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Education in Islamic History

From the very earliest days of Islam, the issue of education has been at the forefront of Muslims minds. The very first word of the Quran that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was, in fact, “Read”.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) once stated that: “seeking knowledge is mandatory for all Muslims.

With such a direct command to go out and seek knowledge, Muslims have placed huge emphasis on the educational system in order to fulfill this obligation placed on them by the Prophet (PBUH).

Throughout Islamic history, education has been a point of pride and a field in which Muslims have always excelled. Muslims built great libraries and learning centres in places such as Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo.

Baghdad: The House of Wisdom(Bayt al-Hikmah)
Baghdad: The House of Wisdom
(Bayt al-Hikmah)

They established the first primary schools for children and universities for continuing education. They advanced the sciences by incredible leaps and bounds through such institutions, leading up to today’s modern world.

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Attitudes Toward Education

Today, the education of children is not limited to the information and facts they are expected to learn.

Rather, educators take into account the emotional, social, and physical well-being of the student in addition to the information they must master. Mediaeval Islamic education was no different.

The 12th-century Syrian physician al-Shayzari wrote extensively about the treatment of students. He noted that they should not be treated harshly or made to do busy work that doesn’t benefit them at all.

The great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali also noted that

“Prevention of the child from playing games and constant insistence on learning deadens his heart, blunts his sharpness of wit, and burdens his life. Thus, he looks for a ruse to escape his studies altogether.”

Instead, he believed that educating students should be mixed with fun activities such as puppet theatre, sports, and playing with toy animals.

The First Schools

Ibn Khaldun states in his Muqaddimah,

“It should be known that instructing children in the Qur’an is a symbol of Islam. Muslims have and practice such instruction in all their cities because it imbues hearts with a firm belief in Islam and its articles of faith, which are derived from the verses of the Qur’an and certain Prophetic traditions.”

The very first educational institutions in the Islamic world were quite informal. Mosques were used as a meeting place where people could gather around a learned scholar, attend his lectures, read books with him or her, and gain knowledge. Some of the greatest scholars of Islam learned in such a way and taught their students this way as well.

All four founders of the Muslim schools of law—Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i, and Ibn Hanbal—gained their immense knowledge by sitting in gatherings with other scholars (usually in mosques) to discuss and learn Islamic law.

Some schools throughout the Muslim world continue this tradition of informal education. At the three holiest sites of Islam – the Haram in Makkah, Masjid al-Nabawi in Madinah, and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem – scholars regularly sit and give lectures in the mosque that are open to anyone who would like to join and benefit from their knowledge.

However, as time went on, Muslims began to build formal institutions dedicated to education.

From Primary to Higher Education

Dating back to at least the 900s, young students were educated in a primary school called a maktab. Commonly, maktabs were attached to a mosque, where the resident scholars and imams would hold classes for children. These classes would cover topics such as basic Arabic reading and writing, arithmetic, and Islamic laws.

Most of the local population was educated in such primary schools throughout their childhood. After completing the curriculum of the maktab, students could go on to their adult lives and find an occupation or move on to higher education in a madrasa, the Arabic word for “school”.

Madrasas were usually attached to a large mosque. Examples include al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (founded in 970) and al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco (founded in 859). Later, numerous madrasas were established across the Muslim world by the great Seljuk vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.

At a madrasa, students would be educated further in religious sciences, Arabic, and secular studies such as  medicine, mathematics, astronomy, history, and geography, among many other topics.

In the 1100s, there were 75 madrasas in Cairo, 51 in Damascus, and 44 in Aleppo. There were hundreds more in Muslim Spain at this time as well.

These madrasas can be considered the first modern universities. They had separate faculties for different subjects, with resident scholars who had expertise in their fields. Students would pick a concentration of study and spend a number of years studying under numerous professors.

Education in Islamic History - About Islam

Ibn Khaldun notes that in Morocco at his time, the madrasas had a curriculum that spanned sixteen years.

He argues that this is the “shortest [amount of time] in which a student can obtain the scientific habit he desires or can realise that he will never be able to obtain it.

When a student completed their course of study, they would be granted an ijaza, or license, certifying that they had completed that programme and were qualified to teach it as well.

Ijazas could be given by an individual teacher who can personally attest to his/her student’s knowledge or by an institution such as a madrasa in recognition of a student finishing their course of study. Ijazas today can be most closely compared to diplomas granted from higher educational institutions.

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