Sh. was one of the most distinguished and prolific writers in 10th/16th century Egypt, who produced works on a variety of subjects such as mystical, legal, and theological matters, as well as the history of Sufism in Egypt. Sh.’s voluminous literary output, somewhat paradoxically, obscures our view of his personality. His biographers drew heavily on his writings and Abdurra’uf al-Munawi (d. 1031/1621), a disciple of Sh., wrote a short and disappointing biography of his master, even though his work on the lives of Sufis is more helpful in that it provides information about the decades after Sh.’s death and sheds light on his rivalry with Karimaddin Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Halwati (d. 986/1578), the most important Sufi shaykh in Cairo after Sh.’s death. An important biography was written in 1109/1697 by Muhammad Muhyiddin al-Maliji, a member of Sh.’s tariqa who was initiated into the order by a descendant of Sh. Al-Maliji adds details about persons and events not known from other sources, including Sh.’s physical description. The author quotes Sh.’s manuscripts and relies on Abdurrahman, Sh.’s son.
Sh. wrote a lengthy, interesting, but not entirely reliable, autobiography, entitled Lata’if al-minan, in which he relates among other things the many miracles that happened to him. According to a passage in the book, one of his ancestors was Musa Abu Imran, a son of the sultan of Tlemsen. Musa preferred Sufism to worldly power and became a disciple of Abu Madyan (d. 594/1197) who is considered the spiritual master of the Shadiliyya order. Musa’s grandson Ahmad (d. 828/1424) moved to the village Saqiyat Abu al-Shara in the Minufiyya province; hence the nisba al-Sharani. Ahmad’s son and Sh.’s grandfather Nuraddin Ali (d. 891/1486) is presented by Sh. as a model of purity and piety. He studied at al-Azhar and unlike his illiterate father he became a scholar. He was was a follower of Shaykh Ibrahim al-Matbuli (d. ca. 877/ 1472), an uncouth and opinionated mystic to whom later Sh. dedicated his long treatise of ethics, al-Ahlaq al-matbuliyya. Al-Matbuli was also the mentor of Ali al-Hawwas al-Burullusi, an illiterate illuminati mystic, who was to become Sh.’s chief Sufi instructor. Ali al-Sharani had a zawiya (Sufi convent) in Saqiyat Abu al-Shara through which he maintained his contacts from Cairo with the countryside. This pattern of rural contact from an urban zawiya was typical of the family’s activity for a long time.
Sh. had less to tell about his father Shihabaddin Ahmad whose biography he did not include in his al-Tabaqat al-kubra among the Sufis, since he was a scholar but not a Sufi. Like his father Ali, he studied the various disciplines with the outstanding ulama’ of Cairo, but remained firmly rooted in the family’s native village. Shihabaddin earned his livelihood in agriculture, and occasionally served as a witness-clerk, registering the fellahs’ taxes. He died in 907/1501. Sh. was then about ten years old. After Ahmad’s death, Sh.’s older brother Abdulqadir cared for him. When Sh. reached maturity, his brother took him to the hajj for the first time.
In 911/1505 Sh. was brought to Cairo by a certain government official, who gave him a sum of money for reasons that are not traceable. In Cairo, he settled in the al-Gamri mosque at the northern entrance to the city and remained there for seventeen years. The founder of that mosque was Muhammad b. Umar al-Gamri, a Sufi shaykh who had been active in Cairo and the adjacent countryside. Sh. was a friend of his grandson, Abulhasan al-Gamri (d. 939/1532-33). The young Sh. spent his time in study, prayer and ascetic exercises. Aminaddin al-Najjar al-Dimyati, the imam of the mosque, initiated Sh. into the religious milieu of Cairo. Through Aminaddin, Sh. became acquainted with several leading Sufis.
Sh.’s increasing popularity aroused the jealousy of a group of his comrades, and he had to leave the mosque. He moved to Madrasat Umm Hond in Hatt Bayna al-Surayni, where he found peace. Powerful emirs participated in his mahya prayer sessions, a newly established custom of praying all Friday night long in honor of the Prophet. He attained recognition and economic success after a certain qadi had established for him a large zawiya, generously supported by charitable endowments (awqaf), where Sh. lived with his family. The zawiya provided food for as many as 200 people a day, most of them temporary residents. It was also a place for study and devotion.
