This article originally appeared in the Australian Journal of Islamic Studies, Vol. 2.3 (2017). An earlier version of this article was presented presented at the 11th East West Philosophers’ Conference, Honolulu, Hawaii, May 24-31, 2016, under the title “The Place of the Sufi Centre within Islam.” A PDF of the article can be found here: 2017AJIS2.3
The Sufi Centre occupies a significant place within Muslim communities generally and the Sufi community in particular. For the general population, a Sufi Centre may be seen as a place where people gather and worship. For adherents of Sufism, the Sufi Centre is a transformative place where teaching is transmitted, subtle energy (baraka) is concentrated, and soteriological development is intensified. This paper is divided into three sections. The first section provides a historical overview of the diversified institutions that mutually developed into the Sufi Centre. The second section details what a Sufi Centre ideally contains and how this informs its functionality. The third section explores 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
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 “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.” However appealing and laden with symbolic truth this account may be, the historical developments appear very different.
“Sufi Centre” is an umbrella term. The Sufi Centre as an institution developed out of several disparate institutions, yet each contributing uniquely to the development of the Sufi Centre as an independent institutional category. Depending on its geographical location, what is here referred to as a Sufi Centre may be known as a zawiya, ribat, khanaqah, tekke, or dargah. Scholars have attempted to differentiate each of these institutions, highlighting the elements that separate them or even using them as classificatory terms to distinguish differing localities of Sufi Orders. While each of these institutions appears to have developed out of differing functions and needs, they each have contributed essential elements to the development of the Sufi Centre. In defining these terms it becomes apparent there is overlap in their conceptual content and, particularly in present usage, the prevalence of one term over others has more to do with cultural context than conceptual content.
One of the earliest concepts, though not necessarily earliest in usage, is that of the zawiya. This is 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.” Traditionally, when one entered a mosque, “you found circles, halaq, of people attending lectures in all kinds of science,” one of which would have been the science of Sufism (tasawwuf). Later, as an independent institution, a zawiya was seen as “a hut … for the purpose of worship, teaching, and lodging for transient brothers” and
became a complex of buildings that included a saint’s tomb, a small mosque, a dwelling for the shaykh and his family, rooms for reading the Holy Koran and teaching pupils (murid), cells for the pupils, and a free hostel for travellers and pilgrims.
In distinguishing it from other Sufi Centres, it has been said “the zawiya was smaller than the Sufi khanaqah or ribat and housed just a master and a few of his disciples.” For those attending, the zawiya becomes their corner of the earth that dispenses teaching, provides seclusion, develops companionship and establishes the process of affirming the ontological reality of Allah’s Oneness (tawhid).
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” and was “founded in frontier regions as Muslim cells in a non-Muslim environment … whose guards were often effective propagators of Islam.” Later, during the 12th-13th centuries, when the military function of these outposts diminished, “the need was felt for more numerous religious centres and places of spiritual guidance and instruction.” In terms of its sotereological function, the ribat has been described as a “school of meditation and indoctrination” where “a group of Muslims enclose themselves in the ribat for intensive training in submission (islam), faith (iman), and righteousness (ihsan).” While the function of the ribat changed dramatically, the symbolism of it as a military outpost remained with the inhabitants being “border guards against unbelief rather than against the enemy.” Individually, these border guards against unbelief are not looking outwardly for some externalised disbeliever; rather they are looking inwardly towards themselves in an attempt to combat disbelief within themselves.
One of the more popular terms for a Sufi Centre is that of a khanaqah. The term is of Iranian origin and used widely across “Iraq and Iran” and within “Syria, and Egypt.” Scholars have stated a khanaqah’s defining features as being a “Sufi lodge, or monastery, where the devotees live under the direction of a Sufi master.” Life within a khanaqah has been seen as both more and less restrictive than that of other variations of the Sufi Centre – admission was more restrictive than that of a zawiya, while the practice was less restrictive for “the individual khanaqah Sufi was far more independent of the shaykh than was the zawiya resident” and “nor has their membership been limited to a single tariqa [Sufi Order] as in the case of the zawiyas.” The scholarly attention given to the khanaqah is perhaps due to many having architectural significance, as “neither the ribat nor the zawiya achieved the architectural significance of the khanaqah” with “a number of khanaqahs built in Mamluk Cairo rank[ing] as outstanding architectural works.”
