Life and Activities in Early Sufi Institutions
As seen earlier, Sufism as a complete and cohesive system of thought and Sufi institutions were developing almost simultaneously, the former being the cause and the latter the effect. Just as Sufism was evolving from the unique, and at times exaggerated, ways in which some people, later called wool-wearers, were perceiving and practicing asceticism, seclusion, poverty, devoutness and love of Allah and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Sufi institutions, too, were developing gradually from crude single room hermitages to sophisticated and multi functional Sufi complexes called ribats, khanqahs, zawiyahs and tekkes. The fact that this evolution took place over the course of approximately two, or two and a half, centuries indicates, firstly, how quickly Sufism spread and found its permanent footing on the Muslim religious, epistemological and even cultural scenes, as well as in people’s hearts and minds, and secondly, how swiftly Sufism as an inclusive body of knowledge, teaching and training codes and standards evolved and furthered its unique brand and identity. The evolution of Sufi establishments, by and large, went through two major phases which were marked by the formation of firstly individual and then elaborately institutional and collective retreats and sanctuaries. It also meant that those institutions went from private and semi-private initiatives to community benefactors and government owned and controlled enterprises. The following report somewhat typifies the mentioned Sufi institutions’ evolution, even though it denotes an isolated case which took place in Cairo and long after the emergence of Sufi institutions had come to pass. According to the report, a blind Sufi sheikh, Abu Zakariyya Yahya b. Ali al-Sanafiri (d. 773 AH/ 1371 CE) is said to have firstly resided in a domed shrine in the large cemetery of Cairo called Qarafah. Frequently visited by many people, he was forced to create a retreat for himself. When that was not enough to ensure his privacy, he started to deter visitors by pelting stones at them. But that did not work either. Ultimately, he left his shrine in Cairo and chose to settle in a place called Sanafir, whence his name. There a ruler built a zawiyah or a khanqah for him. When he died, over fifty thousand persons attended his funeral.
Coming back to our main discussion on the evolution of Sufi institutions, sometime after the establishment of ribats, the khanqah as a new and most recognizable Sufi religious and educational institution started to emerge. Although ribats and to a lesser extent duwayrahs were still there, the emergence of khanqahs eclipsed them all. This was so because the emergence of khanqahs both coincided and was spurred by a favorable socio-political climate -- as we will see later. This was so, furthermore, because the evolution of Sufi institutions from mosques and duwayrahs to ribats and khanqahs followed some logic and was rather spontaneous. Ribats and to a smaller degree duwayrahs were mere shelters for the Sufis where they resided and where some basic and perhaps ad hoc worship, ascetic and learning activities were conducted. As al-Maqrizi remarked: “Every community has its home (dwelling). The home (dwelling) of the Sufi community is the ribat.” The same idiom has been ascribed to Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi as well. Khanqahs, on the other hand, signified Sufi complexes where the Sufis still resided but their worship, ascetic, socialization and learning activities became more sophisticated and elaborate. They were getting closer to grouping themselves into orders and fraternities (tariqah) and that necessitated some additional logistic, management, organizational and functional support and rethinking. Thus, in some places ribats simply merged with khanqahs, while in other places they both existed separately, often next to each other, serving in their different capacities the growing interests of Sufism and the Sufi fraternity. When existing together, it seems as though khanqahs functioned as worshipping, learning and socializing centers, whereas ribats functioned mainly as hostels. As an illustration, while describing the Khanqah of a Mamluki Sultan Ruknuddin Baybars al-Jashankir (d. 709 AH/ 1309 CE) in Cairo, which was the most splendid khanqah in Cairo, al-Maqrizi wrote that next to it, the Sultan built a massive ribat to which one could go from inside the khanqah. Ibn Jubayr also spoke of both ribats and khanqahs as separate institutions in Damascus. But at one point he commented that ribats were called khanqahs and were numerous in Damascus. Surely, those accounts only buttress our reflection that the two institutions sometimes merged and were called khanqahs, sometimes, rarely though, stood and operated separately, and yet at other times were integrated into a Sufi complex while retaining their respective identities. In the last scenario, ribats normally played a supplementary role to khanqahs.
The first instance of an independent Sufi institution was the establishment of a Sufi duwayrah (small house or convent) by some followers of an early Sufi master Abd al-Wahid b. Zayd (d. 150 AH/ 767 CE). Abd al-Wahid b. Zayd lived in Basrah where for sometime he accompanied and studied with al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 AH/ 728 CE). During Abd al-Wahid b. Zayd’s time, Basrah enjoyed a reputation as a place where people spoke exaggeratedly about such Sufism oriented concepts as asceticism, worship, love for and fear of God, etc. Basrah is thus regarded as the birthplace of Sufism. Abd al-Wahid b. Zayd himself was known for tenacity in worship and asceticism. He was a great preacher who used to preach in mosques. He traveled a lot and often participated in holy wars (jihad). He narrated that al-Hasan al-Basri had said that every road has a shortcut, and the shortcut on the road leading to Paradise (jannah) is holy war (jihad). This and some other similar Sufi duwayrahs or little houses or convents were the antecedents of true Sufi institutions which started to emerge perhaps less than a century later. They in all probability functioned as unpretentious multi-purpose gathering places and shelters for some Sufis and their followers and novices. They also functioned as shelters and hostels for an emerging phenomenon of traveling and visiting Sufis. Some such lodges or cloisters are reported to have been built next to mosques.
In this paper, the origins and rise of Sufi institutions will be discussed. Our discussion will revolve, mainly, around the impact of the mosque institution and the decentralization of its multifaceted roles and functions, which themselves evolved into independent institutions, on the emergence of first independent Sufi institutions, such as duwayrahs, ribats, khanqahs, zawiyahs and tekkes. The main religious, intellectual and social activities in early Sufi institutions will also be discussed.
Alongside the phenomena of rapid urbanization, madrasahs and Sufism, the problem of escalating socio-political and religious schism in the Muslim nation likewise contributed significantly to the institutional decentralization in Islam. As a severe trial from Allah for the followers of the last Messenger, Muhammad (pbuh), schism arrived at the Muslim scene following the assassination of the third rightly guided caliph, Uthman b. Affan, in 36 AH / 656 AC, and it never departed ever since. After the unavoidable institutional decentralization, political and religious schism among Muslims was brought to another level of mutual confrontational theorization, functioning and propaganda. However, at times when mosques played their unified and centralized roles as solid community centers, things somewhat were kept under control. Indeed, the unity of Muslims could have been fostered way more easily under institutional centralization rather than under institutional decentralization. Even the most off-putting elements of the emergence of various sects and innocent madhhabs, Muslimmainstream schools of law or fiqh(jurisprudence), did not really start to materialize and did not become more and more pronounced until the institutional decentralization in question came to pass. This however by no means implies that the institutional decentralization caused the emergence of sects and the repulsive elements of madhhabs. Rather, it means that the latter, having been caused by other both internal and external factors, hit upon some fertile ground in the former for its proliferation and sustenance, spurring and accelerating in the process the on-going institutional decentralization. It was then that the proponents of different sects and madhhabs embarked on hewing some social and educational institutions and establishments, like madrasahs and bookshops, for example, so as to promote a sect or a madhhab, or certain sects and madhhabs. Even some mosques were built and fully utilized, as were the private houses of some notables, for the purpose. Thus, a favorable climate for some unwarranted intellectual and religious squabbles, lethargy, fanaticism and bigotry was created, and as the time passed, the situation steadily worsened.