Ex Oriente Lux: Madrasa, the First Universities

Tower of Al-Azhar university and minaret of Al-Hussein mosque
Imam Mohammed abdou Amphitheatre of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. © Leonid Andronov | Dreamstime.com

Islam values knowledge and the struggle to attain it extremely highly. “Say, ‘My Lord, increase me in knowledge.’” [Quran, 20:114] “Say, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ Only they will remember who are people of understanding.” [Quran 39:9] That is why the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student from the very beginning of Islam was so important.

The spread of knowledge through the creation of educational institutions began in Muslim countries hundreds of years before such institutions appeared in Europe. In terms of wealth and abundance of knowledge, Muslim countries far exceeded those of European. Europeans would turn to the East in their quest to discover the secrets of science. Compared to the enlightened East, the Western empire of Charlemagne looked like a dark barbarian state, which took several more centuries to get anywhere near the standards of Muslim education and scientific schools. The Golden Age of Islam under the Abbasid caliphs (750-950) can be safely called the Golden Age of Muslim education.

The Prophet taught at a mosque in Medina, it was the first university in history or the ‘madrasa’. About 30 out of 93 of his companions, who had no families and livelihoods, constantly lived under the canopy of this mosque. They were called “ashab al-sufa” (“people of the canopy”). Among the “people of the canopy” were the subsequently famous hadith narrators, such as Abu Huraira, or the first muezzins, such as Bilal, and many, many others. These were the first students in history.

The disciples wrote down the Prophet’s words and memorized the verses of the Quran and hadiths, so that later they would be reported to those who were absent. They learned the basics of Islam, so that later they could carry it to the remote corners of the Arab world.

The oldest of the existing universities is Al-Qarawiyyin University. It was founded in 859 in the city of Fes (Morocco) by the daughter of the wealthy merchant Fatima al-Fihri. It consisted of several faculties (kulliya), specializing in different fields of knowledge. But the main difference between medieval madrasas and modern-day universities was that in madrasas the study of all applied sciences (astronomy, mathematics, etc.) was subordinate to the study of Islamic sciences (hadithology, sharia and fiqh, etc.). Later, when Western-type educational institutions began to offer an in-depth study of the exact sciences, Muslim educational institutions focused only on the Islamic sciences (such as, for example, the modern universities of Al-Qarawiyyin or Al-Azhar).

Earlier, the University of Cordoba in Spain was founded (786). He was so famous that many Christians came here to study. For example, Pope Sylvester II entered the University of Cordoba in 999 and graduated in 1003. Cordoba University was part of the complex of the Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba and was abolished in 1263 after the mosque was converted into a Christian cathedral by the Castilian King Ferdinand III.Another one of the numerous examples is Madrasa Rab-e Rashidi – the first Azerbaijani university, the centre of sciences, philosophy and medicine founded by chief minister of Khan Gazan (1295-1304) Rashidaddin Hamadani. Rashid al-Tabib (‘doctor Rashid’ as he was commonly known) gathered in this University the crème de la crème of the Oriental scientific world of that time. Young men from all corners of the Arabian and Persian world (Iran, Egypt, Syria) and even from China flocked to the Madrasa to receive the best education imaginable at the time. The Rab-e Rashidi complex was very similar to modern campuses, it had its own paper factory, library, hospital (dar al-shafa), the Quranic centre (dar al-Quran), residential homes for teachers, student quarters, a large caravansaray (canteen). Unfortunately, the Rab-e Rashidi Madrasa did not survive until our times, it came into decay under Shah Abbas already (beginning of the 17th century). But at the time in question the Madrasa was the most advanced scientific establishment which was the benchmark of Islamic sciences for the world.

Universities would be ubiquitous in the East, springing up in all major cities of the Arab, Persian and later Turkish world, setting example for the Christian West and bringing the Light of Islam and science into the world. The reinstatement of this pattern is a good possibility in our times because clearly the Light of Islam is a thing that will shine forever.

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