Sidi Muhammad bin Salek bin Fahfu, known as Murabit al-Hajj (1913-2018), was a Mauritanian Muslim scholar who was the main teacher of American Muslim thinker Hamza Yusuf. In 2016, he was selected by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre amongst ‘The 500 Most Influential Muslims’ who died at the age of 105. Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj was known as an embodiment of a living textual authority on the sciences (ulum) of Islam, but perhaps more astounding than that, he has mastered his own self, heart and soul. His discipline is almost like the discipline of the companions, and his presence is filled with such a sacred calmness and other worldlythat the one in it experience rejuvenation of his fitrah-centric subjectivity.
Shaykh Murabit was among suchan Aalim, who was equally present with His Creator as well as His creation, and kept rejuvenating his own belief and the souls of thousands around Him. Murabit belonged to the tribe of Massumi who trace their lineage back to the Himyar tribe of Yemen. The shaykh himself comes from a long line of scholars and was known throughout Mauritania for his knowledge and piety. After studying in the school of his father, he decided to make the trip to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage at the age of about nineteen. A total journey of about three years deserves a book to chronicle his experiences. Although he had a great love to live in the city of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), he did not think he could assume the right of being a neighbor to the Best of Creation (peace and blessings be upon him), and therefore he made his return journey home. It was after his journey to Hajj that his mother gave him the title “al Hajj.”
The Shaykh, a Bedouin, living away from the influxes and engagements, disenchanted by both the sweet and sour fruits of modernity kept his soul deeply consumed in the remembrance of the Sacred, spending most of his time in solitude, worshiping through prayers, fasting, and reading the Book of Allah. Staying near the encampment (as they were still nomadic at that time), he rarely interacted with people and had his food and drink brought to him. It was only after students came to sit with him upon hearing about his knowledge that he left his solitary worship. He then spent most of his time teaching with little time for family, sleep, and other basic needs. He would teach late into the night by fire light and then get up in the last part of the night to pray. However, if a student came for a lesson, the Shaykh would quicken or give up this time for prayer, as well as all other types of extra praying. He has continued this way of life up until the last day of his life.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf wrote on his Instagram account: He told me several times, “Hamza, this world is an ocean, and those who drown in it are untold numbers. Don’t drown.” I have never seen anyone like him before him or after him, and I don’t think that I ever will. May Allah reward him for his service to this deen and his love and concern for the Muslims. He was never known to speak ill of anyone. He said to me, “And what is man other than a comet that flashes brilliant light for a moment only to be reduced to ashes.” Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj is a master of the sciences of Islam, but perhaps more wondrous than that, he has mastered his own soul. His discipline is almost angelic, and his presence is so majestic and ethereal that the one in it experiences a palpable stillness in the soul. As the Arabs says, “the one who hears is not as the one who has seen.” May Allah grant him the highest level of paradise. Ameen.
Through his perseverance and sacrifice, Murabit al Hajj has produced many scholars, some of whom are his own children and cousins. At his present school, his cousin Shaykh Muhammad al Ameen; his son, Muhammad Tahir; and his grandson, Shaykh Abdullah bin Ahmadna teach alongside him providing a complete system to teach the necessary sciences. Also, throughout the village are people who have memorized the Quran and are able to teach it and usually have a few small children learning from them. The wives and daughters of the shuyukh also teach the Quran and the basic texts of fiqh. In addition, there are advanced students who also spend their time tutoring others.
THE MAHDHARA (TRADITIONAL EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM) OF SHAYKH MURABIT AL HAJJ
The Mauritanian school system of the mahdhara is a microcosm of the traditional style of learning that was going on throughout the Ummah. Then, within Mauritania, the school of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj is outstanding in that it has preserved the traditional way more so than other areas due to the remoteness of the village, an area where not even the Mauritanians in general frequent. In the early 1970’s, Shaykh Murabit al Hajj and his family decided to go down and live in a city that was being established nearby, Guerou, because the drought had made it hard to live in the badia (open land) since their lives depended on their livestock and seasonal farming. It was an easier life, but Shaykh Murabit al Hajj did not feel comfortable living there as he felt that people were drifting away from the Sunnah. So, in accordance with the hadith about the last days, he took his family and livestock and returned to the badia to protect his deen. The present location of his school has, at times, up to 400 people. About 100 of them are students with the rest being the shuyukh, their families, other families that had come to live with Shaykh Murabit al Hajj, and seasonal workers. There are two other schools in the area which follow the same style of teaching and learning. About 20 km to the northwest is the school of Shaykh Murabit Ahmad Fal, who is the father of Shaykh Abdullah. Shaykh Ahmad Fal was married to the daughter of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj until she passed away. About 30 km east of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj’s school is the school of the noble Shaykh Muhammad Zain (who is descended from the Prophet, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him).
The method of learning utilizes the lawh(wooden tablet), whereby the text is written in charcoal ink on the tablet and then memorized and studied under the watchful guidance of the shuyukh(guides). Everything that is studied is committed to memory, and this is one of the reasons why the scholars of Mauritania (also known as Shinquitt) made a distinguished presence wherever they went. The children first memorize the Quran, starting at about seven years of age. After memorizing it, they study the rasm(science related to writing the Quran according to the ‘Uthmani script). Next, they study the Quran a second time, though this time they write it on their tablets from memory. The first time they write it either having the shaykh write it for them, dictate it to them, or by looking at a mushaf(copy of the Quran). After that, they learn the dabt which is a science related to the differences between the two narrations of Nafi’ (Warsh and Qalun). They then move on to pursue further studies in fiqh, grammar, aqidah and hadith. The madhhab of Imam Malik is taught using traditional texts. The text of Ibn Ashir, Imam al Akhdari, the Risala of Ibn Abi Zaid, Ashal ul Masalik, Nathmu Muqadimaati ibn Rushd, and the Mukhtasar of Sidi Khalil are the main texts studied there for fiqh. As for grammar, they use the Ajrumiyyah, Mulhat al ‘Iraab, Qatru Nada, and the Alfiyyah of Ibn Malik. In aqidah, they teach the Ash’ari creed using the texts of Imam Ash Sharnubi, Imam al Bulaym, Jawahar at Tawhid, and Idaah as well as other texts.
To be Continued…
—The author is an academic and researcher, and presently teaching Islamic Studies at Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir and can be reached at email@example.com