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“The true rulers of Cairo are Sayyidina al-Husayn and Sayyidatina Zaynab”

The first time I visited Cairo was perhaps almost forty years ago; the son of an English father, my mother was a Cairene, through and through. But it took some time before I heard the description of one of my first teachers in Sufism about Cairo’s unique quality – the city of awliya’ Allah (friends of God). He told me:

“The true rulers of Cairo are Sayyidina al-Husayn and Sayyidatina Zaynab. Visit them.”

On another occasion, I expressed my amazement to him how so many bizarre things seemed to exist in Cairo, against the laws of nature. Such as the gas-jockey at the petrol station who is smoking a cigarette – and yet all is well. And so many other rather peculiar and odd things. He told me, “It’s not according to the laws of physics, otherwise the whole place probably would have collapsed long ago. But the soil of Cairo is the resting place of so many awliya’. It’s really just about that.”

It is well known among the mashaykh worldwide that there is something unique about Egypt. A deeply spiritual quality, and one that no-one has ever quite understood. I asked many shaykhs about it – they all had no idea, and also said no-one else seemed to either, but that it was clearly there. It’s why outside of the Hijaz, there is no place on earth where more Ahl al-Bayt, sages and scholars visited and decided to stay, more than is the case in Egypt. No one quite knows why – only that it is like that.

“Did you visit Imam al-Husayn?”

When Shaykh BaBikr Ahmed BaBikr visited Cairo recently, he and I visited a particular set of awliya’ from among the saints and sages buried in Cairo. I added a few ziyaras, to them, including my mother, Imam al-Shafi’i, Sidi Salih al-Jaf’ari, and Ibn Ata’illah al-Sakandari. But Shaykh BaBikr had a particular tartib/order of visitations that he wanted to do. And Shaykh BaBikr had a reason for that order – because it had been told to him many years before.

On a previous visit to Egypt, Shaykh BaBikr visited Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, the successor to Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli, the eponymous founder of the Shadhuli tariqa, may God be well pleased with him and all the mashaykh. He was also there to visit al-Mursi’s successor, Sidi Yaqut al-‘Arsh (an article on this lesser known saint is here) and Imam al-Busayri, the compiler of the well-known Burda.

Shaykh BaBikr met an old man outside, who seemed to almost be sleeping, while selling ‘yellow books’ (probably books of litanies), and then asked Shaykh BaBikr, “Did you visit Imam al-Husayn (the grandson of the Prophet, buried in Cairo)?” Shaykh BaBikr responded that he had. “Did you visit Sayyida Zaynab (the grand-daughter of the Prophet, also buried in Cairo)?” to which Shaykh BaBikr said ‘yes’. And then the old man returned to the sleepful kind of state he had been in, and then he told Shaykh BaBikr, “Sayyida Zaynab is telling me, “Why don’t you (i.e., Shaykh BaBikr) visit Sidi Ali Zayn al-Abidin?”

Ali Zayn al-Abidin is, of course, the son of Sayyidina Husayn b. Abi Talib; one of the few who survived the massacre at Karbala; he is buried in Madina al-Munawarra, but his own son, Zayn al-Abidin, is buried in Cairo, and the place where Sayyidina Zayn al-Abidin’s grave is actually known in Cairo as the maqam of Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin. A maqam, one should keep in mind, is not always the qabr or grave of the saint in question; rather, it is dedicated to them due to a particular reason.

Shaykh BaBikr responded, “No, I didn’t, and I never did, and I don’t know why I never did.” The old man continued, “She (Sayyida Zaynab) is telling me (to tell you) to do the ziyara (visitations) of Imam al-Husayn, Sayyida Zaynab, Ali Zayn al-Abidin, Sayyida Nafisa, Sayyida Sukayna, and then Sayyida Aisha.” Before Shaykh BaBikr left him, he asked the man for his name, and he was told: “Jabal al-Awliya’.”

Sayyida Nafisa is, of course, the great hadith scholar, the daughter of al-Hasan al-Anwar b. Zayd b. Hasan b. Ali, the teacher of Imam al-Shafi’i, who migated from the Hijaz to Egypt and, like so many sages and saints, decided to remain in Egypt till her passing.

Sayyida Sukayna, or Sakina, is the daughter of Sayyidina al-Husayn; she survived the massacre of Karbala, and was the first of his children to arrive in Egypt, accompanying her aunt Sayyida Zaynab. Her name was actually Amina, named after the Prophet’s mother – but her mother nicknamed her ‘Sakina’ because she was a source of peacefulness to her family.

Sayyida Aisha is the daughter of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, and the sister of Imam Musa al-Kazim – a noble and generous lady, who is revered by the people of Egypt and far beyond.

