Sunday, January 6, 2013

'Fez: City of Saints' - a speck of its reflections | KL Premiere 5th Jan 2013


Alhamdulillah wa shukrulillah. We're absolutely grateful to be among such honorable audience at the KL Premiere of 'Fez: City of Saints' yesterday. This was the documentary's fifth screening after London, Toronto, Cardiff and Singapore.

Among the honorable guests present at the Islamic Arts Museum Auditorium were Habib Kazim al-Saqqaf, Habib Ali Zaenal Abidin al-Hamid, Dr. Fuad Nahdi, Habib Abu Bakar bin Salim al-Hamid and Shaykh Hafiz Selamat.

The President and CEO of ISSI (the Islamic and Strategic Studies Institute) Dr. Yusri and Dr. Amran made a short opening remark and welcomed Dr. Fuad Nahdi of the Radical Middle Way UK to introduce the film he was privileged to produce.

Dr. Fuad spoke very briefly. He said, "This is not a day of speech." He expressed his gratitude towards the audience and asked them to watch the documentary not only with the eyes and ears, but to also watch it with the heart. "Open your heart. This film is targeted at the heart. It is a labor of love, to share special moments with a special person at a special place. The person is Habib Umar bin Hafiz and the place is Fez - visiting places of the saints. It's a spiritual journey carried on film." Dr. Fuad hoped the audience would also be partners of the journey, to be a part of a guided spiritual journey. He also urged the audience to make a niyyat (intention) of visiting the holy places and pray that we would get a reward as if we were there too.

This posting is not a review of the film, because it's impossible to write about it just by watching it once. The entire film was spiritually rich and therefore emotionally overwhelming! This is only a speck of its reflections. Pardon my shortcoming.


The film started off with a quote from Sidi Mohammed Ibn Jaafar al-Kattani about the uniqueness of Fez, based on a kitab which he wrote. The Sidi said: "I know of no other Islamic city that is so ancient and so filled with religion and science, that was founded by the true descendant of the family of the holy Prophet; and the resulting blessing from this has never failed." [1]
Later towards the end of the film, Habib Umar made a remark about the barakah of the city which has survived and thrived, why? Because said Habib Umar: "Its founder Moulay Idris did not wish for a worldly success. He simply intended for the city to be a place where God would be worshiped." And that, it has become.

This was indeed a fact, as recorded by al-Kattani: "Moulay Idris sketched the ground-ball of the city of Fez on Thursday morning at the beginning of the month of Rabi'ul Awal of 192 Hijra. When he was about to begin the construction, he lifted up his hands and prayed for it and its inhabitants. 'O Almighty God, make it a House of Knowledge and of legal science so that in it The Book may always be read and the Laws always observed. Let its inhabitants hold fast to the Book and the Sunna, as long as You shall preserve it.' [2]

This is a reality you could see, lived and shone, throughout the entire film. MashaAllah!

At the outset of the film, was a conversation between Habib Umar and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia who commented on "wisdom being always in the East and the intellect in the West." Yet he said he could not see people with wisdom in the East, nor intelligent people in the West. To that Habib Umar said: "We don't see them (people of wisdom) because they are not holding Executive positions. Victory for mankind is about making kindness/goodness prevail over the bad. It's about bringing people from ignorance to reaching realization." 

The documentary featured numerous visitations to holy places in and around Fez, but three main highlights were the tomb of Moulay Idris, Al-Qarawiyyin (the mosque and university) and the tomb/zawiyah of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani. 

Some interesting facts as narrated in the film, before Habib Umar and his entourage were taken to visit the said places:
  • Ibn Khaldun from Hadramaut was known to have lived in and benefited from Al-Qarawiyyin during the 4th century. Ibn Rushdi and Ibn Batutta too had studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.
  • Fez actually came about from the word fa-az meaning a golden axe found/used by the city's founder - Moulay Idris the second.
  • There are 9600 streets in the city.
  • In every quarters of the city there will always be 5 things: a masjid, fountain, madrasah, a bakery and a hammam.
At Al-Qarawiyyin, Habib Umar was briefed about it being a center of knowledge and the Habib noted the teaching method used, was how it should be. Students would gather around the teacher and they would read out traditional kitab loudly line by line and the teacher will then expound on its meaning. It is of the same method practiced in Yemen said Habib Umar. The Qarawiyyin was originally from Tunisia. The complex has got 14 entrances and 170 columns. The original structure built by Fatima al-Fihri had been extended during the 17th century. [Later in the film, it was noted that it was her sister Mariam al-Fihri who built Masjid al-Andalus.]

The phrase: "There is no conqueror but God" is written everywhere in the building which mirrors the design of Alhambra. While touring the grand masjid and learning center, Habib Umar remarked: "This place is meant for the right people!" During a short tausiyah he gave at Al-Qarawiyyin, Habib Umar quoted a hadith about the virtues of three groups of people who would visit each other, spend on each other and sit together for the sake of Allah. That the people of Paradise too would visit each other. 

Then the audience was transported to the Zawiyah of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani.  Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayah, a scholar of Fez, explained the role of the zawiyah to spread knowledge among people and to do that in detail. He said, it's more important to produce 10 to 100 ulama than to aim for a large number of scholars. There are three types of knowledge: one which is based on revelation, on intelligence and reason. The new generation of scholars might have knowledge but not piety. 

