Mohammed b. Mohammed Hasan b. Hamza Zâfir al-Madani, of the Madaniyya branch of the Shadhiliyya Sufi order, was a Tripolitanian Sheykh, and a trusted adviser and close confidante of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842-1918). The Sheykhs’s father, Muhammad al-Madani (1780-1847) was a native of Medina and studied under the Shadhili Sheykh, Abu Hamid al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi (1760-1823). In his twenties, the senior Muhammad al-Madani left the Hijaz for Morocco where he stayed with al-Darqawi in Fez. Following al-Darqawi’s death in 1823, al-Madani proceeded independently, garnering interest and attracting followers across North Africa, in particular Tripolitania. On his return to Medina, the Sheykh stopped in the coastal town of Misrata where he settled with his wife Kamer Hanum, and where his son Mohammed Zâfir was born in 1828.

Mohammed Zâfir was educated under his father in Misrata until the latter’s death in 1847. Then nineteen years old, Mohammed left Tripolitania and travelled to Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, studying under numerous scholars of the region. He travelled to Medina to complete his education, remaining there until 1870, after which time he returned to Misrata where he settled with his wife Deblec Hanum. The Sheykh’s brother, Sheykh Hamza Zâfir, had by that time relocated to Istanbul on the advice of the governor-general of Tripoli and Ottoman Grand Vizier Mahmud Nedim Pasha (1818-1883). It was in Istanbul that Sheykh Hamza was introduced to Pertevniyal Valide Sultan (1810-1884), the mother of Sultan Abdulaziz (1830-1876). Pertevniyal Sultan expressed an interest in the Shadhili order and sought the guidance of Sheykh Hamza, who in turn suggested that his brother Sheykh Mohammed, the successor of the Madaniyya branch of the Shadhili order, would be a more suitable guide.

Sheykh Mohammed was invited to Istanbul in 1870 and was assigned a house near Üç Mihrablı Mosque in the Unkapanı district. The Sheykh held classes and gatherings in nearby mosques and lodges. Abdülhamid, then an insignificant prince unlikely to ever rule, attended the Sheykh’s gatherings in disguise. It is said that Sheykh Mohammed won the deep respect and affection of the future Sultan, whose accession to the throne he had correctly predicted years before the death of Sultan Abdulaziz, and the deposition of Sultan Murad (1840-1904). In 1873 the Sheykh married Tir-i Nigah Hanum, a lady from the palace, then returned to Misrata, where he remained until Sultan Abdülhamid came to power.

On Sultan Abdülhamid’s ascension to the throne in 1876, Sheykh Mohammed was invited back to Istanbul where he recommenced his classes and gatherings. The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, a complex consisting of a mosque, zawiya, guest house, fountain, and library, was commissioned by the Sultan in dedication to the Sheykh, and was completed in 1887. Sheykh Mohammed became a trusted advisor to the Sultan in both spiritual and political matters, fulfilling some political duties in additional to his commitments in the mosque and zawiya. The Sheykh recommended Ottoman-Tunisian politician Hayreddin Pasha (1829-1890) to the Sultan, who appointed him as the Grand Vizier in 1878. The Sheykh also used his influence to prevent French invasions of Tunisia in 1881, and British invasions of Egypt in 1882. He hosted Muslim scholars from various regions in the Islamic world, including the Arab provinces (namely North Africa, Egypt, and Syria, where he had strong connections) to the Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque to increase the Sultan’s influence, and strengthen loyalty to the Sultanate. The Sheykh’s brother, Sheykh Hamza also played a role in directing agitation against the French in Tunisia. Mehmet Ince suggests that the success of Sultan Abdülhamid, and the postponement of the collapse of the Osmanlı Devleti was in part due to the intelligence and influence of a group of religious scholars and spiritual leaders, Sheykh Mohammed among them.

Sheykh Mohammed was also regarded by Sultan Abdülhamid as the liaison between the palace and the Muslims of the Libyan provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; this is despite the Sheykh’s reportedly strained relations with the Sanussiya. At a time of much political uncertainty and instability, the Ottoman government was suspicious of the political intentions and military capabilities of the Sanussi brotherhood. Numerous reports commissioned by the palace yielded conflicting information and appraisals regarding the order. Ahmed Cevdet Paşa (1822-1895), the Ottoman scholar and statesman warned in 1881 that “no one really knows the plans of Mehmed el-Mehdi”. A Libyan historian, Mohammed al-Tayib al-Ashhab alleges that Sultan Abdülhamid asked the head of the order, Sheykh Mohammed al-Mehdi al-Sanussi (1844-1902), to dispatch troops to the front during the Turco-Russian war of 1877-1878 as a plot to ascertain the order’s military capabilities. In the face of such confusion, the Sultan’s view of the Sanussiya was informed considerably by the attitudes of Sheykh Mohammed Zâfir.

