Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Khaznawi-Naqshbandi Sufism in Syria: Between Rejection and Growth

Thousands of Muslims, Arabs and Kurds alike follow Khaznawi-Naqshbandi Sufism in Syria as it is considered one of the most significant Sufi orders.

Khaznawi-Naqshbandi Sufism in Syria
A Syrian kurd brandishes a picture of Sheikh Mohammed Ma’shouq Khaznawi, during his burial 01 June 2005 in Qamishli. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

The Khaznawi-Naqshbandi is considered one of the most significant Sufi orders in Syria and Syrian Upper Mesopotamia in particular. Despite the many differences and disputes among them, thousands of Muslims, Arabs and Kurds alike follow this Sufi order.

Sufism has been known in Syria for centuries, and the region has been home to countless scholars. Among the most famous is Suhrawardi, the author of Hikmat al-Ishraq, whose shrine is in Aleppo. The list also includes Ibn Arabi, known for The Meccan Revelations, whose shrine is located in the al-Salihiya district of Damascus. Another notable figure is Imadeddine Nassimi, who spent the last period of his life in northern Syria and was laid to rest in Aleppo.


The Khaznawi-Naqshbandi order is named after Muhammad Baha’uddin Shah Naqshband and Sheikh Ahmed al-Khaznawi, who was born in the village of Khazneh in northern Syria. Al-Khaznawi was educated on the Sharia by various Turkish religious schools and later returned to Syria to spread knowledge, promote the Naqshbandi order and Islamic teachings.

The followers of the Khaznawi order believe that its emergence was a response to the spread of heresy and superstition in Syrian Upper Mesopotamia due to widespread ignorance and illiteracy.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Khaznawi first built a religious school. Aided by his followers, he acquired a significant piece of land and expanded his dawah activities to attract more people and further promote the order. He continued in this endeavour until his passing in 1950. He left behind several children, including Sheikh Masum, Sheikh Aladdin, Sheikh Izz al-Din and Sheikh Abdul Ghani, none of whom he formally appointed the successor of the order.

Following Sheikh Ahmed al-Khaznawi’s passing, a choice had to be made between Sheikh Abdul Ghani and Sheikh Izz al-Din for the succession of leadership. Sheikh Izz al-Din eventually assumed leadership of the order.

He further expanded the order’s influence by establishing a religious institute and increasing his following, extending the reach of the Khaznawi order to neighbouring regions, particularly in Iraq and Turkey, close to Syrian Upper Mesopotamia. Under the guidance of Sheikh Izz al-Din, the order deeply resonated with people and experienced remarkable growth, gaining a significant following and attaining unexpected popularity.

Sheikh Izz al-Din passed away in 1969 and was laid to rest in his shrine in Tel Marouf, where his father and two brothers were buried. The order’s leadership was entrusted to his son, Muhammad.

Muhammad Mutaa al-Khaznawi is regarded as the sole and legitimate representative of the Khaznawi order. He has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in Syria, several million in Turkey and many others across the globe.

With the onset of the Syrian revolution, Sheikh Muhammed Mutaa chose to abstain from politics, stating that he wished to preserve the traditions of the Khaznawi order passed down by his father and grandfather. In 2011, during the early stages of the revolution, the order’s popularity decreased as a result of this stance.

Tel Irfan

The Khaznawi-Naqshbandi followers regularly visit the village of Tel Irfan, which is situated 26 kilometres from the Syrian city of Hasakah. Sheikh Muhammad Mutaa built this village in 2007 on uninhabited land. It was named Tel Irfan or Wisdom Hill, signifying knowledge and gratitude. According to those in charge of the village, the name Irfan is rooted in Sufi terminology, symbolising understanding, awareness of God and acknowledgement of God’s blessings, benevolence and generosity.

Sheikh Muhammad Mutaa resides in Tel Irfan. The village has transformed into a significant scholarly hub for individuals seeking to persue Islamic and Arabic language studies at the Institute of al-Irfan al-Khaznawi. The presence of numerous branches in various Turkish cities underscores the Institute’s significance and contributes to the propagation of the sheikh’s teachings and order.

From 1920 until the establishment of Tel Irfan, the village of Tel Marouf was the primary headquarters of the order. It was customary for visitors and followers to make a pilgrimage to this village, which was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khaznawi on lands previously owned by a sheikh from the Tayy tribe in the region.

Khaznawi Practices and Hierarchy

The Khaznawi order shares similar practices with other Sufi orders, like the Qadiriyya. The concept of repentance among followers is one of the most significant commonalities that bind the Khaznawis and other Sufi orders. Repentance is directed exclusively and consistently towards the sheikh, who embodies the role of spiritual guide for the devotee.

