The founder of the Qadiriyya, Abdul Qadir Gilani, was a respected scholar and preacher. Having been a pupil at the madrasa of Abu Sa'id al-Mubarak, he became the leader of this school after al-Mubarak's death in 1119. Being the new sheikh, he and his large family lived in the madrasa until his death in 1166, when his son, Abdul Razzaq, succeeded his father as sheikh. Abdul Razzaq published a hagiography of his father, emphasizing his reputation as founder of a distinct and prestigious Sufi order.
The Qadiriyya flourished, surviving the Mongolian conquest of Baghdad in 1258, and remained an influential Sunni institution. After the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, the legend of Gilani was further spread by a text entitled The Joy of the Secrets in Abdul-Qadir's Mysterious Deeds (Bahjat al-asrar fi ba'd manaqib 'Abd al-Qadir) attributed to Nur al-Din 'Ali al-Shattanufi, who depicted Gilani as the ultimate channel of divine grace and helped the Qadiri order to spread far beyond the region of Baghdad.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the Qadiriyya had distinct branches and had spread to Morocco, Spain, Turkey, India, Ethiopia, Somalia, and present-day Mali. Established Sufi sheikhs often adopted the Qadiriyya tradition without abandoning leadership of their local communities. During the Safavid dynasty's rule of Baghdad from 1508 to 1534, the sheikh of the Qadiriyya was appointed chief Sufi of Baghdad and the surrounding lands. Shortly after the Ottoman Empire conquered Baghdad in 1534, Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned a dome to be built on the mausoleum of Abdul-Qadir Gilani, establishing the Qadiriyya as his main allies in Iraq.
Khawaja Abdul-Allah, a sheikh of the Qadiriyya and a descendant of Muhammad, is reported to have entered China in 1674 and traveled the country preaching until his death in 1689. One of Abdul-Allah's students, Qi Jingyi Hilal al-Din, is said to have permanently rooted Qadiri Sufism in China. He was buried in Linxia City, which became the center of the Qadiriyya in China. By the seventeenth century, the Qadiriyya had reached Ottoman-occupied areas of Europe.
Sultan Bahu contributed to the spread of Qadiriyya in western India. His method of spreading the teachings of the Sufi doctrine of Faqr was through his Punjabi couplets and other writings, which numbered more than 140. He granted the method of dhikr and stressed that the way to reach divinity was not through asceticism or excessive or lengthy prayers but through selfless love carved out of annihilation in God, which he called fana.
Sheikh Sidi Ahmad al-Bakka'i (Arabic: الشيخ سيدي أحمد البكاي بودمعة of the Kunta family, born in the region of the Noun river, d. 1504 in Akka) established a Qadiri zawiya (Sufi residence) in Walata. In the sixteenth century the family spread across the Sahara to Timbuktu, Agades, Bornu, Hausaland, and other places, and in the eighteenth century large numbers of Kunta moved to the region of the middle Niger where they established the village of Mabruk. Sidi Al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1728–1811) united the Kunta factions by successful negotiation, and established an extensive confederation. Under his influence the Maliki school of Islamic law was reinvigorated and the Qadiriyyah order spread throughout Mauritania, the middle Niger region, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Futa Toro, and Futa Jallon. Kunta colonies in the Senegambian region became centers of Muslim teaching.