not refuse us, as this is why He created us. If as disciples we are trying to cultivate this yearning and make it real, one of the most direct ways to do this is to place ourselves in the presence of one who has realised it, that is, in the presence of a Saint, living or dead. To see one who yearns is to see a True Man, and this in its turn provokes a yearning deep within us to follow in their footsteps, to see one who saw The One. This is one of the significances of the spiritual chain of initiation, and this is the meaning of the wasila, the intermediary between one and God that He commanded us to seek when He said: ‘Seek the means to Him.’ (Qur’an 5:25) This is not shirk, idolatry, because shirk means to ascribe the attributes of God to any other than Him, whilst to seek an intermediary to God is merely to seek that which inspires one to yearn for Him Alone.

This wasila, this ‘cool breeze’ of which we are speaking, can be found in many different places. A view from a mountaintop or a expanse of desert or ocean can fill us with awe for the Glory of God; a particular verse of Qur’an can have an impact on us that we cannot quite understand; an element of ritual can cause our hearts to overflow with the love of God. Some people break down and weep upon seeing the Kaaba with their own eyes for the first time. The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘The coolness of my eyes has been placed in the prayer.’ Another source of this ‘cool breeze’ is the company of the righteous. ‘How sweet the day of meeting!’ Moulay Sulayman exclaimed in the same poem we quoted above.

I sat by the grave of Ibn Mashish and felt the slightest trace of this ‘cool breeze’ blow over me. I remembered the last time I had sat in this exact spot, one of the most glorious moments of my life, which I cannot imagine I will ever forget. It was in 2005, the first time I came to Jabal Alam. Having spent the previous afternoon with the Saint, I decided to come up after the Fajr prayer to read my wird there. It was May as I recall, and particularly cold on top of the mountain, and only one other person was there, a man fast asleep wrapped up in a thick woollen cloak. I sat by one of the supports holding the ancient tree in place and recited the wird. As I did so, a young girl, perhaps in her late teens, wearing the traditional white woollen clothes of the area, came up and greeted the Saint. She stood by the wall of the tomb and place her hand on it, and then kissed it several times in different places. There was no sound whatsoever other than the click of my rosary and the soft sound of the kisses she placed on the stone. She then turned and went back down the mountain. I cannot say exactly what it was, but something about the simple beauty of this action tore my heart open. The girl had no reason for coming up except to pay her respects to the Saint, which she did despite the cold and the early hour. Doubtless, when she got home there would have been plenty of tasks for her to do; I cannot imagine she had an easy life. Perhaps she would have to draw water from the well, and milk the goats, or the cows, and take them out to graze, and take her family’s clothes to the spring to wash them, and make the dough and bake the bread, and all the other things expected from young women in traditional societies such as this one. Yet she found the time first to come and express her love for the Saint with such tenderness and obvious sincerity. There may well be many who would object to this, and call it ‘backward’, or ‘superstitious’, or ‘heretical’; I can only feel sorry for anyone who feels this way. All I could do was try and concentrate on my wird, and hope that one day God might grant me such sincerity. It remains my hope to this day.

So I sat in the same spot three years later and thought about that moment, and listened to the sounds around me. The shrine of Ibn Mashish is a place of constant worship, where Qur’an is recited all hours of the day by the descendents of the Saint. They were just finishing their fourth complete recitation of the day as I arrived, and their leader collected up the individual juz’ portions which they had divided amongst themselves. They then sat and said prayers for the visitors sitting by the grave as I was. Some people gave them money, and so they said prayers for them. I gave them something and they prayed for me and my family. Again, there are many who would object to this, but I mention it here for a specific purpose, which is to explain my understanding of the situation:

