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The Seven Lives of a Madrassah (part 1)

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, U.S.A.



(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by   )



“…Inner experience is only one source of human knowledge. According to the Qur’an there are two other sources of knowledge – Nature and History; and it is in tapping these sources of knowledge that the spirit of Islam is seen at its best…” (Mohammed Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 127)


The madrassah is very much in the news following 9/11. It is portrayed in the media as a nursery for extremists. The very word “madrassah” has acquired a politically loaded connotation much like the word “jihad”. Given the fact that there are tens of thousands of madrassahs in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, it is important to understand its evolution so that as we seek to transform it, we have the benefit of historical insight.


Education is related to culture. It is an expression of the existential self of a people. It captures who we are, tells us where we have been, and projects where we wish to go.  As such, powerful historical and spiritual forces mold it. Education influences and is influenced by other equally powerful currents.


Education is like the crust of a layered cake. The underlying layers include the social milieu, instructional structure, the syllabus, political environment, and the archetypes that the society values and produces.


As we scan the fourteen centuries since the passing away of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), we can decipher at least seven periods when the process of education in Islamic societies went through a transformation.  Each epoch was a product of the prevalent educational culture of the times. In turn, the educational processes were deeply influenced by the underlying spiritual and political currents.


The origin of the madrassah dates back to Caliph Omar ibn al Khattab (r) who sent teachers to mosques in the far-flung territories and paid them a salary from the bait ul mal. However, the development of formal teaching in Islamic societies is embedded in the historical experience of the community.  Immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), people who had not known him in person flocked to the Companions in search of knowledge. Those who learned from the Companions were called the Tabeyeen and those who learned from the Tabeyeen were called the Tab-e-Tabeyeen. Foremost among the Tab-e-Tabeyeen was the Umayyad Caliph Omar bin Abdul Azeez (d. 719 CE), who is widely credited with reducing taxes on the Persian and Egyptian peasantry, and whose piety was directly responsible for the rapid growth of Islam in Iran and Egypt.


The structure of instruction was the halqa, meaning, and a study circle. Those who sought knowledge sat around a master and listened to his discourse. Such halqas were usually arranged at the home of the scholar or in a mosque.  One of the best known of halqas was that of Imam Jaafar-as- Saadiq, which was frequented among others, by Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik. Paying tribute to the spiritual knowledge he received from Imam Jaafar as Saadiq, Imam Abu Haneefa said, “I would be wandering (in search of knowledge) were it not for the two years I spent with Imam Jaafar”. Thus the light of Prophetic knowledge was passed from one generation to the next, much as a series of candles are lit from a single candle, or as light from a single source is reflected from one mirror to the next until it suffuses the landscape.


The halqa ensured a one to one relationship between the teacher and pupil and was conducive not just to the transmission of knowledge but also the radiance of the Baraka of a learned scholar. What was transmitted was not just instructional information but also the reflected radiance of the inner dimension of Prophetic knowledge and the sciences of the soul. 


The character of the madrassah went through its first transformation with the advent of the Abbasids (751 CE). As people from the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt) entered the fold of Islam in increasing numbers, they brought with them the rational methods of Greek philosophy. The need to justify their beliefs in rational, logical terms presented a challenge to the Muslims. Islamic scholarship rose to the challenge when Caliph al Mansur established the Darul Hikmah (765 CE) in Baghdad. Books were brought in from Greece and India. Greek logic and Indian mathematics were translated into Arabic. The works of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Ptolemy and Aryabhatta became available to the Muslims. Baghdad became the intellectual capital of the world, and the Darul Hikmah the center of its intellectual activities.


The Darul Hikmah became the precursor to the universities that were to spring up throughout the Islamic world in later centuries. The madrassah, with a formal curriculum, had made its appearance on the stage of Islamic history. The syllabus in these madrassahs included Qur’anic studies, Prophetic knowledge, logic and mathematics.


In their initial euphoria over the benefits of logic and reason, the Abbasids adopted rationalism as the official dogma of Baghdad court (765-846). This was the age of reason in Islam and it spanned the Caliphate of the famed Harun ar Rashid.  Those who applied this discipline to Islamic studies were called the Mu’tazilites. However, the Mu’tazilites fell flat on their face when they overextended their techniques and applied the deductive methods of the Greeks to the Qur’an. As opposition swelled, the Mu’tazilites increasingly applied the whip to coerce those who disagreed with them. Foremost among those who opposed the Mu’tazilites was Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal who was repeatedly flogged and jailed for his views. Faced with such determined opposition, the Caliph al Mutawakkil abandoned the Mu’tazilites (846) and embraced instead the more orthodox Asharite views.


The momentum for learning created during the Mu’tazalite period exploded in the succeeding centuries and gave birth to the third generation of madrassahs. The curriculum as well as the teaching methods went through further evolution. The emphasis shifted from the speculative, deductive methods of the Greeks to the empirical, inductive method invented by the Muslims (and which forms the basis of modern science).  It was during this period (846-1258 CE) that great universities emerged in North Africa (Fez, Qairuoun), Egypt (Al Azhar), Spain (Toledo, Cardova, Seville), Damascus, Baghdad, Tus, Tabriz, Nishapur, Samarqand and Bukhara. In a formal setting, the subjects taught included the Qur’an, Sunnah of the Prophet, Arabic language, Tasawwuf, Mathematics, Medicine, History, Sociology, the Natural Sciences and Astronomy. Like an exploding star, knowledge poured forth from these madrassahs illuminating the landscape from East to West and beckoning students from all corners of the known world. Al Azhar, founded by the Fatimids in Egypt (969) continues to this day, while the syllabus of the extant Nizamiya College, founded by the grand vizier Nizam ul Mulk in Baghdad (1065) served as a model for colleges in Lucknow and Hyderabad until the mid nineteenth century.


