It is very difficult to give a correct evaluation of his personality because several of his followers have given descriptions of his life and personality. Some have painted him as one of the greatest of Sufis, rather the greatest Sufi, and have alleged that he performed several unheard-of karamat, or miracles, while others have described him as one of the greatest ‘Ulama’, that is, scholars, of Islam. From a neutral point of view we can say he was a great reformer, a great idealist, a great scholar, a great preacher of Islam and a great Sufi. His unbounded scholarship of Islam was so great that the great scholar and philosopher, Ibn al-‘Arabi gave him the title of Qutb, that is, the focal point of Islam.
In the sixth century AH, Muslim civilization, under the lavish rule of the Abbasid khalifate, was going under and the Muslims in general were losing their attachment to religion. There was real moral bankruptcy and the people were indulging in luxury and the pleasures of this life. However, in the background there was a reign of corruption, a reign of injustice and a world of indiscipline. People were steeped in irreligious activities and there was hardly any regard for moral scruples. From the Khalîfah to the common man, all had gone away from religion.
Under this extreme decline of morality ‘Abdu’l-Qadir al-Jilani used to stand up boldly to address the people to remind them of their moral responsibility. The Khalîfah, the Qadhis, the governors, the public, the merchants, the Ulama – all sections of people were the target of his addresses or Khutbahs. He would criticize their defects and shortcomings very boldly and would suggest the measures and remedies of the Quran and Sunnah. At first his voice was hardly heard and his audience very small, about ten or fifteen people. But gradually, in the course of time, his audience became sixty to seventy thousand people. They would listen to him with all their heart and mind and would drink deep from the fountain of his scholarly lectures.
This distinguished and ever-respected scholar, Sayyid Abu Muhammad ‘Abdu’l-Qadir, was born in Persia in the province of Jilan in the year 1077. He was called al-Jilani after the name of his birthplace. His father, Abu Salih, was a very religious person and a great ‘Aalim. Abu Salih was a descendant of Fatima’s son, Hasan and his wife was descended from her other son, Hussein.
From his boyhood, Abdu’l-Qadir was very calm, quiet, thoughtful and a keen seeker of knowledge. In his childhood he studied Arabic and Persian in the local Madressa. When he was eighteen, he was sent to Baghdad to study the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, theology, logic (Mantiq), history and philosophy in the famous Nizamiyya Madrasa of Baghdad. When he was setting out for Baghdad, his mother gave him forty gold coins and hid them by sewing them in his undergarment. On the way, his caravan was attacked by bandits. When they asked him if he had anything, he showed them his forty gold coins hidden in his undergarment. The bandit leader rebuked him for having admitted this. At this ‘Abdu’l-Qadir replied that this mother has asked him, when she bade him farewell, never to tell a lie, even at the risk of his life. The bandit leader, having heard this, was greatly moved, and he along with all the other bandits accepted Islam and vowed to live an honest life henceforward.
Having reached Baghdad, ‘Abdu’l-Qadir started swimming in the ocean of knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, and other related subjects. Soon he showed his genius as an excellent student by dint of his sharp memory and deep understanding. But he was more attracted to the spiritual side of learning, and Sufism made its full impact on him. Side by side with his studies in the Nizamiyya Madressa he freely mixed with all the renowned Sufis of his time in Baghdad. In this way he got very closely acquainted with the famous Sufi of Baghdad, Hammad, who accepted him as one of his favourite disciples.
He dedicated himself to attaining the depths of Sufism by his constant devotion and association with the Sufis. After his studies were over, he preferred to live in loneliness away from the public, and to meditate on his Lord. He took on a strict and rigorous life of abstinence and austerity and used to spend his nights in prayer and meditation. He would complete one reading of the Quran, almost every night, by keeping himself awake; and it is said that with one Wudhu’ (ablution) he used to say the Esha’ and Fajr prayers. Then he left Baghdad and went to a lonely desert where he spent twenty-five years in meditation and self-purification. At that time he had the look of an ascetic, unworldly, man. The goal of this long course of Sufi self-purification was to know his Lord and he was successful in his quest.
From his Khutbahs and messages, anthologists have succeeded in collecting a comprehensive anthology under the title of Futuh al-Ghayb or the Openings from the Unseen. A part from this, another anthology of his Khutbahs, al-Fath ar-Rabbani and an anthology of poems are said to be of very superior literary and spiritual merit. They speak of his deep insight into the spiritual world as well as of his profound sympathy for people and for all the creatures of Allah. His knowledge of this world and of the spirit is unbounded. His scholarship of the Quran and Sunnah was both intensive and extensive and his self-purification and sacrifices for the cause of his Lord were truly remarkable. It is for this that Allah has granted him the honour of the title of Ghawth al-A’dham and the title of Muhyiddin.
He was undoubtedly one of the greatest ‘Ulama’ of the world and one of the greatest scholars of Islam. He is said to have written more than forty books on Islam, but unfortunately none of these invaluable books is available in any library of the world. It is quite possible that during the Hulugu holocaust in Baghdad in 1258 all these books were burnt along with the destruction of the historic city.
Abud’l-Qadir al-Jilani with his profound knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah and with his limitless belief in Allah and by his countless sacrifices and struggles, served his people and his Lord. Indeed he deserved to be called the Ghawth al-A’dham.