Jabal Alam is a harsh mountain. In winter it is freezing, and covered with snow; in summer the sun beats down in the day and the cold wind blows at night. The soil grows nothing but cork oaks which can be stripped only once every ten years. Crops will not grow in such soil, even if it were flat enough to farm them. There is no logical reason for there being a town there at all, and indeed no town existed there until Ibn Mashish came. He chose the spot exactly for this reason, so he could worship, and study with his Sheikh, al-Zayyat, when he was around, and otherwise be alone with his Lord. In the years after he died, people began to hear of him and his greatness, and come to visit him. His descendants took it upon themselves to maintain his grave and the surrounding areas, such as the mosque where he prayed and the spring where he performed ablutions. They sacrificed their lives to preserve the place so that people could visit it and pay their respects. How many great Saints lived and died in Morocco and all over the Muslim world whose graves are utterly unknown to us because no one was there to preserve them, and how many ruined mosques and mausoleums there are where the Name of God was once mentioned and now is no more because people moved on to bigger and better things and chased the dunya, the worldly life of gains. It would have been easy enough for the people to abandon Jabal Alam and go down to the plains further south where the soil is fertile and seek their fortunes there, or to grow hashish in the valleys to sell to the Europeans. They did not. They stayed, and filled the summit of Jabal Alam with dhikr and Qur’an for eight hundred years, and they continue to do so until this day. The money the visitors give them, once divided between them, is not much. They could live more comfortable lives if they chose; yet they choose to serve God by serving His Saint, and those who wish to visit him. Radiya Allahu anhum.

I went back down to see my family, and after Maghrib we all came up together. Sara is a direct descendant of Ibn Mashish on her father’s side, and so I said to my son, ‘Give salams to your grandfather!’ We sat on the raised bench by the tomb, and I recited the wird and then watched as the people came in groups of two and three to pay their respects to the Saint. Some of them lit candles, which is a common practice in Morocco at mausoleums. I do not know if they took it from the Christians or what; Morocco has never had many of those, although there have always been Jews here. For that matter, I don’t know where the Christians took the practice of lighting candles from, either. In any case, my upbringing was nominally Catholic, and I remember going to church and walking on the stone floor, smelling the wooden pews and the leather kneelers, and of course the wax of the candles. Although I was not religious in the slightest then, I still came to associate these things with the sacred, and even now if there is a power cut and we need to light candles, I get a rather other-worldly feeling. But I did not light a candle for the Saint, partly because I do not know exactly why it is done, and partly because my Catholic background would make the action a little too close to syncretism (combining the rituals of different religions) for comfort. Admittedly there is something powerfully symbolic about the action of lighting a candle: however infinitesimally and however briefly, you add to the sum total of light in the universe.

Sara asked me what I was thinking about. I told her that up here, in this place of all places, I have a feeling of complete safety. Throughout the trip I took the opportunity of lots of free time to finally finish Rama Coomaraswamy’s ‘The Destruction of Christian Tradition’, which documents the final capitulation of the Roman Church to Protestantism, which came in the form of the Second Vatican Council. There is a lesson for all Muslims in what has happened to Christianity over the last few centuries. Reformers emerged with the intention of ‘taking the Church back to its roots’, and ‘returning to Scripture’, and all the rest of it, and they were forceful enough and eloquent enough to convince people that their religion needed to be ‘reformed’. And what is the result? After the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and the separation of church from state, Christianity no longer has any real place amongst its own people. It is entirely incidental to their lives. Missionaries go abroad, and for every one person they convert, five apostate back home. Even those who practise their faith do so on a level that is entirely sentimental, not spiritual or intellectual. A few attempt to resist this under the banner of ‘Traditionalism’, but they are fighting a losing battle. In any mosque in the Muslim world you will find people sitting outside on the floor during the Friday prayer because the prayer hall is overflowing with people. When was the last time you saw a church filled to bursting?

There are those amongst the Muslims who would like to ‘reform’ their religion, too. They seek to do away with tradition, superstition, and ‘hidden idolatry’,4 and return to the ‘Book and Sunnah’, as though these two foundations of the faith have somehow been abandoned. This is coupled with a kind of insane modernism, whereby it is seen to be absolutely fine not only to build hotels and shopping centres which tower over the Holy Sanctuaries, but actually to advertise that fact as though it is a virtue – what a fine view you can get from your hotel room! Shopping malls have beautiful prayer-rooms installed in them so that the faithful can offer their Salat in between the movie and the round of bowling, and cafes serving ‘non-alcoholic beer’ are forced to close during prayer times. All of these actions and attitudes are backed up by fatawa from scholars eager to embrace this modern reformation. The Christians had their reformation, and the modern civilisation is the result of it. Some Muslims seem positively eager to follow them down the same fox-hole. If we do not learn from the mistakes of others, we are doomed to repeat them ourselves.