Conversely, the dhikr sessions of the Khaznawi order are different. The Khaznawis typically conduct their dhikr on Thursday and Sunday nights. In contrast to other orders, followers do not audibly raise their voices during the dhikr sessions. Instead, they silently move their lips while reciting rosaries, uttering the name of God and Quranic verses.

Additionally, unlike other orders that dim or turn off lights, the Khaznawis cover their heads and faces with a cloth. During these sessions, the overseeing sheikh paces above while reciting poems that emphasise the virtues and qualities followers should possess.

In Syria, the adherents of the order refrain from self-flagellation practices such as striking themselves with skewers, swords or spears, consuming glass, or firewalking, which followers of other Sufi orders again in. Some of these rituals persist in Iraq, though to a limited extent.

In terms of hierarchy within the order, there are slight variations and similarities when compared to other Sufi traditions. The sheikh holds the highest religious position within the order. Some disciples rise through the ranks, at first being recognised as Sufi, progressing to the roles of Arif and Raqeeb and culminating in the rank of Caliph. Devotees achieve this ultimate position once they become the sheikh’s representative in a specific city or area.

Transition to Political Engagement

Upon Sheikh Muhammad Mutaa’s assumption of leadership, his brother Sheikh Ma’shouq, highly respected within the Kurdish community, rose to prominence. Sheikh Ma’shouq’s popularity grew further when he engaged with civil society activists in their cultural forums in Syria during the Damascus Spring. At this point, many Kurdish Islamic activists rallied around him, marking the start of fledgling religious and political engagement in the Syrian Upper Mesopotamia region.

Sheikh Ma’shouq’s family, wealth, religious stature, demands and the concepts he advocated led various groups to align objectives and coordinate activities with him. His proposal to initiate dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood during a lecture at the Center for Islamic Studies in Damascus reinforced this alignment. Notably, these groups and the Muslim Brotherhood were unauthorised or forbidden to conduct activities.

Sheikh Ma’shouq disappeared under mysterious circumstances. This coincided with his brother Sheikh Muhammad Izz al-Din’s death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in May 2005. In June 2005, it was reported that Sheikh Ma’shouq had been assassinated. In Qamishli, a large protest ensued, organised by Kurdish parties, urging Syrian authorities to expose the culprits. Sheikh Ma’shouq’s son, Murshid, confirmed that the family had received his father’s body, which bore signs he had been tortured prior to his death.

Subsequently, the order experienced a period of turmoil and saw a substantial decline in the number of followers. Numerous protests were held, demanding justice for the slain sheikh, requiring the involvement of Syrian security forces.

Consequently, the security forces increased their control over Upper Mesopotamia and initiated a three-month-long arrest campaign. The situation persisted until Sheikh Muhammad Mutaa was selected as his father’s successor. As previously noted, he refrained from political involvement and instructed his family and followers to follow suit.

Some accused members of the Khaznawi family, including Sheikh Muhammad Mutaa, of being involved in the assassination of Sheikh Ma’shouq. This claim gained traction since mentioning the deceased sheikh in gatherings and among followers became forbidden, seemingly supporting the theory.

Khaznawis and Barzani of Iraq

Khaznawi-Naqshbandi Sufism in Syria
An undated picture taken in the 1960s in the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq shows Mulla Mustafa Barzani. AFP

To this day, the Barzani family in Iraq remains associated with the Khaznawi order. Sheikh Abdulsalam, the brother of the renowned Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, was succeeded by Sheikh Ahmed Barzani, a sheikh of the Khaznawi order.

Notably, Sheikh Ahmed Barzani took a neutral stance during Mustafa Barzani’s conflict with the Iraqi government between 1961 and 1963. His decision to remain neutral was conditional on the Iraqi government forgoing interference in the Barzan region and with his followers.

Since the Kurdistan region has achieved autonomy, analysts highlight the increasing influence of the Khaznawi order within the region, surpassing the previously more widespread Qadiriyya order. The Khaznawi order currently boasts a larger following, and many mosques adhere to this current. Many have expressed their admiration for Sheikh Ma’shouq’s legacy, often drawing parallels between his experience and Masoud Barzani’s.

Everlasting Debate

Within Islamic circles, an ongoing debate exists concerning Sufism. Many scholars argue that the rituals of the Khaznawi order, like those of other Sufi orders, are at odds with the beliefs of Sunni Muslims and the core principles of faith. They believe the order has introduced heretical practices and advise caution, suggesting people avoid joining Sufi orders.

The Islamic State fought against the Khaznawis and other Sufi orders. While it controlled the region, the militia targeted the village of Tel Irfan and other locations linked to the Khaznawi order. According to the Islamic State, the Khaznawis’ rituals do not align with Islam.

Fanack Water Palestine