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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Maktab & Madressahs: Elementary & Higher Religious Schools in Islamic Societies

Donald Malcolm Reid, Updated by Syed Rizwan Zamir

As the nineteenth century opened, Islamic societies had highly developed educational institutions—elementary Qurān schools (Ar., kuttāb or maktab) and higher religious schools called madrasahs. Less formal education was available from ūfī lodges (khanqah), literary circles at princely courts, private tutors, private study circles (alaqah), and apprenticeships in state bureaus and craftsmen's shops.

This article discusses five phases of the development of educational institutions in the Islamic world since 1800. In phase one, Islamic schools were unaffected by the West. In phase two, reforming Muslim rulers set up Western-style military and professional schools. In phase three, colonial rulers subordinated schools to their own imperial interests. This phase also saw major reforms of traditional institutions in which the process of transmission of religious knowledge was formalized and standardized according to Western institutional models. More importantly, the transformations that took place during this period have proven to be conclusive for later eras. In phase four, newly independent states unified their school systems and rapidly expanded all levels of schooling. Phase five saw, as an aftermath of various sociopolitical developments, a renewed interest in educational reforms along Islamic lines.
The chronology of these phases varied from place to place, and some countries bypassed a phase or two. The Ottomans entered phase two as early as 1773 by opening a naval engineering school; isolated North Yemen and Saudi Arabia had not yet entered it in 1950. The colonial rule of phase three began before 1800 in the Dutch East Indies and India, but reached Syria and Iraq only after World War I. North Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan skipped the colonial phase. Turkey and Iran won the independence of phase four in the 1920s without having been fully colonized, while the emirates of the lower Gulf did not begin phase four until the British left in 1971.
The most significant aspect of premodern madrasah education was its informal character, as seen in the lack of central administrative control and the absence of strictly defined categories of religious and nonreligious subjects. This is despite the fact that madrasahs helped construct, shape, and homogenize religious authority and knowledge by encoding standard Islamic religious texts and canon collections. Their informal character was, however, replaced by a much more standardized religious education in the colonial period and onward.
Qurān schools stressed memorization of the Qurān, reading, and writing. Memorization did not always mean comprehension, particularly for non-Arab Muslims. Teachers taught in homes, mosques, or shops, receiving their pay from pupils’ fees or waqfs (pious endowments).
Advanced schooling in mosques went back to the seventh century, but the formal madrasah—an endowed residential college stressing the sharīah—took shape only in the eleventh century. The Niāmīyah in Baghdad was a renowned prototype. In common usage, distinctions between mosque schools and madrasahs disappeared. Subjects more directly tied to the revelation were stressed: Qurānic exegesis, adīth, jurisprudence, theology, Arabic grammar, and logic. Others such as arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and poetry, which were not strictly religious, were also taught in many madrasahs. There were no formal admissions or graduation ceremonies, no grade levels, written examinations, grades, classrooms, desks, or school diplomas. It was not the institution but the teacher with whom one studied and from whom one received a certificate (ijāzah) that determined a student's authority in the subject.
Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Süleymaniye in Istanbul, Qarawīyīn in Fez, the Zaytūnah in Tunis, and various mosque-madrasahs in Mecca, Medina, and Damascus stood out in the Sunnī world of 1800. For the Shīah, the madrasahs of Najaf (Iraq) were foremost, with others in Isfahan and other Iranian cities.
Defeat in wars with Russia and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (1798) forced Muslim rulers to reform their armies and military support services along Western lines.
Three related phenomena (which persist into the early twenty-first century) accompanied the new schools: (importing Western educators, dispatching students to study in the West (small missions first left Egypt in 1809, Iran in 1811, and Istanbul in 1827), and putting new printing presses to work publishing translated Western textbooks. Importantly, all these developments bypassed any consultation or collaboration with the existing madrasah institutions.

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