The Quest of Sidi Ibrahim


Sidi Ibrahim is the Sufi name of Titus Burckhardt [1908-1984]. ‘Sidi’ or ‘Sayyidi’ means literally ‘my master’ and, in fact, Sidi Ibrahim guided the students of Sidi ‘Isa, aka F. Schuon, in Basel. Sidi is actually used as an honorific title given to someone who has been initiated into the Sufi path. Sidi Ibrahim has described his quest to find a spiritual guide and teacher in some detail.

Do you know shaykh Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdallah [1784-1817]? You can see a painting of this ancestor of Sidi Ibrahim dressed in Muslim clothes and can read more about his life at This ancestor made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1815. He was the first European to describe the hajj in some detail. His work is valuable because he describes several buildings that at the beginning of the 19th century were destroyed by the Wahabi sect.

Some friends of Sidi Ibrahim asked him at the end of his life to tell them how he has found his murshid in Morocco [seeTayeb Chouiref’s Titus Burckhardt – Le Soufisme entre Orient et Occident, volume 1; pp. 95-111]. Sidi Ibrahim [hereafter: Sidi] made it clear that he settled in Fèz, Morocco in 1933. During his quest to find a Sufi master he also studied Arabic. Month after month he was unsuccessful. He only was able to meet those who followed an outward path, next to some fools of God who were unable to offer guidance.

In addition to this he contracted malaria. During his feverish dreams he several times saw the mausoleum of Ibn ‘Ashir [d. 1363], a Sufi known for his healing qualities. These visions were so intense that, when Sidi recovered somewhat, he decided to visit this Sufi place. He put on Moroccan clothes and travelled to the town of Salé. For some reason or other, the members of the guild that produces certain Moroccan slippers are often students in the Shadhiliyya tariqa.

That’s why Sidi approached a man belonging to that guild who appeared to be a contemplative person. Sidi directly asked him if there was a spiritual guide and teacher living in Salé. He, indeed, received an answer, but before proceeding with Sidi’s quest, let us deal with the question of why someone like him, born in Florence, Italy, and spending his youth in Basel, Switzerland, had the inclination to live in Morocco.

During his youth in Basel, he became friends with Frithjof Schuon [1907-1998]. Frithjof was twelve years old and he was eleven. Their lives went their separate ways until the two former schoolmates both get interested in the Sufi teachings of René Guénon. Sidi thereafter desired to get acquainted in person with an authentic spiritual tradition. His renewed meeting with Frithjof proved to be a turning point in his life.

Frithjof had just returned from his visit to shaykh al-’Alawi in Mostaghanem. Sidi would have liked to meet this Sufi as well, but he was told that the shaykh was very ill and that the French colonial rulers regarded visitors to the shaykh with suspicion. Shortly afterwards Sidi received an invitation from a friend to come to Morocco.

Sidi has been active in studying art [painting, sculpture] in Germany and France. He decided to visit Morocco to find artistic inspiration and to flee from a Europe that was incapable to satisfy him in regard to his thirst for beauty. He considers the invitation from a friend to come to the Maghreb to be a sign. Morocco has called him with its rich culture and especially with its rich spiritual heritage.

That’s why he asked a direct question to the artisan in Salé hoping to find a Sufi murshid. The man informed him about a muqaddam in Salé, but he was not available because of a journey. Instead of this muqaddam, he mentioned the name of al-hajj Muhammad Busha’ra: “He’ll answer all your questions. You’ll find him in the house of the governor. I’ll give you this boy to guide you to that place.”

When Sidi entered the government building, several clerks working there looked down on him, showing a haughty attitude. Muhammad Busha’ra received him with a somewhat shy smile in his office. Sidi wanted to know if he could ask him questions about Sufi brotherhoods and the possibility of finding a spiritual guide. Muhammad Busha’ra was willing to receive him in his own house after sunset.

Sidi arrived there at the designated time. Muhammad Busha’ra observed him closely and then asked: “Why are you searching for tasawwuf while it is nothing else but the kernel of Islam? When you would deepen your experience of Islam, you would find the truths of tasawwuf.” Sidi answered that Sufism implied the existence of a spiritual master, to which his host responded in an evasive way that the master would come at the necessary time.

Muhammad Busha’ra discovered somewhat later that Sidi had learned all kinds of rites from students in the large mosque of the university of Fèz. He told him: “Leave those things for the moment. Just concentrate on what is essential. This is how tasawwuf starts. It implies that you deepen your experience. Don’t lose yourself in outward details.”

