The Place of the Sufi Centre within Islam


This paper was delivered at the 11th East-West Philosophers’ Conference, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2016.

The Sufi Centre occupies a significant place within Islam generally and the Sufi community in particular. For the general population, a Sufi Centre may be seen as a place wherein people gather and worship. For the adherents of Sufism, the Sufi Centre is a transformative space wherein teaching is transmitted, subtle energy (baraka) is concentrated, and soteriological development is intensified. This paper is divided into three sections. The first section will provide a historical overview of the diversified institutions that mutually developed into the Sufi Centre. The second section will detail what a Sufi Centre ideally contains and how this informs its functionality. The third section will explore how companionship (suhba) is an important aspect of the Sufi Centre and how this can contribute to an intensified soteriological development for the adherents of Sufism.

The Development of the Sufi Centre

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The development of the Sufi Centre into what it is today can be seen to result from the development of several institutions. It is nice to think that “the saint wanders with his disciples through desolate areas and at one point sticks his staff into the ground, whereupon water springs from the ground and lush vegetation appears in the desert” such that “the zawiya of the saint is then founded at such an oasis and brings blessing and salvation to later generations.”[1] However appealing and laden with symbolic truth this account may be, the historical developments appear much different.

It should be noted that the term “Sufi Centre” is an umbrella term. The Sufi Centre as an institution can be seen to develop out of several different institutions, disparate yet each contributing uniquely to the development of the Sufi Centre as an independent institutional category. Depending on its geographical location, what is here being referred to as a Sufi Centre may be known as a zawiya, a ribat, a khanaqah, a tekke, and a dargah. Scholars have attempted to differentiate each of these institutions, highlighting the elements that separate them. While each of these institutions can be seen to have developed out of differing functions and needs, they each have contributed essential elements to the development of the Sufi Centre.

One of the earliest concepts, though not necessarily earliest in usage, is that of the zawiya. An Arabic term literally meaning “corner” initially referred to the corner of a mosque “or a room placed close to it used for teaching the Koran and reading and writing.”[2] Later, as an independent institution, a zawiya was seen as “a hut … for the purpose of worship, teaching, and lodging for transient brothers.”[3] In distinguishing it from other Sufi Centres, it has been said that “the zawiya was smaller than the Sufi khanaqah or ribat and housed just a master and a few of his disciples.”[4]

Another institution that developed into Sufi Centres is that of the ribat. The ribat was “originally a fortified camp on the edges of the desert for the protection of Muslim communities.”[5] Later, when the military function of these outposts diminished, “the need was felt for more numerous religious centres and places of spiritual guidance and instruction.”[6] In terms of its sotereological function, the ribat has been described as a “school of meditation and indoctrination”[7] wherein “a group of Muslims enclose themselves in the ribat for intensive training in submission (islam), faith (iman), and righteousness (ihsan).”[8]

One of the more popular terms for a Sufi Centre is that of a khanaqah. The term is of Iranian origin and has been defined as a “Sufi lodge, or monastery, where the devotees live under the direction of a Sufi master.”[9] The khanaqah have received significant scholarly attention due to their architectural significance.

One type of Sufi Centre that appears to have a more limited geographical restriction is that of the tekke. A Turkish word “first employed in the sense of ‘refectory’” are predominantly found within the Ottoman Empire.[10] These buildings were “built by the town’s crafts guilds” and “each guild constructed its tekke in the quarter where that particular trade was located.”[11]

Another type of Sufi Centre is that of the dargah. It is a Persian word meaning “a royal court” and is often associated with a “shrine or tomb of some reputed holy person.”[12] In its early usage it was “often used to refer to a variety of institutional settings, from residential to funerary” and conveyed “a sense of the ‘royal’ atmosphere.”[13]

As Sufi Centres developed into institutions, their function solidified. The various Sufi Orders (turuq, s. tariqa) “came to serve the same function as the family” and the Sufi Centre “provided education, job contacts, and lodgings.”[14] It has been seen that “from the eleventh century the zawiyas and khanaqahs which provided temporary resting-places for wandering Sufis spread the new devotional life throughout the countryside and played a decisive role in the Islamization of borderland and non-Arab regions in central Asia and north Africa,”[15] with the soteriological function replacing the military function of the ribat.[16] In developing into an independent institution of its own, the Sufi Centres have also taken on wider societal roles. The collecting and distributing of alms (zakat) and charity (sadaqa) is one such role often taken on by Sufi Centres, as has been noted with the Sanusiyya Sufi Order where “zakat (Islamic alms tax) was paid to and distributed by the tariqah [Sufi Order].”[17] Within the space of the Sufi Centre it is possible, both historically and currently, to see a microcosm of society united by a common soteriological aim and the training ground for the development of virtues which are then carried by the individual into the wider community.

