He is the sheikh and imam Abu al-Mawahib Abdul Wahhab Ibn Ahmed Ibn Ali al-Sha’rani, born in the village Saqiyat Abu Sha’ra in al-Munufiyya, hence the appellation. His grandfather, who established a zawiya in the village for learning, settled down there after migrating from Upper Egypt.
al-Sha’rani’s family was originally from Tilmisan. They moved to Upper Egypt based on a prophecy of the sufi imam Abu Madayn al-Maghraby. They later left Upper Egypt for al-Munufiyya.
Born in 898 AH and orphaned with no companion or guide save Allah, al-Sha’rani traveled to Cairo in 910 AH. In Cairo, he lodged in Abu al-‘Abbas al-Ghamry Mosque where he remained for seventeen years acquiring and teaching knowledge and devoting himself to worship. From his first day in Cairo, he met with outstanding scholars such as Jalal al-Deen al-Suyuti, Zakariyya al-Ansari, Naser al-Deen al-Laqqani, al-Ramly, and al-Samanudi. He studied under them Islamic sciences, Arabic language, usul (tenets of faith), fiqh (jurisprudence), tasawwuf (Sufism), hadith (prophetic traditions), tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), and literature until he became a great and copious scholar. He later focused his interests on the spiritual paths pursued by sufis and frequented sufi sheikhs. Allah granted him success at the hands of Aly al-Khawas through whom he attained success and became the greatest imam in both knowledge and perceptibility. He frequently reiterated the words of Zakariyya al-Ansari who said, “If a scholar is not knowledgeable of the conditions and terminology of a community, he is indeed a dry scholar” and “Belief is distinction and criticism is deprivation.” He also reiterated the words of Sheikh Mohammed al-Maghraby al-Shadhily who said, “Seek the path of the elite even if they are few and beware of following the path of those who are ignorant of them even if they are many. It suffices enough honor to be knowledgeable of those who follow the words of our master Musa, peace be upon him, who told al-Khidr, “May I follow you so that you teach me of the knowledge you have been taught?” This verse comprises the greatest proof for the obligation to seek knowledge of truth and the obligation to learn Islamic law.
al-Sha’rani was a true scholar. He was active in calling to the way of Allah the Almighty. He established a zawiya where students of esoteric and exoteric sciences could meet. al-Sha’rani’s zawiya became the minaret of Islamic knowledge, the meeting place of scholars, a pulpit for calling and guiding to the way of Allah, an arena for dhikr (making remembrance of Allah) and worship, a workroom for aspirants, and lodgings for those pursuing the spiritual path.
al-Sha’rani enriched the Islamic library with his prolific work on Sufism. Aly Basha Mubarak mentioned in his encyclopedia Al-Khatat al-Tawfiqiyya that he saw seventy of al-Sha’rani’s books which included Al-Ajwiba al-Mardiyya ‘an A`imat al-Fuqaha` al-Sufiyya, al-Anwar al-Qudsiyya fi Mi’rifat Adab al-Sufiyya, Bahjat al-Nufus wal al-Asma’ wal Ahdaq fima Tamayaz bihi al-Qawm min al-Adab wal Akhlaq, Tanbih al-Muftarin fi Adab al-Deen, al-Jawaher wal Durar al-Kubra, Durar al-Ghawas min Fatawa al-Sheikh Aly al-Khawas, Qawa’id al-Kashfiyya fi al-Sifat al-Ilahiyya, al-Kabreet al-Ahmar fi ‘Ulum al-Sheikh al-Akbar, Lata`if al-Minan, Lawaqih al-Anwar fi Tabaqat al-Akhyar that is known as al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, Lawaqih al-Anwar al-Qudsiyya fi Bayan al-‘Uhud al-Muhammadiyya, Madarek al-Salikeen ila Rusum Tareeq al-‘Arifeen, Mashareq al-Anwar, al-Minah al-Suniyya, and al-Yawaqeet wal Jawaher fi ‘Aqa`id al-Akaber.
al-Sha’rani maintained that the deplorable condition of Sufism at his time is what drove him to write these books. He lamented the luminary sheikhs who died because their departure meant the end of the sanctity of the spiritual path and its followers. Consequently, sufis were ridiculed and people mocked them, belying their claims to abandoning the love for this world and its desires and pleasures.
al-Sha’rani’s methodology is that of ahl al-sunna who unanimously agree on the obligation interpreting the hadiths (prophetic reports) on the attributes of Allah such as the hadith “Allah descends to the lowest heaven” and the words of Allah the Almighty, “The Most Gracious is firmly established on the Throne”. He also maintained that the words of those who maintain that Allah is in the heart of gnostics are to be ignored and the right thing to say is that the cognizance of Allah is in the hearts of gnostics. This is substantiated by the hadith, “The heart of My believing servant encompasses me” i.e. it encompasses knowledge of Allah though He is exalted above containment. It is likewise obligatory to avoid abusing time since verily Allah is time.
al-Sha’rani defended Ibn ‘Arabi and expounded what he meant by the following:
“My Lord conversed with me about my heart” or “My Lord conversed with me about Himself through the lifting of mediums.” Commenting on this, al-Sha’rani said, “[Ibn Arabi] does not mean that Allah the Almighty actually talked to him as He did with prophets. He meant that Allah the Almighty inspired him to become aware of some conditions.”
al-Sha’rani’s book al-Minan is one of the best and most noble books on ethics expounding the characteristics of Islamic ethics. His book Lawa`ih al-Anwar al-Qudsiyya fi Bayan al-‘Uhud al-Muhammadiyya is an exposition of his tenets that can be regarded as a guiding light for sufis and a living example of ethics by considering the Prophet ﷺ the ultimate model for every Muslim. In his introduction to the book, al-Sha’rani said, “This is a unprecedented and valuable book. The competition I witnessed between fellow brothers over what they lack in this world was the motive behind the writing of this book. I have not seen anyone search for what they miss of matters relating to their religion.” The same motive drove him to write al-Anwar al-Qudsiyya whose aim was to exposit sufi methodologies and the relationship tying the sheikh to his disciple and ethics in general.
In the book, al-Tabaqat, al-Sha’rani exposes charlatans and impostors claiming to be sufis. He perceived their evil and criticized them through revealing their ignorance, goals, and vulgarity. It is due to this stand towards pseudo-sufis that readers of the book are shocked by al-Sha’rani’s inclusion of them under the biographies of our righteous predecessors. His aim, however, was to allow the reader to compare between the former and the latter.
His books Tanbih al-Mughtareen, al- Minan al-Kubra , al-Anwar al-Qudsiyya , and Qawa’id al-Sufiyya all aim to expound exemplary sufi ethics. al-Shaikh al-Sha’rani was a religious and social reformer who called upon true sufis to work and attain a craft through which they could earn their living to avoid joblessness. He criticized the scholars who attain vast knowledge but do not practice what they learn and who do not promote virtue and prevent vice.
Sheikh al-Sha’rani died in 973 AH. His last words were, “I am going to my Lord, the Merciful, the Munificent.”