Shaykh Salih al-Ja'fari: The Symbol of Al-Azhar


Shaykh Salih was still a new student in the Azhar. Though he was only around twenty years old, he already had a wife and two children that he had to leave back home in Sudan for the sake of acquiring sacred knowledge. The great cosmopolitan city of Cairo was very different in the 1930’s than his conservative home town of Dongola, a city in the north of Sudan whose inhabitants were particularly known for the way they were brought up to love the Messenger of Allah (may Allah exalt him and send him greetings of peace). The young student of knowledge was worried that he will be corrupted in Cairo by all that he saw around him. People were not dressed modestly as they did back home, luxury and wealth was all around, and there were many more worldly distractions there than back home where he spent all his time in the old mosque of Dongola, learning the Qur’an and benefitting from the company of the righteous. Shaykh Salih made up his mind that he was going to return to Sudan, and went to his teacher at the Azhar, the Mauritanian hadith master Muhammad ibn Habibullah al-Shinqiti to inform him of his decision. This teacher was one of the greatest scholars of hadith in his age, and had been a Mufti and teacher in Mecca for a long time before coming to Cairo, but he was more than that. Shaykh Salih had seen in him signs of nearness to Allah (most great), and had experienced first-hand many instances of the shaykh’s sharp spiritual insight.

Shaykh al-Shinqiti said, “O Salih, are you not hungry?”

He said, “Yes, my master.”

“Go and find us some type of meat for us to eat.”

“At your service, master.”

The young Shaykh Salih went to the market to search for food, and the only cooked food that he found ready was duck, so he bought a nice fat duck and took it back to the shaykh. However, when he saw his teacher, he saw that he had already eaten food that he had with him. He felt sad and thought to himself, “Maybe the shaykh will not eat with me!”

The shaykh said, “Sit and eat, Salih.” Shaykh Salih sat and asked his teacher to join him, but he refused and insisted that the young student eat on his own. Meanwhile he kept looking at his student and encouraging him, with “bismillah’s” to eat more and more.” It was a large duck and after eating half of it, Shaykh Salih was completely full. He wanted to get up but the shaykh would not allow it, and said to him, “Have some more.”

“But I truly can’t, my master, khalas, I’m full!”

He said, “No! Have more, you’re not full yet.”

“My master, there is absolutely no space for more at all.”

The shaykh said: “Salih, if I were to tell you to go buy some sweets now to eat, would you find any space for them in your stomach after all that you have eaten?”

At this point, the young student felt a great sense of awe from his venerable teacher’s question, realizing that all of this was done for a reason.

“No, master, I would not be able to, because my stomach is absolutely full.”

Shaykh Salih then described his teacher speaking to him in a state of immense majesty, as if to split his chest open and plant this wisdom inside it:

“Such is the heart of the believer, Salih. If it is filled with faith, nothing (unwanted) could enter it. Fill your heart with faith, and then have no fear for it from anything.”

Years later, as Shaykh Salih recounted this story to his own students, he reflected back on his teacher’s words and action, and said,

“He truly washed away all the confusion from my heart and illuminated my inner being. I began to gulp down the light of faith and knowledge of Allah, until I had no care or worry for what they call the fitna of women, of money, or of children. There was nothing left in my heart except the love of the Living One who does not die, glorifying His praise, and He made it easy for my heart to be filled with the love of His Chosen Beloved and Select Prophet, and the love of the members of the Prophet’s Household, and the love of sacred knowledge and teaching it.”

This story captures well the message and essence of the teachings for which Shaykh Salih dedicated his life as one of the most celebrated scholars, teachers and imams of the noble Azhar Mosque, the intellectual heart of Sunni Islam for almost 900 years.

The Life and Teachings of Shaykh Salih al-Ja‘fari (1910-1979)

Shaykh Salih al-Ja‘fari wrote a commentary on forty hadith of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ that he himself chose, focusing on the theme of spiritual development. This book (translated into the English language as Reassurance for the Seeker), begins with a hadith that states,

Whoever possesses these three things will taste the sweetness of faith: That Allah and His Messenger are more beloved to him than anything other than them, that he loves someone only for the sake of Allah, and that he would hate to return to disbelief just as he would hate to be thrown into a fire. (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim).

