[Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
From its inception, Islam has placed a high premium on education and has enjoyed a long, rich intellectual tradition as a result. The Quran, the holy book of the religion, has over 800 references to “knowledge” in some form.
The history of Islamic education is unique among systems of formal schooling because it derives from and is perpetuated by the Quran, Muslims’ primary source of knowledge; education, no matter what the subject, lives symbiotically with religious instruction.
Until the 7th century CE, Arab society had enjoyed a rich oral tradition. With the advent of the Quran at that time, though, which was considered the word of God, importance was placed on learning to read and recite the words it contained. Thus, reading and writing for the purpose of accessing the Quran’s full blessings was an aspiration for most Muslims.
The very first educational institutions were quite informal. Mosques were used as a meeting place where people gathered around a learned scholar, read books with him/her, and gained knowledge. All four founders of the Muslim schools of law gained their immense knowledge by sitting in gatherings with other scholars to discuss and learn Islamic law.
Some schools throughout the Muslim world continue this tradition through today, although Muslims also built formal institutions dedicated to education starting early in the 10th century.
Young students were educated in a primary school often attached to a mosque called a maktab, where resident scholars held classes. Instruction would cover basic Arabic reading and writing, arithmetic, and Islamic laws. Most of any local population was educated by the maktab in their community throughout childhood. After completing the curriculum, they could find an occupation or choose to continue with their education in a madrasa, which was usually attached to a large mosque.
Students attending a madrasa would receive further instruction in religious sciences, Arabic, as well as secular studies such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, history, and geography. The madrasas were the first modern universities, with separate faculties for the different subjects and resident scholars who were experts in their fields. By the 1100s, madrasas spread across the Islamic Empire, becoming especially prominent in Moor-controlled Spain.
Students picked a field of study and spent many years studying under many different professors. The madrasas in Morocco had a curriculum that spanned 16 years, which they believed was 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 studies, they would be given an ijaza, a license certifying that they completed that program and were qualified to teach it as well. Ijazas could be granted by the institution or by an individual teacher who could personally attest to their student’s knowledge. They’re much like the diplomas given today to college graduates.
Unlike in many ancient cultures, throughout Islamic history educating women was a high priority. Women weren’t seen as incapable of attaining knowledge, nor of being unable to teach others. The precedent was established with the Prophet Muhammad’s own wife, Aisha. She was a leading scholar of her time and renowned as a teacher in Madinah after the Prophet’s death.
Later Islamic history reveals women throughout the Muslim world able to attend lectures in mosques, attend madrasas, and, in many cases, teach themselves. We know that the 12th century scholar Ibn ‘Asakir (famous for writing the history of Damascus, Tarikh Dimashq) traveled extensively in his quest for knowledge and studied under 80 different female teachers.
During Islam’s “Golden Age,” which took place from the 10th-13th centuries, large-scale inquiries into the scientific realm and greater spiritual enlightenment advanced, turning the empire into an unparalleled intellectual society and a vast repository of new knowledge.
However, by the 13th century, the open and vigorous spirit of inquiry and individual judgment gave way to a more insular, unquestioning acceptance of traditional, authoritative knowledge; scholars condemned all other forms of research. Much of what was written after that time lacked originality; it was mostly commentary on existing canonical works without the addition of any substantive new ideas. This new, rigid point of view, together with the beginnings of foreign invasion served to undermine Islam’s preeminence in the artistic and scientific worlds.
Despite its forward thinking in the Golden Era, the Islamic world seemed unable to respond culturally or educationally in the 18th century to the onslaught of Western advancement. One of the most damaging aspects of European encroachment was the deterioration of indigenous cultural norms through the implementation of secularism. Europeans venerated human reason over divine revelation and insisted on the separation of church and state. This made it anathema to Islam, in which all aspects of life, spiritual as well as temporal, are viewed as an interrelated, harmonious whole.
Along with cultural reform, the Europeans infused Western educational systems into Islamic countries to create the necessary functionaries to meet the bureaucratic and administrative needs of the state. Religious education was relegated to a separate and personal responsibility, with no place in public institutions; students could study at home or in their local mosque-sponsored schools to learn Islamic law. As a result, the two differing education systems evolved independently, with little-to-no official interface.
Next week: The Islamic World: The Golden Age
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.
To read part 8: China, click here.
To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.
 na. (2022). “Islam.” StateUniversity.com. Retrieved from https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2133/Islam.html#ixzz7THH6Ub8C.
 Egypt Today staff. (May 27, 2017). “Education in Islamic History.” Retrieved from https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/4/5835/Education-in-Islamic-history.