The history of education in Islam, both formal and informal, provides a rich insight into how and why the system developed and progressed as it did, while also revealing its underlying social and moral aims.
This article will briefly outline education in Islam in the historical and cultural settings in which its theory, system, aims and purpose evolved.
As far back as the dawning of the seventh century C.E., Muslims understood education as being a life-long process within the system of Islam.
In fact, the Qur’an stresses the importance of knowledge (‘ilm) more than 750 times, making this the third most-frequent Qur’anic term after Allah (God), which occurs 2,800 times, and Rabb (Lord) which is used 950 times.
This fact alone affirms the central importance of the Islamic intellectual tradition. The first word of the Qur’an (91:1) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad was also related to the acquisition of knowledge. It was the imperative (command) “iqra,” which means “read” and “recite,” carrying the implication, “do it!”
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) actively encouraged Muslims to seek education as evidenced by the Sunnah (the collected customary practices and sayings of the Prophet): “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” for “it is an obligation on every Muslim (male and female)” (Ibn Majah).
Education in the context of Islam means “the whole world of the intellect” that engages the interest of Muslims more than anything else in their communities.
The importance of education in early Muslim societies and building of the basic learning system of these societies became almost universal. It was this great literality that Muslims displayed in educating their people in the schools which was one of the most potent factors in the brilliant and rapid growth of their civilization. Education was so universally diffused that it was said to be difficult to find a Muslim who could not read or write.
During the time of Prophet Muhammad (S) and of his four successors (the Khulafa), the essentials of Islamic education were established in the mosque (masjid), which played a very important role in the spread of education among early communities of Muslims. These special buildings were the “first schools in Islam.”
The basic format of mosque education was the study circle, better known in Islamic pedagogy as halaqat al-‘Ilm, or in brief, halaqah, which was portrayed by the Prophet’s Companions, who would sit around him listening as he expounded upon sacred texts and scriptures. Similarly, the Encyclopaedia of Islam defines halaqah (transliterated as halqa) as “a gathering of people seated in a circle,” or “gathering of students around a teacher.” The teacher usually seated himself on a cushion against a wall or pillar, while the audience formed a circle in front of him.
In the circles of learned men, usually held in mosques, discourse, questions and answers were the received method. The halaqah format was very simple: on its floor sat preachers and teachers surrounded by adults and children seeking learning and instruction.
For this reason, the mosque is considered the first and the oldest institution of learning par excellence and a natural development of the Masjid.
There were two types of mosques. The first is the congregational or jami’ mosque, with halaqahs (study circles) where “various Islamic sciences were taught.” The second type of mosque functioned more as an Islamic college. Such mosques, dating mostly from the period 800 to 900 C.E., were used for the teaching and learning of Islamic sciences and essential ancillary subjects, including grammar, philology and literature. This was all in place even before the advent of the madrasah.
It is fair to say that the Qur’an was the first textbook of Islamic education and that the close association of Qur’an and mosque remained one of the most influential characteristics of Islamic education throughout history. In the mosques, Tafsir, critical interpretation – or “exegesis” – of the Qur’an and Sunnah became the standard pedagogical method.
It is clear from many references in both historical and modern-era literature, that besides being a place for worship, the mosque was the main center of learning for both men — and women — throughout early Islamic history.
Thus whenever or wherever teachings of Islam were established, mosques were established simultaneously with the initiation of basic education. As mosques developed into places of learning some would attract hundreds, even thousands, of students, as was the case with Cordoba Mosque and University in Spain, founded in 785 C.E. Similarly famous were the Qarawiyyin Mosque and University in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 C.E.; the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, founded in 972 C.E.; and many other advanced Islamic institutions throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe.
The impact of the mosque circles on their local communities was obvious. The life that evolved in the mosques spread outward to put its marks upon influential circles everywhere. While mosque education focused at first on one or more sciences of Islam and literary arts, after the mid-ninth century C.E. (when Islam had been established for some three centuries), these early educational institutions devoted an increasing proportion of their curricula to the legal sciences, as was the case with the Cordoba, Qarawiyyin and Al-Azhar mosques.
As well as expanding beyond the study of scripture and theology and branching out into legal sciences, advanced Islamic education soon embraced subjects such as philosophy, grammar, chemistry, physics, arithmetic, algebra and geometry. This absorption of classical traditions set the pattern for educational instruction during subsequent centuries, leading to a gradual transformation from the simple halaqah study circles to the growth of more formal madaris (singular = madrasah) at the end of the 10th century C.E. (fourth century A.H).
In the changing world of the 10th and 11th centuries C.E., the more formalized and rigorous madrasah system met new challenges and demanded for more advanced learning. It should be noted, however, that for a long time there was much overlapping between the halaqah and madrasah. Despite the growth of madaris (plural of madrasah) and other educational institutions over the course of Islamic history, the local mosque retained its community educational function and this remains so, even down to the present day.
The continuing evolution of Islamic educational institutions is obvious now at the dawn of the 21st century, especially in the West where Muslims from across the globe have devoted their resources and energies into establish institutions that adhere to core Islamic principles of faith, while at the same time undergoing continual reformation within changing social contexts – a challenging but rewarding task!