It was from southwest Algeria, then, that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani set out in 1186/1773 to accomplish the requisite Islamic pilgrimage (Hajj). Shaykh Tijani’s first stop of note en-route to Mecca was at Algiers, where he met Sidi Muhammad b. Abd al-Rahman al-Azhary (d. 1793), a prominent muqaddam (spiritual guide) of the Khalwatiyya Sufi order who had received initiation at the hands of Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad al-Hifni. The Khalwatiyya, originating in fourteenth century Anatolia, had become by the eighteenth century, under the tutelage of Mustafa al-Bakri, one of the most prominent orders in Egypt and a locus for Islamic and Sufi renewal.
Shaykh Tijani’s affiliation with this order was perhaps the most significant influence upon his thought prior to his waking meetings with the Prophet, and he did not leave Algiers before receiving initiation at the hands of al-Azhary. No doubt such an encounter would have provided additional impetus to meet, as he later would, some of the day’s most renowned Khalwati scholars, such as Mahmud al-Kurdi and Muhammad al-Samman, while passing through Egypt and the Hijaz.
Shaykh Ahmad Tijani’s journey East brought him also to Tunis, home of the famous Zaytuna mosque and university, which predates both the Azhar in Cairo and the Qarawin in Fes. Indicative of the ease with which foreign scholars could integrate into diverse Islamic communities, upon his entry into Tunis, Shaykh Tijani immediately met with the people of saintly renown, such as Sidi Abd al-Samad al-Ruhwij, and took up teaching at Zaytuna, this time his syllabus including Ibn ‘Atta Allah’s Kitab al-hikam.
It seems he made enough of an impression on the scholars there for the Emir, Bey Ali (r. 1757-1782), to offer him a lucrative permanent teaching position at Zaytuna. But the Emir’s request had the opposite effect on Shaykh Tijani to that which was hoped for and, reportedly not wanting to accept dependence on state authority, he continued his journey East.
Arriving in Mecca just after Ramadan in the year 1187/1774, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani stayed long enough to accomplish the rites of the Hajj. During his stay there he also, as was his custom, sought out the people of “goodness, piety, righteousness and happiness.”
His search led him to a mysterious saint from India, Ahmad b. Abdullah al-Hindi, who had made a vow to speak to no one except his servant. On knowledge of Tijani’s presence at his house, al-Hindi sent him the message, “You are the inheritor of my knowledge, secrets, gifts and lights,” and informed the pilgrim that he himself was to die in a matter of days (it came to pass on the exact day al-Hindi had predicted for himself), but that he should go visit the Qutb (Pole) Muhammad al-Samman when in Medina.
After accomplishing the ziyara (visitation) to the Prophet’s tomb, where “God completed his aspiration and longing” to greet the Prophet, Shaykh Tijani went to visit the renowned Shaykh Muhammad Abd al-Karim al-Samman (d. 1189/1775). Like al-Kurdi, al-Samman was a member of the Khalwatiyya order, being one of two students given full ijaza (permission) by Mustafa al-Bakri; the other was al-Kurdi’s shaykh, Muhammad al-Hifni. Aside for his own intellectual and spiritual prowess, al-Samman has become famous on account of another disciple, Ahmad al-Tayyib (d. 1824), who spread his ideas in the Sudan as the Sammaniyya order. Before Shaykh Tijani’s departure, al-Samman informed him of certain secret “names” and told him that he was to be the al-qutb al-jami’ (the comprehensive Pole).
On his return from the Hijaz, Shaykh Tijani stopped in Cairo and visited Mahmud al-Kurdi, the Khalwati representative in Egypt whom he had first visited on his way to the Hijaz. The Jawahir reports that many of the ‘ulama of the city came to visit the travelling scholar during this second visit. Demonstrating his profound respect for his teachers of the Khalwati tradition, Tijani accepted from al-Kurdi to be a muqaddam (propagator) of the Khalwati order in North Africa. Although Tijani’s later initiation at the hands of the Prophet would obviate its need, the Jawahir reproduces the chain of transmission (silsilah) of the Khalwatiyya, stretching from the Prophet through Ali ibn Abi Talib, Hasan al-Basri, Junayd, Umar al-Khalwati (from whom the order derives its name), Bakri, and Kurdi (not to mention all the names) to Shaykh Tijani.
The beginning of a distinctive “Tijani” order can be located with the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad to Shaykh Ahmad Tijani in a waking vision. This occurred in 1784, in the desert oasis of Abi Samghun. The Prophet informed him that he himself was his initiator on the Path and told him to leave the shaykhs he had previously followed. The Shaykh then received the basis of a new wird and was given permission to give “spiritual training to the creation in [both] the general and unlimited (itlaq).” The Prophet told him: “You are not indebted for any favor from the shaykhs of the Path, for I am your means (wasita) and your support in the [spiritual] realization, so leave the entirety of what you have taken from all the tariqas.”