The word jamatkhana means communal house or communal gathering place. The Persian word khana means house or place, such as khana'i chaslm (the socket of the eyes), khana'i zumbur (a bee-hive) or khana'i murgh (a bird's nest). The Jamatkhana is a concrete expression of the response to the beliefs that are an integral part of Ismailism. It represents the physical space in which the community gathers together in a shared process of communication. The thrust of this shared communication is undertaken through collective participation. The Jamatkhana provides the community with a physical frame within which to express and uphold fundamental beliefs. In addition, the Jamatkhana is most importantly a place for congregational worship as well as a center of learning, how to lead a life of chastity, contentment, tolerance, fraternity and balance. In many parts of the world it is also called khana-i khuda or khana-i jamat. In Iran, it is called khanaqah panjtani or panjtan-gah, and simply the masjid in Syria.
Tradition of the Sufic Khanaqah
The exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) aspects of Islam are inter-connected from Koranic point of view since one leads to other. As a result of this feud that existed between the adherents of esoteric and exoteric groups due to the inner and outer interpretation of the teachings of Islam, coupled with the resentments of the Sufis, the adherents of the esoteric practices, they were forced to go into exile of some kinds and formed their own private cloister in various regions to continue with their own form of worship undeterred. Each Sufi cloister was known as khanaqah (or khane-gah), i.e. cloister or hospice. The term khanaqah originated in Iran. Several other terms have a similar connotation. Zawiya, based on Arabic zawa (to bring together or gather) also conveys the idea of withdrawing into a corner, or going into seclusion. Ribat is another Arabic term that indicated a fortress or outpost for the defence of the faith, associated in Sufi context with centers for striving against the lower self. The sources used these three terms (khanaqah, zawiya and ribat) as equivalents (vide Fernandes's, The Evolution of a Sufi Institution in Mamluk Egypt, Berlin, 1988, p. 18). Later on, the Sufis in Iraq, Syria and Egypt began to apply the term khanaqah for making their uniform identification.
In each khanaqah, the rooms are set aside for assembly (sama'at-khana) or hall (kasa). And also for prayers (ibadat khana) or riwag (separate place), in which the khalwa (cells) are reserved for performing meditation. In front of the mihrab, the sheep-skin belonging to the Shaikh is usually kept upon, which he reclines during the ceremonies. Over the niche is engraved the name of the founder. In Iran, the supervisor of the khanaqah is known as sajada-nashin, in Arabia as shaikh al-sajda and in Turkey as postinishin. The stewards (nozzar) of the khanaqah are selected from those advanced ones who have at least an experience of 12 years in Sufism. The stewards secure the financial need of the khanaqah from the Sufis. They also take care of the premises, its repairs and its daily expenses. The other servitors (ahl al-khidmat) also voluntarily join in upkeep of the khanaqah.
The earliest khanaqah was built in Tunis in 180/796, and at Sus in 205/821. Abu Ali ad-Daqqaq (d. 407/1016) founded Khanaqah-i Sarawi in Nishapur. Another khanaqah was raised in the same city, that of Abu Ali at-Tarusi (d. 363/974), which survived until 549/1154. Sa'id ibn Sahl al-Falaki established the first khanaqah in Damascus in 453/1061. Later on, Nuruddin Zangi founded Khanaqah al-kadim in Aleppo in 543/1148. The earliest khanaqah in Egypt was built in 568/1173, known as Dar sa'id as-Su'ada. Amir Alauddin Taibogha of Aleppo established one for the Arab Sufis in 630/1234, known as as-Sufiyyatul mustariba. In India, Hamiduddin Najori (d. 630/1234) constructed a khanaqah for Suhrawardis, and Qutb ad-din Bakhtiar Kaki (d. 631/1235) for the Chishtis. The khanaqah known as farafra was built in 633/1237 by Nasir Yousuf II - most probably the one which is best preserved of all of the khanaqah in Aleppo. And finally, the khanaqah of Sultan Baybar al-Gashankir in Cairo was built in 710/1310 for about 400 Sufis.
In Central Asia and India, the Sufic khanaqah was also known as tekke, dargah or jamatkhana. Spencer Trimingham writes in Sufi Orders in Islam (London, 1971, 0. 177) that, "In India, jamatkhana and daerah were also used for khanaqah." K.A. Nizami writes in his Religion and Politics in India during Thirteen Century (Bombay, 1961, p. 175) that, "The jamatkhana was a large room where all the disciples slept, prayed and studied on the floor. The Chisti saints built jamatkhana; the Suhrawardis constructed khanaqahs. Common people, unable to appreciate the distinction, used the word khanaqah even for the Chisti jamatkhana, and now the term is used for all places of spiritual activity without distinction."
In sum, the Sufis and Darwish orders founded their own khanaqahs, where they could repair and continue with their own esoteric form of worship without any impediment. Each Ismaili is a Sufi, but no Sufi is an Ismaili. The Ismailis were no exception to this rule and persecution either. The Ismaili khanaqah seems to have introduced in Alamut period during the time of Imam Jalaluddin Hasan.
