EDUCATION IN MUSLIM AREAS
Bosnia Medresa in 1906 A high value is placed on education in both Islamic and Arab societies. A verse from the Koran goes “O God, make me more knowledgeable.” Mohammed once said, “he who leaves the home in search of knowledge is walking with God. One Hadith states: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to grave.”
An old Arab saying goes: "The ink of the scholars is more precious than the blood of the martyrs." Islamic scholars have compared the relationship between the knowledge and the mind with food and the body.
Non-religious schools only became widespread after the Arab countries became independent and free of European control after World War I. It took some time to develop a curriculum in Arabic for a wide range of subjects.
Spending on education in the Arab world is higher than other countries in the developing world. Even so, according to the Arab Human Development Report, put together by a group of Arab intellectuals, there is an “Arab knowledge deficit.” According to the report the “patriotic” education system is designed to serve the needs of the ruling regime more than it is to educate students.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Madrasah pupils in Mauritania Many Islamic countries offer four education systems: 1) home study in arithmetic, language and the Koran; 2) studying at a mosque or another building in arithmetic, language, Islam and the Koran; 3) study at a mosque or another building in arithmetic, language, Islam, the Koran and additional subjects; and 4) schools.
Traditional Islamic education involves religious study— which embraces not only theology but also law and history, as well as classical Arabic language—and study of logic, mathematics and sometimes Arab writers and poets like Kahil Gibran. .
Lower education stresses memorizing the Koran, curriculum religion, Arabic and arithmetic; higher education is in the form of a running discussion. In the old days the world was largely seen as signs from God and students were taught to look for and recognize these signs.
See Science, Arab Scholarship
The links between education advancing Muslim culture are very strong. Many Muslim extremist develop their views at schools that teach an extremist ideology.
Education and the Koran
Sheikh Syed Abdul Qadir Jilani Reciting the Koran is the backbone of Muslim education. Traditional Islamic rural schools teach the Koran and Arabic religious texts and little else. Instead of attending a normal secular school many young Muslim boys are sent to a small local Muslim schools to memorize not read the Koran. Instead of reading, writing and arithmetic the boys lean the world is flat and that anything not mentioned in the Koran or are not part of Islamic science are not important.
Learning to read and write in many Muslim schools is a process or memorizing all 114 chapters of the Koran. This is done by reciting passages over and over and copying pages of the Koran, sometimes on wooden tablets with quill pens dipped in ink made from charcoal and gum arabic. A boy becomes a man in many Muslim societies when he recites verses during a ceremony during adolescence.
Expressing what is required of a good Islamic scholar, a 12th century medical scholar from Baghdad wrote: “When you read a book, make every efforts to learn it by heart and master its meaning. Imagine the book to have disappeared and that you can dispense with it, unaffected by its loss...You should model your conduct on that of the early Muslims. Therefore, read the biography of the Prophet, study his deeds and concerns, follow his footsteps and try your utmost to imitate him...You should frequently distrust your nature rather than have a good opinion of it, submitting your thoughts to men of leaning and their works, proceeding with caution and avoiding haste...He who has not endured the stress of study will not taste the joy of knowledge.”
See Memorizing the Koran Under the Koran
Madrasahs are religious schools with an Islamic curriculum in Arabic. Students study the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet, Islamic history and Arabic literature and grammar. They are usually but not always are linked with mosques. Traditional ones typically have a central courtyard surrounded by cell-like living quarters ( hujras ) used by students, teachers and traveling scholars and buildings with prayer halls and rooms used for instruction.
With a lack of state schools and money, many poor parents enroll their sons in Koranic schools, which are generally free and often given free meals and free places to stay. Traditionally funded by charities that received money from zakat donations,madrasahs don’t need that much money to operate. Teacher’s salaries are low, books are handed down from one class to another. The meals and dormitories from those that provide them are quite basic.
In many predominately Muslim countries, madrasahs serve as schools for the poor while the elite pursue a Western education. Some madrasahs were set up to study the Koran and the hadiths; others were set up to teach the principals of Islamic legal thought. Traditional Muslim instruction took place in mosques and revolved around an imam or teacher who stood or sat at a pillar, lecturing on a text while students gather around their feet.
Maktabs or kuttabs are small Koranic schools, often only elementary schools, attached to village mosques. World wide about 6 million Muslim study at madrasahs and twice that number study at maktabs or kuttabs . These schools have a reputation for being breeding grounds for jihadists. Although most are critical of Western culture only a handful preach violence.
Early History of Islamic Schools
Samarkand madrasa Shir Dar The first official madrasah was established in 1070 in Baghdad, by the Vizier Nizam al-Mulk Hassan bin Ali Tusi (1018-92), a Seljuk wazir, but many date them to an earlier time. Nizam al-Mulk’s school was set up to train experts in Islamic law—muftis and gazis (judges). At that time there was no clerical class and believers followed local leaders who invoked the Koran to justify their rule.
Abul Hassan al-Ashari, a 9th century theologian, defined the dogma used a his teachings and that is still in use at many madrasahs today. Among the polemic texts he chose was The Detailed Explanation in the Refutation of the People of Perdition and The Sparks: Refutation of Heretics and Innovators , texts which rejected the idea of reason being applied to Muslim life.
By the 14th century major Muslim cities in contained dozens of madrasahs and they monopolized higher education of the upper classes that dominate the bureaucracy. They remained the dominant education institution across the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia until the appearance of European colonizers.
Later History of Islamic Schools
Samarkand madrasa Shir Dar courtyard Colonization and modernization marginalized the madrasahs. As European-style governments, bureaucracies and legal systems were introduced, people with European-style educations replaced graduates of madrasahs as judges and administrators. Madrasahs mainly became places for educating the poor.