One type of Sufi Centre that appears to have a more limited geographical restriction is that of the tekke. This Turkish word “was perhaps first employed in the sense of ‘refectory,’” and is used predominantly within the Ottoman Empire. It is understood to be “a Turkish type of khanaqah,” which appeared in the early 13th century and “had the same form as the courtyard hostels for Sufis and served not only as a shelter for pilgrims and paupers, but as hostels for travelling artisans seeking employment.” 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.” It has been thought that “each tekke normally housed some twenty to forty dervishes,” which provided them with food and lodging with the requirement they “were obliged to sleep in the tekke once or twice a week.” The symbolism of these tekke as a guild hall is fitting for the adherents of Sufism, as their craft is soteriological development and their product is personal refinement.
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.” 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.” In differentiating it from other categories of Sufi Centres, it has been said “a dargah was generally a tekke with the tomb of a founding figure adjacent to it.” The tombs of the saints (awliya) are often revered by the adherents of Sufism and the populace alike as a place of concentrated subtle energy (baraka) where there is benefit in intensifying supplications. The symbolism of a royal court for a tomb structure reaffirms the view within Sufism that saints are to be treated like royalty with respect to their closeness to Allah.
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.” It has been seen “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,” with the soteriological function replacing the military function of the ribat.
In developing into an independent institution of its own, the Sufi Centres have also taken on wider societal roles. The collection and distribution 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].” It has been acknowledged, in certain cases, “poor people who beg for alms in the zawiya are also furnished with drafts for specific sums which bear the seal of the head of the zawiya.” Within the Sufi Centre it is possible, historically and currently, to see a microcosm of society united by a common soteriological aim and the training ground for the development of virtues that are then carried by the individual into the wider community.
While there have been various attempts to show strict distinctions between the zawiya, ribat, khanaqah, tekke, and dargah, it must be acknowledged 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” and “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.” 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,” such that by the 14th century they “are so similar that it is nearly impossible to find a distinction between them in either use or architectural form.” While the manner to which a Sufi Centre is referred may not reveal much about its specifics, an examination of the historical development of such institutions reveals key aspects of Sufi praxis, as does the symbolic value of such terms.
As a brief aside, it is possible to differentiate the various iterations of the Sufi Centre from that of the mosque and madrasa. While all three institutions overlap in form and function, and all three may be connected within one building complex, there are definite distinctions. It has been noted “the difference between the mosque and the madrasa was that in the first worship was the principle purpose, and also that it had a more public character” open to all, whereas “the madrasa was a private institution; even if the public was admitted in a liberal way, not everyone could enter it who liked.” The differentiation of restrictiveness between a mosque and madrasa is increased with regard to a Sufi Centre, where it is only those connected to the Sufi Order that are allowed to attend, with concessions being made for their guests. Traditionally, access to a Sufi Centre required a connection that could make an introduction after permission had been sought. This is beginning to change as contact details for Sufi Centres across the globe are becoming more readily available and interested parties are able to initiate introductions. Furthermore, it could be said a principal focus for the mosque and madrasa is the formal (fard) requirements of Islam, whereas the Sufi Centre extends to the supererogatory (nafl) practices and knowledge of Islam without neglecting the formal requirements.
The Arrangement of the Sufi Centre
The arrangement of a Sufi Centre can differ according to the Sufi Order. Within the Sanusiyya Order “the essential layout of the lodges apparently followed a fixed pattern,” which included “separate quarters for each of the officials; a mosque; a school for the children; a guesthouse, a shelter for the poor and those without families, and houses for the servants; as well as a bakery, stables, various storehouses and a garden.” The continuity between Sanusiyya Sufi Centres is perhaps due to the Sufi Order being given land on which to build. However, there are instances where this is not possible, such as the Tijaniyya Order in Nigeria where, rather than land, “a building may be donated by an individual member of the brotherhood or subsidized by the community,” and the Sufi Centre is built using the existing structure. It has been noted “khanaqah’s were initially a type of building for wandering Sufis, a place for religious ceremonies, discussions, and sometimes training” and they “varied in their construction and followed no specific type.” Yet, irrespective of the size or locality of the Sufi Centre, the focus on piety and soteriological purpose dictates the functional arrangement, such that by the 17th century a Sufi Centre referred to “a certain group of structures with ceremonial space.”
