General Organisation of Education and Teaching Methods in Islamic Civilisation

by The Editorial Team Published on: 11th January 2007

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Organised learning had been a feature of Islamic Civilisation since the beginning. The Prophet Muhammad would organise the education of a committed group who over time became the people of knowledge that spread Islam far and wide. This article traces Islamic systems of education through the centuries.

Figure 1. The first page of the Qur’an written by Dervish Hasan b. Ilyas, year 1508. Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya 1.

Organised universal learning began early in Islam, in the days of the Prophet, and learning has always been highly valued. Indeed, after the battle of Badr (in which the Muslims repelled the attacking Meccan tribes), several captured Meccans were released to teach writing in Medina [1]. The high place of learning in Islam is highlighted by the Prophet’s role; he was the very first teacher within an organised institution. The Prophet would sit in a Mosque surrounded by a halaqa and instruct his hearers; the latter would repeat Quranic verses and hadiths three times until they had learned them [2]. The Prophet sent teachers of the Qur’an to the tribes, and so did Caliph Umar in the year 17H/638CE [3]. The necessity of ‘ilm was strongly emphasised. A special class of students, the ahl al-‘ilm, was formed who spread the knowledge of traditions throughout Muslim lands [4]. They collected people around them to instruct them in the most essential principles of Islam. In this simple form of instruction, which was a form of edifying admonition, lay the germ of Islamic studies [5].

The very first teachers were commissioned by the Prophet, and like him they taught for free [6]. Next to him they were the architects of an educated society whose leaders were truly its teachers [7]. Members of this society, the teachers and the taught, were collectively and individually responsible for upholding its moral standards and correcting lapses: `bidding to honour, forbidding dishonour.'[8] The number of kuttabs (learned) and mu’allams (teachers) in the Muslim world increased rapidly and on a large scale until almost every village had its own kuttab if not more than one [9]. In Palermo, for example, Ibn Hawqal on his visit to Sicily claimed to have counted about 300 elementary teachers [10]. A contemporary of Caliph Umar’s, Jubayr b. Hayya, who was later an official and governor, was a teacher in a school in Taif [11]. Famous men like al-Hadjadd and the poet’s al-Kumayt and al-Tirimmah are said to have been schoolmasters [12].

In the search for knowledge, al-Faruqi insists, `everybody felt himself to be a conscript.’ [13] In early times it was thought wrong to take pay for teaching, especially the Qur’an and religion. This was carried to extremes; a man fell into a well and would not let a pupil pull him out, lest this should be considered payment for his teaching [14]. A scholar bought some things at a shop, more than he could comfortably carry, so the shop-keeper offered to carry some for him. On the way the shop-keeper asked a question. Before he would answer it, the scholar took from him what he was carrying. The voluntary help would have become payment [15]. A youth studied the traditions without paying any fee, but when he asked to read al-Mutanabbi with the commentary of Abu Zakariya, his teacher demanded a fee because it was poetry; the boy’s father paid five dinars in advance [16]. A man took a mithqal of silver a day for teaching someone the Qur’an; the instruction lasted for five or six months but at the end the money was returned to the student because the payment had been only a test of his zeal [17].

How were these scholars able to devote so much to the performance of such intellectual feats? According to Pedersen, it was largely because most of them lived a life of ‘great contentment.’ Learning, the life of the intellect, was ‘intimately bound up with religion, and to devote oneself to both afforded an inner satisfaction and was [a] service to God […] it not only made men of letters willing to accept deprivation; even more, it prompted others to lend them aid.’ [18] The Mosques received a wide variety of aid and grants for scholars from a number of institutions. `No matter what their social origins, the subsistence of the scholars was assured, often in ‘liberal measures’.’ [19]

Caliph Umar (12-23 A.H./634-644CE) is famed for his saying: `Teach your boys swimming, archery, horsemanship, famous proverbs; and good of poetry.'[20] Another public curriculum is ascribed to Ibn al-Tawam who is recorded to have said: `To do their duty towards their sons, fathers must educate them with writing, arithmetic and swimming.’ [21] When those who had learnt the Qur’an took up the task of educating children, the Qur’an became the centre of this elementary course. Learning the Qur’an then preceded everything, and next came religious instruction [22]. With grammar and arithmetic, the primary course was concluded [23].

