Artwork by Safa Yakoob
Cultures in Connection: the Dar al-Adl and Hujra
by Haifa Badi-Uz-Zaman
History equips us with the tools to draw connections across cultures. Although the cultures in consideration may have emerged in different parts of the world, they might surprisingly have various attributes in common. The harder links to trace are the ones in cultures where history is not documented, but rather diffused through generations by oral traditions. This paper discusses two institutions that are very different in their setting and origin, but have several architectural, cultural, and social similarities. Although one of the institutions, the Dar al Adl that functioned at a macro level, has physically disappeared, historians and architects have been able to trace its structure and importance in surviving records found in Damascus, Aleppo, and Cairo. The other institution is the Hujra that functions on the micro level in tribally administered areas of Afghanistan and North Pakistan. While it continues to function today, there is little to no written documentation that would provide us with insight into tis history and origins. The comparison between the two highlights the similar social functions and basic architectural layout of the institutions, but it does not assert that they are both the same or share the same history.
The Dar al-Adl, also known as the ‘palace of justice’ is part of medieval Islamic architecture that does no longer exists today. The first Dar al-Adl was constructed around 1163 by Nur al-Din Mahmud ibn Zanki of the Zankid dynasty in Damascus (Rabbat, 1995, p.3). Others were built in Aleppo, and Cairo by the Ayyubids between 1189 and 1262, and the last one was built in Cairo by Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun of the Mamluk dynasty in 1315 (Rabbat, 1995, p. 3). It is referred to in written documents from medieval Syria and Egypt, and that is proof of its existence and importance in the Mamluk era (1250-1517). The Dar al-Adl was an Islamic institution where the Qada al-Mazalim occurred, which refers to the consideration of matters of injustice (Rabbat, 1995, p.5). It consisted of weekly communal trials supervised by the ruler and his allotted delegates where the complaints of his subjects were discussed and dealt with Nur al Din Mahmud ibn Zanki built the Dar al-Adl to deal with the grievances of farmers against feudal lords. The Dar al-Adl was not subject to its own laws; it was in fact a tool of power that belonged to the royal family. The presence of the Sultan in the Dar al-Adl and the royal residences nearby coupled with the solving of issues in the Dar al-Adl in regards to shari’ah law portray its political, religious, and social importance (Tabba, 1997, p.65). The Dar al-Adl in Aleppo was built as part of renovation of the citadel for the purpose of redefining its connection to the city in 1189 by the Ayyubid king al-Zahir Ghazi (Rabbat, 1995, p.9). In both Damascus, and Aleppo, it was constructed beside the citadel, which housed the center of government and royal residences (Rabbat, 1995, p.9). In the vicinity of the Dar al-Adl in Aleppo were also Ghazi’s mausoleum and a madrasa. The mausoleums near the Dar al-Adl would usually be located in such a manner that they would face the street in both Syria and Egypt (Tabbaa, 1993, p.3).
The three cities; Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, were connected through the ruling dynasties whose mutual cause was fighting the crusaders (Rabbat, 1995, p.4). It is understandable then that the Dar al-Adl appeared in these three cities as they were all constructed by the dynasties that ruled them and who in turn influenced by each other. The Islamic ideology associated with the Dar al-Adl is consistent with its architecture and function in both Syria and Egypt.
Apart from the justice hearings held in the Dar al-Adl, some of its other functions included the “reception of foreign envoys,” holding discussions between scholars, and serving as a place where mourning services were held (Rabbat, 1995, p. 9). Furthermore, the transfer of power to Ghazi’s son after his demise is documented to have taken place at the Dar al-Adl in Aleppo (Rabbat, 1995, p.9). Furthermore, the transfer of power to Ghazi’s son after his demise is documented to have taken place at the Dar al-Adl in Aleppo (Rabbat, 1995, p.9).
The Dar al-Adl has striking similarities to an institution in Pashtun culture where the grievances of the village people are addressed and tribal conflicts are resolved. This mechanism of resolving conflict is called a jirga There are several types of jirgas that operate at different levels and have varying degrees of importance, depending on the number of people involved in the conflict. However, the jirga that will be referred to in this paper is one that is conducted at the local village level, and involves a small number of people who usually belong to the same tribe or two different tribes. These local i are held at a “Hujra”.
The Hujra is a place of communal village gathering among the Pashtuns that is as historic as is the culture of Jirga among them. The Hujra serves various functions; it is a guest house, a place of religious, cultural, educational, and recreational gatherings, and most importantly, it serves as a location for the justice meetings held by the Jirga (Yousafzai, & Gohar, n.d., p.31).
One of the few academics who has researched the Hujra, Khan defines it as a “community center” in his paper “The Face of Communal Hujra Culture and its Environmental Impacts”. He asserts that the initial purpose of the Hujra was a place where the people of that particular community would express their opinions and decide on matters concerning their community. Its role evolved and expanded later on, and now the Hujra serves as a guest house too. Khan calls these Hujras “personal/private Hujras” (Khan, 2008, p.22).
Additionally, it functioned as a place of exchange of information among the village folk about neighboring villages, and the marriages, births, and deaths that took place in villages nearby. Travelers would stop at the Hujra to rest, have a cup of tea, and exchange information. The Hujra encourages community participation and unifies the society. Members of the Hujra are expected to provide wood and timber for fire in the winter, beds for the guests, and food for wedding and funeral gatherings. The less privileged poor people of the village benefit the most from Hujras. In times of financial instability, they rely on the Hujra community to provide them with food, water, and shelter (Khan, 2008, p.24).
