He is al-Imam Shaykh al-Islam al-Ḥabīb `Abdullah bin `Umar bin Ahmad bin `Umar bin Ahmad bin `Umar bin Ahmad bin `Ali bin Husayn bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin `Umar bin `Alawi al-Shatiri bin `Ali bin Ahmad bin Muhammad “Asad Allah” bin Hasan al-Turabi bin `Ali bin al-Faqih al-Muqaddam Muhammad, bin `Ali, bin Muhammad Sahib Mirbat, bin `Ali Khali` Qasam, bin `Alawi, bin Muhammad Sahib al-Sawma`ah, bin `Alawi, bin `Ubaydullah, bin al-Imam al-Muhajir il-Allah Ahmad, bin `Isa, bin Muhammad al-Naqib, bin `Ali al-`Uraydi, bin Ja`far al-Sadiq, bin Muhammad al-Baqir, bin `Ali Zayn al-`Abidin, bin Husayn al-Sibt, bin `Ali bin Abi Talib and Fatimah al-Zahra’, the daughter of our Master Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets ﷺ.
Ḥabīb `Abdullāh was born in Tarīm in the year 1290 (1873). After gaining a firm grasp in the foundational Islamic sciences, he studied under the Muftī of Ḥaḍramawt, Ḥabīb `Abd al-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad al-Mashhūr as well as Ḥabīb `Alawī bin `Abd al-Raḥmān al-Mashhūr and Ḥabīb `Abdullāh bin `Aydarūs al-`Aydarūs. He spent four months in the Ribāṭ of Ḥabīb `Alī al-Ḥabashī in Say’ūn. During his time in Say’ūn, he not only studied under Ḥabīb `Alī, but also under Ḥabīb `Ubaydullāh bin Muḥsin al-Saqqāf and Ḥabīb Aḥmad bin `Abd al-Raḥmān al-Saqqāf and a number of other scholars. He likewise received knowledge from Ḥabīb `Aydarūs bin `Umar al-Ḥabashī and Ḥabīb Aḥmad bin Ḥasan al-`Aṭṭās. In 1310, at the age of twenty, he travelled to Makkah. He spent the next four years in the relentless pursuit of knowledge. He would take around thirteen lessons a day from scholars such as Ḥabīb Ḥusayn bin Muḥammad al-Ḥabashī, Shaykh Muḥammad Bā Buṣayl, Sayyid Abū Bakr Shaṭā and Shaykh `Umar Bā Junayd. He would meticulously prepare for each of these lessons, and only allow himself two hours’ sleep in every twenty four hours. On one occasion, he pressed himself to the Multazam on the wall of the Ka`bah and pleaded with Allah to allow the knowledge he had gained to benefit people all across the world. He eventually succumbed to his father’s repeated requests to come home and returned to Tarīm in 1314.
The Ribāṭ of Tarīm, which had been established in 1305, was in need of a head of studies so Ḥabīb `Abdullāh took up this post and remained in it for the next forty seven years. He did so sincerely for Allah’s sake, and took no wage for his services. He supervised the arrangement of lessons which were in the form of ḥalaqāt or circles of knowledge and expended all his energies in benefiting the students. He would teach daily from after Fajr until well after sunrise. He would then return after Ẓuhr and teach until after the adhān of `Aṣr. He would then occasionally attend the Rawḥah1 of one of his teachers before returning to the Ribāṭ to teach his own Rawḥah. He would then teach from after Maghrib until after `Ishā’. He would never leave these lessons unless he was completely unable to attend. At times of poor health he would call his students to his house and teach them there. He said that at times he would attend a lesson while in pain, seeking healing through hearing and imparting knowledge.
On Wednesday and Saturday morning was the general lesson or madras which was open to all, and people from Tarīm and further afield thronged to attend. Ḥabīb `Abdullāh only presided over this gathering after the death of his two teachers, Ḥabīb `Abd al-Raḥmān al-Mashhūr and his son, Ḥabīb `Alī. Ḥabīb `Abdullāh’s predecessors would tend to delve deeply into the science of jurisprudence, but seeing that the level of people’s knowledge had declined, Ḥabīb `Abdullāh changed the tone of the madras. While the same books were still read, he focused more on reminding people of Allah and calling them to Him, and as a result more of the ordinary people of Tarīm began to attend.
He would attend the mawlid in the Jāmi` Masjid of Tarīm every Thursday night and give a speech to those present, and established a number of other weekly lessons outside of the Ribāṭ. He presided over the annual Mawlid in the Ribāṭ on the last Wednesday of Rabī’ al-Awwal, which thousands attended. He once said that a spiritual flood came forth from this Mawlid which reached everyone in creation. He had immense concern for the progress of his students. He would constantly encourage them to use their time wisely and to record what they learnt in writing. In his early days he would oversee their memorisation of core texts. He would ask after them if they failed to attend lessons, and in spite of all his duties, he found time to advise them and fulfil their needs. He would often sit in on their lessons and test them on their knowledge, thus increasing their desire to revise and memorise.
He told those who were studying Imām al-Nawawī’s Minhāj al-Ṭālibīn with him that if they did not read through the section they were about to study twenty times at least, they should not attend the lesson. They duly read through the section and studied all the commentaries and then Ḥabīb `Abdullāh would ask them questions which none of the commentaries answered.
In his later life, he preferred to teach children Sūrat al-Fātiḥah and the basics of the prayer, leaving his top students to teach older students. When asked about this, he said he found comfort in teaching children, because their hearts were completely pure, unlike adults. He also said that he hoped to attain the reward for all these children’s acts of worship and the reward of the acts of worship of the people that these children would go on to teach.