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 perceived ontological multiplicity and affirm Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). As “a place for piety through study, guidance, and labour,” the structure and arrangement of a Sufi Centre is inextricably linked to its function. It has been seen, “while we can also see other functions of the lodge [Sufi Centre] in its relation to the social structure of the area and to the economic development of the oases, it must be clear that these were always subservient to the goals of piety.” For this reason, the inward gathering takes precedence over the outward. This section focuses on its function as an outward gathering point, 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 outward 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. The gathering place of a Sufi Centre 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 where formal and informal aspects of worship are performed. 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 where members of the Sufi Order can practice their daily recitations (awrad), among other activities. Ideally, it is a space that can comfortably accommodate all present so the aspirant can focus on inward gathering without outward distractions. Depending on the size of the Sufi Centre and Sufi Order, these activities may be divided across several different spaces.
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 where ablutions (wudu) can be performed, as this is a prerequisite of these congregational activities, as well as other amenities. Given that many are 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 it can fit several adults when cleaned and have seen the massive fire pit used for cooking food at the Maizbhandari Sufi Centre outside Chittagong, Bangladesh. As there is a focus on teaching and study within the practice of Sufism, many Sufi Centres 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 activity.
The arrangement of a Sufi Centre, 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 as:
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.
This short description clearly indicates that, radiating out from the gathering point, the arrangement of a Sufi Centre can be extremely diversified.
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 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 other students (salik/murid). As much has been written on the former kind of companionship, this section will focus on companionship among students.
If the purpose of Sufism is soteriological development, then the place of the Sufi Centre is a training space where this development is 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.” As a result, irrespective of the position an individual holds within the profane space, it is effaced within the sacred space of the Sufi Centre so the soteriological development of the individual can take precedence. Within this sacred space “superiors of the everyday world are levelled with other shrine supplicants who lose their distinction of rich and poor, high or low” and the evident hierarchy within a Sufi Centre shifts 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.
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.
Viewed in this light it can be said “the entire Sufi path is (nothing but) proper comportment (adab)” such that “good company thus becomes the very token of spiritual success.” Soteriological development is aided by good companions and marked by being a good companion.
To affirm epistemologically the ontological reality of Unity (tawhid) 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” such that “your companionship with the heedless causes heedlessness.” To have a place where people are able to strive alongside others can be of benefit because those who have undergone a degree of soteriological development know the road and are able to assist others around various stumbling blocks that 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 etiquette is of negligible value, as “company is a form, and adab [etiquette] is its ruh [spirit],” indicating etiquette is the internal complement of company, such that “if you join the form and the ruh [spirit], you will benefit of their company,” yet without its internal complement “your company is a corpse.” It should be remembered that good etiquette is not seen as an end in itself, rather it is a means to the affirmation of Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). Keeping good company is meant to be a means of having company with Allah. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, an early master of the Shadhiliyya Sufi Order, writes “prepare for this behaviour with your brothers … so that it will become a stairway for you by which you obtain access to behaving with the Lord of heaven.” Affirming and embodying Allah’s Oneness means acting in accordance with Allah’s Will, which is a form of etiquette (adab) towards Allah. This is gained progressively.
Throughout history, and across geographical divides, the Sufi Centre has been known by many names. Each of the institutions that has contributed towards the development of the Sufi Centre into an independent institutional category has 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 uses companionship as a catalyst for individualised inward gathering. In this sense, within the Muslim world, the Sufi Centre is a physical and metaphysical place that aims to elicit within the individual a complete affirmation of Allah’s unicity (tawhid).
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Yusupova, Maylyuda. “Evolution of Architecture of the Sufi Complexes in Bukhra.” Paper presented at Bukhara: The Myth and the Architecture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 1999.
 Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies, trans. C. R. Barbar and S. M. Stern (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), 270.
 Maylyuda Yusupova, “Evolution of Architecture of the Sufi Complexes in Bukhara” (paper presented at Bukhara: The Myth and the Architecture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 1999), 122.
