Origins of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya
(Q33:56) إن الله وملائكته يصلون على النبي ، ياأيها الذين آمنوا صلوا عليه وسلموا تسليما
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a series of Sufi reform movements spread in Africa and the Hijaz that had the name of Tariqa Muhammadiyya. These movements are associated with the term neo-Sufism coined by Fazlur Rahman and accepted by later scholars, as movements that incorporated radical reforms and changes to Sufism, so that it was pretty much a "new" and different sufism. This has been questioned by later scholars and the theory of neo-sufism has now generally been rejected. These movements do not seem to break from earlier Sufism in any way; they only emphasize certain parts of Sufism more than others, and as reform movements they discouraged certain practices of popular Sufism. Here, we are interested most in one form of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya in particular, the Ahmadiyya Muhammadiyya tariqa of Ahmad ibn Idris. But before we come to it, we will look into the history of the concept of a "Muhammedan Way" in Sufism and of the most common features of the Muhammedan Ways that appeared in the 18th/19th centuries.
The Tariqa Muhammadiyya is a reformist concept, and as such, it aims to return to the way of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and of his companions and their successors. Most features of such a Way, therefore, originate with the Prophet himself, and there is no need to go into them in detail. We will instead focus more on the more original or unique concepts found in the Tariqa Muhammadiyya movements that make them distinctive from other movements. For example, the Ahmadiyya Muhammadiyya tariqa of Ahmad ibn Idris and his successor Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi emphasized Ijtihad and a criticism of blind following of the madhaahib. Since this is a very important feature of the Tariqa, we will discuss its relation with the other concepts of the Tariqa, but we will focus more on such issues as waking vision of the Prophet and the methods to achieve that.
As explained in my previous article on the Waking Vision of the Prophet, the idea of Muslims seeing the Prophet Muhammad in their dreams and while awake, even after his death, goes back to authentic Hadiths. It was something reported of many companions and their successors, such as the Prophet's young cousin Ibn Abbas and the pious Umayyad caliph Umar II. Al-Suyuti and other scholars have written books on the subject, giving evidence from the Quran and Sunna and examples from the Companions, the first generations of Muslims, and of famous pious Muslims throughout the ages. The most relevant example from our pious ancestors, however, comes from the famous Hadith collector, Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458 AH/ 1066 CE). Al-Bayhaqi wrote a book called al-I'tiqad, or The Book of Doctrines According to the School of the Predecessors (al-Salaf), Which is the School of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa'a. In this book he said,
The Prophets, upon them be peace, had their souls returned to them after they died, and they are alive with their Lord. And our Prophet (pbuh) saw a group of them and led them in prayer, and he told us, and what he says is truth, that our prayers are presented to him, and that our greetings reach him, and that God forbade the earth from eating the bodies of the Prophets. And I have written a book proving that they are alive. Oh God, let us live according to the sunna of this noble Prophet, and let us die on his millah (i.e while following his faith and creed), and bring us together with him in this life and the next, for you are capable of all things.
The phrase used above by this great pious predecessor is ijma' baynana wa baynahu. The word ijma' has two meanings: 1) to bring together, as in a meeting or congregation and 2) to unite. Here, al-Bayhaqi is using this phrase to ask God to allow him to meet the Prophet in this life and in the next. Ahmad ibn Idris will use a strikingly similar prayer in his most famous prayer, the Azeemiyya prayer, which has spread far and wide in the Muslim world. The difference is that in this prayer, Ibn Idris will use the word ijma' with both its meanings in mind: allow me to meet him, and unite me with him. And while al-Bayhaqi asks to meet the Prophet in this world and in the next, Ahmad ibn Idris emphasized this world more. Thus he prays:
And join me to/with him [the Prophet], just as You joined the Ruh with the nafs,
Outwardly (zaahiran) and inwardly (baatinan), in wakefulness and in sleep....
In this world before the next, oh God the Great!
Seeing the Prophet awake remained a very rare thing that was rarely talked about, until Ibn Arabi mentioned it. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 CE), is credited with having preserved Sufism by compiling and writing about all known Sufi practices, so that none of them are ever lost. One such practice that Ibn Arabi discussed was the method at which one arrives at waking vision of the Prophet: constant repetition of the tasliya, or salaat 'ala al-nabi, such as "O God bless Muhammad and his family" or any other form of it. He says,
He [the devotee] confines himself to this dhikr [the tasliya] and is patient until he [the Prophet] appears to him. I never met anyone at this rank except an old blacksmith in Ishbiliyya who was known as "God, bless Muhammad" (Allaahumma, salli 'alaa Muhammad). He was not known by any other name...He doesn't talk to anyone except out of necessity. If anyone comes asking him to make something for him from iron, he asks as pay only that the customer bless Muhammad. No man, boy, or woman came to him without blessing Muhammad until he left....Whatever is revealed to the one who does this dhikr is true and immune from error, for nothing comes to him except through the Messenger..