As a result of his efforts the Ribāṭ flourished, and students came from all parts of Yemen, from South East Asia, South India and East Africa. Records show that 13,000 students studied under Ḥabīb `Abdullāh in the Ribāṭ. These students then returned to their homelands and spread the knowledge that they had obtained. A number of them opened their schools and Ribāṭs. Ḥabīb Ḥasan bin Ismā`īl bin Shaykh Abū Bakr bin Sālim opened a Ribāṭ in `Aynāt, Ḥabīb Muḥammad al-Haddār opened a Ribāṭ in al-Bayḍā’ and Ḥabīb `Abdullāh bin `Abd al-Raḥmān bin Shaykh Abū Bakr bin Sālim opened one in al-Shiḥr. It has been said that wherever you go in the world, especially in the regions previously mentioned, you will find the students of Ḥabīb `Abdullāh, or the students of his students. In this we witness the answering of the prayer he made in Makkah in his youth. This is even more remarkable considering that he lived before the times of modern transport, in which travel between continents took weeks.
The knower of Allah, Ḥabīb `Abdullāh bin Muḥsin al-`Aṭṭās, said of him that he will be resurrected on the Day of Judgement along with his students as a nation (Ummah) by himself and he will be met by his grandfather, Muhammad ﷺ. We find this meaning in the hadith in which the Messenger of Allah said: “Shall I not inform you of the most generous of the generous? Allah is the Most Generous of the generous, I am the most generous of the children of Adam, and the most generous of people after me is a man who taught people and spread his knowledge – he will be resurrected on the Day of Judgement as a nation (Ummah) on his own, as well as a man who generously gave his life for the sake of Allah.”2
Ḥabīb `Abdullāh always wished that he could pray all his prayers in the great Masjid Bā `Alawī. His wish was answered when the Imām of the Masjid, Habib `Abd al-Raḥmān bin Aḥmad Ḥāmid asked him to take his place while he spent time in Java. This happened twice and lasted for a total of twelve years.
His thirst for knowledge was never quenched, and he said that had he found someone to take over the running of the Ribāṭ, he would have travelled in search of knowledge. He wished to spend less time teaching and devote some time to authoring works but Ḥabīb Aḥmad bin Ḥasan al-`Aṭṭās forbade him and instructed him to produce scholars who would then author works, and this is what happened.
Perhaps his greatest student was Habib `Alawi bin `Abdullah bin Shihab, about whom he said: “It is a sufficient honour to the Ribāṭ that the likes of `Alawī bin `Abdullāh came out of it.” Ḥabīb `Alawī would teach alongside Ḥabīb `Abdullāh and preside over the madras in his absence. His other great students were Ḥabīb Ja`far bin Aḥmad al-`Aydarūs and Ḥabīb Muḥammad bin Sālim bin Ḥafīẓ, who authored a biography of Ḥabīb `Abdullāh, named Nafḥ al-Tīb al-`Ātirī. Ḥabīb `Abd al-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad al-Sirī also compiled some of his speech. Another of his students was Ḥabīb Aḥmad bin `Umar al-Shāṭirī, who at his request authored the excellent summary of Shāfi`ī law, al-Yaqut al-Nafis. Shaykh Salim Bukayyir Ghaythan, Mufti of Tarim, studied at length under Habib `Abdullah and also taught in the Ribat, as did Ḥabīb `Umar bin `Alawī al-Kāf.
Although almost his whole time was spent in the Ribāṭ, he made several excursions calling people to Allah to Daw`an and the Indian Ocean coast. He also called people to Allah through his poems, which are collected in his Dīwān.
Ḥabīb `Abdullāh passed away after a short illness on the eve of 29th Jumadā al-Ūlā 1361 (1941). The people of Tarīm and other parts of Ḥaḍramawt came out to pray over him in the Jabbānah3 the following day. Ḥabīb `Alawī bin Shihāb gave a speech extolling Habib `Abdullāh’s virtues before leading the prayer. He was buried in the Zanbal Cemetery, at his request, at the feet of his noble mother, Sayyidah Nūr bint `Umar Shihāb al-Dīn, placing his hopes in the narration that “Paradise is beneath your mother’s feet.”
Ḥabīb `Abdullāh’s sons continued to oversee the Ribāṭ after his death – firstly his oldest son, Ḥabīb Muḥammad al-Mahdī, then Ḥabīb Ḥaṣan. During the period of socialist rule in South Yemen, the Ribāṭ was forcibly closed and remained so for twenty five years, until the regime fell and North and South Yemen were reunited in 1411 (1990). At this point, Ḥabīb Ḥasan and his brother, Habib Salim, returned from exile to re-open the Ribāṭ. After the death of Ḥabīb Ḥasan in 1425 (2004), Ḥabīb Sālim took over the running of the Ribāṭ, and he continued to do so much the same way that his father did until shortly before his death in 1439 (2018). May Allah have mercy on him, his brothers and his father and may the Ribat continue to be a beacon shining the way for the people of this Ummah.
1The scholars of Ḥaḍramawt traditionally used the name rawḥah for the lessons they would give after `Aṣr in which they would focus upon teaching the sciences of the heart and reading the books of the scholars of Taṣawwuf.
2 Narrated by al-Bayhaqī and Abū Ya`lā
3The Jabbānah is the muṣallā situated near the graveyards of Tarīm in which the Janāzah prayer and the `Īd prayers are performed.