As Shaykh Salih says in the commentary, this hadith tells us that faith has a sweetness that can be tasted. In other words, it is not simply a belief, but something more concrete, something that one can truly experience directly. The key to arriving at this is to love Allah and His Messenger more than anything else, including one’s own self, family, and possessions. We could also infer from this hadith that when one loves Allah and His Messenger more than anything else, this love will become the main lens through which a believer will see the world and interact with others. He will love for the sake of Allah those who do that which pleases Allah. In other words, his priorities, his interactions, his values, are guided above all by his faith, not by anything else that might sway a person’s thinking or pull his heart in different directions. Love makes one’s worship more sincere, and in fact, the highest form of submission and servitude is that achieved willingly, through love. As one famous scholar said in lines of poetry which Shaykh Salih quoted in that same chapter, addressing Allah (most great),

I witness the reality of Your beauty, and so becomes pleasurable to me,

my submission and self-abasement in my love of You

The lover of Allah is more than happy to obey Allah, not out of fear of the fire or desire for reward. He truly submits not just his body but his heart and mind to the One he loves. That is as the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said in a statement that Imam al-Nawawi chose for his own collection of forty hadith, “None of you truly believes until his desires follow that which I have brought you” (narrated by al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi in Nawadir al-Usul). Finally, as the last part of the hadith indicates, and as Shaykh Salih learned from the lesson of Shaykh al-Shinqiti, when someone has truly experienced and tasted faith, he would never let anything jeopardize it, for it would pain him to lose it as it would pain him to be thrown into the fire.

This is something that Shaykh Salih not only believed, but knew from his own personal experience, and this was the main purpose behind his teachings. One of the greatest scholars of the past was a man known as al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, “The Sage of Tirmidh,” who was famous for his expositions on the levels of wilaya (nearness to Allah), and for his hadith collection and commentary - in fact one of the earliest hadith commentaries ever written - Nawadir al-Usul. Al-Tirmidhi spoke of the verse of the Qur’an that says, “Allah chooses whomever He pleases for Himself, and guides towards Himself those who turn to Him” (42:13). He stated that most of those who are brought near to Allah, and raised in ranks in His sight, are of the latter type, those who turn to Allah and strive to gain His pleasure and nearness. However, more special than them are those rare ones who were given precedence in the verse, those whom Allah chooses for Himself, the people of ijtiba (election). Prophets, before they became Prophets, did not strive to become Prophets, but were chosen by Allah to fulfil that role. Similarly, there are those that Allah chooses for Himself, and He makes the way easier for them to reach the highest ranks.

Shaykh Salih was like that, and he did not have a normal childhood. At the young age of eight years old, he saw in his dream the Messenger of Allah ﷺ embrace him and kiss him. Ever since then, his heart became attached to the Qur’an, and he would always keep it at his bedside, so that when he woke up in the middle of the night, he could recite it. When his father tried to get him to work in the family business, he would run away to the mosque to study the Qur’an. From a young age, he had several visions of the Prophet and his family, for whom Shaykh Salih felt a special attachment, as a descendant of the Prophet through his grandson al-Husayn. In one dream, he saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and his four rightly-guided caliphs, and he greeted each of them and kissed their hands. When he reached Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) at the end and kissed his hand, he said to him, “I am your descendant!” At this point he saw the Messenger of Allah nodding his blessed head in confirmation. Therefore, from his youth he was drawn to Allah, and he experienced what people strive to experience well into their adult years through lots of effort and training. Shaykh Salih dedicated his life to making others believe in what he experienced first hand, to strengthening the faith of the Muslims, to inspire them to strive for the utmost pleasure of Allah (most high), to inculcate in them the love of Allah and His Messenger above all else, so that they submit not only with their bodies but with their hearts, minds, and the entirety of their beings, willingly and lovingly, to the teachings of Allah and His Messenger, and seeing nothing else, being attracted to nothing else, putting the teachings of Islam above all else.

Shaykh Salih’s parents got him married at the young age of fourteen, ensuring the most pure upbringing. At the age of twenty he decided to travel to the Azhar to seek sacred knowledge. Cairo was also the place where his ancestor al-Husayn, as well as al-Husayn’s sister Zaynab, and many other figures of the family of the Messenger of Allah were buried, and Shaykh Salih felt a strong love for them. This love should not be understood as being simply due to the fact that he was a descendant of al-Husayn, but rather a love sprinting from the strength of his love of the Messenger himself. Shaykh Salih loved the Messenger so much, and as an extension of that, loved those who were close to, and beloved to, the Messenger. It is as the hadith states, “love my family out of love of me” (narrated by Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi). The fact that these blessed figures were buried in Cairo is another reason that he loved that city and was happy to travel there.