Owing to his charismatic personality, meek character, and also thanks to his broad education and readable style, Sh. had many friends and admirers. Among his teachers and friends, he mentions many men of the ruling class, the greatest scholars of Cairo (of all the madahib, legal schools, not just his own Shafii one) and especially many Sufi shaykhs. Among his early teachers in fiqh, Sh. mentions Zakariyya al-Ansari (d. 926/1520), a famous scholar and judge, who educated in his long life generations of ulama’. Sh. also had (unnamed) enemies at al-Azhar college-mosque. He writes that he was maliciously accused of claiming ijtihad mutlaq, the claim to make independent rulings in Islamic law without following the recognized authorities of early Islam. He also had a Sufi rival named Karimaddin, head of the Halwati Sufi order that was at the time unorthodox. Typically, Sh. only hints to that rivalry, but a later biographer gives the details of the quarrel that was not only based on personal jealousies, but also on a different understanding of Sufism: Sh. accused Karimaddin of being careless with regard to the rules of the sharia, and the latter regarded Sh. as a faqih, that is, a jurisconsult, rather than a true mystic. After Sh.’s death the zawiya deteriorated. Abdurrahim, his only son, was less devoted and did not possess his father’s talents for religious leadership. The Sharaniya order, however, survived into the 19th century.
In his writings Sh. showed a strong social awareness, and sympathy with the weak segments of society, especially women and the poor. He opposed injustice, and he and his Sufi comrades tried to spread normative Islam especially in the villages, where there were no scholars or institutions to fulfill that task.
As a meek Sufi, he expressed the need to obey the rulers and to respect them. He praised Süleyman I (926-74/1520-66), and even calls him “the visible pole” (al-Qutb al-Zahir), a Sufi expression of adoration. On the other hand, he criticizes “the unjust ones” (al-Zalama), unnamed members of the ruling class. Ever cautious, he refrains from any open attack on the Ottoman occupation of Egypt. Yet there are a few hints that reveal his dissatisfaction: in a religious text he introduces a cryptic remark that somehow knowledge disappeared from Egypt at the beginning of the year 923/1517, exactly when the Ottomans occupied the land. More than once he refers negatively to the qanun, the Ottoman administrative law that was applied to Egypt and was regarded by many as un-Islamic. As other contemporary historians, Sh. notes the diminishing role of Arabic-speaking judges, in favor of Turkish speakers.
Also known as the “Great tabaqat,” this work was completed in 952/1545 and consists of 430 biographies. It starts with the four Rashidun, i.e., the ‘rightly guided caliphs,’ and ends in Sh.’s own days. The older biographies are not original and often contain only sayings attributed to the Sufis. The part of the work where Sh. writes about those Sufis who lived from the second part of the 9th/15th century is especially interesting for historians. The lives of these Sufis, some of whom had been the direct or indirect teachers of himself or his colleagues, were a part of Sh.’s own tradition.
The popularity of the book resulted in several editions, none of which is actually a critical edition of all the existing manuscripts. The most recent is by Abdurrahman Huda Mahmud (Cairo, 1992). The editor declares that this edition is based on manuscripts at al-Azhar library and compared to the Bulaq edition of 1292/1875, but does not mention the manuscripts he used. J.-Cl. Garcin prepared an excellent index of the Tabaqat (1966).
In 961/1554, Sh. wrote a supplement (zayl) to his first biographical dictionary. The supplement which is also known as the “Small tabaqat” comprises 106 biographies, beginning with that of the famous scholar Jalaladdin al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505). The work is divided into four parts: 1. Biographies of those who taught him Sufism. 2. Those whom he met personally, did not learn from directly, but whom he may have consulted occasionally. 3. Ulama’ who belonged to other madhabs, besides his own Shafii. 4. Mostly ulama’ who were alive when he was writing the supplement, arranged by madhab.
Sh. does not strictly adhere to his division. For example, in Part 1, he writes a short biography of Jalaladdin al-Suyuti who died when Sh. was only fourteen years old and had just arrived in Cairo, too young to be al-Suyuti’s disciple. Yet, the Tabaqat al-sugra includes important information about distinguished Sufis, which does not appear in other sources. Sh. provides information about the early founders of the Sufi family-tariqa of the Bakri al-Siddiqi, which was prominent in the religious life of Egypt until the 20th century.
The only edition (1970) seems to be based on the same manuscript that Garcin used for his index (Cairo, Dar al-kutub, Ta’rih 513).
Sh. finished his third collection of tabaqat which is known as “the Middle tabaqat” in 965/1557. This unpublished collection is divided into three parts: 1. Early Sufis and ulama’ whom he did not know personally, up to his grandfather Ali. 2. Sufis whom he knew from the beginning of the 10th century. 3. Other ulama’. Al-Tabaqat al-wusta was meant to add anecdotes and new themes that Sh. felt he had omitted in the first collection.
