Shaykh Ahmad Tijani and a group of his closest companions took up residence in Fes beginning in 1213/1798. By the time of his arrival in Fes, Shaykh Tijani’s fame as a scholar possessing religious charisma or blessing (baraka) had spread throughout the Maghreb, so that his entry into the city was a matter of some importance for the political and religious establishment. The Shaykh was met by a delegation of scholars selected by the Sultan.
The relationship that developed between Shaykh Tijani and Sultan Mawlay Sulayman is important in understanding the religious personality of both men. After a series of tests to ascertain the veracity of Tijani’s claims to sainthood, such as giving the saint money in a manner he would not have been able to accept as a man of religion, Mawlay Sulayman became closely linked to the newcomer, appointing him to his council of religious scholars and giving him a large house (“the House of Mirrors”).
The Sultan’s initiation into the Tijaniyya has often been denied by non-Tijanis, but Tijanis have maintained his discipleship to their Shaykh. Tijani tradition has chronicled a series of letters between Shaykh Tijani and the Sultan clearly indicating a shaykh-disciple relationship. In one exchange, the Shaykh writes the Sultan urging him to fear God and keep to His command and then informs him of the some of the benefits of the Tijani wird as told him by the Prophet, and tells him of the proper manners for experiencing the vision of the Prophet. The Sultan replied,
The ransom of our parents, our master and our shaykh and our Muhammadan example, Abu ‘Abbas Sidi Ahmad. I praise God to you and to Him and I send blessings and peace upon His noble Prophet. Your most blessed lines have reached us, and we praise God the Most High on account of what He has made special for us by them from the pleasure of the master, the Messenger of God … and this matter I do not want that I should allow myself to leave its performance, and I am not safe from losing or neglecting its fulfillment … [and I pray that you] remove me from all that prevents me from looking at his [the Prophet’s] noble face, that [you may] surround me with the degree of those close to the glory of the Messenger of God. And [this] is needed of you, since you know that my righteousness is a righteousness from my guardianship of God over them [the people], and that my corruption is their corruption, so the prayer for me is a prayer for the general [population].
Aside from whatever esoteric connection existed between the Sultan and the founder of the Tijaniyya, another explanation of Mawlay Sulayman’s warm reception of Shaykh Ahmad was the fact that the Sultan “found, in the person of Shaykh Tijani, the symbol that personified by his behavior and his teaching, the indelible precepts of the Shari’a.” Certainly, the Shaykh’s situation of Sufism firmly within Islamic sacred law, while maintaining the ascendancy of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, the “path of the Prophet,” over both Sufi and Fiqh (jurisprudence) historical traditions, would have been attractive to the reform-minded Sultan.
The Shaykh’s time in Fes was largely occupied with the solidification of the tariqa and the training and sending out of muqaddams (propagators). Before the end of his life, he had attracted thousands of followers and sent out muqaddams such as Ali Harazem al-Barada, Muhammad Ghali and Muhammad al-Hafiz as far away as the Hijaz and Mauritania. Before the completion of the Tijani zawiya, his followers met at the Shaykh’s own house, the House of Mirrors.