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Education has played a central role in Islam since the beginnings of the religion, owing in part to the centrality of scripture and its study in the Islamic tradition. Before the modern era, education would begin at a young age with study of Arabic and the Quran. For the first few centuries of Islam, educational settings were entirely informal, but beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, the ruling elites began to establish institutions of higher religious learning known as madrasas in an effort to secure support and cooperation of the ulema (religious scholars). Madrasas soon multiplied throughout the Islamic world, which helped to spread Islamic learning beyond urban centers and to unite diverse Islamic communities in a shared cultural project.[1] Madrasas were devoted principally to study of Islamic law, but they also offered other subjects such as theology, medicine, and mathematics.[2] Muslims historically distinguished disciplines inherited from pre-Islamic civilizations, such as philosophy and medicine, which they called “sciences of the ancients” or “rational sciences”, from Islamic religious sciences. Sciences of the former type flourished for several centuries, and their transmission formed part of the educational framework in classical and medieval Islam. In some cases, they were supported by institutions such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but more often they were transmitted informally from teacher to student.[1]

Etymology

In Arabic three terms are used for education. The most common term is ta’līm, from the root ‘alima, which means knowing, being aware, perceiving and learning. Another term is Tarbiyah from the root of raba, which means spiritual and moral growth based on the will of God. The third term is Ta’dīb from the root aduba which means to be cultured or well accurate in social behavior.[3

Education in pre-modern Islam

The centrality of scripture and its study in the Islamic tradition helped to make education a central pillar of the religion in virtually all times and places in the history of Islam.[1] The importance of learning in the Islamic tradition is reflected in a number of hadiths attributed to Muhammad, including one that instructs the faithful to “seek knowledge, even in China”.[1] This injunction was seen to apply particularly to scholars, but also to some extent to the wider Muslims public, as exemplified by the dictum of Al-Zarnuji, “learning is prescribed for us all”.[1] While it is impossible to calculate literacy rates in pre-modern Islamic societies, it is almost certain that they were relatively high, at least in comparison to their European counterparts.[1]

Education would begin at a young age with study of Arabic and the Quran, either at home or in a primary school, which was often attached to a mosque.[1] Some students would then proceed to training in tafsir (Quranic exegesis) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which was seen as particularly important.[1] Education focused on memorization, but also trained the more advanced students to participate as readers and writers in the tradition of commentary on the studied texts.[1] It also involved a process of socialization of aspiring scholars, who came from virtually all social backgrounds, into the ranks of the ulema.[1]

The Islamic Empire, spanning for almost 1,000 years, saw at least 60 major learning centers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, some of the most prominent among these being Baghdad in the East and Cordoba in the West.[4] For the first few centuries of Islam, educational settings were entirely informal, but beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, the ruling elites began to establish institutions of higher religious learning known as madrasas in an effort to secure support and cooperation of the ulema.[1] Madrasas soon multiplied throughout the Islamic world, which helped to spread Islamic learning beyond urban centers and to unite diverse Islamic communities in a shared cultural project.[1] Nevertheless, instruction remained focused on individual relationships between students and their teacher.[1] The formal attestation of educational attainment, ijaza, was granted by a particular scholar rather than the institution, and it placed its holder within a genealogy of scholars, which was the only recognized hierarchy in the educational system.[1] While formal studies in madrasas were open only to men, women of prominent urban families were commonly educated in private settings and many of them received and later issued ijazas in hadith studies, calligraphy and poetry recitation.[5][6] Working women learned religious texts and practical skills primarily from each other, though they also received some instruction together with men in mosques and private homes.[5]

From the 8th century to the 12th century, the primary mode of receiving education in the Islamic world was from private tutors for wealthy families who could afford a formal education, not madrasas.[7] This formal education was most readily available to members of the caliphal court including the viziers, administrative officers, and wealthy merchants. These private instructors were well known scholars who taught their students Arabic, literature, religion, mathematics, and philosophy.[7] Islamic Sassanian tradition praises the idea of a ‘just ruler’ or a king learned in the ways of philosophy.[7] This concept of an ‘enlightened philosopher-king’ served as a catalyst for the spread of education to the populous.

Theories of Islamic Education

Madrasas were devoted principally to the study of law, but they also offered other subjects such as theology, medicine, and mathematics.[2][8] The madrasa complex usually consisted of a mosque, boarding house, and a library.[2] It was maintained by a waqf (charitable endowment), which paid salaries of professors, stipends of students, and defrayed the costs of construction and maintenance.[2] The madrasa was unlike a modern college in that it lacked a standardized curriculum or institutionalized system of certification.[2]

Madrasa education taught medicine and pharmacology primarily on the basis of humoral pathology.[9] The Greek physician Hippocrates is credited for developing the theory of the four humors, also known as humoral pathology.[7][9] The humors influence bodily health and emotion and it was thought that sickness and disease stemmed from an imbalance in a person’s humors, and health could only be restored by finding humoral equilibrium through remedies of food or bloodletting.[7][9] Each humor is thought to be related to a universal element and every humor expresses specific properties.[10] The interpenetration of the individual effects of each humor on the body are called mizādj.[10] Black Bile is related to the earth element and expresses cold and dry properties, yellow bile is related to fire and subsequently is dry and warm, phlegm is related to water and it expresses moist and cold properties, and blood is air displaying moist and warm qualities.[11]

To aid in medical efforts to fight disease and sickness, Ibn Sina also known as Avicenna, wrote the Canon of Medicine.[9] This was a five-book encyclopedia compilation of Avicenna’s research towards healing illnesses, and it was widely used for centuries across Eurasia as a medical textbook.[9] Many of Avicenna’s ideas came from al-Razi’s al-Hawi.[12]

Muslims distinguished disciplines inherited from pre-Islamic civilizations, such as philosophy and medicine, which they called “sciences of the ancients” or “rational sciences”, from Islamic religious sciences.[1] Sciences of the former type flourished for several centuries, and their transmission formed part of the educational framework in classical and medieval Islam.[1] In some cases, they were supported by institutions such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but more often they were transmitted informally from teacher to student.[1]

The University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 AD, is listed in The Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s oldest degree-granting university.[13] Scholars occasionally call the University of al-Qarawiyyin (name given in 1963), founded as a mosque by Fatima al-Fihri in 859, a university,[14][15][16][17] although some scholars such as Jacques Verger writes that this is done out of scholarly convenience.[18] Several scholars consider that al-Qarawiyyin was founded[19][20] and run[21][22][23][24][25] as a madrasa until after World War II. They date the transformation of the madrasa of al-Qarawiyyin into a university to its modern reorganization in 1963.[26][27][21] In the wake of these reforms, al-Qarawiyyin was officially renamed “University of Al Quaraouiyine” two years later.[26] The Al-Azhar University was another early university (madrasa). The madrasa is one of the relics of the Fatimid caliphate. The Fatimids traced their descent to Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah and named the institution using a variant of her honorific title Al-Zahra (the brilliant).[28] Organized instruction in the Al-Azhar Mosque began in 978.[29]

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