Shaykh Tijani’s prodigious capacity for learning at such an early age is explained in the Jawahir by the Shaykh’s own statemet: “When I begin something, I never turn from it.” In another passage describing his love for the people of religion, the Jawahir describes him as a youth of powerful intelligence, such that nothing escaped his realization.
Thus it was that even after he had mastered the sciences available in Ain Madi and had become by the age of twenty, according to the Jawahir, a great scholar, jurist and man of letters such that people were coming to partake of the knowledge of this newest Mufti (a scholar licensed to issue legal decisions), his thirst for more knowledge pushed him to leave the city of his birth in 1171/1758.
The obvious destination for any seeker of Islamic knowledge in the Maghrebi context was Fes, the long-established political, intellectual, cultural and religious capital of the area. According to the Jawahir, the young Shaykh Tijani spent his time in Fes studying Hadith and generally seeking out the people of piety and religion. Among his teachers in Fes were many famous for their knowledge and saintliness.
Their names are provided here to demonstrate Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s contact with some of the more significant luminaries of eighteenth-century Moroccan Sufism. Al-Tayyib b. Muhammad al-Sharif of Wazan (d. 1180/1767), who was head of the Wazzaniyya Sufi order at the time and the student of the famous Shaykh Tuhami descending from the Jazuli shaykh Ahmad al-Sarsari, gave Tijani permission to give spiritual instruction, only to have the young scholar refuse so that he might work harder on himself before becoming a spiritual guide. Sidi Abdullah b. ‘Arabi al-Mada’u (d. 1188) was likewise impressed with his student, telling him that God was guiding him by the hand, and before Tijani left him, the old scholar washed his student with his own hands.
Another scholar to predict to Tijani an exalted spiritual attainment was Sidi Ahmad al-Tawash (d. 1204). From Sidi Ahmad al-Yemeni, Shaykh Tijani took the Qadariyya Sufi order, and from Abu Abdullah Sidi Muhammad al-Tizani he took the Nasiriyya order. He also took the order of Abu Abbas Ahmad al-Habib al-Sijilmasy (d. 1165), who came to him in a dream, put his mouth on his, and taught him a secret name.
Although Tijani did receive spiritual permission (idhn) in these orders, his association with them should not be considered the essential element in his spiritual development. But the imprint of his early affiliation with these orders was not completely lost with the later development of the Tijaniyya, and their emphasis on an elite “orthodox” Sufism, firmly rooted within the bounds of the Qur’an and Sunna, was an essential component of Shaykh Tijani’s new order, as will be seen later in chapter three.
Even from the time of Shaykh Tijani’s first visit to Fes, the young scholar’s ascendent motivation seemed to be the attainment of a spiritual opening (fath). So when another of his teachers, Sidi Muhammad al-Wanjili (d. 1185), a man known for his saintliness, predicted for him a maqam (spiritual station) of Qutbaniyya (Polehood) similar to that of Abu Hasan al-Shadhili, but that his fath would come in the desert, Tijani hastened his departure from Fes.
The Jawahir reports that he spent some time in the desert Zawiya of the famous Qutb Sidi Abd al-Qadir b. Muhammad al-Abyad (known as Sidi al-Shaykh) before returning to Ain Madi, only to leave his home soon again to return to al-Abyad before moving on to Tlemcen.
His activities during this time consisted of teaching Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and Hadith in whatever town he happened to be staying while continuing an apparently rigorous practice of asceticism, including frequent fasting and superogatory worship. During his stay in Tlemcen, he received through Divine inspiration greater assurance of his coming grand illumination.