A ‘muhalla’, or neighborhood, consists of approximately 30 houses, and each muhalla has one Hujra. The responsibility of constructing a Hujra falls upon the family that is the wealthiest in terms of finances among the residents of the neighborhood. Although it is a structure always shared by the people of the neighborhood, the family that owns the Hujra does hold authority and has, to a certain degree, influence in the area. Another factor that affects the power structure of the Hujra is the presence and participation of the elders of the village in the Hujra. Since the Jirga on the local level is held in the Hujra, the decisions of the Jirga with the more reputable Council of Elders holds greater authority and social importance as compared to other Hujras in the vicinity. The Council of Elders passes the final verdict in the justice hearings, which comprises of the elders of the village who are selected based on how knowledgeable, social, charismatic, pious, influential, wise, and well-connected they are.1.
Furthermore, in his book “Islamic architecture: The wooden style of northern Pakistan”, Dani documents the wooden architecture of North Pakistan. He explains in detail, supported by maps, the architecture of the mosques found in Swat, Gilgit Baltistan and Kohistan. The plans of the mosques in Darel valley in Gilgit Baltistan show the Hujra adjacent to a prayer hall. The Hujra opens into a courtyard with wooden platforms for the Jirga, and in some compounds the graveyard of the Shahids, the missionaries who came to the region to preach, are also present (1989, p.109). The Hujra is always in close proximity to a mosque. Although it is a place where all sorts of social gatherings exclusive to the men take place, it also occasionally functions as a
“madrasa”; a place where children come to recite the Quran and study about Islam from a learned religious figure in the village. This is reflective of the importance of religion in Pashtun society. Although it is a very important aspect of Pashtun culture and village life, it is an aspect that is fast diminishing. Trends of urbanization and globalization have affected life in the village as well, and village folk no longer have the time, nor the economic means to sustain the Hujra and the social activities associated with it (Yousafzai, & Gohar, n.d., p.31).
The Dar al-Adl in Syria and Egypt and the Hujra in Afghanistan were both centers of justice. Supplementary to their strikingly similar social functions, the architecture of the two centers also had various basic aspects in common. The compounds in which they were situated were both the venues of justice hearings and religious teachings. The religious teachings would be carried out at the madrasa nearby. Both structures also faced the street, so they were places that were easily accessible to the people who would come there to share their grievances and concerns with the sultan or the Council of Elders. However, the Dar al Adl was part of major cities such as Aleppo, Cairo, and Damascus, while the Hujra operates at the village level. This accounts for the difference in the structure of the two entities. The small village community builds a simple structure for the Hujra whereas the Dar al-Adl was an elaborate, glamorous structure constructed by the ruling dynasties. The Dar al Adl was associated with the Sultan, whereas the Hujra does not require the presence nor the approval of the owner for decisions and is shared by the community for a wide range of social and religious activities. Despite the difference in their location, both structures were also surrounded by a place of burial; a graveyard or a mausoleum. The incorporation of Islamic law into the justice dealings held at the Dar al-Adl and the Hujra demonstrate the high level of importance both societies place in Islam, and perhaps the connection between the two institutions is the common Islamic practices that are the foundation of societal values and even their architecture.
Similar to the Hujra, and the Dar al-Adl is also the Rab-I-Rashidi from Ilkhanid Iran. The rab-I-Rashidi was a complex with a tomb, a place for Sufi saints to gather. It also contained mosques and rooms for people to stay in (Blair, 1984, p.75). Islamic architecture links all these structures cross culturally and presents a fascinating area of research which needs to be explored further in order to elaborate on institutions such as the Hujra; the history of which is hard to trace, but nevertheless important.
Blair, S. S. (1984). Ilkhanid architecture and society: An analysis of the endowment deed of the rab'-I Rashīdī. Iran, 22, 67-90.
Dani, A. H. (1989). Islamic architecture: The wooden style of northern Pakistan. Islamabad: National Hijra Council.
Rabbat, N. O. (1995). The ideological significance of the dār al- adl in the medieval islamic orient. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 27(1), 3-28. doi: 10.1017/S0020743800061559
Tabbaa, Y. (1993). Circles of power: palace, citadel, and city in Ayyubid Aleppo. Arts Orientalis, 23, 181-200.
Tabba, Y. (1997). Constructions of power and piety in medieval Aleppo. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Tribal Analysis Center. (2007). Jirga system in tribal life. Williamsburg, VA: Dr. Sherzaman Taizi.
Khan, M. B. (2008). The face of communal hujra culture and its environmental impacts.
(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad.
Yousufzai, M. H., & Gohar, A. (n.d.). Towards understanding Pukhtoon jirga. Peshawar: Just Peace International.
This information has been related to me while I was growing up by my father, and my late uncle. My uncle built the Hujra in our neighborhood in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of material available specifically on the Hujra. Secondary sources discuss the Jirga and only mention the Hujra without going into explicit details. Greater detail might be available in Pashto poetry and other primary sources in Pashto, which I was not able to consult for this paper because I am not learned in reading Pashto script.
Haifa Badi-Uz-Zaman graduated from the American University of Sharjah in Spring 2014 with a major in Mass Communication, a concentration in Journalism, and two minors in International Studies and Governmental Studies. She currently works at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa as a Teaching Fellow. She has written articles for news publications in Pakistan and the UAE, and also worked as a Psychology Research Assistant. Her interests include Sufi music, literature, drawing, writing, and solitary walks. Education awareness and eradication of child labor are two causes close to my heart. Haifa hopes to return to her native Pakistan and work towards improving access to quality education among disadvantaged communities.