MADRASAHS

The madrasah tradition is one of the most ancient, rich and fascinating traditions of the Muslim world. Madrasahs, which are traditional centres of Islamic study and teaching, are these days often only talked about in conversations about Muslim extremists and terrorism. In reality, they are part of a broader and much more complex tradition which deserves thorough exploration in its own right. 

Historians are not entirely sure of the exact date of the first madrasah [1] but we can say with certainty that they would have first appeared around 1,000 years ago.[2]  Madrasahs are basically schools that focus on teaching their students about Islam, often alongside other kinds of learning. The first madrasahs began to appear in Baghdad in the 11th century. These medieval schools were originally geared towards the teaching f Islamic law, or fiqh. They were not overspecialized or unchanging centres of learning, however, and over time they expanded to also offer training not only in the study of the hadith but also in philosophy and logic.[3]  

People tend to like to compare the madrasahs of the Islamic world to the universities that flourished historically all around Europe. It is true that there are a number of similarities between the two. In the same way that the traditional European university was a place where students could learn a varied array of subjects, madrasahs had diverse program offerings and taught students a wide range of topics. Within the madrasah, traditional religious topics such as Quranic studies, Islamic law, theology, and the study of the hadith were labeled “traditionally transmitted” subjects. In contrast, topics like logic, philosophy, astronomy and arithmetic fell under the umbrella of the “rational sciences”.[4] 

 

At the same time, there were some important differences between the traditional madrasah and the traditional university. According to some historians, one of the most interesting of these differences has to do with how these places of learning helped create and support a feeling of community and belonging for their students.[5]  In the Muslim world, all Muslims were brought together in unity by their faith. Each and every Muslim felt strongly that they were part of the larger devout population, in the way that one might feel part of a nation’s citizenry. In contrast, some scholars argue, there was no all-encompassing force like this in Europe. Because Europeans didn’t feel part of an obvious community, they looked to their universities to create a feeling of community and belonging. In a way, they thought of universities as tiny countries, in which each student became a citizen. Meanwhile, students in the madrasahs already saw themselves to be citizens of Muslim society. This meant that madrasahs were important for much more practical reasons: they were valued within Islamic culture because they provided an actual, physical building where locals could gather and learn together.[6] 

 

Madrasahs can adopt a formal role within the community – this was true both historically and today. For example, they are the schools where ulamas, or Muslim legal scholars, are trained.[7] Ulamas are central and fairly elite figures within the Muslim community, sometimes known as the “heirs of the prophet”.[8] The madrasahs, however, do not only serve the ulamas but also the populace at large. This is truer now than ever before. 

 

In the Middle Ages, rather than there being one central madrasah, there were lots of separate, locally-based schools. The leaders within each of these schools were able to run things entirely as they wished, and had a certain amount of control over how they worked within the community.[9] At the same time, madrasahs were elite schools funded by wealthy locals and mostly designed to serve wealthy rather than disadvantaged people. As a result, not everyone, least of all the poor, had access to the resources of the madrasah.[10] 

 

All of this eventually changed as a result of the British rule established through colonialism. English became the official language within the madrasahs and their curriculum and teachings changed somewhat to reflect British education. Later, when local communities began to resist colonialism and reject the influence of the English, there was a movement to undercut the influence of the madrasahs’ wealthy supporters. Instead, the leaders of the schools began to branch out into poorer and more rural areas to recruit new support.[11]  

 

Thanks to this trend, madrasahs are, more than ever, spread across a wide territory and a broad network. As a result, many madrasahs today are able to provide support, resources and education to people who might otherwise be quite isolated, even from the government and official authorities.[12] They are a space in which important human bonds are formed: whereas teaching in mainstream schools in Britain is based on coursework, exams and marks, certification in the madrasah system is much more about the unique and personal relationship between the teacher and the student.[13] And while much of the mainstream media talks about madrasahs as places where Muslims are taught to embrace extremist views, the close relationships that madrasahs encourage between students and teachers more often play an extremely positive role in society. It is in madrasahs that many children who might not otherwise have the opportunity are able to learn to read. In many cases, madrasahs even provide housing to orphans and other young people who cannot afford it.[14]

 

The madrasah tradition dates back to the time of the Dark Ages in Europe; throughout all these thousand years, madrasahs have changed and adapted fluidly to suit the needs of the community. At this point, there are tens of thousands of madrasahs with millions of students all around the globe,[15] so it is virtually impossible to try to say what all of them are like. What can be said is that they are an extremely important part of Muslim culture, close to the heart of even the most remote Muslim community, and capable of providing an extremely positive support system to people across all levels of society. 

 
 

 [1] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
 [2] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
 [3] Ibid.
 [4] Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41.2 (April 1999) 294-323. 
 [5] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41.2 (April 1999) 294-323.
[8] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[14] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
[15] Ibid.