by Richard Lang

You are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty man thinks is water; but when he comes up to it he finds it is nothing. And where he thought it was, there he finds God. Similarly, if you were to examine yourself, you would find it to be nothing, and instead you would find God. That is to say, you would find God instead of yourself, and there would be nothing left of you but a name without a form.

Be turned unto God, welcoming all that cometh unto thee from him.

Al-Alawi (1869-1934)

Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi was born in Mostaganem in Algeria, in 1869. He was an only son, with two sisters. Before his birth his mother dreamed that the Prophet Mohammed handed her a flower. Her husband interpreted this to mean they would be blessed with a pious son.

Al-'Alawi never went to school. At home he learned the Qoran from his father, coming to know almost nine tenths by heart. He was addicted to learning, and deeply religious by nature. Growing up he took up cobbling to earn a living , then turned to running a shop. His father died when he was sixteen.

His spiritual breakthrough came when he met Shaikh Sidi Muhammad Al-Buzidi. Up until this meeting Al-'Alawi had been involved with studying theology and developing minor miraculous powers, but now everything changed. Through his new teacher's spiritual guidance he awoke to who he really was. He saw directly into his innermost being, which is the One. As he said: "There is no longer any need to believe, when one sees the Truth."

This awakening is everybody's birthright. Nearer to each of us than our own breathing is God. Or as the Qoran says, "God cometh in between a man and his own heart." And again, "God is nearer to man than his jugular vein." Here is the truth that mystics the world over see. "None hath hearing, sight, life, speech, power, will, knowledge save only God." Or, as Al-'Alawi's younger Indian contemporary Ramana Maharshi so often used to say, "You are not the body, you are the Self." Instead of imagining that you are a thing in the world, see that the world is within you - within infinite eternal awareness. It is this One, rather than you as a person, who is now experiencing the world from your point of view. For only God sees, only God thinks. Awaken to who you really are and you will see that you are God.

Al-Alawi did not mince his words on this: "Once this state has been realised, all the Lights of Infinite Life may penetrate the soul of the Sufi, and make him participate in the Divine Life, so that he has a right to exclaim: "I am Allah". " This is as radical a position for a Moslem to take as it would be for a Christian. But here Al-Alawi is in profound agreement with the great Christian mystics - and the great mystics of all traditions. This is the central insight of all true mysticism.

Al-'Alawi spent fifteen years in service to the Shaikh. Encouraged by his master to teach, his shop more often resembled a zawiyah or spiritual centre than a trading establishment.

After his master's death Al-'Alawi was elected to succeed him as Shaikh. Yet he resisted this, and for several months in 1909 went off travelling with a disciple. He journeyed where the spirit led him, travelling to Tunis, Tripoli and Istanbul. Going where the spirit leads arises naturally from being awake to the spirit, for from the spirit flows inspiration and guidance.

Al-'Alawi had not wanted to take over from his teacher. Later on he warned against teaching before one is ready: "Indeed, there is nothing better for the disciple than obscurity after attainment, and no harm is greater for him than fame at that moment, that is, at the moment of his entry unto God, not afterwards, for after his burial in the earth of obscurity there is no harm in the spreading of his fame inasmuch as the growth hath come after the roots were firm, not before, so that there is no doubt that he will bring forth in fullness."

Returning home to Algeria Al-'Alawi took up his responsibilities as Shaikh. As early as 1923 he was reported as having at least 100,000 disciples. Four years later this figure had more than doubled.

Al-'Alawi died in 1934. A great Moslem saint, he saw simply and directly into his true nature. In the words of Meister Eckhart, the great mediaeval Christian mystic, the eye by which he saw God was the same eye by which God saw him.

Al-'Alawi devoted his life to being awake to who he really was. "The Gnostics are inwardly ever with God, and if their inward parts were to be busied with aught else, they would be trifling in His Presence."

Following naturally on from Awakening is surrender - surrender to the will of God as manifest in the present moment. With this surrender, with this abandonment to divine providence comes peace. In one of his poems Al-'Alawi wrote:

Since all my days are now unclouded, I count not woes as others count them. Who knoweth God, were he to lose The entire world, would need no solace.

Not only was peace in his heart, but wonder as well: "When the Gnostic hath attained unto the Maker, then is his thought changed to wonderment." At the end of the day, the universe and the source from which it arises, moment by moment - the source that is your innermost nature - is wholly beyond understanding or reason or explanation. We are left, happily, with wonder, praise, and worship, and a joy that has no shadow.

Al-'Alawi was modest and self-effacing, yet he affected people profoundly. In his presence they felt the certainty and depth of his experience of God, and they understandably considered him a holy man. Yet we need not rest with respecting and admiring his saintliness, for the truth is that we also can see who we really are. We too can look within and awaken to the mystery that is so near and simple. Here, nearer than your own neck vein, is the Origin of the world. Whereas others, looking at you from a distance, see a 'mirage in the desert' - your appearance - you at no distance from yourself, at the core of all the layers of your appearances, can see God. In truth, there is nothing in the way of you seeing God here and now, for where others see your face, you can see your Original Face, your no-face. "Each thing hath two faces, a face of its own, and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, and in respect of the Face of God it is Being." (Al-Ghazali.)

Seeing this we can then, each in our own way, hand our lives over to the One that we really are. "Be turned unto God, welcoming all that cometh unto thee from him.

(Quotations and biographical details from 'A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century. Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi', by Martin Lings, published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1961.)

Richard Lang
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