Ibn al-Hajj (d. 736H/1336CE) has much to say about the school in general as here summed up by Tritton:

‘The schools should be the bazar or a busy street, not in a secluded place. The emphasis on publicity is strong; the master must not send an elder boy to his house with a message lest rumour should start about the relations of the boy with the women-folk. The Mosque is no place for a school for some people send little boys to school to get them out of the way and such children defile their clothes and the place where the Qur’an is taught. The school is a place for teaching, not an eating house, so the boys should not bring food or money to buy it, but should go home for meals. A check should be kept on the time taken for the trip to prevent idleness. One reason for this ruling is respect for the feelings of poor boys who might be jealous of the food brought by the well-to-do. If food had to be brought, the master might not share it with the boys nor send any of it to his house. He might take their leavings or, if a boy ate none of his food, he might have it all but, in either case, he must tell the parents.’ [24]

From the early times, renowned scholars taught in schools. Thus Dahak ibn Muzahim, the exegist, traditionist and grammarian, who died in either 105H/723CE) or 106H/724 CE, had a school in Kufa, said to have been attended by 3,000 children, where he used to ride up and down among his pupils on an ass [25]. As language was of the utmost importance, we find a Bedouin being appointed and paid as a teacher of the youth in Basra [26]. Writers of that period were not class based, but came from all walks of life. For example, al-Ahmar (d. 194H/810CE), who taught the children of Harun al-Rashid, gave his lectures drenched in musk and incense and supplied his audience with all necessary writing materials [27]. His contemporary, al-Farra, however, was modestly dressed and sat on the floor, while his audience squatted in the dust in front of him [28]. Normally the author would sit cross-legged with his listeners seated in a circle. Next to him would be his most trusted student who would faithfully transcribe all that his teacher said [29].

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Figure 2. The public Library of Hulwan in Baghdad, from a 13th century manuscript of ‘Maqamât by Harîrî. Picture copy right from: 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World. Chief Ed. Salim T S Al-Hassani , Manchester: FSTC, 2006.

In the organisation, a teacher must have a deputy to set the class in their places, as well as visitors according to their rank; to awaken the sleepers; to warn those who do what they ought not or omit what they ought to do, and bid them listen to the instruction. In class, conversation, laughing and jokes are forbidden. A ruler of Egypt attended a class and talked with his brother; the teacher said, “It is not for this that we read Tradition while you talk.” [30] The assistant of the teacher was called a mustamli; this term is mentioned in the time of Abdullah ibn Tahir or perhaps earlier. It is said that his duty was to repeat the words of the teacher for the benefit of those who could not hear him; but it would seem that the mustamli was a tutor [31]. Al-Jubba’i had a mustamli who helped him and answered questions for him. In other instances this assistant corrected the master’s mistakes. A professor gave a name as Habban when it should have been Hayyan. Daraqutni saw the mistake, waited till the class had dispersed and then told the teacher [32]. Out of curiosity he attended the class on the following Friday and heard the teacher tell the mustamli to inform the class about the mistake in the name. It was also his function to call the class to order after the opening reading and the prayer. The mustamli might be an important person. In 284H/897CE, for example, a mustamli was known as ‘the traditionist of Nisapur.’ [33]

The name survived, but at about the end of the twelfth century CE, a new title appeared: mu‘id . There was one in a school built by Salah ad-Din; a little later a school had two for each professor; about 680H/1281CE we find one professor with one mu‘id ; a professor in al-Mustansiriya had two, one on each side of him repeating all he said [34]. At Aden 691H/129lCE one man was both professor and mu‘id; another was both judge and mu‘id; another stayed in this post a long time; though it might happen that the professor was a poor man and the mu‘id well-to-do; a man might be professor in one school and mu‘id in another [35]. A theorist says that the mu‘id must put his college duties first; other tasks are extras and supererogatory. As for the students, they must show him what they have remembered – repeat their lessons in homely language – and he must go over with them what they have been slow to understand in the professor’s teaching [36]. The assistant, by whatever name he was called, was a tutor who took more interest in individuals than was possible for the lecturer [37]. The method of one man is thus described:

‘He went several times over the passage from the law book; revised it with the students after they had committed it to memory; called attention to the divergent rulings of Malik and Abu Hanifa in particular and sometimes of others and to the reservations of the text; he then quoted the proof texts, then he set forth analogous cases in very clear language, repeating them in different words till they sank into the students minds.’ [38]

Memorisation played a central role. Authors would dictate thousands of pages in this way. The philologist al-Bawardi dictated from memory 30,000 pages on linguistic topics; al-Tabari, the noted historian and commentator on the Qur’an, also dictated the same number; the Egyptian scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 956H/1550CE) dictated some 600 books [39]. These were incredible feats of memory by our standards, but coming from a tradition that valued oral communication, where good memory was considered an indispensable tool for writers, it is not all that surprising nor uncommon [40].

In the new studies associated with the Mosque, learning by heart and the understanding of the Qur’an formed the starting-point and next came the study of Hadith, by which the proper conduct for a Muslim was ascertained. The Prophet was often questioned on matters of belief and conduct, in or outside the Mosque [41]. After the death of the Prophet, his Companions were consulted in the same way and scientific study began with the collection and arrangements of Hadiths. This process is reflected in the Hadiths themselves. According to them, even the Prophet in his lifetime was asked about Hadiths [42].

