Inspired living

Abu Madyan: mediaeval wisdom for the modern world


Sufism is a mystical wing of Islam that involves turning the heart towards God to achieve a greater knowledge of Him. One of the most important historical sufis is Abu Madyan, also known as Sidi Abu Madyan Shuayb ibn al-Hussein al-Ansari, a remarkable poet and teacher who lived in North Africa during the mediaeval era. Devoted to the service of God, he lived as an ascetic who renounced the comforts of the world for spiritual reasons. Much of the information about the course of his life comes from the Moroccan biographer Abu Yaqub Yusuf Ibn Yahya ibn al-Zayyat al-Tadili.

Younger years

Abu Madyan was born in 1126, in Andalusia in modern-day Spain, a part of the world that had been under Islamic influence since the 8th century. His family was relatively poor and lived in Cantillana, a small town (today a city) about 35km from Seville (Ishbiliya).

Following the death of his father at a tender age, he became an orphan and was looked after by his elder brothers. Unfortunately, he received cruel treatment at their hands and was forced to work as a shepherd looking after their flocks of sheep.

Living in his brothers’ house, his life was characterised by an unfulfilled thirst for knowledge. Whenever he saw a man praying or reciting from the Quran, Abu Madyan wanted to go over to him. The would-be mystic described how at this time he felt a sadness in his soul because he had not memorised anything from the Quran and did not know how to pray.

As a result, he tried to run away. His brother caught up with him, carrying a spear, and threatened to kill Abu Madyan unless he returned. He remained in the house for a short time but then strengthened his resolve to flee again. This time he took a different route, but his brother again tracked him down, carrying a sword, and tried to strike him. The runaway attempted to defend himself with a piece of wood that he was holding and the sword flew into pieces. When his brother witnessed this event, which could easily have been interpreted as a sign from God, he must have been deeply affected, because he said to Abu Madyan that he was free to leave.

Heading south for three to four days, Abu Madyan arrived at a small hill close to the sea. There he encountered an old man who worked as a Sufi teacher (shaykh) and who lived as an ascetic. Abu Madyan told of his desire to learn the fundamentals of Islam and stayed in the man’s company for a few days. This was the first of a series of teachers under whose influence he came.

Next he returned to Seville and briefly moved from place to place before crossing the Straits of Gibraltar into North Africa and spending some time in the coastal city of Ceuta (Sebta), working as a fisherman.


In his young adulthood, Abu Madyan moved to the city of Marrakesh (Murrakus), which at the time was the fast-growing capital of the Almoravid Berber dynasty in Morocco. There, he joined a group of Andalusian mercenaries and worked as a city guard. Unfortunately, he had most of his wages stolen, leaving him with only a small remainder with which to provide for his basic needs.

During this period, his interest in the Quran, religion and mysticism continued to grow. He was advised by an acquaintance that Fes (Fas) would be the best place for him to devote himself to the study of religion. This ancient and impressive Moroccan city dates back to the 8th century and had already grown into an important centre for Islamic learning.

Arriving in Fes, his education began in earnest. First he attached himself to the Jami’ al-Qarawiyyin mosque-university where he learned the ablution and the prayer and sat in study circles with legists and specialists in the Hadith, an ancient collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad that are used in Islamic jurisprudence. The methodologies of juridical Sufism (a field linked to the administration of law) were part of his training from Sidi Ali Boughaleb.

While living in the city, he studied under a number of other teachers, including Ali ibn Harzihim, under whom he learned the ways of orthodox mysticism through the writings of al-Muhasibi, al-Qushayri, and al-Ghazali, a prominent Sunni Muslim theologian, philosopher and mystic who is regarded as a highly influential figure in the history of Islam. Harzihim was a key figure in the propagation of al-Ghazali’s works, and Abu Madyan later became enamoured of them, too. He describes Harzihim’s teaching as going straight to his heart, whereas previously he had not remembered anything he heard.

A further teacher, Al-Dakkak, gave him a khirqa, a patched cloak passed on from master to student in the learning of Islamic orthodox mysticism. Al-Dakkak was notable for his eccentricity, an aspect of which involved walking the streets, calling out that he was a saint.

Abu Madyan also learned from the Sufi saint Abu Ya’za, known for his miracles, and whose first interaction with the student initially appeared to be a disaster. Abu Madyan himself reports:

“When we arrived at Mount Ayrujan we went into Abu Ya’za’s house and he welcomed everyone except me. When the meal was served, he forbade me to eat; so I went and sat down in a corner of the house. It continued like that for three days; each time the meal appeared and I got up to eat, he sent me away; I was exhausted with hunger and I felt humiliated. After three days had gone by, Aba Ya’za left his seat: I sat down in the place where he had been and rubbed my face. Then I raised my head and opened my eyes: I saw nothing; I had become blind. During the whole night I did not stop crying. The next morning Abu Ya’za called for me and said: ‘Come here, Andalusian!’ I went close to him. He put his hand on my face and immediately I recovered my sight. Then he massaged my chest with his hands, and said to those who were present: ‘This one will have a great destiny!’”