 J. Pedersen, “Some Aspects of the History of the Madrasa,” in Encyclopaedic Survey of Islamic Culture, ed. Mohamed Taher, vol. 3 (New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 1997), 2.
 John N. Paden, Religion and Political Culture in Kano (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 141.
 Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 123.
 Lloyd Ridgeon, “Zawiya,” in Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilisation and Religion, ed. Ian Richard Netton (New York: Routledge, 2008), 689.
 Ludwig W. Adamec, The A to Z of Islam (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2009), 267.
 J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 167, n1.
 Fritz Meier, Essays on Islamic Piety and Mysticism, trans. John O’Kane (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 350.
 Norris in Meier, Essays, 386.
 ‘Abd al-Jami al-‘Alim, “The Sanusi Zawiyah System,” in Leaves from a Sufi Journal, ed. Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1988), 71.
 Meier, Essays, 350.
 The Qur’an states “the Bedouin say, ‘We have attained to faith.’ Say [unto them, O Muhammad]: ‘You have not [yet] attained to faith; you should [rather] say, ‘We have [outwardly] surrendered’ – for [true] faith has not yet entered your hearts” (49: 14), giving an indication there is a distinction between submission (islam) and faith (iman), and the latter is of a higher degree due to it involving more than the mere outward observance of Islam.
 Adamec, The A to Z, 181.
 Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 168.
 Adamec, The A to Z, 181.
 John Renard, Seven Doors to Islam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 172.
 Renard, Seven Doors, 172-73.
 Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 177.
 Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 131.
 Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 178.
 Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973), 69.
 John Renard, Historical Dictionary of Sufism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 154.
 Renard, Seven Doors, 174.
 Paden, Religion and Political Culture, 122.
 Trimingham, Sufi Orders, 9.
 Continuing with the military metaphor, it has been noted “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).
 al-‘Alim, “Sanusi Zawiyah,” 73.
 Goldziher, Muslim Studies, 284.
 Dina Le Gall, A Culture of Sufism (Albany: State University of New York, 2005), 45.
 Le Gall, Culture of Sufism, 46.
 Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 121.
 Ibid., 123.
 Pedersen, “History of the Madrasa,” 9.
 Knut S. Vikor, Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge (London: Hurst & Company, 1995), 189.
 Paden, Religion and Political Culture, 141.
 Yusupova, “Sufi Complexes,” 122.
 Ibid., 125.
 Vikor, Sufi and Scholar, 189.
 Hassan Marzouqi, Tariqa Islam: Layers of Authentication (Qatar: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, 2013), 25.
 Given Sufism’s inherent connection with Islam, by formal worship means those required by Islam (fard) and by informal worship means those supererogatory acts within Islam that are not incumbent upon all Muslims (nafl).
 al-‘Alim, “Sanusi Zawiyah,” 73-74.
 Marzouqi, Tariqa Islam, 25.
 Helene Basu, “Ritual Communication: The Case of the Sidi in Gujarat,” in Lived Islam in South Asia, ed. Imtiaz Ahmad and Helmut Reifeld (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2004), 239-240.
 While it would diverge too far 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 the affirmation of Oneness (tawhid) is the foundation pillar of Islam, from which all practices spring and to which all practices aim, it should be recognised the practice of etiquette (adab) is underpinned by the metaphysics of tawhid and is not merely the construct of a particular psychology.
 Jean-Louis Michon, “The Spiritual Practices of Sufism,” in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987), 273.
 Imam Cheikh Tidiane Ali Cisse, What the Knowers of Allah have said about the Knowledge of Allah, trans. Zakariya Wright and Muhammad Hassiem Abdullahi (Atlanta: Fayda Books, 2014), 43.
 Michon, “Spiritual Practices,” 273.
 Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Illuminating Guidance on the Dropping of Self-Direction, trans. Ibrahim Hakim (Winnipeg: Noon Hierographers, 2010), 77.
 Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Unwan al-Tawfiq, in Self-Knowledge: Commentaries on Sufic Songs, trans. ‘A’isha ‘Abd ar-Rahman at-Tarjumana (Capetown: Madinah Press, 2005), 8.
 See Abu Bakr Sirajuddin Cook, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, Muslim Sufi Saint and Gift of Heaven (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).
 Ibid., 10.