The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century (1219-1258) destroyed this educational infrastructure. Gone were the universities that had graced the intellectual landscape of Islam. More than ninety percent of the population of Central Asia perished. Scholars were killed, madrassahs razed, libraries burned and the old civilization was extinguished. Only the Mamlukes of Egypt and the Sultans of Delhi stood between the Mongol onslaught and the extirpation of Islam.


In Islam’s darkest hour, it was the Awliyah who kept the light of faith burning. The Mongols could destroy the madrassahs and kill the scholars, but they could not touch the heart of the believer. The work of Abdul Qader Jeelani of Baghdad (d. 1186), Khwaja Moeenuddin Chisti of Ajmer (d. 1235), Ibn al Arabi of Damascus (d. 1240), Shaykh Shadhuli of Cairo (d. 1258), Mevlana Rumi of Konya (d, 1273), Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband of Samarqand (d.1389), not only kept Islam alive but carried it deep into India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. 


The madrassah underwent a profound transformation during this period. The universities of the classical Islamic period gave way to zawiyahs (also called ribat in Arabic and tekke in Turkish), which were elaborate religious-community centers including a mosque, a madrassah, a rest house and a cultural center. Young men received instruction in these zawiyas under the watchful eye of a Sufi Shaykh. The subjects taught included the Qur’anic sciences, tasawwuf, martial arts, basic technical and trade skills, spiritual discipline, good manners (aadab) and the languages (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish). Ibn Batuta visited many of these zawiyas during his travels through much of the then known world (1330-1352). The Taj Mahal at Agra, the Registan in Samarkand, the mosques of Esfehan and the Sultan Ahmed Jami’ in Istanbul were all products of a zawiya culture.


The zawiya culture was cosmopolitan and embraced non-Muslims as well.  Christians under the Ottomans and  Hindus under the Great Moghuls had equal access to the zawiya. Under the Great Moguls Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan, it produced the Akhlaqi school of instruction. Deriving its inspiration from Aqkhlaq e Nasiri of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d.1274), the Akhlaqi school blossomed into a complete set of ethics. Abul Fazal in the court of Akbar was a master of this school. In the madrassahs of the Great Moghuls, Akhlaqi e Nasiri was required reading. Other subjects included the Qur’an, Hadith, the languages (Farsi and Hindustani), logic and arithmetic. However, the basic sciences were neglected. The akhlaqi schools existed side by side, often as a part of the zawiyas.


Largely, as a result of the work of Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi of the Punjab (d. 1624), the madrassah as well as its syllabus changed, starting with the madrassahs in the subcontinent. Shaykh Ahmed’s forceful writings and the enormous influence of his disciplines at the court of Aurangzeb, displaced Akhlaqi e Nasiri and replaced it with the traditional disciplines of fiqh. Fatwa replaced taqwa as the guiding principle of education. As the Moghul Empire disintegrated, the syllabus in the madrassahs of Northern India solidified more and more in the direction of jurisprudence. As political ascendancy disappeared, and the British Raj appeared, even the rudimentary exposure to logic and mathematics was abandoned and the madrassah became a repository of the most basic memorization of the Qur’an and the Hadith. The segmentation of course work between “deeni taalim” and “dunawi taalim” became solidified. The pattern was repeated in much of the Islamic world. The removal of the natural, historical, mathematical and spiritual sciences from the curricula introduced the first discontinuity in Islamic education.


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as colonialism spread, the “reformers” made their appearance. In this category belong Uthman Dan Fuduye of West Africa, Shaykh Abd el Wahab of Arabia, Mohammed Ali of Egypt, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh, Jamaluddin Afghani of Afghanistan and Mohammed Abduh of Egypt.  Some of the these “reforms” such as those of Shaykh Abdul Wahab of Arabia pulled the syllabus of the madrassah further to the right in the direction exclusively of memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith, while others such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Mohammed Abduh pulled it towards the European model.  The courses offered at Deoband and those at Aligarh symbolize this polarization. Even the great university at Al Azhar has felt these tensions both from the right and the left and has sought to accommodate itself to these tensions. Kemalist Turkey went one step further, completely abandoned its Ottoman Islamic legacy, and sought to build its educational system on the European model.


The colonial powers, in their own self-interest, further fossilized Islamic curricula. Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Swahili, Malay and Hausa-Fulani were replaced by English and French. The thrust of colonial education was to train lower tier bureaucrats for the administration of the colonies. The injection of colonialism introduced a second element of discontinuity in Islamic education. 


Thus the madrassah today stands at the confluence of seven different streams: the Halqa of the Companions, the Darul Hikmah of the Mu’tazilites, the Jami’ of the al Hakims, the Zawiyas of the Awliya, the Aqhlakhi schools of the Great Moghuls, the fatwas of the Ulema and the Secularism of the West. The turbulence caused by the merging of these streams is much too obvious. In this caldron, the ideas of only two giants offer fresh insights, men who climbed the mountains both of the East and West and presented an existential vision for education in Islam. These two were the poet Zia of Istanbul and Mohammed Iqbal of Lahore. Unfortunately, the educational vision of Iqbal has yet to be fulfilled.


(This essay is based on the author’s forthcoming work, Islam in Modern History, Volume 3, and was a part of Professor Ahmed’s correspondence with Professor Parvez Hoodbhoy of Qaed e Azam University in Islamabad on the issue of Science and Technology in Islamic Civilization.)


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