A skinny ten-year-old roams the courtyard of this school for spiritual education that he joined only around a month previously. The boy, Mirin Mohammed, comes from the Darbandikhan district, south-east of the city of Sulaymaniyah, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. And he’s here because his father wants him to study to become a cleric in the future. But right now, the youngster is just hungry and he peeps into the kitchen to see what his next meal will look like.
He says he has had no contact with his family in the 30 or so days, he’s been here.
Traditionally the khanqah have two main roles: teaching and distributing alms and food to the poor who come seeking it.
Far from being cruel, this is standard procedure at this religious school, in the Bayara district, northeast of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja.
To be accepted at the school, students must follow rules to the letter and they may not use everyday devices, such as televisions, mobile phones or computers.
“When the scholars arrive, we take all those away,” the school supervisor, Fares Mohammed Shaqlawi, told NIQASH. “And they cannot use them during their stay except in emergencies. We don’t want the students to be distracted by earthly issues.”
The khanqah – as such schools are known – in Bayara is 132 years old. the school specialises in a form of Sunni spiritualism called Naqshbandi; it’s also categorised as a form of Islamic mysticism called Sufism. Today the institute has 121 students studying various Islamic subjects. The students’ ages range from ten to 35 and they come from all over Iraqi Kurdistan as well as from Turkey, Iran and Syria.
There is no specific time frame in which studies must be completed. The scholars work at their own pace and graduate when they finish. “After finishing their studies, the students get certificates and can become preachers or imams,” Shaqlawi explains. Generally though courses tend to take between five and seven years. There are two stages to the course and when students complete the first half, they move onto to the advanced level and are also recruited to help teach those who are just starting.
Unfortunately the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Education does not recognize the qualification, the headmaster says, and they won’t explain why. The school had tried to add subjects like English and computer science but ran into problems, he adds. They’re trying to resolve these issues so that in the future, students can graduate with government-approved qualifications too.
One of the interesting aspects of visiting the school is the presence of tombs and shrines of various religious community leaders inside the mosque here. Hundreds of visitors come to the school to see them.
Traditionally the khanqah have two main roles, Shaqlawi notes: teaching and distributing alms and food to the poor who come seeking it. The shrines have become a decent source of income for the school because visitors usually leave a donation.
So the school has space for the students to sleep and can provide all their meals, alongside meals for all the visitors who come to the shrines; they eat together with the pupils.
The money the school receives covers the daily expenses of students, another of the school’s leaders, Mullah Yassin told NIQASH. He was reluctant to talk about exactly how much the institute gets saying instead that, “we believe God is going to bless our earnings and increase them to cover our expenses.”
Between 2001 and 2003, the area here was partially controlled by an extremist Sunni Muslim group, Ansar al-Sunna, and the school had to be closed. The shrines were also exhumed and the scared remains taken elsewhere for safe keeping.
“Throughout its history the khanqah’s doors never closed, except for then,” Shaqlawi says. “It was a dark period.”
As for the school’s, and the order’s relationship with the group known as the Naqshbandi army, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that was close to Saddam Hussein and later on the extremist Islamic State group, Shaqlawi says they have nothing to do with those people. “There is no relationship with them whatsoever and we are against what they do,” he says staunchly.