The Shadhili order takes its name from Shaykh Abu’l-Hassan ash-Shadhili (1196/1197 – 1258 CE). He was born in Ghumara, near Cueta in northern Morocco into a family of peasant labourers. He studied the principles of Islamic Law (fiqh) at the Qarawiyyin University in Fez.
He subsequently traveled to many countries. In Iraq he met the Sufi Shaykh Wasiti who told him to return to his country where he could find Moulay Abus-Salam Ibn Mashish, the great Moroccan spiritual master. He did so, and became the close follower of this spiritual master who initiated him in the way of remembrance of Allah. When he met Moulay Abus-Salam, after ritually washing himself, he said, ‘O Allah, I have been washed of my knowledge and action so that I do not possess knowledge or action except what comes to me from this Shaykh.’
Shaykh Abu’l-Hassan ash-Shadhili traveled from Morocco to Spain and finally settled down in Alexandria in Egypt. Later on in life, when asked who his spiritual master was, he used to reply, ‘I used to be the close follower (murid) of Moulay Abus-Salam Ibn Mashish, but I am no more the murid of any human master.’
Shaykh Abu’l-Abbas al-Mursi (d. 1288), who succeeded Shaykh ash-Shadhili as the next spiritual master of the Order, was asked about the knowledge of his spiritual master and replied, ‘He gave me forty sciences. He was an ocean without a shore.’
Shaykh ash-Shadhili had hundreds of close followers in both Alexandria and Cairo, not only from among the common people but also from among the ruling classes. He taught his close followers to lead a life of contemplation and remembrance of Allah while performing the normal everyday activities of the world. He disliked initiating any would-be follower unless that person already had a profession. His admonition to his close followers was to apply the teachings of Islam in their own lives in the world and to transform their existence.
Among the many writings attributed to Shaykh Abu’l-Hassan ash-Shadhili is famous litany “Hizb al-Bahar”.