Yet here on the mountain by the Saint I felt completely safe from all this, safe in the certainty that wherever these ideas may spread, they will never come here. The town exists because of the Saint. Every shop on the street leading up to the cemetery is geared towards the visitors who come every day of the year: rosaries, sweets, candles, rosewater, traditional clothes, restaurants selling grilled meat. If the Saint were not there, people would not come, and the town would be finished. All of this is from the Baraka of Ibn Mashish. All who live there derive their sustenance by means of the Saint; or we might say, God provides for them by means of His Friend. They love him not only as a religious figure but also as a father-figure. How could such people ever abandon him? And so I felt as though I were in a sanctuary, a fortress against any forces that would seek to undermine the spiritual traditions of this religion. As long as people come, the sanctuary will remain; as long as the sanctuary remains, people will come.

As we spoke, two girls, perhaps six and four, went over to the Saint and kissed the wall, and then ran back to their mother to be congratulated. I told Sara that this gesture embodied everything I felt for this sacred place, and the hope I felt when I sat there.

We sat in silence for a moment and I watched the moon climb steadily in the sky through a gap in the branches of the great tree bursting from the heart of Ibn Mashish. An elderly lady approached the tomb, placed her hand on it, and said, ‘Peace be upon you, Saint of God! May God forgive you, and give to you with abundance.’ Then she moved on. I quietly sang a poem of Muhammad ibn Habib Buzidi, one of the spiritual descendants of this great Sheikh, until the call for the Isha prayer was sounded.


Sara and I went up to the tomb after the Fajr prayer to try and get a photo of it at sunrise. Once we got to the summit, we realised how cold it can get on top of a mountain. There were perhaps ten men sleeping there, probably visitors who couldn’t find a room to rent, or couldn’t afford one. They were wrapped up with blankets and cloaks, and all but one were asleep. The wind was ferocious, and it was clear we could not wait here for an hour for the sun to come up. We snapped a couple of shots of the tomb and then retreated. On the way down, I told Sara of how my father would tell me Welsh traditional stories that held that mountains are living things, which every now and then have to remind men that they are not their masters.

I got talking to Sara’s mother, a descendant of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) herself from Moulay Idris, about what she felt were the excessive practices of the marabout culture. She is not herself a big fan of these things, even though she is a Sharifa. Her own father, however, was a Sufi of the Darqawi Tariqa. I have inherited his rosary, since the rest of the family are not really interested in Sufism. This is a common thing in Morocco, where the generation that emerged after Independence was set firmly against the attitudes of their parents. She is a very pious Muslim, but she has no time for what she sees as traditions based on ignorance – and of course to a certain extent she has a point. She particularly objects to the money that changes hands. I gave her an analogy that was first given to me by a Sheikh in Fes when I told him I planned to visit Ibn Mashish: Imagine you have a friend, a very beloved friend, whom you love to visit. The only problem is that your friend is a real cat lover. He must have thirty cats in the house! So every time you go, you have to go to the butcher first and get some little scraps of meat to give to your friend’s cats. You can’t just go kicking them out of the way, can you? You might not love them, but your friend does.

We went down to one of the springs that flow from the mountain, where people come to wash their clothes. I looked around at the trees, stripped bare up to the first branches, and thought again about the long wait for them to grow more cork to be stripped and sold. Cork has been largely replaced all over the world by plastic, anyway, and there was evidence of that all over the place in the plastic bags and containers that stuck to the branches of the trees. This is a clear example of the way the modern world has clashed with the traditional life that existed before. A few decades ago, there was no plastic, and so everything that was thrown away was biodegradable. The people haven’t got used to the idea that this stuff isn’t going anywhere, that it will be here long after we are gone. So much of the modern world is so ugly. Perhaps some of this is just false sentimentality, yearning for a ‘golden-age’ that never existed – but I don’t think all of it is. Further up the hill, a group of men slaughtered a goat and then hung it up on a tree to skin it. No abattoirs needed here, I supposed. That’s what it used to be like everywhere.