Soon after the end of Alamut rule in 654/1256, the Ismailis faced all kinds of persecutions; therefore, the direction of the Ismaili dawat took a different turn and established their operations in India. Pir Shams (1244-1356) is said to have formed 84 Ismaili khanaqah, known as the khanas (houses). These khanas were small and private, which were used by the adherents in the period of Pir Nasiruddin Shah, Pir Saheb al-Din and Pir Sadruddin (1300-1416). The Ismaili jamat increased rapidly in Indian territories, therefore, it is related that during his last visit to Iran, Pir Sadruddin sought permission to constructed three main khanas in Sind, Punjab and Kashmir. These three khanas acted as the headquarters, under whose jurisdictions, the small khanas were supervised. With these arrangements, a concept of the jamat (community) also emerged, and that is why the khana also became known as the jamatkhana. It also seems that the local people called the Ismaili khanaqah as the khawaja khana or khoja khana, most probably in Sind, which could not become a permanent term.
Jamatkhana, the Ismaili khanaqah originated in the Indian tradition. According to "Sufi Orders in Islam" (p. 305), "Jamatkhana means assembly hall of a Sufi convent." The Jamatkhana in Ismailism represents a place of worship, which is reserved for the followers of the Imam and none else. Wazir Dr. Pir Muhammad Hoodbhoy (1905-1956) had gone to Europe in 1955, where he asked Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah to give his guidance on the question as to why Ismailis do not allow other Muslims to come in their Jamatkhanas. The Imam said, "In North Africa and Iran, there are some high types of Sufis spiritually evolved, who have special houses of prayer, known as Khanaqah, where other Muslims are not allowed. Only the Sufis who are spiritually evolved are allowed to pray there. In the same way, we Ismailis who, though are part and parcel of Islam and Muslims, are distinguished from others in this sense that they have taken baiyat (oath of allegiance) of their Imam-e-Zaman and therefore, others who have not done so, cannot be in line with them who are different from them in this respect."
The Jamatkhana is the house of ahl al-bayt means the "house of the Imam" where only his followers who have taken allegiance are allowed to enter. Without permission, no other persons are permitted to enter the "house of the Imam." This restriction is corroborative to the Koranic injunction: "O ye who believe! Enter not houses other than your own until you have asked permission" (24:27).
It must be known that there is a basic difference, in point of view of its sanctity, between the Ismaili khanaqah (or jamatkhana) and the Sufic khanaqah. The Ismailis believe that the Jamatkhana is the house of ahl al-bayt, as well as the prayer-hall. Its notion infers from a tradition, in which the Prophet is reported to have ordered that all the doors of various houses opening onto the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina to be blocked off, except for the doors from his own house and from that of Ali (Masnad, 1:175).
The Koran says, "In the houses which God has permitted to be exalted, and His name to be remembered therein, where He is glorified in the mornings and the evenings (24:36).
Ibn Abbas relates that on one day they were in the mosque. One companion recited the above verse, whereupon the Prophet was asked which were the houses referred to by God. The Prophet said that the houses were the prophets of past, and also that of Fatima" (Bihar al-Anwar, 5:90). The Prophet also said, "Verily, Fatima, Ali, Hasan and Hussain are in the sacred sanctuary (haziratu'l-qudus), in a white dome-shaped edifice, whose roof is the Throne of the Compassionate" (Mishkat, 14:480). Suyuti in Dhur-e-Manthur, 5:199) narrates from Zahhak bin Muzahim that the Prophet said, "We are the family whom God has declared to be pure, and He has created us from the tree of prophethood. Ours is the house which is frequented by angels and which is the seat of blessings and spring of knowledge and wisdom." According to Ayashi's Tafsir (1:86), Imam Muhammad al-Bakir said, "The household of the Prophet is the door leading to God, who calls the people to paradise and leads them towards it." Qatada also writes in Umadat al-Bayan that once he was sitting with Imam Jafar Sadik and said, "I sat with many scholars, but never impressed more than sitting with your company." The Imam said, "Don't you know where you are sitting? You are sitting in the house, whose mention is given in the Koran."
It is clear that "houses" in the above Koranic verse (24:36) does not mean "mosques." Now that the meaning of "houses" has been clarified, but what is meant by their being "exalted" (tarfi)? There are two possible meanings to consider. Firstly, the elevation in the sense of constructing and setting up; the Koran uses the word raf in another verse: "And when Abraham and Ismael were raising (yarfa'u) the foundations of the House" (2:127). Since the houses of the Prophets were already built, bringing such houses into being cannot be intended here; instead, it can only mean the safeguarding of such houses against ruin and desolation. Secondly, the elevation is in the sense of being sanctified.
There are words related to Marifat, such as fata' rifunaha (27:93), ya'rifun (2:246, 6:20, 7:46 and 16:83), ya'rifunahum (7:48) and arrafaha (47:6). This indicates that in Islam in addition to Shariah and Tariqah, the Haqiqah and Marifah are also necessary. Thus, according to this Divine system after mosque, it was also necessary to start the Khanaqah of Ahl al-Bayt or the Jamatkhana and its practices.
The mosque is generally a school, where the Shariah is practiced, while the house (khana) of Ahl al-Bayt is a college, where not only the Shariah but also Tariqah, Haqiqah and Marifah are imparted. "If the mosque is representative of the external aspects of Islam" writes Ian Richard Netton in Sufi Rituals (London, 2000, p. 28), "then the khanaqah represents that religion's inner dimensions, which protect rather than oppose the externals of religion."
The Koran says, "And We inspired to Moses and his brother: Provide houses for your people in Egypt and make your dwellings into places of worship, and establish prayer, and give glad tidings to the believers" (10:87). Here the word "mosque" for worship is not mentioned, but simply the house, and thus the Jamatkhana, the house of Ahl al-Bayt is religiously a valid place of worship for the adherents of the Imam.