While there have been various attempts to show strict distinctions between the zawiya, the ribat, the khanaqah, the tekke, and the dargah, it must be acknowledged that all of these terms designate a place that is similar in content and varies slightly in context. It has been acknowledged that sources “do not bear out such neat distinctions”[18] and that “contemporaries seem to have seen no clear difference between such institutions, so that terminology is not likely to reveal much about the configuration of individual ones.”[19] The development of “Sufi complexes variously called ribat, zawiya, and khanaqah, were constructed all over the Muslim world” and, despite the varied terminology, over time “they had acquired a similar structure and use everywhere,”[20] such that by the fourteenth century they “are so similar that it is nearly impossible to find a distinction between them in either use or architectural form.”[21]  While the manner in which an individual Sufi Centre is referred to may not reveal much about the specifics of that Sufi Centre, an examination of the historical development of such institutions does reveal key aspects of Sufi praxis, as does the symbolic value of such terms.

The Arrangement of the Sufi Centre


The arrangement of a Sufi Centre can differ according to the Sufi Order and its location. Irrespective of the size or locality of the Sufi Centre, the focus on piety and soteriological purpose dictates the functional arrangement of Sufi Centres such that it is referred to as “a certain group of structures with ceremonial space.”[22]

From the preceding overview of the diversified institutional heritage of the Sufi Centre, one point should stand out: a Sufi Centre is a gathering point. Outwardly it is a gathering point for individuals. Inwardly it is a gathering point for those in attendance to efface the perceived ontological multiplicity and affirm Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). As “a place for piety through study, guidance, and labour,”[23] the structure and arrangement of a Sufi Centre is inextricably linked to its function. The inward gathering takes precedence over the outward. This section will focus on the outward gathering point, that of the Sufi Centre, and how its arrangement and place reaffirm and facilitate the inward gathering of the individual.

The view of the Sufi Centre as a gathering point, if taken as one of its most fundamental physical attributes, makes it possible to build outwardly from this central and crucial attribute to highlight some of the essential characteristics common to all Sufi Centres. “In the sacred world one must start from a central point” radiating towards the peripheries and in treating “a sacred place such as the zawiya, which represents a spatial center where the sense of sacredness is concentrated in the midst of profane surroundings” this approach is useful.[24] The gathering place is an essential physical feature of a Sufi Centre. It can be as grand as a hall and elaborately decorated or it may be a minimally furnished room. The function of the gathering place is to act as a primary space wherein both formal and informal aspects of worship are performed.[25] These may include the daily prescribed prayers, often done in congregation, the Friday sermon, gatherings for the remembrance of Allah (hadra), recitation of litanies (ahzab), teaching talks, contemplation (muraqaba), and a place wherein members of the Sufi Order can practice their daily recitations (awrad), amongst other activities. Ideally it is a space that can comfortably accommodate all present so that the aspirant can focus on the inward gathering without outward distractions. Depending on the size of the Sufi Centre and the size of the Sufi Order, these activities may be divided up across several different spaces within the place of the Sufi Centre.

Building from the gathering point there are many diversified aspects that can be included within a Sufi Centre. Given the practice of congregational activities within the gathering point, including prayer, it is useful to have a space wherein ablutions (wudu) can be performed. As many are often present, an area to share and even prepare meals is another regular feature. I have heard reports of a Chishtiyya Sufi Centre in India using cooking pot so large that it can fit several adults when cleaned and have seen the massive fire pit used for cooking food at the Maizbhandari Sufi Centre outside of Chittagong, Bangladesh. As there is a focus teaching and study within the practice of Sufism, many Sufi Centres also include a library and study area. Space permitting, the Sufi Centre may also include offices and residences for the shaykh and senior adherents, areas for seclusion (khalwa), a hospice for travellers, and even an economic space for the Sufi Centre, depending on the activities and practices of the Sufi Order. All of these may be located within the gathering point, though areas are often separated according to the activity.