When Sidi asked questions about Sufism, Muhammad Busha’ra most of the times answered him in an evasive way. Every now and then Muhammad Busha’ra, however, explained things about the Sufi path spontaneously. After about a week, Sidi decided to return to Fèz. Before departing he was taken to a house with these marble letters in Arabic above the gate:

الزاوية الدرقاوية

The ‘house’ happened to be a Darqawiyya zawiya. The dhikr circle of the Darqawiyya tariqa that took place in that Sufi centre in the presence of Sidi was so impressive [و لذکر الله اکبر] to him that he directed himself to Muhammad Busha’ra and asked him: “Are you now my spiritual guide and teacher?” “No!” – he answered. “Your Sufi master lives in Fèz and his name is ‘Ali ibn at-Tayyib ad-Darqawi.”

Sidi took his leave of Muhammad Busha’ra. He didn’t realize that he had been in the presence of a muqaddam of the Darqawiyya. His quest now took him to Fèz. Muhammad Busha’ra promised to send him a letter of recommendation addressed to Moulay ‘Ali ad-Darqawi. After his arrival in Fèz he waited in vain for this letter to arrive.

He must have made several walks in the city of Fèz while waiting for this letter to arrive. Because of his love for beauty, Fèz must have been the ideal Islamic city for Sidi. He has described Fèz with its many mosques, its traditional architecture, its Sufi dargahs with lots of love and knowledge. He was fascinated by the guilds and artisans. Here is a description of his meeting ‘Abd al-’Aziz.

Sidi decided one evening in the Spring of 1933 to wait no longer for the letter and went out to visit the Sufi master. He must have been somewhat nervous as he knew that Moulay ‘Ali was someone who avoided contact. He found the house of the Darqawi shaykh, but because it was already quite dark, he could not see the man who opened the door. The voice of an old man said to him: “My son, this is not the proper time for a visit, return the next day in the morning.”

The shaykh took Sidi afterwards with him to his teaching sessions in al-Qarawiyyin. Sidi was sitting in the same circle as the students of Moulay ‘Ali. When he got the impression that Sidi could not follow what was taught, he asked him if he had understood him: “A-fahimta?” When he answered “no!” he asked one of his other students to repeat the teaching. This was also meant to improve Sidi’s knowledge of classical Arabic.

Sidi has written a letter to his friends in Europe that he has found a murshid in Moulay ‘Ali. He explained that been initiated into the same tariqa as Sidi ‘Isa, i.e. his friend F. Schuon, but by a different shaykh. He described the initiation as “a transmission of a spiritual influence, a blessing [baraka].”

One day Sidi decided to visit the zawaya – the Sufi centres – along the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic coast, the western border of the Islamic world, contains many zawaya that are arranged like a string of pearls along the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of this trip he stayed in a zawiya in Marrakech. A spiritual master was buried there, but Sidi didn’t remember his name when describing this visit afterwards. When sitting in the garden, suddenly the muqaddam of this Sufi centre arrived. His presence was refreshing like a cool wind. His name was Muhammad al-Majadli.

During a walk in the old quarter of Marrakech, Sidi had bought a copy of a book of shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Jili about the Universal Human Being. He showed it to the muqaddam. Muhammad al-Majadli opened it at random. This is what he read aloud:

When you, in your invocation, address yourself to a friend of God, you will receive an answer from God. When you, in your invocation, address yourself to God, while using one of His names, you will receive an answer from the friend of God who in his invocation has identified himself with that name.

Muhammad al-Majadli then with a smile asked Sidi: “Do you understand this? A Sufi doctrine mentions that everything is united with the Divine. What prevents us in that case to experience this unity?” Sidi gave this answer: “We are not prevented by something present in the things, but by something in ourselves.”

Some students, active at the university of Marrakech, arrived somewhat later. They were clearly only interested in the outward dimension of Islam. They described a certain man as a fool and severely criticised him. Sidi al-Majadli was startled hearing this and with quite some force said they were wrong. This man was no fool at all, but a saintly and wise man; he was in fact his own murshid.

He described the qualities of his murshid so vividly that Sidi became desirous to meet him himself. Muhammad al-Majadli, however, made it clear that this would be very difficult because his spiritual guide was leading the life of a traveller. He went on by reading aloud another teaching from the book of shaykh al-Jili. A stranger suddenly entered and asked, after giving his salaams: “What are you reading?”