I am the one who has been ordered to take this shaykh for ziyara

Shaykh BaBikr then prayed the next day the Friday prayer at Sayyidina al-Husayn’s mosque, and then prayed two rak’at in the mihrab of Sayyidina Husayn, and there found a man, dressed in an Moroccan jubba, with his hood covering his head. Shaykh BaBikr could not see his face, nor could the man see Shaykh BaBikr. Eventually, Shaykh BaBikr knew his name as Shaykh Ahmad. Shaykh Ahmad was reading Qur’an, and while he was reading, he then touched Shaykh BaBikr on his back and said, “Read Ya’sin.” So Shaykh BaBikr did, and Shaykh Ahmad then said, “Read Surah Ta-Ha.” Then a friend who was accompanying Shaykh BaBikr came and said to Shaykh BaBikr, “Shall we go?” Shaykh Ahmad then told Shaykh BaBikr, “Can you tell your friend to pray two rak’at and then read Surah Ya’sin.” So his friend did, and then Shaykh BaBikr was told to tell the friend to read Surah Ta-Ha. The friend expressed some frustration, as they had made other plans, and Shaykh Ahmad replied to Shaykh BaBikr, “Tell your friend to be patient. And you (Shaykh BaBikr) read al-Anbiya’.” And so it continued like this, where the two of them read many surahs from the Qur’an.

Then when they finished, Shaykh Ahmad stood up and said to Shaykh BaBikr, “I need to take you for ziyara.” The friend repeated his frustrations, as they had made plans elsewhere, and Shaykh Ahmad said, “Be patient. I am Ma’mur (one who has been ordered) to take this shaykh for ziyara.” When he said that, Shaykh BaBikr recalled what had happened in Alexandria. Shaykh Ahmad then took Shaykh BaBikr to the actual maqam of Imam al-Husayn, then to Sayyida Zaynab, then to the maqam of Ali Zayn al-Abidin, then to Sayyida Nafisa, then to Sayyida Sukayna, and then Sayyida Aisha. Shaykh Babikr said nothing about which ziyarat to do all throughout, and then at the end, he said to Shaykh Ahmad, “SubhanAllah. This ziyara is exactly what I was told to do by a man I met in Alexandria.” The man replied, “Yes. Yes, the man who asked me to do this is Jabal al-Awliya’.”

[Jabal al-Awliya’ means: the mountain of the saints.]

Two miraculous events at once. First, Shaykh Ahmad in Cairo took Shaykh BaBikr on precisely the route that Jabal al-Awliya’ in Alexandria had relayed to him to follow; and the secondly, the main in Cairo identified the name of the man in Alexandria – without any communication between any of them.

Then Shaykh Ahmad said, “Shaykh, I have done what I was commanded. Now, if you don’t mind, could you please allow me to take you on my own extra ziyara.” And they went to Sayyida Fatima al-Nabawiyya. She is one of the daughters of Imam al-Husayn, and one of the great scholars of the ummah. It happened to be the hawl (death remembrance) of Sayyida Fatima, where Shaykh Babikr eventually realised that from among those who were serving food humbly and without notoriety to the poor happened to be someone from the highest elite in Egyptian society – but without anyone knowing.

The Ziyarat

Shaykh BaBikr never met Shaykh Ahmad or Jabal al-Awliya’ again – but he followed their advice diligently, and we tried to do repeat that same ziyara ourselves on a recent visit to Cairo.

It’s one I strongly advise to those who visit Cairo, although one might reasonably change it a little bit if traffic dictates as such.

I would say we intended to add a few more ziyarat in between – for in the same mosque-complex as Sayyida Sakina is Sayyid Hassan al-Anwar, the father of Sayyida Nafisa. Down the road towards Sayyida Nafisa from Sayyida Sakina is another set of graves that includes Sayyida Ruqaya, the daughter of Imam Ali, and Sayyid Ali Muhammad, the son of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. We also happened to come upon the resting place of Sayyid Muhammad al-Anwar, originally known as Sayyid Muhammad al-Asghar, b. Zayn al-Ablaj b. al-Hasan b. Ali b. Abi Talib, the uncle of Sayyida Nafisa. These are all basically on the route that Jabal al-Awliya had recommended. We then visited Imam al-Shafi’i, Imam Zakariyya al-Ansari, my mother Sayyida Laila al-Zubayr, and we finished at Ibn Ata’illah al-Sakandari. One could add at the end of that easily Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Kamal b. al-Humam, Ibn Abi Jamra, and the khalwa of Sayyida Nafisa – they’re all a stone’s throw from Ibn Ata’illah. And if one had more time (and if the route is clear), the sadah of the Wafa’iyya, through whom so many of the contemporary Shadhuli lines go through, is 5 minutes north of Ibn Ata’illah.

The list thus is:

Imam al-Husayn

Sayyida Zaynab

Maqam of Ali Zayn al-Abidin

Sayyida Nafisa

Sayyida Sukayna

Sayyida Aisha

(Additional ziyara requested by Shaykh Ahmad): Sayyida Fatima al-Nabawiya

(close to Sayyida Sukayna is also Sayyid Hasan al-Anwar, Sayyid Muhammad al-Anwar, Sayyida Ruqaya, Sayyid Ali Muhammad)
(Imam al-Shafi’i and Imam Zakariyya al-Ansari)
(Ibn Ata’illah; Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Kamal b. al-Humam, Ibn Abi Jamra, the khalwa of Sayyida Nafisa)
(al-sadah al-Wafa’iyya, nearby to Ibn Ata’illah).

Of course, there are many, many others that one could do, and should do at least once.

But this is the land of Egypt – and in its soil are the resting places of so many of Ahl al-Bayt, the saints, the sages, the scholars. May God draw us nearer to their grandfather and model, our liege lord, Sayyidina Muhammad, ‘alayhi salat wa salam.

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