The arrangement of a Sufi Centre and its contents, as long as it retains its essential attribute of a gathering point, is not limited by what it can contain within its confines. One Sanusiyya Sufi Centre was described in the following passage: “Within the thick defensive walls of the zawiyah was a connected complex of rock and mud buildings which included apartments for all those students, ikhwan and the shaykh residing there; a large mosque; school rooms; travellers and guest rooms (madafah); rooms for spiritual retreat and solitary nightly invocation; ovens; workshops; food storage rooms; a library; armory; and a large inner courtyard often with a well or water source.”[26] This short description clearly indicates that, radiating out from the gathering point, the arrangement of a Sufi Centre can be extremely diversified in its contents.

The Purpose of the Sufi Centre


The purpose of the Sufi Centre is to act as an interpersonal gathering point for those that long to strive towards soteriological development, aiding and aided by this common goal. This interpersonal aspect within the place of the Sufi Centre is inextricably linked to companionship (suhba). Companionship in this place can be separated into two kinds, companionship with the shaykh and companionship with the other students (salik/murid). As much has been written on the former kind of companionship, this section will focus on companionship amongst students.

If the purpose of Sufism is soteriological development, then the Sufi Centre is a place of training wherein this development is both imparted and intensified. In terms of place, “the zawiya is the pinnacle of the sacred, counterpoised with profane places (the market) which belong to everyday time which holds no sacred signification” and, as such, “the entrance of the zawiya divides between two existential spaces: a fundamentally real space and a fake space.”[27] The evident hierarchy within a Sufi Centre is shifted away from profane and material achievement towards soteriologocal achievement. One of the key indicators of this is etiquette (adab) because it is, in its highest ideal, a reflection of the individual’s etiquette towards Allah.[28]

For the practice and development of etiquette (adab), and the eliciting of their corresponding virtues, companionship (suhba) is important. Within the Sufi Centre the interpersonal gathering takes on soteriological significance because “the companionship of these brothers gives numerous opportunities for mutual encouragement in the devout life and the practice of the virtues – that is, humility, generosity, and equanimity, which lift from the heart the burdens weighing on it and, at the same time, embellish it, because they are the reflection of the Divine Qualities.”[29] Soteriological development is aided by good companions and is marked by being a good companion.

To affirm epistemologically the ontological reality of Unity (tawid) requires an enacting of one’s knowledge. In implementing etiquette (adab) the company of others is informative. Keeping similar company is important as “the self is naturally inclined to imitation and resemblance, and to adorning itself with the characteristics of those it associates with, thereby becoming like them.”[30] To have a place wherein people are able to strive alongside of others can be of benefit because those who have undergone a degree of soteriological development better know the road and are able to assist others around the various stumbling blocks which can cause impediment. Thus, companionship (suhba) with those with a mutual aim within the Sufi Centre takes on a crucial role for the soteriological development of the individual. Yet, mere companionship without the etiquette is of negligible value, as “company is a form, and adab [etiquette] is its ruh [spirit],” indicating that etiquette (adab) is the internal compliment of company, such that “if you join the form and the ruh [spirit], you will benefit of their company” yet without its internal compliment “your company is a corpse.”[31]

Throughout history and across geographical divides, the Sufi Centre has been known by many names. Each of the institutions that have contributed towards the development of the Sufi Centre into an independent institutional category have also contributed to the understanding of Sufi praxis, often reflected symbolically in the term being used. As a gathering point, the Sufi Centre is a place of interpersonal, outward gathering that mirrors and facilitates the inward gathering of the individual. In facilitating the inward gathering of the individual, the Sufi Centre is a place of intensified soteriological development. As a place of interpersonal outward gathering, the Sufi Centre utilises companionship as a catalyst for individualised inward gathering. In this sense, within Islam, the place of the Sufi Centre is both a physical and a metaphysical place that aims to elicit within the individual a complete affirmation of Allah’s unicity (tawhid).


By Murshid F. A. Ali ElSenossi


If you grew up in a traditional Muslim society in North Africa, you would find that the heart of the community is the Zawiyya and you would find one on nearly every corner. Even today, it is a place where you will find genuine human beings who have experienced realisation of Almighty God. They are greatly respected because of their genuine and sincere contributions to the community, the country and to the world at large. These people have unified their inner and their outer and they, in turn, function as guides to the road that we know as Tariqa, or the Path. Their doors are always open, welcoming travellers and guests, but the key to the success of the Zawiyya is that it provides answers to the important questions in life, without criticism or judgement. Answers to questions on topics such as the Essence of God, His Names, His Attributes and His Actions can be found there. Questions on the mysteries of the self and the states and stations of development of the human on his way to awakened consciousness – to becoming a real human being are also addressed in the Zawiyyah.