Abu Madyan was introduced to the Qadiriyya (a Sufi order adhering strongly to the fundamentals of Islam) by the imam Moulay Abdelqader Jilani. This teacher concluded the seeker’s education in the traditions of Moroccan Sufi mysticism.

During this period of his life, when Abu Madyan heard the explanation of a Quranic verse or a saying of the Prophet, he would attempt to immerse himself in it into order to understand it completely. To this end, he would go to an uninhabited place such as Mount Zalagh, a peak that rises above Fes, and apply himself to exercises that God had inspired him to undertake following his absorption of the material. Natural surroundings were ideal for this purpose.

Animals would greet him warmly on these trips. Dogs would crowd around him, wagging their tails, and a gazelle would sniff him from head to toe and lie down by his side. One day he was carrying an amount of money wrapped in a piece of cloth and received a hostile and unfriendly response from the animals. When he threw the money away, the gazelle immediately became friendly and came up to him. This experience sowed seeds that later evolved into his ascetic lifestyle.

Later, Abu Madyan settled in the town of Bidjaya (Bougie) in modern Algeria, where he set up a mosque-school (zawiya) named Rabitat az-Zayyat (Hermitage of the Oil Seller.) There, he amassed a vast group of disciples and taught orthodox Islam mysticism to both Sufi adepts and the general population.

There, he is reported to have had a child by a black slave woman and was later reluctant to part from her because he was concerned about her welfare. A solution was reached when an acquaintance, Abd al-Razzaq Jazuli, volunteered to marry the mother and bring up the child. The son was remarkable for his precognitive abilities, which he claimed to access through his biological father, but died at a relatively young age.

Eventually, there was a downside to Abu Madyan’s success. His activities were viewed with suspicion, an anonymous informer spread accusations of sedition, and his fame and influence evoked concern from the provincial powers, namely the Almohad authorities in Bidjaya.

As a result, at an advanced age and in a weak and infirm condition, the Almohad caliph Ya’qub al Mansur urgently summoned him to Marrakesh under escort. Understandably, this development caused a lot of disquiet among his disciples. En route, he was taken ill and in 1198 he died before reaching his destination, in al-‘Ubbad near the Algerian city of Tlemcen, close to the Moroccan border. According to tradition, he had already voiced his resolve to die in this locality rather than continue on.

After being buried there, his tomb became an important place for Sufis on the overland pilgrim route from Morocco to Algeria and remains so to this day. Next to it an ornate mosque was later constructed.

His teachings

As a spiritual teacher, Abu Madyan paid attention to the manner in which he related to his disciples, whom he sometimes referred to as “sultans”, “chieftans” (amirs), and the “Party of God” (Hizballah). During his “sessions of admonition”, petitioners would ask him questions about mysticism, the Shari’a (Islamic religious law) or the religious sciences in general. He would tailor his response to his audience’s needs, often coming up with aphoristic answers.

Abu Madyan’s philosophy involved an acceptance of one’s emotions and, together with his devotees, he maintained close relationships with the people around them. He deliberately tailored his presentations so as to connect with the masses in ways that everybody could understand, not just the intellectuals. Without doubt, this was a major factor in his popularity and influence.

Key principles in Abu Madyan’s teaching

  • Repentance (tawba)
  • Asceticism (zudh)
  • Frugality
  • Humility or spiritual poverty. This was inspired by the Quranic verse "O men, ye are the poor in relation to God, and God is the Rich, to whom all praises are due." Abu Madyan became a living model of spiritual poverty
  • Visiting other masters
  • Service to experienced masters
  • Obedience of devotees to their master, and avoidance of disagreements between devotees
  • Justice
  • Denunciation of the unjust
  • Constancy (an unwavering quality, strength of mind, faith or loyalty)
  • Nobility of mind
  • Quiescence (khumul) achieving a full state of quiescence meant an end to all ego-motivated thoughts and desires
  • Acquiescence (sukun), a stronger version of the same quality that involves resigning oneself to God
  • Satisfaction with the gifts of God
  • Trust in God (tawakkul)
  • Devotion to God
  • Involvement in meditation

According to his philosophy, ego (nafs) was one of the main obstacles to self-awareness. As ego thrives on desire, it could be most effectively curtailed via the denial of one’s cravings, namely through asceticism. One obvious ascetic path was the creation of a condition of hunger via fasting. In addition to the Ramadan fast, both he and his followers are reported to have avoided eating during the two months of Rajab and Sha’ban, representing a combined fast of roughly 56 days. (These seventh and eighth months of the lunar Islamic calendar migrate through the seasons from year to year.)

Finally, his party would jointly undertake the “fast of intimate union” (sawm al-wasil), a 40-day abstinence intended to replicate the experiences of Moses and also Muhammad. The devout participants would repent all their sins, take a bath and then go into seclusion for its duration, taking nothing other than water. During this time, they would continually repeat the first profession of their faith, “There is no God but Allah.”

Other fasts included the fast of David, where one fasts on alternate days, and another lasting for three days a month that were nominated by the seeker.