In the afternoon we went back up to the Saint to watch the sunset. My daughter was feeling ill, and looked very pale, almost blue in the cold, so I ran back down to get her some warm clothes. When I came back up, some ladies, obviously visiting from a city, perhaps Tangiers, had gathered around the front of the tomb. They sang some sacred odes, and then the famous prayer of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) composed by Ibn Mashish. They sang it with one voice, clearly well-used to doing it, with a very lovely tune I had not heard before. Then they began to sing some poems with refrains, sounding exactly like how we sing them in the Zawiya. I had never heard women singing in that way before. Sara said she had; her aunt used to gather with a group of lady Sufis, faqirat as they call them. But these things are rarer in the big cities now because of all the population movement; the real thing is out here in the country, where everyone knows one another. I sat to one side and watched the sunset, and sang along with the ones I knew, and then we went into the mosque to pray Maghrib.

After the prayer, Sara told me that our daughter was still looking very ill, so we decided to go back to the house out of the cold. We were set to travel in the morning, so this meant goodbye to the Saint. I went to the gathering of Qur’anic reciters and asked them to pray for my sick daughter, and they did so. I am writing this less than twenty-four hours later, and she is completely recovered.

I approached the Sheikh for the last time, and sat and prayed for him. I asked God to forgive me and have mercy on me, and guide me, and forgive my family and friends, and I tried to remember as many names as I could to pray for. I asked Him to do all this by the honour of this Saint of His, and the honour of all His Saints, the foremost of them being the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). I felt a deep sadness in my heart that I would leave, and I feel this sadness now as I write this back home. But then I remembered that, as the Sheikh himself quoted at the end of his Salat, Allah says:

"Verily, He who hath made the Qur’an binding upon thee will bring thee home once more.” (Qur’an 28:85)


1 This is the usual practise of our Tariqa. Sheikh al-Alawi encouraged the fuqara to recite this chapter every day.
2 The tomb to the right, which is usually asumed to contain the grave of al-Zayyat, the Sheikh of Ibn Mashish, is actually his place of sacred retreat; the grave inside is that of a twentieth-century tribal leader. Al-Zayyat is reported to be buried in the coastal town of Targha, where he is known to the people as ‘The Faqih of Ibn Mashish.’ Other narrations state that he returned to Medina, where he lived before coming to Morocco, and died there.
3 Of course, the two states are the same; the Saints do not die.
4 The true hidden idolatry is not ‘saint-worship’ but rather ostentation and pride, and the performance of religious works to please anyone other than God. All Muslims are susceptible to falling into this, not only the ‘backward’ Sufis.


kamal said...

salam sidi, a very touching and moving visit. i wish to do the same insyallah, to visit the awliya, fuqaras and places in morroco and algeria. i still remember the glance from sheikh abdul kader hassan of hull, england in the 80s. the damp and cold but enlightening zawiya form part of his house, though i only went there for prayers.


Mustafa Nosi said...

salamu alaykum sidi. I appreciate your sharing with us your wonderful experience. I personally enjoyed reading them. The short videos are intoxicating watching them. Keep it up sidi. I'm planning a visit to morocco soon, inshallah, and i'm inspired to visit living Awliya Allah and those who has passed on.


notetaker said...

As Salaamu alaykum,

I am almost moved to tears by this post. Alhamdulilah I had the chance to visit Si Masheesh just a few weeks ago, but your description made me re-live and further understand the expereince. May Allah Subhanahu give you Tawfiq and protect your family. Ameen

Mustafa Nosi said...

Salam Sidi. We are missing your contribution. I enjoy your blog.
May Allah grant you strength to continue with this noble work. Amin

efhamza said...

Dear brother,
Thank you for the tremendous post. God bless you and your family forever. I, too, had the honor to visit the birth place of Imam Shadhili. I was with my wife and we were taken by a wonderful man who is a singer of spiritual poetry (musammi') from Chaouen. He told us that the grave there belongs to Imam Shadhili's mother. I do not know how much veracity this account has. My rational mind is skeptical about this, but I genuinely hope that it is so. And God knows best.

Unknown said...

assalamu `alaykum sidi

How long is the drive from Chefchouen to Sayyidi Ibn Mashish's maqam?


Khalid Williams said...

Wa alaykum salam,

Couple of hours if you don't get lost. It's a steep, winding road so you have to go slowly.

amar hanif said...

Asalam o liakum Sidi Khalid

I wish to visit Sayyidi Ibn Mashish's maqam in the next few weeks. Intend to book a grande taxi for 'day trip' from Fes, how much do you think it would cost and how long would it take?

From the village would it be difficult for children (youngest is 4) to get up the mountain? And how long would the climb take?