The Shaykh of the Zawiyya and some senior members may also function as spiritual psychologists, healers, marriage counsellors and trouble shooters. Our own Sufi Centre in Australia, Almiraj Sufi and Islamic Study Centre in Broken Hill, New South Wales, follows the pattern and layout of the traditional Sufi Centres mentioned earlier. There is a dedicated space for prayers and the Remembrance of Allah (dhikr). Also contained within the building is a library with a large range of resources for those who wish to study.

Weekly lessons are given by the Shaykh in addition to the weekly gathering of brothers and sisters for the Remembrance of Allah. Those who have questions for the Shaykh concerning the teaching or their own spiritual travel can put them forward during both of these gatherings for the benefit of all present. If required, private consultation may also be made with the Shaykh in his office at the Centre. The Centre is open to the wider community for Friday Jumu’ah and for special celebrations such as the breaking of fast during Ramadhan and the two Eid festivals and for community consultation.

With all of the problems that humanity is facing in the 21st century, the Sufi Centre proves itself to be a great necessity to the community wherever it is found and beyond. The Sufi teaching is centred on the principle of healing the consciousness of man and great efforts are made to remove the obstacles to harmony between members of the human race. It is an irony that while Sufi Centres in the Muslim world are being blown up and destroyed, new and up to date Centres are being established all over the Western World. The Sufi Centre, wherever it is found, is built on the foundations of love. In Australia or in Europe, America or in Konya, they all share the same Divine thread which connects them all to the source of love and illumination, the Holy Prophet÷, the seal of all emissaries. In order to fully understand its function, you have to live within the teaching, partake of the knowledge and companionship and experience the peace and tranquillity that pervades such places. Everyone who takes a step inside one of these luminous places will feel within their heart the tranquillity and solace that resides there.

The Sufi Centre is a place for learning and awakening of the consciousness because each human has the seed of the ‘universal man’ within him. Within the Sufi teaching, that seed is watered with the Divine luminous light and given the chance to grow into a fully mature tree, spreading its branches to give shade and shelter and food to all of the creations.

“The name Sufi applies to the man or woman who has purified his heart through the Remembrance of Allah, travelled the Path of Return to Allah, and arrived at True Knowledge. There are many seekers of Wisdom and Truth, but only the Realized One whose search was solely for Allah, deserves the name Sufi. Yet paradoxically, the one deserving of the name would never deem himself worthy of such an honour. Because he has attained such a high degree in his Knowledge of Allah he knows, with Certainty, that ‘the slave is the slave and the Lord is the Lord’.”[32]

In these end days, the Sufi Centre is one of the great gifts to humanity from the Sovereign Good, Allah.


Adamec, Ludwig W. The A to Z of Islam. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2009.

al-‘Alim, ‘Abd al-Jami. “The Sanusi Zawiyah System.” In Leaves from a Sufi Journal, edited by Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, 68 – 74. Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1988.

Basu, Helene. “Ritual Communication: The Case of the Sidi in Gujarat.” In Lived Islam in South Asia, edited by Imtiaz Ahmad and Helmut Reifeld, 233 – 253. Delhi: Social Science Press, 2004.

Cisse, Imam Cheikh Tidiane Ali. What the Knowers of Allah have said about the Knowledge of Allah, trans. Zakariya Wright and Muhammad Hassiem Abdullahi. Atlanta: Fayda Books, 2014.

Goldziher, Ignaz. Muslim Studies, trans. C. R. Barbar and S. M. Stern. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971.

Hughes, Thomas Patrick. A Dictionary of Islam. Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Illuminating Guidance on the Dropping of Self-Direction, trans Ibrahim Hakim. Winnipeg: Noon Hieropraphers, 2010.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Unwan al-Tawfiq. In Self-Knowledge: Commentaries on Sufic Songs, trans. ‘A’isha ‘Abd ar-Rahman at-Tarjumana, 6 – 15. Capetwon: Madinah Press, 2005.