Another aspect of Sufism that the Tariqa Muhammadiyya emphasized was fanaa' fil-Rasul, or Annihilation in the Messenger of God. For them, this was the best way to reach fanaa' in God, and Western scholars claim that this idea originated with Ibn Arabi although it is likely much older. According to Ibn Arabi, the Messenger of God was "the perfect link between God and humanity":
No matter how much the Real discloses himself to you in the mirror of your heart, your heart will only show you what is according to its own [defective] constitution...The manifestation of the Real in the mirror of Muhammad is the most Perfect, most balanced, and most beautiful manifestation, because of his mirror's particular qualities [of perfection]. When you perceive Him in the mirror of Muhammad, you will have perceieved from Him a perfection that you could not perceive by looking at your own mirror.
Thus you see why the Tariqa Muhammadiyya placed such importance on attaining vision of the Messenger of God and seeing annihilation in him (pbuh) as the most perfect way to annihilation in God.
Ibn Arabi was opposed by the great reformer Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). Ibn Taymiyya's reforms included a strong criticism of many Sufi practices and concepts, and for him terms were of great importance so he set out to replace Sufi terms with more "correct" ones. Ibn Taymiyya was not opposed to Sufism itself- he was initiated into the Qadiri tariqa and was extremely proud to have inherited the khirqa of Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, with there being only two people who wore it between them. He also commented on his Sufi works and called him "the perfect gnostic" and "our shaykh".
Ibn Taymiyya was also a strong critic of the madhahib, as Ibn Idris was, and as mentioned above, substituted some Sufi terms for more "correct ones". Thus Ibn Taymiyya, for example, thought that the term "Sufi" itself was not used by the Prophet or his companions, and that therefore it should be substituted by the Quranic word "faqir". Ahmad ibn Idris also substituted some common sufi terms, "preferring tariq (way) to tariqa, using the title ustaadh [teacher] rather than shaykh, and calling his followers taalibs (students) rather than murids. When he was obliged to appoint someont to represent him in Mecca, he called him not a khalifa but a wakil (agent)."
Ahmad Ibn Idris' main successor, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi, wrote a book criticizing blind following of the madhahib and calling for the use of Ijtihad, called Iqaz al-Wasnan or Waking the Slumberer on Acting According to the Hadith and the Quran. What is most interesting about this work is that most of the introduction is comprised of quotes from Ibn Taymiyya, while most of the conclusion is comprised of quotes from Ibn Arabi, since both agreed on the subject of Ijtihad.
One of Ibn Taymiyya's followers and friends was a Shadhili Sufi called Ahmad Imad ad-Din al-Wasiti (1258-1311). Ibn Taymiyya called him "The Junayd of his age" and "Our shaykh, the Imam, gnostic, exemplar, and spiritual wayfarer". Al-Wasiti might have been the first to use the term tariqa Muhammadiyya. For him, the tariqa Muhammadiyya was based on attaching oneself to the ruhaniyya (incorporeal presence) of the Prophet Muhammad, rather than an attachment to a human Shaykh. Thus to him, this tariqa of attaching oneself to the Prophet's incorporeal presence was the true path, rather than his own Shadhili or Ibn Taymiyya's Qadiri or any other path that was based on attachment to another human figure. Yet at the same time, al-Wasiti "did not deny the need in other respects for a shaykh in guiding one toward [fanaa']"
This was exactly the view of Ahmad Ibn Idris. For him, the living human shaykh was of utmost importance, but only for the sake of helping the taalib (student) reach the Prophet, after which the shaykh becomes obsolete, as the Prophet becomes his guide to God. Thus Ibn Idris would say to his students, "We have transferred you to [the care of] he who is better than us [i.e the Messenger of Allah]...So turn to him and show your questions and needs to him."
Al-Wasiti's tariqa Muhammadiyya remained a tariqa in the sense of "a way" or "a path", but "never became an order in an organizational sense, since al-Wasiti never opened his own zawiya, declining to give into a desire to do so that came- he feared- from his nafs (lower self)". As for Ibn Idris, he does not seem to have ever thought of making the Ahmadiyya Muhammadiyya into an "order", or a tariqa in an organizational sense. But that is not necessarily as a break from traditional Sufism as it is dictated by the very nature of the "way". Since it was based on direct guidance from the Prophet, there was no room for any elaborate structure or hierarchy. This was also a way in that it is based on certain types of dhikr and certain principles, which any person could follow even if they are already part of another Sufi tariqa. Thus anyone, whether a Shadhili or Naqshbandi or Qadiri, could also be initated into the Muhammadiyya Tariqa while remaining in his own order, but adding the litanies and principles of the Muhammadiyya.
