The spiritual path of Algerian Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi Bentounès (1869-1934), like that of his contemporary Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba in Senegal, ran through the territory of French colonial rule. Born into a family of magistrates in the port city of Mostaghanem, Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi led a revival of the Shâdhiliya-Darqawiya tarîqa based on principles he found in European modernity. He established zâwiyas across Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and, in the 1920s, France and Britain as well. The latter were created to cater to disciples who had emigrated to Europe, but they attracted Europeans as well. The ‘Alawiyîn branch of the Shâdhiliya-Darqawiya was open to dialogue with those of all faiths, and Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi corresponded and fraternized with many European intellectuals. He was preceded in this open dialogue approach by another famous Algerian Sufi, the resistance leader Amîr ‘Abd al-Qâdir (1808-1883).
Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi authored many books over the course of his career and there is a great deal of literature in Arabic, French and English about him and his zâwiya–little of which I have read. Thus I make no claim to expertise on Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi Bentounès and the ‘Alawiyîn branch of the Shâdhiliya-Darqawiya. However, in April 2004 I had the pleasure of visiting the zâwiya in Mostaghanem (see previous post on Sidi Boumédiène for the circumstances of this trip) and would like to share some information about its location and configuration. This Google Earth (kmz) file locates the places discussed in this post.
Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi built his zâwiya in Tigditt, Mostaghanem’s working-class “Arab” neighborhood. It is a large modern complex, occupying both sides of a major street along an entire bloc. The southern building is the zâwiya proper. It includes meeting halls for dhikr (“remembrance” of God, a form of Sufi devotion), a domed prayer hall and the darîhs of Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi and subsequent Masters. It also still serves as a residence for Sheikh Khalid Bentounès, the current Master of the ‘Alawiyîn.
The northern building of the ‘Alawiyîn complex is the mosque, but in fact most of the space in this building is devoted to a school. Mass education was promoted throughout the ‘Alawiyîn network, and this is especially evident in this building. The entire first floor and most of the second are devoted to the school. The mosque’s prayer hall is on the second floor; external prayer space is provided on the terraces above the classrooms. Moreover, there are several public schools in the immediate vicinity of the ‘Alawiyîn complex, further emphasizing its link to education.
Tigditt already harbored several zâwiyas prior to the establishment of the ‘Alawiyîn. Among them was that of the ‘Isawiya, where Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi had first embarked on the Sufi path. The ‘Isawî zâwiya is located in the oldest part of the neighborhood, across the ravine from Tobana, the historic heart of Mostaghanem.
Tigditt has a proud identity. It calls itself a city. It arose as an urban settlement after the French had taken control of the old walled city of Tobana (from Turkish tophane, weapons arsenal) and reserved its best outskirts for their neighborhoods.
The slopes which extend from the colonial center down towards the port were developed as European residential neighborhoods and industrial zones. “Arabs” were not allowed to live there (the term “Arab” which the French applied to populations and neighborhoods embraced a much wider variety of people than the label would imply; Tigditt is itself a Berber toponym). They had to find housing in Tigditt which, in order to grow, had to struggle up the much steeper slope of the ‘Aïn Sefra ravine. Infrastructure and urban amenities there were always far poorer than in the European quarters. In the early 20th century Tigditt formed a shantytown crescent overlooking Tobana and the European city, separated from it by the ‘Aïn Sefra River. In the 1920s Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi built his zâwiya in the new western extension of the neighborhood, where modern urban such amenities as water, sewerage and electricity were put in place prior to the construction of buildings.
In the center of Mostaghanem there are two shrines (I am sorry, I cannot remember their names) which have conspired to remain in visual contact with each other despite the urbanization which has engulfed them. The larger of the two rises on a bluff at the foot of Matmore. The second stands in front of Mostaghanem City Hall. Between them lies the city’s busiest traffic hub, with an overpass above a bus depot surrounded by buildings. Yet despite this dense urban setting, the two shrines are visible to each other through a gap between two buildings. Local tradition says that any building erected in a way that blocked this visual axis would collapse.
La Vallée des Jardins
Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi had a garden outside of Mostaghanem where he would go for khalwa (spiritual retreat). The garden, located in La Vallée des Jardins, is now a facility able to accommodate a large number of pilgrims, with meeting and reception rooms and a cafeteria on the main floor and dozens of bedrooms above. Much of the space however remains a garden, and the ‘Alawiyîn khalwa is surrounded by other gardens in this lush valley. The tree under which Sheikh al-‘Alawi sat in khalwa is preserved as a place of contemplation today.
Despite my best attempts with the maps at my disposal, and having faulty memory (my visit there dates back to 2004), I have been unable to locate the ‘Alawiyîn khalwa in La Vallée des Jardins on Google Earth. It seems that the secrets of such places are well protected.
more pictures at:
On Sheikh al-‘Alawi Bentounès
- Martin Lings (1993), A Sufi Saint in the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi, Islamic Texts Society.
- Martin Lings (1961), A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century, Shaikh Ahmad Al-‘Alawi, MacMillan.
- Leslie Cadavid (2005), Two Who Attained: Twentieth-Century Sufi Saints: Fatima al-Yashrutiyya & Shaykh Ahmad al-‘Alawi, Fons Vitae.