Shaykh Yaqut al-‘Arsh al-Habashi: A Successor of Shaykh Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi

Author: Shaykh Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer

If the teachings of the Shadhuli order of Sufis (al-tariqa al-Shadhuliyya) are noted in our times, it is mainly to the writings of the Alexandrian Maliki jurisprudent (faqih), Shaykh Ahmad b. Ata’illah al-Sakandari. Additionally, the commonly reported chain of transmission (silsila) from Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli, the eponymous founder of the tariqa, goes through Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, and then from him to Ibn Ata’illah. Subsequently, we see the names of the Wafi brothers; Sidi Ahmad al-Zarruq; and Sidi Ali al-Darqawi. May Allah be well pleased with all of them.

The chains of transmission from Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli are numerous – but nearly every single one passes through Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi in Alexandria. Indeed, the way of the Shadhuliyya, as one of the author’s teachers once noted, radiated out of Alexandria, then Egypt, and then the Hijaz – and certainly in the Hijaz, in Makka and Madina, we find a plethora of lines, not least via what became known as the tariqa ulama Makka that belonged to the likes of Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki.

However, there is sometimes an erroneous assumption that Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi had only one successor, Sidi Ibn Ata’illah. He had two – and the second line is fascinating for many reasons. That second line goes through Sidi Yaqut al-‘Arsh al-Habashi – a man known as the “secret of Shaykh Abu al-Abbas.” The author knows this line through his teachers that came via one of the tariqas that emanated from Sidi Salama al-Radi of Egypt and were taught it was the “oral line,” but that the origin of it is relatively unknown. Indeed, what is known about Sidi Yaqut is that he is unknown. When I first went around looking for books about him some 20 years ago in the bookstores behind al-Azhar, I was told, “what is written about him is that he is unknown and there isn’t much written about him.” But here we shall try to give something of what Sidi Yaqut was.

Early Life

As his name would suggest, Sidi Yaqut was born in Habasha, the old name for Ethiopia. Sidi Abu al-Abbas spoke of him in Alexandria when he was born, declaring that “your brother Yaqut, who is born in Habasha, and will come to you.” Sidi Yaqut was taken into servitude and eventually taken to Alexandria as an enslaved person, still only ten years old.

En route, it is said, the ship was in danger of sinking due to turbulence, and the slave merchant pledged that if he were able to reach Alexandria safely, he would present Sidi Yaqut to Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, who was already well known as a great Friend (wali) of God in his time. When they arrived in Alexandria, Sidi Yaqut was injured due to the trip, and the merchant opted to present another slave to Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi. As the story goes, al-Mursi said this was not the one chosen for the “poor in God” (fuqara). The merchant brought Sidi Yaqut to him, and Sidi Abu al-Abbas then said: “This is the one whom (God’s) Power (al-qudra) has promised to us!” One of the author’s teachers also taught that Sidi Abu al-Abbas chose Sidi Yaqut due to a ru’ya (vision) and upon the counsel of Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli. Sidi Abu al-Abbas raised Sidi Yaqut as a member of his household from the age of ten– no one else spent more time with Sidi Abu al-Abbas, so intimately and thus had the opportunity to learn from his unique ways. The bond between al-Mursi and al-‘Arsh was such that the former freed the latter and married al-Arsh to his daughter, Fatima.

His Training

Sayyida Fatima was exceptional in several ways herself – not least because she was not only the daughter of Sidi Abu al-Abbas but the granddaughter of Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli himself. As one of the author’s teachers said, this was “a part of the secret of the secret.” Sidi Yaqut was recognized as a qutb – a Pole, as it were – and known for being a very committed follower of all that he had learned from Sidi Abu al-Abbas, who had been not only his father-in-law but the man who had raised him from the age of ten.

But even though he was reported to have been an excellent writer, he never actually wrote about the tariqa, perhaps in line with what Shaykh Abu al-Hasan had said himself, “my companions are my books.” He was a very subtle individual that could easily disappear right in front of anyone if they weren’t really paying attention. As one of the author’s teachers noted, he insisted that the proper place (manzil) for the truly realized person was the interspace (barzakh) between the created world (mulk) and the angelic realm (malakut). Some claim that Sidi Yaqut perhaps embodied the closest adherence to the original, final teachings of Sidi Abu al-Hasan – not that Ibn Ata’illah’s way was somehow flawed, but that al-‘Arsh’s way was perhaps more subtle, which was more similar to how Sidi Abu al-Hasan himself operated.

What Was Said about Sidi Yaqut

Imam Sha’arani, the great scholar (‘alim) and shaykh in the Shadhuliyya himself, narrates, “He was called al-ʿArshī because his heart was constantly beneath God’s throne (al-ʿarsh), whereas his body only was on Earth. It is also said that (he was given that nickname) because he was listening to the call for prayer (adhan) of the Angels Bearing the Throne of God (hamalat al-ʿarsh).” Al-Munawi further narrates in his own description of Sidi Yaqut as the “loftiest disciple (ajall talamidh)” of al-Mursī. He attributes the nickname al-ʿArshi to al-Mursī’s choice himself.

He also notes that Abu al-Abbas referred to Sidi Yaqut as “my son” to the other disciples instead of referring to him as “your brother,” signifying his closeness to him. The closeness was felt both ways very much according to Munawi’s descriptions, including the following story: “Once one of the “greats” (al-akābir) entered Yaqut’s place while he was talking to his wife, and he did not want to interrupt her. Then he said (to his visitor): “(She is) my shaykhs’ daughter (bint shaykhi), excuse me!”