At that time, education at the Azhar still followed the traditional format of teachers sitting at different pillars; it had not yet been transformed into a modern university. Shaykh Salih studied with some of the world’s greatest scholars of the time, such as the Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti‘i (d. 1935), Shaykh al-Islam Yusuf al-Dijwi (d. 1946), and the hadith masters Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samaluti (d. 1934) and Muhammad Habibullah al-Shinqiti (d. 1944). Shaykh Salih remained a student of al-Shinqiti for fifteen years until his death, and received authorization to teach all of his works, and would replace the Shaykh when he could not be there to teach himself. It seems that the teachers that he was most drawn to were also people of great wisdom and illumined hearts, and that he was particularly drawn to lessons of Qur’an and hadith commentary. The system at the time was for a student to spend twelve years at the Azhar studying with different scholars until he was ready to be tested, and should he succeed, he would be given the ‘Alimiyya degree. However, less than half way into his studies Shaykh Salih was already being entrusted to teach in the place of his teachers, and to give his own lessons which drew very large crowds. He seemed to have a powerful passion for teaching and would do so at every opportunity given to him, until he impressed the Grand Shaykh of the Azhar, who gave him an official appointment as a teacher and imam at the noble Azhar Mosque. Shaykh Salih became an expert on Qur’an and Hadith commentary, and an expert in jurisprudence, even described as a mujtahid by some of Egypt’s great scholars.

Shaykh Salih was really attached to the Azhar and to sacred knowledge, so much so that he was the last person to live within the walls of the Azhar after specialist dormitories were built for the students and teachers. A special chamber only three meters long by two meters wide was made for him inside one of the mosque’s teaching halls, where he lived for thirty-three years until his passing. Unlike other teachers who taught during term time and left for holidays, Shaykh Salih never travelled except for his yearly Hajj (which he performed twenty-seven times), and only left the mosque to visit the people of righteousness and piety. Therefore no matter what time people came into the mosque seeking answers, he was there, and in times when formal teaching at the mosque had stopped, he was also there. Students at the Azhar could always find him there, to explain to them what they found difficult in their texts or from the lessons they heard. Every year, when the time for examinations came, hundreds of students would come and live in the Azhar, in order to prepare for, and take, their exams. Not only was the Shaykh there to help them revise, many would come seek his blessings and prayers for their success. Most would recall how he himself would wake everyone in the mosque for Fajr prayers. As for Shaykh Salih himself, he never slept at night, spending his nights in prayer and the remembrance of Allah, and would only nap in the daytime after the Noon Prayers. Shaykh Salih thus came to represent the Azhar itself. One of those who held the title of Grand Shaykh of the Azhar said,

Shaykh Salih is the Azhar, by way of his presence in it, and by his knowledge. Many visitors to al-Azhar from different countries found Shaykh Salih (may Allah be pleased with him) representing the Azhar with his knowledge, and so his presence at the Azhar was a symbol of the Azhar. He held a daily lesson after the Sunset Prayer, and would teach on all important Islamic occasions, but he was most famous for his Friday Lessons.

It was mainly through these lessons after the Friday Prayer that Shaykh Salih’s message spread to all types of people who came to attend, from the scholars to the lay people, even military generals and every type of person could be found in his lessons. In those lessons, Shaykh Salih focused on two things more than anything else: the importance of the Qur’an, and the importance of loving Allah and His Messenger. It was a focus on the three things mentioned in the following verse, “There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book” (5:15). Allah, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ (the “light”), and the Qur’an. Lessons would begin as a commentary on a verse of the Qur’an, or a hadith of the Messenger of Allah, and would take the listeners to heights of spirituality and faith.

In that time when Shaykh Salih taught, many streams of thought were gaining force that threatened the traditional Islamic teachings of Sunni Islam. The first of these was Communism, as Egypt and much of the Arab world had allied itself with the USSR, and Communist thought, aided by Arab Nationalism, began to spread and attack the teachings of Islam. The threat of Communism seemed so great at the time that in a book published in 1956 titled Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East, the author even wrote, “What is decisive is that Islam has gradually ceased to be a serious competitor of Communism in the struggle for the soul of the present and potential elites in the countries of the Middle East.” Another threat was different types of modern Islamic reform movements that seemed to have a lot in common with Communist and atheist thought, in its rejection of all things mystical, and a vision of material, rather than spiritual, progress. The main effort of Shaykh Salih was to protect the faith of Muslims by emphasizing the eternal relevance and truth of the Qur’an and the Sunna. He sought to revive the love and appreciation that Muslims always had for the Book of Allah and the way of the Messenger of Allah, and to revive their faith in the unseen. He wanted them to taste the sweetness of faith. Shaykh Salih was also ever striving to preserve the unity of the Muslims. He spoke out against labels that different groups used to call others which only served to increase division, misunderstandings, and unhelpful generalizations among Muslims, and used his wisdom to keep a spirit of mutual understanding and respect among those who disagreed with each other. Shaykh Ahmad Taha Rayan, currently the Shaykh of the Maliki Scholars in Egypt, recalls,