Madrasahs kept alive anti-Western sentiments and were breeding grounds for Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Jamaat-Islami (Islamic Party) in South Asia and Nahdatul Ulema (the Movement of Religious Scholars) in Indonesia. Among the madrasah graduates were the ayatollahs of Iran, mujahdeen leaders in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership, and prime ministers of Indonesia and Algeria.
The Iranian Revolution elevated religious leaders to the leadership of a country and legitimized and popularized madrasahs as educational institutions and political training grounds. Iranians invited scholars and students from around the Muslim world to their madrasahs to give them training and offer tips on how they cold overthrow the corrupt regimes and monarchies in their home countries. Seeing this as a threat, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states poured hundreds of millions of dollars into establishing Sunni madrasahs that promoted the conservative Wahabbi brand of Islam.
Madrasahs were given a militant orientation when the Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan established madrasahs instead of regular schools in Afghan refugee camps. This lead to a burst of madrasah building all over the Muslim world and the harnessing of zakat funds to pay for them.
The madrasah for Afghan refugees were also the beginning of the jihadist madrasahs. Some of them were used them as recruiting and training grounds for insurgents who fought in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. See Pakistan.
Islamic Schools for Young Children
Indonesian madrassah in 1906 In the past, madrasahs were treated as a cross between Sunday schools and elementary schools. Students typically joined when they were around seven to read the Koran and learn the basics of Islamic teachings. In some places the schools were called maktab or kuttab .
Teaching was mainly focused on reciting and memorizing the Koran. Teachers typically walked around with a cane. Some rarely used it. Some used it more often. Among the students who were scolded were those who fell asleep while studying and those who came to school in Western-style clothes. Many teachers had read few books other than the Koran. They had never seen a movie and advise their student never to see one either.
Such methods and spirit remain alive today in madrasahs where students spend much of their time sitting on oriental rugs, rocking back and forth, memorizing passages from the Koran. Describing a student at a serious madrasah, Husain Haqqani wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: “In a basement room with plasterless walls adorned by a clock inscribed with “God is Great” in Arabic, 9-year-old Mohammed Tahrir rocked back and forth and recited the...verse of the Koran.”
Explaining the education philosophy at his school, one madrasah headmaster told Foreign Policy magazine: “Young minds are not for thinking. We catch them for the madrasahs when they are young and by the time they are old enough to think, they know what to think.” When a student at the school was asked if he was interested in learning math he said, “In the haddiths there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able top calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”
Students at High Level Islamic Schools
Tunisie Medersa Achouria Most madrasahs are set up for boys, middle school age and above. Students generally arrive after they had attended a maktab or kuttab , and had learned Arabic even if it wasn’t their first language and had memorized all or large parts of the Koran.
In these madrasahs students study things like Arabic grammar and early Islamic history but the core of the curriculum is learning to interpret the Koran and the hadiths and understanding the principals of Muslim beliefs and jurisprudence. Instruction typically consists of listening to teachers lecture on texts, with students expected to memorize the texts and understand them. Sometimes students are required to demonstrate they have read a certain text and if they do they receive a certificate, saying they have learned it.
The first stage of instruction, which lasts several years, consists of learning the legal code of the Sharia school to which the madrasah is affiliated. Many students go no further than this, but by this time have learned enough to get jobs in the legal profession. Student who go onto to higher levels study principals in which their are multiple interpretations and are still debated. Some write theses on points of law. Those that finishs this stage are qualified to be qadis (judges) or mufti (legal consultants).
Madrasah curriculum in many places is standardized and based on standard textbooks. A distinction is made between “revealed science” and “rational sciences.” The revealed sciences include the study of Arabic philosophy, Koran and Prophetic tradition, orthodox law and theology. The rational sciences are primarily the study of Arabic language and grammar. As a rule the madrasahs reject modernity and teach a curriculum that is little changed from the 11th century.
Some Islamic schools teach extremist Muslim ideology, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Poor and easily influenced, the students are often cast the West is an evil place with uncaring, decadent people who have manipulated the world in ushc as to cause their problems.
Muslim Women and Education
Gaza students Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo has a woman’s college. There are some girl’s madrasahs and other means for females study within Islamic institutions. But in many cases educational opportunities that are offered to males are denied to females, especially under repressive regime like the Taliban. Nearly all religious scholars and interpreters of Islamic law are men. [Source: Carla Power, New York Times magazine, February 25, 2007]
But that wasn’t always the case. Mohammed Akram Nadwi, a Sunni religious scholar, began work in the 1990s on a dictionary of female hadith scholars. When he started he thought he would be lucky to fill a single volume with a few dozen entries but he found many more female scholars than he thought he would. As of 2007, he had 8,000 biographical entries in his 40-volume dictionary.
The entries include a 10th- century Baghdad-born jurist who traveled to Syria and Egypt preaching to women; a 12th-century Egyptian scholar who impressed her male students with her knowledge of a “camel load” of texts; and a 15th-century woman who taught law at the Prophets’ grave in Medina. A 7th-century female jurist from Medina issued fatwas on how the hajj should be carried out. A jurist from Aleppo advised her husband, a famous scholar, how to issue his fatwas. Ummal-darda, a prominent 7th-century scholar from Damascus enjoyed sitting around with men debating religious issues and appears to have been treated as an equal by male scholars. She lectured men and counted a caliph among her students.
After the 16th century the number of women scholars declined markedly as Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence became more formal and oriented towards creating careers in courts and mosques. That appears to have made the female scholars that were around work harder so they could be taken seriously. Akam said the erosion of educational opportunities for Muslim women reflected a “decline in every aspect of Islam”—primarily the result of poor leadership that has let extremism gain too much control and left the Muslim community ignorant and confused.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011