He was born in 1787 AD, in Kurdemir, in the Khanate of Shirwan in Caucasia. This region is located in present-day Azerbaijan, between the western shores of the Caspian Sea and the Kura River. He is described as being tall, with a well-built and strong body. He had a light complexion, a black beard and dark eyes.
He was educated in Shirwan by his father, Shaykh Anwar ash-Shirwani, one of the greatest scholars of his time. He educated the young Ismail in the Quran, which he memorized by the age of seven. At nine years of age, he began learning jurisprudence and the science of the Holy Traditions from Shaykh Abdur Rahman ad-Daghestani. After these studies, the young Ismail could give advice or a ruling from the Quran and the Traditions on almost any question of jurisprudence.
One day he experienced a powerful heavenly experience, impelling him to search for his spiritual Reality. Later, he had a vision, in which a voice told him, “You must direct yourself towards Delhi, where you will learn from its scholars and its Shaykhs. God may grant you the good fortune to meet with the successors of Shaykh Abdullah ad-Dahlawi.” This vision kept appearing to him until he reached the age of seventeen, when he told his father that he wanted to become a follower of Shaykh Abdullah ad-Dahlawi. His father was fearful to let him travel to such a distant country but he finally relented and gave his son permission to travel there. Ismail set out on foot for Delhi, and after walking day and night for a year, he met Shaykh Abdullah ad-Dahlawi in Delhi.
He stayed in Shaykh Abdullah’s lodge, serving and learning from him for several years. In 1809 AD, he met Shaykh Khalid al-Baghdadi, when he came to India to meet Shaykh Abdullah and to later take the secret of the Order from him. After carefully observing the behavior of Shaykh Khalid, Shaikh Ismail was very impressed by the manner and sincerity with which the Shaykh served Shaykh Abdullah. Shaykh Abdullah once looked at Shaykh Ismail and said, “Your secrets are with Shaykh Khalid. When he returns to his country you will follow him.”
When Shaykh Khalid returned to Damascus, Shaykh Ismail returned to Caucasia to say farewell to his parents. On his journey back to Shirwan, he stopped in a city that hadn’t had rain for a year. The people of the city asked the Shaykh if he could pray for rain. He raised his hands in supplication, which was answered by seven days of continuous rain. Although Shakyh Ismail’s intention was to continue on to Damascus to be with Shaykh Khalid, he stayed in Shirwan for several years. He taught during this time and also planted the seeds of the ideology of armed struggle against Russian tyranny in the Caucasus, known as the ‘Murid Wars.’ In ‘Muslim Resistance to the Tsar, Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan’, Gammer writes, “Shaykh Mansur did not establish the (Naqshbandi) Order in the Caucasus. This was done, in fact by the Naqshbandiyya Khalidiyya, a branch of the Order named after Shaykh Khalid al-Baghdadi. One of his disciples, Shaykh Ismail ash-Shirwani was active for many years in Shirwan, as Khalid’s Deputy in the late 1810’s. Following the annexation of the Khanate in 1820, Russian authorities started to persecute the movement . . .”
After receiving a vision in which Shaykh Abdullah ad-Dahlawi ordered him to move to Damascus to serve Shaykh Khalid al-Baghdadi, Shaykh Ismail travelled by foot through Kuman, Azerbaijan, Tiflis, Tabriz, Amad, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, to reach Damascus. The journey took one year, during which time, he spread the Naqshbandi teachings. On his arrival at the city centre of Damascus, it took Shaykh Ismail two hours to walk to his Shaykh’s door, located at Mount Qasioun. As he entered, Shaykh Khalid was waiting for him and said, “We received the news of your arrival – welcome.”
Shaykh Khalid immediately placed him in seclusion for a long period of time. In that seclusion, he taught him what he needed in order to reach perfection, after which he gave him the power of this Order. Shaykh Ismail served Shaykh Khalid, travelling with him and living in his house for several years. Shaykh Ismail was given the absolute Caliphate and permission to guide and train seekers, with Shaykh Khalid saying to his followers, ”This is my Deputy. He is like the dome of a mosque, the dome of the mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). From him, the secret of this Order is going to spread to Daghestan. From there I can see its light shining forth through seven generations of Shaykhs. Every one of these seven Shaykhs will represent the highest powers of the divine Presence. Through them there will be great support against the army of ignorance, which is going to overwhelm the area of Daghestan.
From among the people of Daghestan, there will be one warrior who will be living in the time of the three great Shaykhs of this Order. He will be supported by them. He will lead the fight against this army of ignorance.
Shaykh Ismail ash-Shirwani is the best of all the scholars in this time. I raised him up to be one of the perfected Saints. He will guide you and guide everyone after me. He is going to be the knower that spreads the secret of the Order in the territories of the Caucasus. This Imam is going to be the first to sit on my throne. He is going to be the trustee of whatever I have to spent in God’s way. And his duty is to look after my children.”
Shaykh Ismail used to say, “I am a polished mirror. Whatever Shaykh Khalid has engraved on me, I have reflected it on to you.”
After Shaykh Khalid’s death, Shaykh Ismail assumed his position and the guidance of Shaykh Khalid’s followers. After some time, he travelled to Shirwan, where he established a teaching centre, which was attended by Khas Muhammad, who would become his immediate successor, as well as two other Saints of Daghestan, Shaykh Muhammad Effendi al-Yaraghi and Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Ghumuqi al-Husayni.
During his travels in his home country, Shaykh Ismail spread the Order and encouraged his people to oppose the Russians, who oppressed the country’s religion and spiritual life. Soon his followers were everywhere, as they tirelessly spread the Naqshbandi Order throughout every village in Daghestan. Many of his followers became active in the ‘Murid Wars’ against the Russians, with the leaders of the movement, Imam Shamil ad-Daghestani and Gazi Muhammad being among his followers. They defended their country against the Russian onslaught for thirty six years.
Shaykh Ismail ash-Shirwani died in 1840 AD, in Amasya, in present day Turkey.
He passed his secret onto his three Caliphs, which was different to the usual practice of passing the secret to one successor. Shaykh Ismail informed his three Caliphs, “I am passing to each of you the secret of the Order at the same time, by orders of the Prophet, Khwaja Abdul Khaliq al-Gijdivoniy, the Imam of the Order, Shah Naqshband, my Shaykh, Khalid al-Baghdadi and through the spiritual presence of Uways al-Qarani. Each one of you will carry the secret of this Golden Chain, each with the same power, but your ascension to the throne of guidance will be in sequence. Each of you will keep the relations with the other as I say now: directly after me, the authority of that secret will be in the hands of Shaykh Khas Muhammad ash-Shirwani. Then it will be in the hands of Shaykh Muhammad Effendi al-Yaraghi al-Kurali. Finally, it will be put in the hands of Shaykh Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Ghumuqi al-Husayni.”
It came to pass exactly as Shaykh Ismail predicted.
May God be well pleased with him.
Source:- ‘The Naqshbandi Way – History and Guidebook of the Saints of the Golden Chain’ by Mawlana Shaykh Hisham.