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Ousmane Kane
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The development of the institution of the zāwiyah is closely linked to that of Sufism, and so it is appropriate to situate it in relation to the latter. The word “Sufism” entered European usage with a book published in 1821 by the German Protestant pastor F. A. Deofidus Tholuck, Ssufismus. Sive Theosophia Persarum Pantheistica. Ssufismus here translates the Arabic concept of taṣawwūf, a word now generally believed to be derived from the Arabic root ṣūf, “wool,” referring to the white woolen robe worn by the early mystics of Islam. In the first century of Islam taṣawwūf characterized the attitude of Muslims who were haunted by the Prophetic ideal of perfection and lived an ascetic and pious life similar to that of Christian monks.

With the emergence of early Ṣūfī circles (ḥalqah, pl., ḥalaqāt) at the beginning of the eighth century, when the Ṣūfī leaders (shaykh, pl., shuyūkh) began initiating disciples to the Ṣūfī path, Sufism began to assume a social dimension that was later reinforced with the appearance and the spread of ṭarīqahs (paths)—that is, the path to be taken in order to achieve spiritual self-realization. The philosophy behind Sufism is that there is a conspicuous aspect of things (ẓāhir) and a hidden aspect (bāṭin). The sharīʿah belongs to the realm of the conspicuous. In order to gain access to knowledge of the hidden reality (maʿrifah), one has to follow ṭarīqah under the direction of a spiritual guide. This guide may be either the founder of a ṭarīqah or a disciple linked to the founder through a chain of transmission (silsilah) that symbolically goes back to the Prophet. The belief in the necessity of a spiritual leader to guide an aspirant toward fulfillment seems to have contributed immensely to the spread of the cult of saints in Islam.

In the West, Islamicists have used a variety of forms to render the idea of ṭarīqah, including religious order, religious congregation, religious association, religious brotherhood, and religious confraternity. From the thirteenth century onward the ṭarīqahs multiplied, split into branches, and spread over the Muslim world from the Maghrib to the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. Their spread was accompanied by the expansion of supererogatory practices and the cult of the saints as well as by the creation of institutions that supported these practices—mausoleums of venerated saints and places of worship and meditation, among which the zāwiyah is a prime example.

The origin of the term zāwiyah is obscure. Properly, zāwiyah means a corner of a building. There is not a single occurrence of this term in the Qurʿān. The Arabic etymological dictionary Lisān al-ʿarab refers to zāwiyah as a place situated in the Iraqi city of Basra, where early Ṣūfī circles developed. The Muʿjam al-wasīṭ, another Arabic dictionary, defines zāwiyah as a place of refuge for Ṣūfīs and the poor; this definition indicates the sociology of the clientele of zāwiyahs. From these one can deduce two of their important functions—as a place of worship for Muslims who identify themselves as Ṣūfīs, and as a welfare institution.

In the Muslim world zāwiyahs are extremely diverse in form. For example, the zāwiyah may be identified with the mausoleum of a saint. Such structures may range from a wall a foot or two in height constructed in the tomb of a venerated saint, to a magnificent monument. The mausoleum of the Algerian saint Sīdī Bū Madyan in the village of Tlemcen is a good example of the latter, as are the mausoleum of Usuman Dan Fodio (1754–1816) in northern Nigeria and that of Niẓāmuddīn Auliyāʿ (1239–1325) in the Indian city of Delhi. With the expansion of ṭarīqahs in the Muslim world, the establishment of zāwiyahs became so widespread that today in most Muslim countries there is hardly a remote village without one or more zāwiyahs.

Place of Worship.

The zāwiyah is first of all a place of worship. It serves as a mosque where the five Islamic daily prayers are said, and equally as a lodge where the adherents of a ṭarīqah meet in order to recite litanies (dhikrs) specific to the ṭarīqah. Depending on the ṭarīqah, these litanies may be recited individually or collectively during religious gatherings; the latter type is known as ḥaḍrah.