Le Gall, Dina. A Culture of Sufism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Marzouqi, Hassan. “Tariqa Islam: Layers of Authentication.” Research Paper, Arab Centre for Research & Policy Studies, 2013.

Meier, Fritz. Essays on Islamic Piety and Mysticism, trans. John O’Kane. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Michon, Jean-Louis. “The Spiritual Practices of Sufism.” In Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 265 – 293. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1987.

Paden, John N. Religion and Political Culture in Kano. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.

Pedersen, J. “Some Aspects of the History of the Madrasa.” In Encyclopaedic Survey of Islamic Culture, edited by Mohamed Taher, 1 – 12. New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 1997.

Renard, John. Historical Dictionary of Sufism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Ridgeon, Lloyd. “Zawiya.” In Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilisation and Religion, edited by Ian Richard Netton, 689. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Vikor, Knut S. Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge. London: Hurst & Company, 1995.

Yusupova, Maylyuda. “Evolution of Architecture of the Sufi Complexes in Bukhra.” Paper presented at Bukhara: The Myth and the Architecture, At Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January, 1999.

[1] Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies, trans. C. R. Barbar and S. M. Stern (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), 270.

[2] Maylyuda Yusupova, “Evolution of Architecture of the Sufi Complexes in Bukhara” (paper presented at Bukhara: The Myth and the Architecture, At Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January, 1999), 122.

[3] John N. Paden, Religion and Political Culture in Kano (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 141.

[4] Lloyd Ridgeon, “Zawiya,” in Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilisation and Religion, ed. Ian Richard Netton (New York: Routledge, 2008), 698.

[5] Ludwig W. Adamec, The A to Z of Islam (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2009), 267.

[6] Fritz Meier, Essays on Islamic Piety and Mysticism, trans. John O’Kane (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 350.

[7] Norris in Meier, Essays, 386.

[8] ‘Abd al-Jami al-‘Alim, “The Sanusi Zawiyah System,” in Leaves from a Sufi Journal, ed. Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1988), 71.

[9] Adamec, The A to Z, 181.

[10] Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 177.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973), 69.

[13] John Renard, Historical Dictionary of Sufism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 154.

[14] John N. Paden, Religion and Political Culture, 122.

[15] Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 9.

[16] Continuing with the military metaphor, it has been noted that “a Turkish emissary inquired into the matter of armaments while touring the main Sanusi zawiyah, and was promptly shown the impressive library of 8,000 volumes” (al-‘Alim, “Sanusi Zawiyah,” 71).

[17] al-‘Alim, “Sanusi Zawiyah,” 73.

[18] Dina Le Gall, A Culture of Sufism (Albany: State University of New York, 2005), 45.

[19] Le Gall, Culture of Sufism, 46.

[20] Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 121.

[21] Ibid., 123

[22] Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 125.

[23] Knut S. Vikor, Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge (London: Hurst & Company, 1995), 189.

[24] Hassan Marzouqi, “Tariqa Islam: Layers of Authentication” (Research Paper, Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, 2013), 25.

[25] Given Sufism’s inherent connection with Islam, by formal worship is meant those required by Islam (fard) and by informal worship is meant those supererogatory acts within Islam that are not incumbent upon all Muslims (nafl).

[26] al-‘Alim, “Sanusi Zawiyah,” 73 – 74.

[27] Marzouqi, “Tariqa Islam,” 25.

[28] While it would take us too far away from the topic of discussion, it should be noted that much has been written on Sufi psychology and the manner through which this is achieved. Given that the affirmation of Oneness (tawhid) is the foundational pillar of Islam, from which all practices spring and to which all practices aim, it should be recognised that the practice of etiquette (adab) is underpinned by the metaphysics of tawhid and is not merely the construct of a particular psychology.

[29][29] Jean-Louis Michon, “The Spiritual Practices of Sufism,” in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987), 273.

[30] Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Illuminating Guidance on the Dropping of Self-Direction, trans. Ibrahim Hakim (Winnipeg: Noon Hierographers, 2010), 77.

[31] Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Unwan al-Tawfiq, in Self-Knowledge: Commentaries on Sufic Songs, trans. ‘A’isha ‘Abd ar-Rahman at-Tarjumana (Capetwon: Madinah Press, 2005), 8.

[32] Armstrong, Amatullah, under the direction of Murshid F. A. Ali ElSenossi Qamus al Sufi – The Mystical Language of Islam, 220. Malaysia: A.S.Noordeen Publishers, 1995. New edition available at