The Role of Khanqahs in Islamic Education History
By Zaid Shah

Khanqahs & the Islamic Education Process

Published in: Self, History
Date: 06 / 02 / 21

What is a Khanqah?

Kahnqah is a Persian word which originally means "a dining table or the place where Kings eat". In Islamic tradition it was applied to the houses established by Emirs (local rulers) and Sultans for charitable purposes and to benefit the society. These were established specifically with the purpose to house and accommodate Muslim mystics and wanderers called sufis, who arrived to their lands, by providing them food and education. The source of income for these special institutions was usually associated with a waqf (endowments) which received large sums of charitable money that Muslims donated fi sabi lillah (in the way of Allah) due to the great reward and blessing of such acts in the sight of Allah ﷻ.

These khanqahs had special rooms for performing salaah (5 times prayers), listening to lectures by sheikhs (teachers) and spiritual activities such as performing dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and muraqaba (meditation). The khanqah, a house for Sufis, was in fact a school for the masses, for those who devoted themselves to a life of asceticism and austerity, and it attracted people from all backgrounds: students, artisans, craftsmen and traders, government and military officials. The sufis and their shuyookhs (teachers) played a primary role in assisting individuals in reforming the self (nafs or ego) to assist them in enjoining good and forbidding evil in the society. To sum up, the khanqah in Islam was something like a place of knowledge and worship that played an important religious, social and cultural role in the life of a Muslim society from the beginning.

The Khanqah Structure

The khanqahs did not only play a role in reformation of the individuals but also included sections focused on teaching fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Hadith (prophetic teachings) and carried library of books on various sciences. Khanqahs were very often found adjoined to dargahs (shrines of Sufi saints), still found throughout the Muslims world. These saints were the Imams and played a very active spiritual role in that particular khanqah, or the society in which the khanqah was established, and the dergah would serve as remembrance of his legacy and teachings after their passing away. It is recorded that there were many types of employment in the khanqah, such as the Shaykh and Imam of the khanqah, supervisor of its waqf (endowment), teachers of fiqh (jurisprudence), assistance teachers, pharmacists, librarians, keeper of attendance records, muezzin (giver of call to prayers), supervisor of the kitchen, cook, caretaker of the wooden chest in which Quran copies were kept, doorkeepers, and so on. The established waqfs (endowments) were primary source of salary for these associated professionals that served in the khanqah. The in-charge of waqf made sure that the salary was appropriate to how well off each employed person was and his position in the society. This salary was in addition to the rewards they received such as groceries: vegetables, rice, milk, honey, sweets and so on, as well as clothing, soap and other provisions that were distributed to them in abundance.

Primary Role of Khanqah

In many instances the madrassahs, official schools of religious and rational learning in the Islamic world, were attached to these khanqahs with the purpose to assist the students of textual knowledge to also gain knowledge of the self (nafs or ego) by teachings them how to struggle against it. Such as after conquest of Jerusalem, Sultan Salahuddin, who increased the building of khanqahs throughout Egypt and Syria, build madrassahs and khanqahs side by side. Nearby Church of Resurrection, he build a school of Shafi scholars of jurisprudence and a khanqah for sufis. After his conquest of Acre, he converted the house of the Hospitallers, half in to khanqah and half for the students of Islamic sciences.

As is famously said that knowledge is power hence it has the potential to create pride in the one who carries it and increases it, thus these khanqahs and their sufis played a significant role in reforming the self of these students of knowledge, to generate humility in their character, which is so that they make proper use of knowledge when they become active in the society. One of the many definitions of the term "sufi - صوفي" is said to come from the Arabic term "safa or صفاء" meaning "purity". The purpose of these special institutions was to assist students and professionals from all walks of life, purify their own self which is one of the primary purposes of practicing Islam. The science of this knowledge and its practice is popularly called tasawwuf in Islamic tradition, which means "Islamic Spirituality" synonymous with a Westernized term sufism. Abu Muhammad Al Jurayri (r.a), the disciple and successor of Junayd Al Baghdadi (830–910 CE), the famous sufi of Baghdad, sums up best the definition of tasawwuf : "It means assuming every sublime moral character trait and giving up every lowly one." - and this was the primary purpose of these khanqahs.

