How did Islam shape education and schools?

ISLAM places a high value on education, and, as the faith spread among diverse peoples, education became an important channel through which to create a universal and cohesive social order. By the middle of the 9th Century, knowledge was divided into three categories: The Islamic sciences, the philosophical and natural sciences (Greek knowledge), and the literary arts.

Centuries later, philosophers and theorists attempted to rationalise the aims of education. They have various positions about the aims and functions of education. Siegel et al on the Philosophy of Education published in the 2018 Winter Edition of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, compiled and shortened this list to the following – production of knowledge and knowledgeable students, fostering of curiosity and inquisitiveness, the enhancement of understanding, the enlargement of the imagination, the civilising of students, the fostering of rationality and/or autonomy and the development in students of care, concern and associated dispositions and attitudes.

However, in the attempt to describe these aims, these authors found that they may not be mutually exclusive or exhaustive or even agreeable for many. As is with many philosophical issues, there is no one right answer.

Early Muslim education emphasised practical studies, such as the application of technological expertise to the development of irrigation systems, architectural innovations, textiles, iron and steel products, earthenware, and leather products; the manufacture of paper and gunpowder; the advancement of commerce; and the maintenance of a merchant marine.

The system of education in the Muslim world was unintegrated and undifferentiated. Learning took place in a variety of institutions, among them were the halaqah, or study circle; the maktab (kuttab), or elementary school; the palace schools; bookshops and literary salons; and the various types of colleges, the meshed, the masjid, and the madrasa. All the schools taught essentially the same subjects.

The simplest type of early Muslim education was offered in the mosques, where scholars who had congregated to discuss the Quran began before long to teach the religious sciences to interested adults. Mosques increased in number under the caliphs, particularly the ‘Abbasids: 3,000 of them were reported in Baghdad alone in the first decades of the 10th Century; as many as 12,000 were reported in Alexandria in the 14th Century, most of them with schools attached. Some mosques—such as that of al-Mansur, built during the reign of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, or those in Isfahan, Mashhad, Ghom, Damascus, Cairo, and the Alhambra (Granada)—became centres of learning for students from all over the Muslim world.

Muslim pupils wearing hijabs study at the Ganjoni Primary School in Mombasa, coastal Kenya. – AFP

Elementary schools (maktab, or kuttab), in which pupils learnt to read and write, date to the pre-Islamic period in the Arab world. After the advent of Islam, these schools developed into centres for instruction in elementary Islamic subjects. Students were expected to memorise the Quran as perfectly as possible. Some schools also included in their curriculum the study of poetry, elementary arithmetic, penmanship, ethics (manners), and elementary grammar. Maktabs were quite common in almost every town or village in the Middle East, Africa, Sicily, and Spain.

The high degree of learning and scholarship in Islam, particularly during the ‘Abbasid period in eastern Islam and the later Umayyads in western Islam, encouraged the development of bookshops, copyists, and book dealers in large, important Islamic cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, and Córdoba. Scholars and students spent many hours in these bookshop schools browsing, examining, and studying available books or purchasing favourite selections for their private libraries. Book dealers travelled to famous bookstores in search of rare manuscripts for purchase and resale to collectors and scholars and thus contributed to the spread of learning. Many such manuscripts found their way to private libraries of famous Muslim scholars such as Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi, who in turn made their homes centres of scholarly pursuits for their favourite students.

The contribution of these institutions to the advancement of knowledge was vast. Muslim scholars calculated the angle of the ecliptic; measured the size of the Earth; calculated the precession of the equinoxes; explained, in the field of optics and physics, such phenomena as refraction of light, gravity, capillary attraction, and twilight; and developed observatories for the empirical study of heavenly bodies. They made advances in the uses of drugs, herbs, and foods for medication; established hospitals with a system of interns and externs; discovered causes of certain diseases and developed correct diagnoses of them; proposed new concepts of hygiene; made use of anesthetics in surgery with newly innovated surgical tools; and introduced the science of dissection in anatomy. They furthered the scientific breeding of horses and cattle; found new ways of grafting to produce new types of flowers and fruits; introduced new concepts of irrigation, fertilisation, and soil cultivation; and improved upon the science of navigation. In the area of chemistry, Muslim scholarship led to the discovery of such substances as potash, alcohol, nitrate of silver, nitric acid, sulphuric acid, and mercury chloride. It also developed to a high degree of perfection the arts of textiles, ceramics, and metallurgy.

The article was adapted from – MoE