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KHANQAH. The institution of a residential teaching center for Sufis seems to have emerged in Iran with the formalization of Sufi activity in the late tenth or eleventh century. Support for these religious institutions by the ruling elites gradually broadened and led to significant patronage in building khanqahs and endowing stipends for the Sufis living there. Khanqahs developed ritual functions in later periods, serving as centers for devotions such as listening to poetry or music and the performance of the dhikr and sama` ceremonies of specific Sufi orders. Some Sufi leaders were buried in their khanqahs thus making them into popular pilgrimage sites. The residential function of the khanqdh does not seem to be essential, and the name indicates the function performed by a space rather than any inherent physical structure, since the same buildings could shift their usage, for example by becoming schools.

KHANQAH noor bakhsha

KHANQAH noor bakhsha

The term is of Persian origin and probably derives from words meaning “a place of residence” (khdna-gah) for Sufis, although many other etymologies have been suggested (Mira, 1990, pp. 55-64). Some scholars see a precedent for the khanqah in Buddhist and Manichean activities in Iran. This institution has numerous regional manifestations and has undergone a number of transf mmations in the premodern and modern periods, primarily owing to the changing nature of institutional Sufism and its role in society.

Several other terms have a similar connotation. Zdwiyah, based on Arabic zawa, “to bring together, gather, contract, conceal,” also conveys the idea of withdrawing into a corner, or going into seclusion (BehrensAbouseif, 1985, p. 116). Ribat is an Arabic term that originally indicated a fortress or outpost for the defense of the faith, associated in Sufi contexts with centers for Sufi striving (jihad) against the lower self (nafs). While some sources used the above three terms as equivalents, Fernandes (1988, p. 18) argues on the basis of Mamluk endowment documents (waqfiyahs) that each had a distinct function. In Mamluk Egypt ribd’ts served as refuges for Sufis as well as for the needy and homeless of both sexes. Tekke (Turkish) or takiyah (Arabic and Persian) is the term used for the Sufi institution of the dervish lodge in Turkey and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. It is said to be derived from the Arabic root w-k-‘, which conveys the idea of a chamber in which one rests while being fed.

South Asia. In the predominantly South Asian Chishti order an institution for Sufi activity was called jama’at khdna and was centered on the residence of the shaykh. Sections of these Sufi complexes were named according to their particular functions-sama` mahall (room for audition) or langar khana (room for the preparation and distribution of food). Today they function predominantly as shrines to deceased saints where pilgrims can receive blessings or cures and make vows.

In contemporary Pakistan the function of providing instruction to novices through contact with a living master and association with other spiritual aspirants has faded, and the buildings are in many cases converted to residential schools offering a standard madrasah curriculum. The students are young and seem to be there primarily for charity-based education rather than for individual spiritual guidance. One may speculate that this has to do with the decreasing charisma of the Sufi teachers and the social pressures for young people to pursue education that is somewhat more economically productive than being a full-time disciple.

Turkey. An article by Klaus Kreiser suggests that classical Sufi tekkes in Turkey were generic, with no particular tariqah affiliation. Tekkes often converted their function back and forth to being madrasahs, relocated, or switched tariqah affiliation depending on the fortunes of the associated shaykh (1992, P. 51). Kreiser found that in 1870 in Istanbul there were 1,826 registered tekke residents drawn from various orders, the majority being Nagshband-is. Many of the centers were very small (three or fewer permanent residents) (p. 52). However, the fact that few persons actually might have lived permanently in a khdnqdh does not imply that the shaykh had only a small following: hundreds of disciples might attend Friday prayers or devotional practices at the center. Although the Turkish republic closed the tekkes in 1925, Sufi activities continued in less public ways and are currently undergoing some revival in Turkey.