Sheykh Mohammed’s father had been an acquaintance of the founder of the Sanussi brotherhood, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanussi (1787-1859). They had studied together in Mecca under Sheykh Ahmad b. Idris al-Fasi (1760-1837). On the death of Sheykh Ahmad, both men returned to North Africa where their sons, Mohammed al-Mehdi and Mohammed Zâfir preached in the towns and cities of the Maghrib. Unlike Sheykh Mohammed al-Mahdi however, Sheykh Mohammed Zâfir never won wide support among the Bedouin population of the Libyan provinces. Later, as an advisor to the Sultan in Istanbul, Sheykh Mohammed Zâfir tried to settle his differences with the Sanussiya. It has been claimed by historian Ahmed Hilmi Şahbenderzade however that the aim of the Sheykh was to foster the belief in palace circles that the Sanussiya was not a new or independent order, but rather a branch of the Idrisiyya-Shadhiliyya order which his father has renewed under the name al-Madaniyya. Michel Le Gall suggests this would have appealed to the anxious Sultan who was struggling to maintain his grip of the Caliphate, and the disparate Muslim populations across the Islamic world.

The Sheykh had reportedly expressed his desire to return to his hometown of Misrata numerous times, but the Sultan, needing his trusted confidante nearby, did not permit him to leave. Sheykh Mohammed died in Istanbul on the second Friday of Rajab 1321 (October 2nd 1903), and is buried in a mausoleum on the grounds of Ertuğrul Tekke alongside his brothers Sheykh Hamza (d. 1904) and Sheykh Beşir (d. 1909). Sheykh Hamza and Sheykh Beşir succeeded their brother in heading the Madani Zawiya in Istanbul until their respective deaths, after which, Sheykh Mohammed’s son, Sheykh Ibrahim (d. 1947) took their place. Following the Italian conquest of the Libyan provinces in 1911, Sheykh Ibrahim lost control of the lodges in Tripolitania. In these territories, Ibrahim’s brother, Mohammed (d. 1917) was recognised as the local head of the Madaniyya. In Istanbul, Sheykh Ibrahim and his brothers remained in contact with the Sultan; Ibrahim’s son Halil Ağabey recalls the Sultan continuing to visit them for iftaar during the month of Ramadan years after Sheykh Mohammed’s death.

The first of Sheykh Mohammed’s wives, Deblec Hanum (d. 1912), is buried close to the Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque complex. Tir-i Nigah Hanum (d. 1926), the Sheykh’s second wife is buried in Maçka, Istanbul. Sheykh Mohammed had fourteen sons and nine daughters. Following the closure of Sufi lodges in Ataturk’s reforms in 1925, Sheykh Mohammed’s son and successor, Sheykh Ibrahim, lived his remaining life in seclusion and died on July 10th 1947. He is buried in the Yahya Efendi cemetery in Istanbul. Other sons of Sheykh Mohammed include solider and painter Mehmet Ali Laga, Ebulhasan Zafir, Abdullah Zafir, a lawyer, Abdülkadir, a Turkish-Persian language professor at Oxford University, and Hasan. The Sheykh’s children and grandchildren became highly educated bureaucrats, physicians, lawyers, administrators, artists, chemists, academics and architects. Great-grandson of the Sheykh, Güngör Tekçe (son of Mediha, daughter of Abdullah, son of Sheykh Mohammed), published a book, titled Zafir Konağında Bir Tuhaf Zaman (A Strange Time in the Zafir Mansion), on life at the Zafir household in the period following the fall of the Sultanate. He writes (neither boastfully or lamentingly) that with the exception of Sheykh Ibrahim, Sheykh Mohammed’s second son, none of his children or grandchildren preserved the spiritual and religious legacy of their forefathers and pursued an Islamic education.

The tomb of Sheykh Mohammed Hasan b. Hamza Zâfir al-Madani in Misrata, Libya.
Sheykh Mohammed espouses Sultan Abdülhamid’s virtues and prays for success in his endeavours in his book, The Principles of the Shadhiliyya Tariqa, 1881.
The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, Istanbul. The complex fell into disrepair and underwent major restoration works in 1969 and 2008. The guest houses, which hosted scholars from across the Muslim world during Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign, remain in a ruinous state.
The Sheykh Zâfir Mausoleum, Beşiktaş, Istanbul. Built in Art Nouveau style in 1905 by Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco.
The tombs of Sheykh Mohamed and his brothers Sheykh Hamza and Sheykh Beşir inside the mausoleum.
The tombs of Sheykh Mohamed and his brothers Sheykh Hamza and Sheykh Beşir inside the mausoleum.
Sheykh Mohammed is depicted in the Turkish drama Payitaht Abdülhamid. In this scene, the Sultan visits Sheykh Mohamed asking for his guidance.

Selected bibliography

Cornucopia.net. Cornucopia Magazine. Available at: www.cornucopia.net/guide/listings/sights/sheikh-zafirs-mausoleum

Deringil, S., 1993. The Invention of Tradition as Public Image in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1808 to 1908. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 35(1).

Gall, M., 1989. The Ottoman Government and the Sanusiyya: A Reappraisal. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 21(1).

Hanif, N., 2002. Biographical encyclopaedia of sufis. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons.

Ince, M., 2014. Mehmet İnce Muhammed Zâfir el-Medenî’nin el-Envâru’lkudsiyye Fî Tenzîhi Turuki’l-Kavmi’l-Aliyye Aldi Eseri. Atatürk Üniversitesi, Istanbul: Yüksek Lisans Teri.

Karpat, K., 2002. The politicization of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.