What famously attracted individuals towards these khaqahs was also the emotional factors that impact our religious way of life and strengthen faith. Religion and emotions are inseparable. The sufis and their shuyookhs (teachers) employed emotional factors to attract and impact visitors by their easy going attitude and softness as compared to strict conservative Islamic scholars, shunning duniya (materialism), their emotional style of lecturing, and obviously and most importantly, dhikr (remembrance) of Allah ﷻ that generates an ecstatic experience within the performers, the primary source of inner tranquility for human lives (Al Quran 13:28).

Khanqahs and the Ruling Establishment

The khanqahs also played a very important role in helping the ruling authorities to establish order in the society and struggle against elements that caused anarchy and divisions. They also actively assisted the Sultans fight enemies that attacked the Muslim lands. It is famously highlighted by historians that both groups: Islamic scholars and Sufis, accompanied Sultan Salahuddin during his campaigns and conquests. Ibn Khallikan and Ibn Al Wardi state that scholars and sufis were present and active in Sultans conquests in Egypt and Syria. It is also recorded that Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople had a large number of Sufis and after his decision to make the city a center of learning and culture he ordered construction of zaviyes (zawiyyah in Arabic) a term used in Turkish for khanqahs. This practice of establishing these centers was inherited by Ottomans from the Seljuks who had established them throughout the Anatolian region before the Ottomans.

Hence emotional and spiritual factors played a very important role in the education process for the well being and development of the Islamic culture and society, and the khanqah were centers within small and large towns and cities throughout the Islamic world where sufis kept this process active. At this point it is also important to mention that much of the traditional purpose of dergahs (sufi shrines) and khanqahs has been lost today to something called piri muridi, where pir meaning spiritual mentors and murid meaning disciples. Sadly, pirs have become concerned with increasing their disciples, ritualism and fame of their sufi orders instead of education and reformation of their following. Additionally the modern Muslim rulers have also abandoned the traditional support for khanqas and sufis and personal interest and supervision of these institutes that was carried by their predecessors.

وَٱصۡبِرۡ نَفۡسَكَ مَعَ ٱلَّذِينَ يَدۡعُونَ رَبَّهُم بِٱلۡغَدَوٰةِ وَٱلۡعَشِيِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجۡهَهُۥۖ وَلَا تَعۡدُ عَيۡنَاكَ عَنۡهُمۡ تُرِيدُ زِينَةَ ٱلۡحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنۡيَاۖ وَلَا تُطِعۡ مَنۡ أَغۡفَلۡنَا قَلۡبَهُۥ عَن ذِكۡرِنَا وَٱتَّبَعَ هَوَىٰهُ وَكَانَ أَمۡرُهُۥ فُرُطٗا

And keep yourself (O Believer) patiently with those who call on their Lord (who remember their Lord with glorification, praising in prayers, and other righteous deeds) morning and afternoon, seeking His Face; and let not your eyes overlook them, desiring the pomp and glitter of the life of the world; and obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our Remembrance, and who follows his own lusts, abandoning all that is good and true. (Al Quran 18:28)


1. Salah ad-Deen al-Ayubi, Volume Two, The Establishment of the Ayubid State, Sufi Khanqahs, Dr. Ali M. Sallabi, International Islamic Publishing House.

2. Defining "Sufi - صوفي", Introduction to Islamic Tasawwuf, Tasawwuf - Islamic Spirituality, Zaid Shah, Rizqan Kareem - The Most Excellent Sustenance.

3. Encyclopedia of the OTTOMAN empire - Gabor Agoston Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Bruce Masters Wesleyan University, Connecticut

Zaid Shah


Zaid Shah

I carry a passion for Researching, Learning & Writing on Various Islamic Topics. To read more of my work You can also visit my personal blog website You can also follow me on Instagram:

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