Al-Wasiti also, as would the future Muhammedan ways, make the tasliya a central practice of the way:
You must have a litany (wird) of invocations...which should be read daily, and a litany of benedictions (salaat) that you send upon the Prophet, peace be upon him- doing so as if you were in his presence seeing him, loving him, and honouring his sanctity. Through this, I hope the Prophet's barakah penetrates your heart and that you be granted his love and the love of being comforted by it. This being a lamp to all goodness, God willing. 
Thus it is possible to say, as Dr. Sedgwick does, that "all the essential teachings of Ibn Idris in Mecca at the start of the nineteenth century, then, would have been recognizable to al-Wasiti in Damascus at the end of the thirteenth century, though al-Wasiti would have objected to Ibn Idris' inclusion in his definition of the tariqa Muhammadiyya of elements drawn from Ibn Arabi."
This practice of visualization during the tasliya was given emphasis by Abd al-Karim al-Jili (1364-1408), the "promiment commentator and systematizer of [Ibn Arabi's] thought". As we have seen from Ibn Arabi, vision of the Prophet might be attained through constant tasliya over the Prophet, while al-Wasiti emphasized attaching oneself to the Prophet's incorporeal presence and reciting the tasliya "as if you were in his presence seeing him..." Al-Jili emphasized this aspect of visualization, the object of which was "for a real vision to replace a synthetic one, for the cultivated visualization of the Prophet to become the actual, waking vision of the Prophet, ru'yat al-nabi yaqzatan" .
Continuously call to mind his image...If you have seen him in your sleep, call that image to mind. If you have not, bless him, and in your dhikr imagine yourself with him in his life. He hears you and sees you whenever you mention him... If you cannot do this and you have visited his tomb, recall its image in your mind. Whenever you do dhikr or bless him, be as if you were standing at his tomb, in all honor and respect... If you have not visited his tomb, continue to bless him, and imagine him hearing you.
Of course, this practice of visualizing the Prophet was not new, for we know from a famous hadith that the Prophet's grandson al-Hassan asked his uncle Hind for the Hilya of the Prophet (pbuh) ata'allaq bih (to attach myself to, or to hold fast to). The word Hilya means adornment or ornament or beauty- see here the great respect that al-Hassan (r.a.) is showing the Prophet, because he knows that all of his attributes and descriptions, peace be upon him, are beautiful, so he used the word Hilya. And therefore we know that al-Hassan used to hold fast to the image of the Prophet, pbuh.
Until now we have traced the origins of some of the most distinctive features of Ahmad Ibn Idris's Tariqa Muhammadiyya and other Muhammedan ways, up until the early 15th century. Next we will look at the middle period of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya from the 15th until the 18th centuries, while disucussing also the very important issue of the madhaahib, before we come to Ibn Idris himself.
1. Saleh al-Jaafari. Al-Muntaqa al-Nafees, pg 204. My (poor) translation. Added emphasis.
2. Sedgwick translates Ruh as the soul and nafs as the ego, while Radtke, O'Fahey and O'Kane translate Ruh as the spirit and nafs as the soul. All of them probably mean to translate Ruh as something coming from outside the body and the world, while the nafs as being part of the body or of this world.
3. Valeria J. Hoffman, "Annihilation in the Messenger of God: The Development of a Sufi Practice". Int. J. Middle East Stud. 31 (1999), 353.
6. See for example, Muhammad Umar Memon's Ibn Taimiya's Struggle Against Popular Religion, with an Annotated Translation of his Kitab iqtida' as-sirat al-mustaqim mukhalafat ashab al-jahim, The Hague: Mouton, 1976, p. ix.; and, G. Makdisi's article "Ibn Taymiyya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order" in the American Journal of Arabic Studies, 1973.
7. Ibn Taymiyya. Kitab al-Furqan bayna Awliya al-Rahman wa Awliya al-Shaytan. Has been translated by Abu Rumaysah into The Decisive Criterion Between the Friends of Allah and the Friends of Shaytan (Daar us-Sunnah Publishers, 2005).
8. Mark Sedgwick. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2005, 17.
9. Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Wasiti, Key to the Saintly Path. Translated by Surkheel Shareef, pg 1. PDF file.
10. Sedgwick, pg 30-31.
11. Ibid, pg 31.
12. Wasiti, pg 3.
13. Sedgwick, pg 31.
14. Hoffman, pg 352.
15. Sedgwick, pg 13.
16. Hoffman, pg 357.