Ahmad ar-Rifâi (1119-1182 AD) was a Sufi Islamic teacher born in Hasten, Wasit province, Iraq. He was known for living a humble lifestyle despite his great wealth. His example was the foundation for the modern Rifai Sufi Order.
When Ahmad was seven years old, his father Sultan Ali died in Baghdad. From then on his maternal uncle Mansur ar-Rabbani el-Betaihi took him into his care and educated him.
Ahmad ar- Rifâi learned the Qur’an from Shaykh Abd as-Semi el-Hurbuni in Hasen, where he was born, and by the age of seven he had committed it all to memory. (The title Shaykh before a name indicates a sufi teacher.) That same year, after Ahmad ar- Rifâi’s father died, his maternal uncle Mansur el-Betaihi moved with his family to the region of Dikla. There he sent his nephew to Ebul Fadl Ali el-Vasiti, who was an expert in the canon law of Islam, a commentator on the Qur’an, and a great preacher.
In addition to attending the dhikr meetings of his uncle, Shaykh Mansur ar-Rabbani, Ahmad ar- Rifâi also attended the courses of his other uncle, Shaykh Ebubekir, who was a great scientist of his era and the sultan of scientists. He eventually memorized the book Tenbih, which deals with the fikih (Muslim canonical jurisprudence) of Safi according to Imam Ebu Ishak Sirazi, and wrote an explanation about the book. (This explanation was lost in the Mongol invasion.)
He occupied all his time with acquiring religious knowledge. Eventually even his own teachers and the people who taught him respect learned the essence of respect when they were in his presence.
Graduation and Teaching
When Ahmad ar- Rifâi was twenty years old, Ebu Fadl Ali, who was the Shaykh of Wasit province and his teacher, awarded him a sehadetname (teaching certificate) encompassing the sciences of canon law and permission to initiate a dervish order, gave him the name “father of external and interior sciences,” and dressed him with his own dervish’s cloak. His teachers and his shaykhs agreed about the greatness of his rank and the superiority of his worth.
Ahmad ar- Rifâi remained in Nehr-i Dikla for a short time and after that went back to his father's guest house for travelers in Hasen. He then became very well known. When he was twenty-eight, his uncle Shaykh Mansur requested that he led the dervish lodge and Caliphs after him. He also instructed him to live in the dervish lodge of Shaykh Yahya en-Neccari, who was his grandfather from his mother’s side. Ahmad ar- Rifâi took up his post (shaykhship) there as an enlightened master and began teaching in this dervish lodge. His uncle died in the same year. By the time Ahmad ar- Rifâi reached the age of thirty-five, his murids (disciples) numbered over seven hundred thousand.
Ahmad ar- Rifâi taught the Sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad ) and the details of the Qur’an to the public, and he always said that the trade of a wise man is to show the way that leads to Allah and to direct hearts towards Allah.
He held courses on hadith, Islamic canon law, religious precepts, and commentary on the Qur’an on all days of the week except Mondays and Thursdays. He sat in his pulpit on Monday and Thursday afternoons and preached to intellectuals and the general public. Because of the depth and the influence of his words, the people were captivated, their intelligence was stupefied, and their hearts submitted to him. Apart from the Prophet Muhammad, the companions and disciples of the Prophet and twelve Imams, there was no other person who spoke as well as Ahmad ar- Rifâi did.
Whenever he sat in his pulpit to give a lecture, crowds–including advanced scientists, preachers, spiritual teachers and the general public–gathered. When he began to speak, knowledge gushed out with his words like the gushing sea. Wise men were enraptured when they heard his beautiful and influential words and listened to his extensive knowledge. The denying and obstinate were tongue-tied in the presence of the power of the evidence. Literary men profited from his outstanding expression, scientists from his skills and talents and philosophers from his deep and wise manner of speaking.
In his book Sevad ul-Ayneyn, the writer Imam Rafii narrates, “Shaykh Salih Yusuf Ebu Zekeriya el-Askalani, who was a great expert in the canon law of Islam, told me: ‘I had gone to Ummi Abide to visit Shaykh Ahmad ar- Rifâi. There were more than one hundred thousand people around the guest house; some were managers, scientists and shaykhs, and the others were the normal public. He gave dinner to all of them and was very friendly to everyone. He started to preach in the afternoon of a Thursday. In the audience were preachers from the province of Vasit, as well as a religious community of doctors of Muslim theology of Iraq and the important people of the province. One group asked questions about the science of commentary on the Qur’an, another asked about subjects dealing with the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, another asked about Muslim canon jurisprudence, another asked about the disagreements between the different religious opinions, and yet another group asked many questions about different areas of science. Ahmad ar- Rifâi answered more than two hundred questions, and he did not get angry when he was answering the questions. I became embarrassed because of the insensitivity of people asking the questions, and I stood up and said, “Is this not enough for you? He can answer every question about the written sciences, without facing any difficulty, with the permission of Allah!” Ahmad ar- Rifâi smiled at my words and said, “Ebu Zekeriya, allow them to ask before I pass away. Certainly the world is a house from which we will all depart. Allah changes all situations, all of the time.” All the public cried at this answer. The crowd was perplexed and anxious exclamations were heard. Forty thousand people became his students because of the spiritual effect of his talk.’”
Ahmad ar- Rifâi’s talks, his actions, his behavior and his every breath were for Allah. He always had a smiling face, was modest and good-tempered, endured suffering, and was very patient. He did not get personally cross with anyone, and did not want any help for his own person. On the contrary, he loved for Allah, and even his anger was from Allah and for Allah. He did not rebuke anybody who behaved in a manner that he did not like. He considered neither his family nor himself superior to other people. Speaking about this he said, “According to our opinion of Allah, everybody is equal to everybody else: it doesn’t matter if they are close relatives or if they are strangers to us.”