Glimpses of the Life of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri
Taken from Sea without Shore by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller.
Twenty-two years before we had come out of this mosque together after visiting the shrine of Sheikh Muhyiddin. I had 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 trimmed mustachio 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 suitcoat and with its 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, “He who needs a thing 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 oneself.
He never stopped teaching. He once entered the head office of a small religious academy in Damascus with a group of his students and sat down to talk to the director, who bade him wait until he finished some things that were apparently urgent. One thing seemed to lead to another, and the phone kept ringing. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman waited patiently, while his disciples, as the minutes drew on, became less and less so. Finally, the principal of the school set aside his work, looked up at the sheikh and apologized with a smile, and put himself at the sheikh’s service. The sheikh thanked him, asked him how he was, and then said, “I just wanted to make a phone call.” After a short call, he got up, thanked the principal, and left with his disciples. They had needed a lesson in patience and manners, and the sheikh had given them one.
Practice was the aim of the sheikh’s knowledge. Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili (d. 654/1258), whose order the sheikh belonged to, would not let his disciples beg, but had them earn their own livelihood, and Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman emphasized the importance of having a trade to earn one’s living by the work of one’s hand. 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 own children.”
We had sat on the edge of a pallet on a narrow wooden bed in a room with a single window, whence light shone down on us, and the sheikh was answering a few questions I had on the last day of my first khalwa. “Will we be together in the next world?” I had asked. “All those who attained marifa, gnosis of the Divine, in this life,” he said, “shall have a special place in paradise by a white dune of musk. Our Lord shall manifest Himself to them once a week, and they will remain drunken with the vision of it for the entire week, when He shall appear to them again, and hence ever shall it be.”
“We never speak of three things: this world, women, or politics.”
Born in Homs in 1910 of a noble family descended from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), he came to Damascus and worked first as a stableboy, then running errands, then as a weaver, then as a foreman, then as a supervisor of textile mills. He had been instrumental in unionizing workers in the twentieth 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. When the textile industry was nationalized under socialism, he was but two years away from retiring and receiving his pension, and he was now asked to head the industry. He replied that “nationalization is theft,” and preferred to be fired and forfeit his pension than have anything to do with it. 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.
When I first took the tariqa from him, thoughts would come to me about the lucre of evangelists and gurus back in the West, and I would wonder, “What if he asks for money?” For a space, every time I visited him he would ask me how much my fare had been from Jordan, how much the hotel was, whether I had spent anything else, and then give me the whole sum. The day came when I saw what he was getting at, the thoughts went away, and he never mentioned money again.
Too, I once came to Damascus to complain about one of the brethren in Jordan, and after checking into a hotel, went to the tiny office and bookshop of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi off the courtyard of the Darwishiyya Mosque. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman would drop in there after the noon prayer each day to visit with his friends, where I found him and gave my Salams. Before I could say anything, he said, “How is your ego getting along with So-and-so?” mentioning the person I was thinking of by name. I was stymied for a moment, then said, “Allah be praised.” The sheikh replied, “Allah be praised,” then talked about the importance of being with true and honest people, and avoiding those who spoke badly of others.
About the Author: NUH HA MIM KELLER was born in the northwestern United States in 1954. He read philosophy and classical Arabic at the University of Chicago and UCLA, and became a Muslim in Cairo in 1977. He was a disciple in the Shadhili order of the Sufi master and poet Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri of Damascus from 1982 until the latter’s death in 2004, and was authorized as a sheikh in the order by Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman in 1996. He has studied Shafi‘i and Hanafi jurisprudence, hadith, and other subjects with traditional scholars in the Middle East, and in the 1980s, under the tutelage of Islamic scholars in Syria and Jordan, produced Reliance of the Traveller, the first translation of a standard Islamic legal reference in a European language to be certified by al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s oldest institution of higher learning. Among his other works and translations are Becoming Muslim, Sufism in Islam, al-Maqasid: Imam Nawawi’s Manual of Islam, Invocations of the Shadhili Order, Port in a Storm: A Fiqh Solution to the Qibla of North America, and an illuminated calligraphic edition of Dala‘il al-Khayrat. He has travelled and lectured on Islam extensively, and he writes and teaches in Amman, where he has lived since 1980.