On a very human level, Sidi Yaqut teaches us many lessons, two of which are about our obsession with race and stature. On race, Sidi Yaqut was born as an enslaved Black person – none of that mattered to Sidi Abu al-Hasan, who married Sidi Yaqut to his daughter, treated him like his own son, and made him his successor (khalifa).

On status, too, al-Munawi narrates that Sidi Yaqut once encountered a descendant of the Prophet (sharif) who had gone astray and was dressed shabbily, while Sidi Yaqut was clothed in a dignified fashion. The sharif attacked Sidi Yaqut based on the “inversion” of the appropriate order of things, where Yaqut was a descendant of slaves and he of the Prophet. Yaqut replied: “Maybe you have followed the way (minhaj) of my forefathers, so they considered you as one of them and transmitted you their (low) rank. And I followed the way of your forefathers, so they considered me as one of them and transmitted me their (high) rank.”

On another occasion, one of the sultans of Cairo, Sultan Hasan, went from Cairo to visit Sidi Yauqt but then thought to himself, “A Black slave has been given so much (honor)!?” Then, when he approached Sidi Yaqut, the latter hit the sultan seven times on his head and told him: “O, Hasan! Verily, he is but an enslaved person on whom We bestowed favors.” The sultan passed away a few months later. Al-Munawi then declares a general principle, “Yaqut used to say: ‘The faqir must honor people according to their religion (din), not according to their clothes (i.e., their outward social standing).’”

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The Transmission of the Shadhuliyya

When Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi passed away, there were four “established” zawiyas of the Shadhuliyya. The first was in the southern countryside of Tunisia, where Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli’s early companion, Sidi Abdullah b. Salama al-Habibi had continued the work there – from this line; incidentally, al-Jazuli, the compiler of Dala’il al-Khayrat, emanated.

The second was in Tunis, where Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Saqali was left in charge of al-Shadhuli, which is still active today. The one in Cairo was left in the care of Ibn Ata’illah al-Sakandari, of course – but the mother zawiya in Alexandria, the one where al-Shadhuli’s tariqa was finalized and flowered most of all, was left in charge of Sidi Yaqut al-Arsh. Sidi Yaqut lived to the age of 80 before passing on himself.

The line that Sidi Yaqut was at the head of in the tariqa of the Shadhuliyya included the likes Sidi Shams al-Din al-Hanafi – and from the “Hanafiyya” of this line’s shaykhs, we learn, privately, what there is to learn about Sidi Yaqut. The famous Ibn Battuta credits Sidi Yaqut with the transmission of narrations around two of the miracles (karamat) of Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli, including one concerning the most important litany of the Shadhuliyya, Hizb al-Bahr (the Orison of the Sea).

There are narrations about how Sidi Yaqut interceded even for the animals. It is said that once in a majlis, a dove came to Sidi Yaqut and sat on his shoulder. Sidi Yaqut acknowledged him and said, “Bismillah, we will send one of the fuqara with you.” As the story goes, the dove insisted that only Sidi Yaqut would suffice. Sidi Yaqut rode to Cairo from Alexandria to the mosque of Sayyidina Amr and said, “Let me meet the caller to prayer (muadhin).” The muadhin appeared, and Sidi Yaqut said, “This dove came to Alexandria and told me that you kill its young ones every time she gives birth to them in the Minaret.” The muadhin said: “Yes, that is true. I have killed them several times.” Sidi Yaqut said: “Don’t do it again.” The muadhin response was,” I repent to Allah ta`ala.”

Eventually, the line reaches Sidi Ahmad al-Batawi and Sidi Abu al-Da’im al-Khattab, both in Egypt. These were the teachers of Sidi Salama b. Hasan al-Radi, who was called the renewer (mujaddid) of Sufism in Egypt in the 20th century and was the shaykh of one of the author’s teachers. Sidi Salama al-Radi’s tariqa was the one that the famed Western Muslim metaphysician, Rene Guenon (Abdal Wahid Yahya), eventually attached himself to in Cairo. However, the latter had been initiated into the Shadhuliyya, to begin with, by Ivan Agueli (Shaykh Abdal Hadi) some years earlier.

Sidi Yaqut al-Arsh al-Habashi passed at the age of 80 on the 18th of Jumada II in 707 (Hijri) and rests in a maqam a stone’s throw away from several of the grandchildren of Sayyidina al-Husayn, a few more meters away from the maqam of his beloved teacher, father-in-law, and foster father, Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, in Alexandria. We ask Allah to bless him in abundance and to benefit us through him.

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Shaykh Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer, fellow of Cambridge University’s Centre of Islamic Studies, studied the Islamic tradition with ‘ulama in Europe, the Arab world, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, alongside his Western education to post-doctoral levels in law and the social sciences. Born to an English father and to an Egyptian mother of ʿAbbāsī-Sudanese & Ḥasanī-Moroccan heritage, his mentors include the Malaysian polymath, Professor S. M. Naquib al-Attas, and Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, khalifa of Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, who appointed Shaykh Hisham as the only senior scholar of the noted Azzawia Institute. Regularly included in the annual “The Muslim 500”, his career has included positions at Harvard, the American University (Cairo), and Cambridge Muslim College, where Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad appointed him as the college’s first professorial fellow. His seven books include A Sublime Path: the Sufi Way of the Makkan Sages.