Sh. often states that he writes for the moral edification of his readers. Notoriously careless with his dates and sometimes with the facts, Sh.’s writing is sometimes naïve. With the miraculous ever-present in his writing, he tells many anecdotes of uncertain historical worth. Yet, as J.- Cl. Garcin correctly notes, there is life in the tabaqat. The anecdotes provide a credible picture of the religious (particularly the Sufi) milieu in Cairo in the second half of the 9th/15th century and during the first decades of Ottoman rule. The networks and Sufi relationships become clear, as well as the attitudes of orthodox Sufis. Sh. also includes several biographies of majdubs, or malamatis, namely “distracted ones", weird and sometimes ignorant illuminati who were roaming the streets of Cairo. In their appearance and behavior they were far from the ideal of saintly men, and Sh. obviously did not approve of them. Nonetheless, they were believed to be endowed with supernatural powers, and some of them were considered to be “natural saints.”
Sh. was and still is a popular writer thanks to his readable style and humanistic approach. It is no wonder that many of the manuscripts of his works survived, including several autographs. Most of them are kept in Cairo, and Garcin primarily relied on Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, the Egyptian National Library. Yet as we learn from Carl Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, many manuscripts can be found in libraries outside Egypt.
Sh. has several other works on Sufism and other religious topics.
1) Lawaqih al-anwar fi tabaqat al-sada al-ahyar or al-Tabaqat al-kubra
Editions: (1) Bulaq, 1292/1875. (2) Cairo, 1961. (3) Cairo, 1965. (4) Beirut, 1988. (5) Cairo, 1992.
Translations: (1) Virginia Vacca. Vite e detti di santi musulmani (Turin, 1968) (abridged translation).
Secondary sources: J.-Cl. Garcin. “Index des tabaqat de Sharani (pour la fin du IXe et le debut du Xe S.H).” Annales Islamologiques, 6 (Cairo, 1966), 31-94.
2) al-Tabaqat al-sugra
Manuscripts: (1) Cairo, Dar al-kutub, Ta’rih 513; 60 fol., 19-21 lines, nesih. The first part contains 55 biographies and the second 51.
Editions: Al-Sharani. al-Tabaqat al-sugra. Ed. Abdulqadir Ata (Cairo, 1390/ 1970).
3) Lawaqih al-anwar al-qudsiyya fi manaqib al-ulama’ wa-l-sufiyya or al-Tabaqat al-wusta
Manuscripts: Cairo, Dar al-kutub, Ta’rih 1423; 294 fol., 25 lines, nesih.
G. Fluegel, “Sharani und sein Werk ueber die muhammadanische Glaubenslehre,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlaendischen Gesellschaft, 20/1 (1866), 1-48. M. A. von Kremer, “Notice sur Sharany,” Journal Asiatique, 11/6 (Feb.-March, 1868), 253-271. Perron, “Balance de la loi musulmane par le Cheikh el-Charani, introduction,” Revue Africaine, 14/81 (Algiers, 1870), 209-217. Ali Basha Mubarak, al-Hitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida (Bulaq, 1887-1889), vol. 14, 109-112. A.E. Schmidt. Abd al-Vakhkhab ash-Sharani i ego Kniga Razispannykh Zhemchuzhin (St. Petersburg, 1914). M. Horten, “Moenchtum und Moenchsleben im Islam nach Scharani,” Beitrage zur Kenntnis des Oriens, 12 (Halle, 1915), 64-129. K. Vollers, “ash-Sharani,” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 11 (1928), 448-450. Carl Brokelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (Leiden, 1898), vol. 1, 442-493; (Leiden, 1949), vol. 2, 336-338; Supplement (Leiden, 1938), vol. 2, 464-467. J. Schacht, “al- Sharani,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 4 (1934), 318-320. Tawfiq al-tawil. al-Sharani imam al-tasawwuf fi asrihi (Cairo, 1945). Virginia Vacca, “Social and political aspects of Egyptian and Yamani Sufism,” Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, 8 (October, 1960), 233-59. J.-Cl. Garcin, “Index des tabaqat de Sharani (pour la fin du IXe et le debut du Xe S.H),” Annales Islamologiques, 6 (Cairo, 1966), 31-94. A. J. Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London, 1968), 123-128. J.-Cl. Garcin, “L’insertion sociale de Sharani dans le milieu cairote,” Colloque international sur l’histoire du Caire (Cairo, 1969), 159-168. J. S. Trimingham. The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford, 1971), 220-225. Michael Winter. Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt: Studies in the Writings of Abd al-Wahhab Sharani (New Brunswick - London, 1982). Éric Geoffroy. Le Soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie sur les derniers Mamelouks et les Premiers Ottomans (Damascus, 1995), by index. M. Winter, “Al-Sharani, Abd al-Wahhab b. Ahmad,” Encyclopaedia of Islam2, 9 (1996), 316.