Khanqa (Khanaqa, Khanga)

views updated


In twelfth century Sufism—a new strand of Islam based on the knowledge of God through personal experience of a spiritual nature—developed its own institutions, the most important of which were the zawiya and khanqa. Zawiyas were mostly associated with Tariqas (Sufi "orders"). They spread a type of popular Sufism, which appealed to the masses, and they were left free to develop from the control of the ruling elite. Khanqas, known for their spread of a type of "orthodox" Sufism, often had their fate closely linked to that of the ruling elite, whose patronage was crucial to their survival.

The khanqa institution made its first appearance in Persia from where it spread rapidly to the rest of the Muslim world. It was introduced to Egypt in the twelfth century by Saladin, who put the institution under the control of the state. Two centuries later, the khanqa had reached its full development thanks to patronage of the Mamluks.

According to the fifteenth century historian al-Maqrizi, the term khanqa (Arabic form, pl. Khawaniq) derives from the Persian. It is formed by two words: khan, which means sultan, and kah, which means people. In the Eastern lands of Islam, the term khanqa was used to refer to foundations reserved for Sufis. In these "monasteries" Sufis and their master could dedicate their lives to the practice of orthodox Sufism according to the rules set by their patrons. For medieval Egypt and Syria, the set of rules that regulated the communal life of Sufis are known from extant endowment deeds (waqfiyyas). Sufis and their master were generally appointed by the founder of the khanqa or his successors. They were housed in the foundation, and were given a salary, food, and clothing. Sufis living in a khanqa were to remain celibate; the ones married would spend the day there but would live outside it. All Sufis were required to attend the daily Sufi gatherings, perform the ritual of Dhikr (remembrance) and spend time in meditation. As the khanqa evolved, its function became associated with that of the madrasa. As a result, Sufis' activities also included attending classes in the various religious sciences.

Khanqas were mostly urban foundations to which the founders often attached their funerary domes. The plan for khanqas did not differ much from that of the madrasa. Most khanqas followed the four iwan (vaulted hall) plan with an open courtyard in their middle. In time the latter's size was reduced and it was covered by a roof. Fifteenth-century khanqas consisted of elaborate complexes that included a grain mill, a bakery, an oil press, and living quarters for the founder and his family.

The presence of a khanqa within an urban setting affected the life of the individuals living around it. Often the growth of the whole quarter depended on the khanqa's survival, and sometimes the ruin of the khanqa meant the gradual disappearance of the quarter.

By the sixteenth century, khanqas began their steady decline as they had lost their patrons. Indeed, the Ottomans, new masters of the region, were rather interested in patronizing Sufi orders. Since khanqas did not follow any particular order, the Ottomans showed no interest in maintaining these institutions. Moreover, times had changed and the whole society had experienced a rise in popular Sufism sponsored by the masses. Although it had managed to maintain itself a little longer, soon the institution became defunct. Sufism survived in the zawiyas, which remain active today.

See alsoArchitecture ; Tariqa ; Tasawwuf .


Fernandes, Leonor. "The Foundation of Baybars al-Jashankir in Cairo: Its Waqf, History and Architecture." Muqarnas 4 (1987): 21–42.

Mala, S. B. "The Sufi Convent and its Social Significance in the Medieval Period of Islam." Islamic Culture 51 (1977): 31–52.

Trimingham, John Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Leonor Fernandes