It was from the study of the Qur’an and of Hadith that a science of jurisprudence began to develop, since the principles which were to be followed by the faithful did not always come ready-made from the mere reading of scripture [43]. The college of law therefore began as a masjid and was soon joined by the khan, or hostel, for out-of-town students. The lodging place next to the masjid was especially necessary for the student of law as distinguished, for instance, from the student of Hadith. Jurisprudence was by now a science whose rudiments had to be learned over a period of years, usually four, and these usually under the direction of one master [44]. In most Madrasas and Mosques, students of law were able and often required to learn some mathematics [45]. Also certain subjects were taught in some, and in greater depth, while not in others, or at some time in history and not at another, again due to the circumstances and the local situations. At Baghdad, the Madrasa al-Mustansiryia was reserved for medicine. In Indian Madrasas, during the reign of Akbar, the syllabus included some new subjects such as agriculture, economics, civics and history [46].

Jurisconsults (experts on law) were quoted as saying that in their student days they used to repeat each law lecture fifty times or more in order to imbed it in the memory. A school exercise was developed, whereby students quizzed one another as an aid to learning their lesson and as a contest to see who knew more than the other. The term used for the exercise was mudhakara (‘calling something to mind with another, conferring with another’) [47].

However, the importance of understanding was also recognised, above all as legal studies developed, and this is the lexical meaning of the term fiqh, which comes to have the technical meaning of ‘positive law.’ This shift of emphasis to both memorisation and comprehension is illustrated by the saying that ‘learning is a city, one of whose gates is memory and the other is understanding.’ [48] After the example of the medical college of Cairo, other medical colleges required their students to pass a rigorous examination [49]. The candidate then received authority to enter into the practice of his profession [50].

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Figure 3. A sample page from the hand written manuscript of the Hajji Khalifa’s Jihannuma. Suleymaniye Library, Haci Mahmud 5616.

It is said that al-Nizamiya was the first school in which the professor received payment [51]. In one Madrasa, founded by Salah ad-Din in Egypt, the professor of law was paid forty dinars at thirteen and a third dirhams to the dinar as teacher, ten dinars for managing the property, besides sixty rotls of bread and two supplies of water daily [52]. In another school in Egypt the professor received sixty dirhams and the mu‘id forty, whilst in Ta’izz the salary was thirty dinars ninety-one and elsewhere 1000 dirhams is mentioned [53]. Ibn Jama’ah was dismissed from the post of judge but went on teaching and received 1000 dirhams [54].

In general, the masjid and the Madrasa were charitable foundations based on waqf. The founder was free to establish the one or the other type of institution. He could, in his deed of foundation, make any stipulations he wished regarding any aspect of his foundation, whether it be a masjid or a Madrasa, with only one limitation to his freedom of choice: none of his stipulations were to contravene the tenets of Islam [55]. Finance covered maintenance, the remuneration of teachers, and payment for the accommodation and food rations of students and also bursaries for those in need. Travelling students, most particularly, were catered for. In Tlemcen, Algeria, there can still be seen the old rooms for students, near the Mosque of Sidi Boumedienne [56]. Relevant here is the fact that the legal status of the Madrasa allowed the founder to retain complete control over the administrative and instructional staff of the institution, and therefore the retention of the power of patronage. For government officials, such as a wazir, it permitted him to attract the support of the rank and file through their religious leaders employed by the founder. For these men, as well as for men of lesser power, the law of waqf permitted them to place their wealth where it could be secured against confiscation [57]. The founder might impose conditions, even about the times of teaching. One laid down that the teacher must be learned in the differences of the legal schools; a man was appointed to that school but resigned because he did not fulfil that condition; another insisted that the teacher must know the Sihah of Jawhari [58].

Learning also had its objectives. Scott holds that a remarkable correspondence exists between the procedure established by those institutions and the methods of the present day [59]. They had their collegiate courses, their prizes for proficiency in scholarship, their oratorical and poetic contests, their commencements, their degrees [60]. In the department of medicine, a severe and prolonged examination, conducted by the most eminent physicians of the capital, was required of all candidates desirous of practising their profession, and such as were unable to pass the test were formally pronounced incompetent [61]. After basic undergraduate training, if he was successful and chosen by his master as a fellow, the student of law went on to graduate studies that lasted an indefinite period of time, some fellows worked as repetitors (mu‘ids) under their masters for as many as twenty years before acquiring their own professorial chair [62]. The law student was interested in obtaining an authorisation covering a field of knowledge, that of law, in one ijaza, the license to teach law and issue legal opinions, ijazat al-tadris wa’l-fatwa, which he obtained from one master-jurisconsult [63].

In conclusion, it is thus apparent that, from the time and with the inspiration of the Prophet Muhammad, the organisation of education and learning took a serious and established position within Islamic Civilisation. In whatever the discipline, Muslims were able to design structures and methods that would ensure that knowledge was passed to future generations, for further progress in the acquisition of knowledge.


