A ribat (Arabic: رِبَـاط; ribāṭ, hospice, hostel, base or retreat) is an Arabic term for a small fortification as built along a frontier during the first years of the Muslim conquest of North Africa to house military volunteers, called the murabitun. These fortifications later served to protect commercial routes, and as centers for isolated Muslim communities. Ribats were first seen in the 8th century. The word "ribat" in its abstract refers to voluntary defense of Islam, which is why ribats were originally used to house those who fought to defend Islam in jihad. They can also be referred to by other names such as khanqah, most commonly used in Iran, and tekke, most commonly used in Turkey.
Classically, ribat referred to the guard duty at a frontier outpost in order to defend dar al-Islam. The one who performs ribat is called murabit. Contemporary use of the term ribat is common among militant groups such as al-Qa'ida or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As a fortress
In time, ribats became hostels for voyagers on major trade routes (caravanserai) and refuges for mystics. In this last sense, the ribat tradition was perhaps one of the early sources of the Sufi mystic brotherhoods, and a type of the later zawiya or Sufi lodge, which spread into North Africa, and from there across the Sahara to West Africa. Here the homes of marabouts (religious teachers, usually Sufi) are termed ribats. Such places of spiritual retreat were termed Khānqāh (Persian: خانقاه). Some important ribats to mention are the Rabati Malik (c.1068-80) which is located in the desert of central Asia and is still partially intact and the Ribat-i Sharaf from the 12th century which was built in a square shape with a monumental portal, a courtyard, and long vaulted rooms along the walls. Most ribats had a similar architectural appearance which consisted of a surrounding wall with an entrance, living rooms, storehouses for provisions, a watch tower used to signal in the case of an invasion, four to eight towers, and a mosque in large ribats.
Ribat was originally used as a term to describe a frontier post where travelers (particularly soldiers) could stay. The term transformed over time to become known as a center for Sufi fraternities. The ribats were converted to a peaceful use where Sufis could congregate. Usually the ribats were inhabited by a Shaykh and his family and visitors were allowed to come and learn from him. Many times the tomb of the founder was also located in the same building. The institutionalization of these centers was made possible in part through donations from wealthy merchants, landowners, and powerful leaders. Some of these compounds also received regular stipends to maintain them. These institutions were used as a sort of school house where a Shaykh could teach his disciples the ways of the specific Sufi brotherhood or fraternity. They were also used as a place of worship where the Shaykh could observe the members of the specific Sufi order and help them on their Ṭarîqah (Arabic: طَـرِيْـقَـة), or their inner path to Ḥaqîqah (Arabic: حَـقِـيْـقَـة, Ultimate truth or reality). Another use of ribat refers to a sort of Sufi convent for women, or a retreat house. Female shaykhas (شيخة) scholars of law in medieval times, and large numbers of widows or divorcees lived in abstinence and worship in Sufi ribats. Some of these women stayed in the ribats until they were able to remarry in an effort to maintain their reputation because divorced women were not widely accepted in Islamic society.
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