The zāwiyah is the designated place for the achievement of various spiritual states, notably tarbīyah and khalwah. Tarbīyah is the highest form of spiritual initiation. Under the direction of a spiritual guide, the aspirant isolates himself in the zāwiyah, eats minimally, and recites dhikrs in the hope that they will bring him to spiritual fulfillment. Several terms are used to refer to the end of this experience. The term maʿrifah, which conveys the idea of gnosis, is often employed. Also used are wuṣūl, realization of the pursued aim; waṣl, the union of the aspirant with God; fanāʿ, the extinction of the aspirant's being in divine totality; and kashf, “uncovering” or mystical revelation. During this period of ecstasy, the murīd or adept identifies himself with the divine and utters ecstatic phrases (shaṭḥīyat); a celebrated example is the Persian Ṣūfī al-Ḥusayn ibn Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (858–922), who was executed for saying “anā al-ḥaqq” (“I am the truth,” i.e., God). This state of ecstasy is not supposed to last forever. The aspirant, under the direction of a spiritual guide, must “put his feet back on earth,” but he will live from then on strengthened by his spiritual experience.

Khalwah is another type of spiritual experience. It consists of isolation, lack of sleep, restriction of food, and the recitation of prayers for spiritual realization, but it also has a social dimension. By repeated khalwah practice, confirmed spiritual leaders reinforce their holy reputation and their influence in society, and aspirants can be raised to positions of leadership.

Many social activities that require religious blessing are conducted in zāwiyahs. Notable among these are funeral rituals, which proceed from the bathing of the dead to the last prayer after the shrouding.

Welfare Institution.

Different types of socioreligious activities are organized in zāwiyahs at specific times of the year. Such activities as the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Muḥammad or of a local saint often coincide with the harvest period. For this reason, zāwiyahs have become markets in the sense that participants come there not only to pray, but also to engage in economic activities.

As places to which people take offerings, zāwiyahs also contribute to the redistribution of social wealth. The handicapped and other persons who are incapable of meeting their needs are catered for and assured of food and lodging there. During periods of food shortage, zāwiyahs have constituted unique welfare institutions where those who were hungry have sought refuge in order to be fed, and, in the event of a poor harvest, where peasants could get seed to plant without having to pay for it.

Historically, another important function of the zāwiyah in the Maghrib was offering sanctuary to pursued fugitives. A fugitive who sought refuge in a zāwiyah had a greater chance of escaping trial, and thus, authorities seeking criminals often took the precaution of blocking access to zāwiyahs.

Political Role.

The zāwiyah may also be a unit of politico-religious organization. The Sanūsīyah ṭarīqah founded by the Algerian Muḥammad al-Sanūsī (1792–1859) is an edifying example. After founding his ṭarīqah, al-Sanūsī chose as its seat the oasis of Jaghbūb in Cyrenaica, home to the second Islamic university of Africa after al-Azhar University and with a population of several hundred. The Sanūsīyah eventually had a total of 146 zāwiyahs spread across Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Arabia.

Constructed on the sites of ancient Roman fortresses and at the crossroads of commercial routes, these zāwiyahs were complex organizations. Each zāwiyah had a mosque mainly for worship, a school to educate the inhabitants of the zāwiyah and the Bedouin tribes living in the vicinity, accommodation for the leader of the zāwiyah and his family and students, and several acres of land for agricultural purposes.

The Sanūsī zāwiyahs had heads nominated by the leader of the ṭarīqah and approved by the inhabitants of the area in which the zāwiyah was based. The leader was responsible for administering the properties of the zāwiyah and redistributing the resources these generated. Part of this wealth was sent to the central zāwiyah of Jaghbūb. The leaders of the Sanūsī zāwiyahs arbitrated conflicts among the Bedouin tribes of Cyrenaica. The head of the zāwiyah was assisted by a deputy, an imam who led prayers and imparted religious knowledge, a teacher, and a muʿadhdhin (muezzin) who called parishioners to prayer.

Modern Developments.