[1] Al-Mubarrad, Kamil, ed. Wright, p. 171; in J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi): “Madrasa”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam; vol. 5; 1986; pp. 1123-34; at p. 1123.

[2] Al-Bukhari, bab 8, 30, 35, 42; in J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), “Madrasa”, op cit.; p. 1123.

[3] Al-Bukhari; Ilm., bab 25; op cit.

[4] Al-Bukhari; bab 7, 12.

[5] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi): “Madrasa”, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd. Ed,. p. 1123.

[6] A. L. Tibawi: Islamic Education; Luzac; London; 1972; p. 24.

[7] Ibid, p. 24.

[8] Ibid, p. 24.

[9] A. Shalaby: History of Muslim Education. Beirut: Dar Al Kashaf, 1954, p. 22.

[10] Ibn Hawqal: Kitab surat al-Ard; Vol 1; p. 136. In A. Shalaby: op cit; p. 22.

[11] Ibn Hadjar, Isaa, Cairo 1325, i, 235; in J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi): “Madrasa”, op. cit., p. 1123.

[13] I. & L. al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas; op cit.; at p. 320.

[14] A. S. Tritton: Muslim Education in the Middle Ages. London: Luzac and Co. Ltd., 1957, p. 90.

[15] Ibid, p. 90.

[16] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[17] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[18] Z. Sardar and M. W. Davies: Distorted Imagination; London: Grey Seal Books, 1990, pp. 98.

[19] Ibid, pp. 98.

[20] Al-Jahiz: Al-Bayan; Vol. 2; p.92; in A. Shalaby: History of Muslim Education; op cit.; p. 22.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Al-Ghazali: Ihya ‘ulum ad-din; iii; p. 57; A. Shalaby: History of Muslim Education; p. 22.

[23] A. Shalaby: op. cit., p. 22.

[24] A. S. Tritton: op cit.; p. 84.

[25] Yaqut, ibn-‘Abd Allah al-Hamawi: Irshad al-Arib ila Ma’rifat al-Adib, also referred to as Mu’jam al-Udaba, Dictionary of learned Men, edit., D. S. Margoliouth, Luzac, 1907 ff.; iv, pp. 272-3.

[26] Yaqut: Irshad al-Arib ila Ma’rifat al-Adib,; ii; p. 239.

[27] Z. Sardar and M.W. Davies: Distorted Imagination; op cit.; p. 98.

[28 ] Ibid, p. 98.

[29] Ibid, p. 98.

[30] A.S. Tritton: op cit.; p. 87.

[31] Ibid, p. 87.

[32] Ibid, p. 87.

[33] Ibid, p. 88.

[34] Ibid, p. 88.

[35] Ibid, p. 88.

[36] Ibid, p. 88.

[37] Ibid, p. 88.

[38] Ibid, p. 88.

[39] Z. Sardar and M.W. Davies: Distorted Imagination; op cit.; p. 98.

[40] Ibid, p. 98.

[41] Al-Bukhari; Ilm; bab 6, 52; 23, 24, 26, 46; in J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi): “Madrasa”, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd. Ed. pp. 1123-4.

[42] Al-Bukhari; bab 4, 14, 33, 50, 51, 53; in J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op. cit., pp. 1123-4.

[43] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi): “Madrasa”, ibid.

[44] Ibid, p. 1124.

[45] A. I. Sabra. “The Scientific Enterprise” in Islam and the Arab World. edited by Bernard Lewis, 1976, p. 183.

[46] S. M. Hossain: A Plea for a Modern Islamic University: Resolution of the Dichotomy, in Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education, S M al-Naquib al-Attas ed., Hodder and Stoughton; King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. 1977; pp. 91-103, p. 101.

[47] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op cit.; p. 1130.

[48] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op cit.; p. 1130.

[49] J.W. Draper: History of the Conflict; op cit.; pp. 115.

[50] Ibid, pp. 115.

[51] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[52] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[53] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[54] Ibid, pp. 90-1.

[55] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op cit; p.1128.

[56] C. Bouamrane-L. Gardet: Panorama de la pensee Islamique; Sindbad; 1-3 Rue Feutrier; Paris 18 (1984), principally chapter 10, by Louis Gardet: Notion et principe de l’education en Islam: pp. 205-226; at p. 224.

[57] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op cit; p. 1128.

[58] A.S. Tritton: Muslim Education in the Middle Ages; op cit.; pp. 91.

[59] S. P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire in Europe; Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1904, vol. 3; p. 468.

[60] Ibid, p. 468.

[61] Ibid, vol. 3; p. 468.

[62] J. Pedersen (G. Makdisi), op cit.; p. 1124.

[63] Ibid, p. 1124.

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