Shaykh Salih did not speak about jurisprudence too much, because his main concern was to elevate the Islamic spirit in the souls of the people, so that they would come to feel the spirit of the religion and taste its sweetness. He (may Allah be pleased with him) would say beautiful and wondrous words about the love of Allah (most great), and raise the audience to a station in which they achieved love of Allah (most high), love of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ , and love of the Messenger’s family. The message of the Shaykh - and the Azhar in general - was greater than just teaching people the rulings on the ritual purification or the ritual prayer, with all their importance in the religion... He would quickly move on from these topics to guide the believer in his dealings with Allah and the Messenger of Allah…He would also tell the stories of the righteous, or speak from the knowledge which Allah (most great) caused to overflow onto his heart, and the time would pass without us feeling it. The time between the Friday noon prayer and the afternoon prayer would end as if it were just minutes.

With his wisdom and insight, Shaykh Salih was like a father figure to the scholars and the lay people who came to attend his lessons. Even some of his own teachers would hope for the blessing of his supplications and come to him in times of need, asking for his du‘a. Those who attended his lessons almost invariably described with amazement how he seemed to always answer whatever questions they had in their hearts that day. He lived by the counsel that the Messenger of Allah gave to his Companions and followers until the end of time, especially those who would succeed him and represent him as the scholars and teachers of Islam: “Give people glad tidings, rather than pushing them away (with that which scares them or repulses them). Make things easy for people, rather than making them difficult.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud). One of his students, Muhammad Rajab al-Bayyumi, recalls how people would come to Shaykh Salih in distress if they lost a loved one and he would console them and remind them that Allah tests the ones whom He loves, and had tested His Beloved Messenger with the loss of his children. He recalls how sometimes a person would come to Shaykh Salih, sad and distressed at a sin he had committed, and would, in private, tell the Shaykh what he had committed. Shaykh Salih would say to the man, “go perform a major ritual ablution, and cut your nails and shave your hair, and come back to me, and I will tell you what to do.” When the man did what he was told and then returned, the Shaykh would smile at seeing him, and say to him with happiness: “Glad tidings are yours! You have now repented to Allah. However, this repentance will not be accepted if you return to that sin. Now you have removed from your body every trace of that sin, when you cleansed yourself thoroughly, and you have been reborn a new person. Allah will forgive that which came before, but beware, beware, of going back to what you used to do. Then he would recite the saying of Allah,

“And those who, if they do something shameful or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins - and who forgives sins but Allah? - and they do not knowingly persist in doing wrong. The reward for such people is forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will remain. How excellent is the reward of those who labor!” (3:135-6).

Al-Bayyumi continues, “The man would listen, joyful at the glad tidings, and would leave with a determination to be obedient, regretful for his mistake. The image of the great Shaykh would remain in his consciousness, with him daily, for he feels that the Shaykh is the person he can trust with his secrets, and the one he can turn to in times of difficulty.”

In this way Shaykh Salih spent fifty years in the Azhar, of these, he taught for at least forty-two years, including many of his years as a student. His aim was to inspire, reassure, and guide Muslims to aim high: to seek nearness to Allah and His Messenger, and to love them above all else. He sought to reaffirm their faith in the relevance and blessings of the Qur’an and Sunna, and in the world of the unseen, and to support them and inspire them to be patient in this world of tests and tribulations, and to remember that Paradise was not here but in the world to come. Perhaps the greatest advice that Shaykh Salih returned to again and again in all his lessons and books was the importance of sacred knowledge as a guiding light, nourishment for the souls, and a means of salvation. In a short piece of poetry he wrote,

Everyone in this universe complains of his time,

of the worries, darknesses, and tribulations it brings

Every generation comes and complains of its age,

if that is the case, then who is this world for?

Leave the worldly life and seize instead

the knowledge of the Sacred Path, a science after another!

The people of ignorance are all dead but those,

who have acquired knowledge are the ones truly living

In a time in which several movements arose in the Arab world to challenge traditional Sunni Islam, Shaykh Salih chose to give his life to teaching, and to live inside the walls of the very heart of Sunni Islam, giving his knowledge, wisdom, and counsel to those who came from near and far. We could say that his mission could be summed up in this: to equip the believers with beneficial knowledge that would guide them to the right course of action, and to fill their hearts with faith so that they had no space for - nor even desired - anything else. And as he wrote in Reassurance for the Seeker, “The hadith teaches us that faith becomes sweet through love of Allah and love of His Messenger.”

Dr. Samer Dajani is the translator of Reassurance for the Seeker: A Biography and Translation of Salih al-Ja‘fari’s al-Fawa’id al-Ja‘fariyya, available at Amazon and other online booksellers.