Education in Islamic History
From the very earliest days of Islam, the issue of education has been at the forefront at the minds of the Muslims. The very first word of the Quran that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was, in fact, “Read”. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ 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 ﷺ.
Throughout Islamic history, education was a point of pride and a field Muslims have always excelled in. Muslims built great libraries and learning centers in places such as Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo. They established the first primary schools for children and universities for continuing education. They advanced sciences by incredible leaps and bounds through such institutions, leading up to today’s modern world.
Attitudes Towards Education
Today, 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. Medieval 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, nor 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 theater, 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 of the Islamic world were quite informal. Mosques were used as a meeting place where people can gather around a learned scholar, attend his lectures, read books with him/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 the 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 by such primary schools throughout their childhood. After completing the curriculum of the maktab, students could go on to their adult life and find an occupation, or move on to higher education in a madrasa, the Arabic world for “school”.
- 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.
- madrasas can be considered the first modern universities. They had separate faculties for different subjects, with resident scholars that had expertise in their fields. Students would pick a concentration of study and spend a number of years studying under numerous professors. Ibn Khaldun notes that in Morocco at his time, the madrasas had a curriculum which 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 realize that he will never be able to obtain it.”
When a student completed their course of study, they would be granted an ijaza, or a license certifying that they have completed that program and are 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.
The Future of our Ummah
Assalaamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh
Growing up is such a challenge. SubhanAllah. We have to cut teeth, bump our heads, scrape our knees, fall out of trees, lose teeth, break bones, deal with acne, change schools, lose friends, “fit in”, stand out… Allahul Musta’an… And then starts the real trying part… being yourself.
In Allah’s Wisdom, He has placed all these events in our lives purposefully and at the most perfect junctures, when we are ready for them. We might not have the ability to deal with new challenges straight away, but when we are ready to learn how, they present themselves, disguised mostly as difficulties. In dealing with them, we develop new skills, sharpen our senses and broaden our horizons. Alhamdulillah.
I’d like to pay particular attention to the challenges that come with “being yourself”, a challenge that not only adolescents, but also grown men and women grapple with. Why is it so difficult for us to live our truth? Why is it so important to us to look good in the eyes of our peers and critics? Don’t we understand that our true value lies in preserving our natural state? Don’t we “get” that the only time we will be at ease and at peace with ourselves is once we are being who we really are? The
answer, I am afraid, is that even as we get older, a huge part of our lives are spent trying to make “the people” feel happy and comfortable.
Examinations - Go for Straight A's
Some may have spent many hours putting their shoulders to the wheel burning the midnight oil while others may have been satisfied with a last minute swot hoping that the sections they have covered would constitute a major portion of the task to be assessed.
Did it ever occur to you that we are all in exam mode every second of our lives?
Allah states in Surah Mulk “ the one who created death and life that he may test you which one of you is best in deed” ( Surah 67 Verse 2)