The zāwiyah today has arguably become less important in social life than it was up to the nineteenth century. The economic and social transformations in Muslim countries that have accompanied the emergence of centralized states, massive urbanization, the diffusion of oil wealth, and the expansion of communication systems has led to the emergence of competing institutions of socialization. Formal schools that award degrees have increasingly imposed themselves as places for the acquisition of knowledge, to the detriment of other, less formal institutions, particularly mosques and zāwiyahs. The emergence of a welfare state that caters for a large part of the needs of the population has also contributed to the weakening of traditional Muslim social institutions.

In Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, for example, the French colonial enterprise was accompanied by the confiscation of the religious endowments (waqf; pl., awqāf) attached to the zāwiyahs. These religious endowments had generated the necessary resources for running the zāwiyahs, thereby allowing them to perform their role of assisting the needy. Their confiscation by the French at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth contributed to the erosion of the social role of the zāwiyahs. In Libya, Italian colonization was followed by the dismantling of the powerful Sanūsī zāwiyahs, an exercise continued by the Qadhdhāfī regime.

The destruction of Ṣūfī institutions, including the zāwiyahs, was not always due to external forces. Various fundamentalist anti-Ṣūfī movements have appeared in the Muslim world, especially since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Some of them embarked on the destruction of Ṣūfī institutions, such as the mausoleums of saints and the zāwiyahs. Notable among these movements was the Wahhābī movement founded by the reformer Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1792). Adopted in 1744 by the family of Āl Saʿūd, Wahhābīyah became the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia. The disciples of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, the Ikhwān, pursued with vigor the destruction of Ṣūfī institutions in Saudi Arabia. Another movement that confronted Sufism was the Association of Algerian ʿUlamāʿ, founded in the 1930s by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ibn Bādīs, which had great impact in rolling back the frontiers of ṭarīqahs in Algeria. The Izālah movement in Nigeria, led by the late Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1922–1992), and the Indian Ahl-i Ḥadīth movement founded at the end of the nineteenth century are further examples.

Despite the erosion of its role as a welfare institution, one should perhaps not conclude that the zāwiyah has no social significance today. It still has some importance in the rural areas of the Muslim world, and in the cities it continues to perform a spiritual function. In European and American cities where Ṣūfī-oriented movements are devoted to proselytism, one can find some type of zāwiyah, which may be only the premises for worship, or a private house where adherents meet regularly to perform acts that closely resemble regular ṭarīqah religious meetings.



  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M.The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World. London, 1965. However biased against the Tijānīs, this work is the only comprehensive attempt to study a very popular ṭarīqah in North Africa and in Africa south of the Sahara.
  • Depont, Octave, and Xavier Coppolani. Les confréries religieuses musulmanes. Algiers, 1897. Pioneering work on the ṭarīqahs in the Middle East, compiled by French colonial officials.
  • Dermenghem, Émile. Le culte des saints dans l’Islam maghrébin. 4th ed. Paris, 1954. Excellent phenomenological study of rituals of the ṭarīqahs in North Africa.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E.The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford, 1949. Best analysis of the economic, political, social, and religious functions of the zāwiyahs of the Sanūsīyah in Cyrenaica.
  • Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt. Oxford, 1973. Insightful study of a modern Ṣūfī order in Egypt.
  • Haron, Muhammad. “Daʿwah Movements and Sufi Tariqahs: Competing for Spiritual Spaces in Contemporary South(ern) Africa.”Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs25, no. 2 (2005): 261–285.
  • Lévi-ProvenÇal, Évariste. “Zāwiyah”. In Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, pp. 657–658. Leiden, Netherlands, 1974. Rather short article on the history of the zāwiyah in the Muslim world.
  • Triaud, Jean-Louis. “Khalwa and the Career of Sainthood: An Interpretative Essay.” In Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, edited by Christian Coulon and Donal Cruise O’Brien, pp. 53–66. Oxford and New York, 1988. Interesting analysis of the khalwah practices.
  • Troll, Christian W., ed.Muslim Shrines in India. Delhi, 1989. Rich collection of essays on Indian Islam, with emphasis on the rites and festivals held in the shrines of Muslim saints in India.
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