Egypt. In Cairo “the spread of Sufism during the fourteenth century and its integration into popular religious life led to a gradual abandonment of the khdngdh’s role as a place for seclusion and retreat. At the same time, mosques and madrasah(s) were opening their doors to Sufi practices” (Behrens-Abouseif, 1985, P. 81). In the Egyptian context zawiyahs as opposed to khanqahs were characterized as being more open and associated with the popularization of Sufism rather than its elite-supported, formally organized and sanctioned forms. Khanqdhs in Cairo were often linked with nonEgyptian Sufis who took up residence there and received official patronage. Zawiyahs seem generally to have been built at the bequest of particular patrons, and some became waqfs on the death of the patron. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century in Egypt the term zawiyah referred to a structure built for the shaykh of a particular order to serve as a residence for him and a meetingplace for his disciples. When the shaykh was buried there after his death, the zdwiyah would become a shrine. After this period in Egypt institutional Sufism and the khdnqdh declined; but since popular Sufism flourished, the functions and architectural importance of the zawiyah increased.

In the late Mamluk period the separate designation khanqah disappeared as part of a general decline in institutionalized Sufism. The designation zdwiyah grew in importance, and buildings called zawiyahs, tekkiyyas and ribats were built by patrons in Ottoman Cairo.

Today in popular Egyptian Sufism, the ritual or performative aspects of Sufi devotions are often performed in mosques. Zawiyahs may be founded by individual shaykhs and persist in functioning as hospitality centers for those who travel the circuit of shrine celebrations (mawlids). [See Mawlid.]

North and East Africa. In regions of Africa as diverse as Libya, the Sudan, and Somalia, khanqah-like institutions called zawiyahs or jama’at emerged in the nineteenth century. R. S. O’Fahey (1990) suggests that these Sufi communities established in Africa were a novelty for this part of the Islamic world, arising out of the contemporary movement of reformist Sufism. Noteworthy in this context were the effects of these Sufi institutions in forging loyalties that tended to transcend tribal and social boundaries. For example, in southern Somali society jama’ats are bases for Sufi mediators (wadaads) of local clan rivalries. The wadaads usually gather around charismatic shaykhs in this region and form selfsufficient agricultural enclaves. In Libya, Sanusi zawiyahs were an effective form of organization in resisting European encroachment.

Iran. The role of Sufism and Sufi shrine complexes increased in prominence in fourteenth-century Mongol Iran. At this time Sufi ritual became institutionalized, and relations of Sufis with the political authorities were important. This link between the state and Sufism can explain some of the vicissitudes of the Sufi orders and their institutions in the Safavid and Qajar periods. The Qajar period basically saw an increase in the establishment of Ni’matullahi khangdhs when this order was patronized by the state as a balance to the power of the ‘ulama’. During recent decades some Persian orders, in particular the Ni’matullahi, have established khangdhs in a number of cities in America, Europe, and other parts of the world.

[See also Ni`matullahiyah; Sufism; Zawiyah.]


Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. “Change in Function and Form of Mamluk Religious Institutions.” Annales Islamologiques 21 (1985): 73-93. An art historian’s perspective.

Ernst, Carl W. Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Fernandes, Leonor E. “The Zawiya in Cairo.” Annales Islamologiques 18 (1982): 116-121, plus illustrations.

Fernandes, Leonor E. The Evolution of a Sufi Institution in Mamluk Egypt: The Khanqah. Berlin, 1988.

Kiyani, Muhsin. Tarikh-i Khanqah dar Irdn. Tehran, 1369/199o. Primarily a textual study of the Khanqah during the classical period of Iranian Sufism.

Kreiser, Klaus. “The Dervish Living.” In The Dervish Lodge: Architecture, Art, and Sufism in Ottoman Turkey, edited by Raymond Lifchez, pp. 49-56. Berkeley, 1992.

Lifchez, Raymond, ed. The Dervish Lodge: Architecture, Art, and Sufism in Ottoman Turkey. Berkeley, 1992. Important collection of articles.

O’Fahey, R. S. Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition. Evanston, Ill., 1990. Considers African developments in the nineteenth century.

Popovic, Alexandre, and Gilles Veinstein, eds. Les ordres mystiques dans l’Islam. Paris, 1986. Offers a number of up-to-date articles on regional and contemporary manifestations of Sufism.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/khanqah/

  • writerPosted On: July 23, 2014
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