Friday is a special day at the zawiyah. People would gather before and after the Jummah prayers to recite the Qur'an. There were people who actually managed to memorize the Quran just by attending the study circle (halaqah).

As the special entourage was wandering and uncovering secrets of the holy places, Habib Umar was asked, what the best book on Tasawwuf could be. "Ihya Ulumuddin," said Habib Umar. He then revealed a rarely heard story about the author of Ihya, Al-Imam Al-Ghazalli being introduced to the prophets and about Prophet Musa a.s. speaking to him! This was mentioned in a few history books, said Habib Umar.

Next stop was the holy tomb of Moulay Idris I, in a town named after him, near Meknes in Northern Morocco. He was the founder of Morocco who arrived in this hilly town in 789 CE. This was what Habib Umar had to say when visiting his maqam and he said it very succinctly: "Wherever a saint is, the place receives fragrant from the effects."

Moulay Idris I [Idris ibn Abdullah] was the great grandson of Hassan who was the son of Saidina Ali. He fled Syria while it was in battle and brought Islam to Morocco where people eventually took bay'at from him. Before long, his enemies who envied him, plotted to poison him. His 11 year old son Moulay Idriss II succeeded him and continued the construction of Fez which he first started.

Tomb of Moulay Idris I (745 - 791 CE)
Pic credit: Kazuhisa Otsubo

In Meknes, Habib Umar made a last stop to visit the maqam of Shaykh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib (1876 - 1972), the shaykh of the Darqawiya Tariqa of Morocco.

In his commentaries of the film, Habib Kazim as-Saqqaf said (as interpreted by Habib Ali Zaenal Abidin al-Hamid):

"Praise be to Allah for having given us the opportunity to gather here. All present [at the screening of the documentary on Habib Umar's journey to Morocco] will receive some benefit according to the person's own receptivity. Each one of us has our own perspective. The producer, Dr. Fuad Nahdi has his own intention and objectives in producing the film, some of which may or may not reach us. Those who visit the historical places would surely gain from it. Those who are keen on visiting places related to ulama would uncover the secrets which they seek at those places. What I understood from Dr. Fuad's comments [during Q & A] was that the film was also meant to clarify the perception/misunderstanding that some people have about tasawwuf, 'ilm suluk etc."

"I have received plenty of benefits from watching the film which are for my own understanding only. But there are also things which I could share. Perhaps there is one which you could hold on to. It's about the way we interact with people, the world and even with the animals. I will touch on a principle on the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. To be specific it's about 'ilm tasawwuf which is pure and free of any misfitting accusations that people have towards it."

"In the muqaddimah (opening) of the film, I noticed the conversation between Habib Umar and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia about the East and the West and the comparison between wisdom (hikmah) and intelligence (aqal). These two, if combined could bring forth an opportunity for us to reduce the negative elements. We could then see our role in promoting the good, so the bad/undesirable will cease."

"These two traits, wisdom and intelligence, are inherent in everyone. It is an element of a person (unsur insan). With it, one could become someone who is not only good but one who could help others become better. We should know the difference between being intelligent and intelligence. There must be some criteria for both."

"All religion share many similar positive values. Everyone regardless of faith and creed could agree on the value of intelligence. For example: people are polite when interacting with one another. It is common values shared by all and all religions. It is something that is useful for ourselves, it's beneficial for other people, our surroundings and the environment. It's about living in harmony and not negatively affecting others. For example: going to the space, the knowledge of which may bring harm to others. Such knowledge does not have "intelligence". The kind of knowledge that could give happiness to one's heart and soul has both the criteria of being intelligent and having intelligence. Research has shown that those who are stressful do not possess an 'intelligent' knowledge, one that could bring peace of mind." 

"We are different in many ways, we are different in the way that we dress, but that does not mean we cannot agree on matters of love and affection, about peace and about the common good, regardless of one's faith and race." 

That's the essence of the conversation between Habib Umar and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia as captured and expounded by the venerable Habib Kazim as-Saqqaf.


Allahu a'lam. May I be forgiven for any errors and omissions in my notes. I am sure a better review/reflections could be written about the film if one had the privilege to watch it a few times and pause and take time to reflect on it. Because it is a film that is targeted at the heart, if we were to watch it repeatedly with a present heart (hudur), much more wisdom and secrets could be unfolded bi-iznillah. May Allah increase us in knowledge and gnosis. May Allah bring us to Fez and all the sacred sites in Morocco someday. InshaAllah.

Heartiest congratulations to Dr. Fuad Nahdi & team at Radical Middle Way. 



  1. MashaAllah, what a beautiful and thorough commentary. I wonder how you manage to capture the details of the movie in just one viewing. I guess it is like what Habib Kazim said "All present will receive some benefit according to the person's own receptivity."

    Radical Middle Way I am told will open a Malaysian branch soon. So expect more events by them here, InshaAllah

  2. MashaAllah tabarakallah.
    To tell you the truth, I don't know what I scribbled because the room was dark but scribbled I did and just trust Him.
    But thank you anyway. Alhamdulillah wa shukrulillah.

    Thanks for the wonderful news about RMW coming here. Ahlan wa sahlan : )