Abu Madyan made a point of valuing the “outward” path of social engagement alongside the “inward” path of meditation, spiritual practice and devotion to God. He deliberately avoided regarding the interior as more “real” than everyday life. Essentially, he felt that spiritual growth cannot be separated from social responsibility. This represented a type of middle path between the sacred and the profane, where the two poles complement one another and create a kind of balance required for spiritual growth.

Another important philosophy pursued by Abu Madyan was the ethical fraternalism of futuwwa, an important aspect of mediaeval Moroccan Sufism involving chivalry, humility and service to others. According to As-Sulami, “Futuwwa involves the movements toward God in one’s heart and soul.” Another quotation that gives a more thorough insight comes from Sidi Abu Amr Dimashqi, who stated, “Futuwwa is awareness of the rights of one who is above you, other than you, or alike to you; and that you do not turn away from your brothers because of a fault, a quarrel or knowledge of a lie. He who loves his brother should see his [brother’s] obstinacy as loyalty and his rejection as acceptance and must not hate him in any state or moral condition.”

A selection of Abu Madyan’s sayings

“The heart has but one direction: if it turns to one thing, it is veiled from all else.”

“Every spiritual truth that extinguisheth not the traces of the creature, is no [real] truth.”

“Trust in God until the remembrance of Him hath completely overpowered thee.”

“Spiritual poverty is a pointer to the Divine Unity and a proof of detachment from multiplicity. The meaning of poverty is simply this: that thou takest cognisance of nothing but Him.”

“Sufism consists of personal integrity, generosity of spirit, the emulation of what has been revealed, knowledge of the [divine] Message, and adhering to the way of the prophets. He who deviates from these sources finds himself grazing in the gardens of Satan, submerged in the ocean of lusts, and wandering in the darkness of ignorance.”

“The true Sufi must be neither jealous, egotistical nor arrogant with his knowledge nor miserly with his money. Rather, he must act as a guide: not confused, but merciful of heart and companionate with all of creation. To him, every person is as [useful as] one of his hands. He is an ascetic: everything is equal to him, whether it be praise or blame, receiving or giving, acceptance or rejection, wealth or poverty. He is neither joyful about what comes to him nor sad about what has been lost.”

An enduring legacy

Abu Madyan’s surviving writings are largely in the form of sayings, mystical poems in the ode (qasida) style on the subject of the Sufi tradition, a testament (wasiyya) and a creed (aqida). His answers to questions from seekers were assembled in a collection titled The Intimacy of the Recluse and the Pastime of the Seeker (Uns al-wahid wa nuzhat al-murid).

He is considered by many to have been the most important religious and intellectual figure of his era, and also the greatest influence in the development of North African Sufism, with a strong influence on the Qadiri and Shadhili Sufi traditions. He was among the lineage (silsila) who carried the Shadhili order down from the prophet Muhammad, and came to be accorded the names The Nurturer (Al-Gwath) and also the Shaykh of Shaykhs.

The Sufi term qutb literally meant “axis” or “pivot” and was often used astronomically. In the human realm this indicated a perfect human being or spiritual leader who would act as an intermediary between God and a group of mystics; someone who led the saintly hierarchy. According to tradition, there was only one of these people in each era; during his life Abu Madyan is considered to have been the qutb of his time.

Contemporary relevance

Many of Abu Madyan’s values such as self-discipline and frugality contrast sharply with the modern world and its greed and consumerism. Whether this involves excessive amounts of food, “stuff”, news or other irrelevant information, today many of us seem to be awash in the unnecessary. In contrast, moving from a state of outer-directedness to a greater inner focus can involve shutting the door on much of this excess and concentrating instead on what really matters in your life, while also perhaps engaging in activities such as meditation.

In terms of his ideas concerning frugality, leaving aside possible negative associations with self-denial, living more simply is important at a time when we are increasingly conscious that every item purchased has its own environmental impact and a carbon footprint. Such a way of living has the added advantage of diminishing clutter in one’s physical space, increasingly the sense of satisfaction with what one has.

Since Abu Madyan’s time, the health benefits of fasting for limited periods have come to be widely recognised among the naturopathic community, and detox diets are increasingly being pursued. At a more watered-down level, moderation in food consumption is also beneficial for most people.

At a time when we are being encouraged to develop oversize egos, Abu Madyan’s path of egolessness is valuable, not as a form of self-abasement, but as a way of shrinking the importance of the self in relation to the world as a whole, and perhaps to one’s conception of a universal intelligence. This can lead to a healthy sense of humility and even awe.

The philosophy of Futuwwa takes in a range of contemporary scenarios, including being the Good Samaritan, helping a friend in need, creating mutual aid networks and building community. As growing numbers of people find that their lives are becoming more financially precarious, supportive community bonds are increasingly important.

Through giving the outer world and its responsibilities equal footing with the mystical path of devotion to God, Abu Madyan was a seminal figure whose attitude is reminiscent of those who “walk the talk” and believe that, after becoming enlightened, what matters most is to climb down the mountain and be of service in the world.


Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (northern NSW).




Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.