Schools, the Past and the Present

Throughout history, the education system has been one of the most important social institutions. It is the system that develops humans to what the government sees as fit for the functioning of society. In modern times the education system mostly follows western reforms which emphasize the hard sciences and marginalize the study of logic and religion. This article will mainly focus on Islamic schools known as madrasa, their role, and what differentiates them from the modern form of the madrasa.

In the Islamic world, the madrasa institution was a continuation of an earlier tradition known as halaqa, which translates to a loop or a circle, meaning a circle of people. This is how earlier Islamic Ulama (the learned ones) transmitted their knowledge. The halaqa involved a close relationship between the students and the ulama. Such halaqas were informal, although upon completion students sometimes received accreditation which permitted them to go on and teach. These halaqas involved qur’anic commentaries (tafsir), Prophetic transmission (hadith), logic, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, etc. Such tradition continues to this day, however, it's restricted to Islamic sciences and plays a minor role in society.

During the eighth century, the second form of education which would play a crucial political and moral role came into existence: the madrasa. The madrasa involved a waqf which would pay for the tuition, salaries and all other expenses. The waqf is a religious concept consisting of the donation of land for the sake of God. These lands were used for hospitals, food kitchens, water fountains, madrasa and much more. Such financing methods allowed madrasas to be relatively independent of the state, although the ruling dynasties did provide some waqfs. The madrasa, which operated like a school, would produce the legal jurist as well as the scientist. It taught grammar, astronomy, math, etc. The madrasa even provided primary education.

We must remember that in premodernity, the rulers could not penetrate society as they lacked the modern bureaucratic apparatus. This is because of several factors such as that usually the ruling dynasty were foreigners, didn’t speak the language, their reign was short term, etc. As such, they had to gain people's loyalty by appealing to the ulama, who were linked to the madrasas. They would fund them with waqfs and try to abide by their sharia/legal rulings. This created an equilibrium. As Wael Halaq states, “an equilibrium did exist between the men of the sword and those of the law: the ruling elite received the cooperation of the scholars and their promotion of its legitimacy, while the scholars received a salary, protection, and the full right to apply the law as they saw fit.”

Unlike the modern education system, the curriculum wasn’t developed by the state nor unified. Instead, most madrasa organically grew by assimilating the Islamic and ancient sciences. However, it must be noted that the ruling class did emphasize a particular sect over the other, but as all are Islamic, they shared the same spirit. The madrasa played a significant role in keeping morality and constraining politics. However, it slowly disintegrated as it became formalized and centralized, until it became somewhat of a political tool. However, it never reached the intrusiveness of modern education, which involved complete centrality and the production of a loyal citizen with morning national anthems, heroic history, and many other methods. For a more thorough exposition of the madrasa, refer to the book “Sharī'a: Theory, Practice, Transformations” by Wael Hallaq.