They were reading about the Sufi Doctrine of the Universal Human Being. Shaykh al-Jili describes the appearances of Absolute Being as Essence, Names, Qualities and Divinity, as well as the corresponding contemplative states in the Sufi path. This is far from being merely a theoretical matter. Shaykh al-Jili writes:

“I’ll mention of all that only that which happened to me on my own journey to God. Moreover, I recount nothing in this book, neither of myself nor of another, without my having tested it at the time when I travelled in God by the path of intuition and direct vision.”

The stranger then took the book they were reading in his hands and immediately told them that its level was far too elevated for them. He then started talking and Sidi, because of his limited knowledge of Arabic could only understand part thereof. To his surprise, however, it solved some of the problems that kept him occupied. At a certain moment, the stranger turned towards Sidi and asked: “Where is Sidi Ibrahim?”

Muhammad al-Majadli then told Sidi that this stranger was no other than his own spiritual guide and teacher: “Ask him for his blessings!” When Sidi stood up to comply with this remark, the shaykh stopped him and said: “No, you who came and entered Islam, are in fact a blessing to the others. You are like a sword freshly drawn from the sheath.”

During his first visit to Morocco, Sidi was fascinated to meet a muwaqqit – a guardian of time – in the minaret of al-Qarawiyyin mosque. A muwaqqit is an astronomer tasked with the timekeeping and the regulation of prayer times. This is how he describes meeting this guardian of time:

“I have forgotten the name of the muwaqqit who, at the time of my first visit to Morocco – that is to say between the two world wars – held this office. I have never seen a more strikingly beautiful man. He was already old, certainly over eighty, but he seemed taller than everyone else, possibly because of his royal countenance, in which his widely-set light-grey eyes shone, like two stars, with a victorious inward joy. His white beard fell down over his broad chest. I felt that the Patriarch Abraham must have looked like this.”
“In the muwaqqit’s room in the minaret, several medieval sextants hang beside a tall pendulum-clock, which was the gift of Louis XIV to the Sultan Mulay Ismail. The finely chiseled circles and curves of the ancient instruments are reminiscent of the orbits of the heavenly bodies, whereas the complacently ostentatious baroque time-piece merely recalls the historical moment when, in a general manner, men began to measure time, not from the movement of the heavens, but according to a mechanical process. For the muwaqqit of the Qarawiyyin, the movement of the heavens was still the valid measure. Depending on the season, the revolving of the heavens is either faster or slower than the working of a clock, and this means that a clock does not keep exactly in step with the most primordial and comprehensive measure of time -time itself being ungraspable – since the movement of the heavens resembles a rhythm rather than a mechanical ticking.”

Time transported Sidi to 1935, the year that the French demanded him to leave Morocco. They didn’t understand his love for Sufism and considered him to be a spy. He talked with F. Schuon about the things that occupied his thoughts. F. Schuon gave him such clear responses that it became clear to Sidi that this friend he had known since he was only eleven years old in fact was the spiritual guide and teacher he had been searching for during so many years. F. Schuon, aka Sidi ‘Isa Nur al-Din, gave him the wazifa to guide his murids in Basel.

Sidi was once looking out of his window in Basel in Switzerland and the view of the street offered him a grey and desolate picture of everyday life in Europe. He experienced a nostalgic feeling for Morocco with its still medieval life. Suddenly a thought came to him, i.e. that westerners would as likely to be ready to enter the tariqa as that it would be likely that a camel would appear in the street in front of him in Basel. At that very instant a camel appeared in the street. It carried a sign on its back inviting people to the local zoo.

The leitmotiv of Sidi’s quest has been beauty. He could have been a creative artist, but his pursuit of beauty at all levels [i.e. the material, ethical, spiritual and divine levels] took him at a young age to Sufism. He loved the traditional values he experienced among the Darqawiyya Sufis in Morocco. He loved talking to artisans in the Bazar, like the comb maker or the guardian of time. He loved the saying of the Prophet Muhammad [s.a.w.] that God is beautiful and He loves beauty. While certain features of postmodern society tend to diminish beauty as an important value, this loss of beauty would be considered by Sidi as a loss of the soul.

Sidi returned regularly to Morocco after its independence in 1956. He was asked to take charge of the plan for the restoration of the architecture of the old city of Fèz. This plan included handicrafts in order to create an ambience that allowed spiritual values to shine through.

Sidi Ibrahim’s contemplative path made it clear to him that there is a hidden correspondence between outward and inward beauty. Sidi Ibrahim longed to see that kind of beauty which according to Mawlana Rumi so often remains veiled:

ای آفتاب حسن برون آ دمی ز ابر
کان چهرهء مشعشع تابانم آرزوست

O Sun of Beauty! Come out for a moment from the clouds:
To see your beaming, illuminated countenance is my wish.