- This Arabic term refers to the corner or angle of a building. In the Maghreb, the term is used interchangeably with ribat, for "the abode," meaning a religious lodge or order. It is usually associated with a saintly man (or woman in rare cases), or murabit or marabout. It provides a space for the practice of localized forms of Islam, which are dominated by the mechanical repetition of certain invocatory words and phrases as well as Quranic texts (dhikr), liturgical chanting, passages of mystical writings and poetry, music, and rhythmical movements or dancing, all producing a state of common trance (alhal). There were also a few zawiyas known for religious study who struggled to combine mystical learning methods and rational thought and established some of the finest theology schools, or madrassas. Usually a zawiya stands for a place where a saint is buried, and its simple architecture consists of a whitewashed shrine with a cupola (qubbah). Its location constitutes an inviolable space open to those seeking refuge from enemies or the public authorities.The spiritual head of the zawiya is the sheikh. He is believed either to have saintly or Sharifian credentials (descent from the Prophet Muhammad) or to be endowed with the baraka (divine grace) received through the links of a mystical chain from the founding saint of the order. The sheikh leads religious and mystic rituals, initiates the neophytes, and oversees the management of the brotherhood in all worldly matters. A deputy called khalifa assists the sheikh in the conduct of matters related to the brotherhood. Awakil supervises the landed property of the zawiya, collects the yearly contributions, and distributes alms. A number of muqaddamin, or mandatories, administer the daughter zawiyas or are in charge of missionary work. A ritual of initiation, or bay`a, integrates new members (ikhwan) into the zawiya. Zawiyas often grew into strong institutions: a mosque, hostels for pilgrims, and living quarters for students and disciples who sought learning and spiritual perfection. Some zawiyas, as time went by, developed into institutions of higher learning, sometimes competing with the mosque universities of major urban centers. With the rise of the power of the religious brotherhoods movement, or maraboutism, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the head of a distinguished zawiya, if capable of mobilizing the masses and demonstrating saintly descent, might widen his zone of influence to even national or regional significance. Some zawiyas, because of their religious as well as economic power, managed to turn locally based ritual practices into a formal system of governance, thereby challenging the legitimacy of central rule.The 15th and 16th centuries, a period marked by the collapse and weakness of the central state and European control of the trade routes and ports, witnessed the rapid evolution and spread of zawiyas throughout the country. In the middle of chaos, zawiyas organized charity drives and mustered unity and solidarity. These events led to the rise of the zawiya institution and its proliferation throughout the North African political landscape. The saints played an important role during these times of chaos and absence of the state. They reinstated peace and order, without which many activities such as pastoralism and the trans-Saharan trade would not have been possible.Their influence and quick rise to the political arena, however, gathered momentum, essentially because of preaching of jihad (holy war) and resistance against the encroaching European powers. On the religious level, equipped with the power of baraka, the saints favored Sufism and reinforced the spread of popular religion geared toward everyday life and anchored in experiences lived by their followers. Since independence, the zawiyas have lost their political influence and, with a few exceptions, much of their role in religious education and spiritual life. This loss is due to the combined hostility of the Islamic reformist movements (Salafiya movement) as well as the secular political formations of postcolonial North Africa.
Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) . Hsain Ilahiane. 2014.