Khalid Williams said...

Alaykum Salam,

Can't remember price from Fes, to be honest. Seven or eight hundred dirhams or so for a day trip, going and coming back? Maybe, but don't quote me on that, I could be wrong.

Easy to climb mountain from village: no more than ten minutes up level and well-made steps. By the time you arrive at the village you are already most of the way up the mountain.

Have a blessed visit in sha Allah.

Anonymous said...

Salams Sidi,
Alhamdulillah, just got back from there.
7-800 sounds about right; our driver charged us 500 dirhams to take us up there from Chefchaouen, wait one hour and then bring us back. We would have stayed longer but had to catch the bus to Fes.

The area is very well looked after and the car park is only a minute's walk from the Maqam, with a slope for easy wheelchair access.


Your blogposts were very helpful,
jazakum Allahu khair.

Anonymous said...

Assalam on those who follow the right path

Brothers and Sisters in Islam

When are you gonna wake up from this Shirk ;;
Do not associate anything to Allah;;GOD is self suffisant;;;Shirk is an unforgivable and the Highest SIN

May ALLAH guide us All

Anonymous said...

Salaam, we are hoping to go Fes in a few weeks and wished to do a day trip to see Moulay Ibn Mashish, what type of travel would you recommend?

Khalid Williams said...

Alaykum Salam. Chartered grand taxi is best. A couple of comments above give some details which should set you on your way in sha Allah. Have a blessed visit.

Anonymous said...

Salam..thanks for sharing this. I stumbled across here trying to find a map or directions from Chefchouhen to Moulay Abdel Salam. For those still looking, you can type the following in Google Maps and it will come up:
ضريح مولاي عبد السلام بن مشيش، P4704, Moulay Abdeslam, Larache, Tangier-Tetouan, Morocco

Anonymous said...

Salaams. Im glad i came across this beautiful post. Would you happen to know how to get to Sayyiduna Abdul Aziz Dabbaghs Place? I know its in Fez and im planning on going soon...

Unknown said...

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GhulaamHusayn said...

A deeply beautiful blog, I am backpacking across Morocco from Saturday inshaALLAH and I had no intention to go further North than Fez but InshaALLAH I would be honoured to get to Moulay Abdessalam ibn Mashish RA. Peace and love to you.

Anonymous said...

Salam alaikoum,

sorry to hijack your beautiful post. I'm in Morocco at the moment, an opportunity to study at a Zawiya has unfortunately not worked out. I'm now trying to find other Zawiyas or places to seek knowledge, could you point me to some people or places? (And is there a way to get in touch with you? Other than commenting on a post of your blog :) ?)


Anonymous said...

Aulia Allah only call those people to their house (tombs) who love them. i was lucky enough to be invited by sayyedina abul hasan shadli RA and sayyedina imam jazuli RA. may Allah grant our fellow muslims the love of his friends.

Unknown said...

jazakallah.. may you n Sara always prosper and reach the divine truth.. Ameen

Anonymous said...

Assalamualaykum to all you saints. May the love of Allah always be with you Insha-Allah. SO hopefully Insha-Allah, I plan to do a Shuyukh tomb tour around morocco insha-Allah. Particularly the Shuyukh of the Shadhili Darqawi Alawi silsilah. Namely Sh sidi Ali al Jamal, Shaykh Al Darqawi, Moulay Ibn Mashish, Shaykh Yusuf Al fassi and Shaykh Qaasim Al Khasassi (May Allah sanctify their secrets) If I have left any out please let me know. I was hoping someone could give me some idea of exactly where these beautiful tombs are Insha-Allah. Salamualayum.

@AnastasiaSongs said...

Assalaamu Aleikum dear writer, what a beautiful post, thank you for sharing your experiences, some really personal, and what vocabulary, masha'Allah. I've learned a lot. Looking forward to visiting Morocco even more so now. :) Thank you!

I wonder if I don't make it to the tomb, what is the radius distance we can pray for the soul and ask for a prayer for us, that it would still count. 1 metre? 5 metres? Same city? I'm traveling alone, that's why I'm wondering, if I don't make it to the tomb, could I do the same within the same city, or even country, or from the other side of the world? How far can souls catch frequencies? Hmm...just a thought.

Assalaamu Aleikum Waruhmtullah Wabarakatuh.

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