The Madrassa of Al-Qarawiyyin

by Kyle Perra

Education surely has been, and hopefully forever will be, a main concern for the human race. Since even before the beginnings of what we could call civilizations, people have sought out knowledge in hopes to better understand themselves and the world in which we live. Being that education is as important as it is, there has always been much debate over what the best teaching method may be. While everyone seems to have their own ideas and interpretations of this method, it would be most intelligent to turn to history instead for that answer. I believe that I have found that answer in the world’s oldest continually operating university. The Madrassa (educational institution) of Al-Qarawiyyin, also known by its westernized name, Al Karaouine, was founded in 859 C.E. as a religious university which I believe attests to its lengthy duration. However, there are many that consider religious universities to be flawed in their pedagogy and, more recently, even dangerous for the rest of the world. Such universities and, more importantly for this essay, those which are tied in with the Islamic religion, have been under great speculation recently for the supposed teachings of dangerous and hateful ideas towards western society. It will be the point of my essay to educate naysayers of religious teaching on the Madrassa Model as a whole, in hopes that their better understanding of the subject will lead them away from stereotypes. Moreover, I will explain how a student’s understanding and dedication to the sacred does absolutely nothing but further enable knowledge acquisition. Through these arguments I will also show that knowledge and the sacred are largely inseparable.

For well over twelve hundred years now, Al-Qarawiyyin has been in operation as both a place of worship and higher education. The mosque as a whole is of the typical madrassa style as it is greatly distinctive in its architecture, which has been changed a few times within its lengthy existence. The mosque itself also has an interesting beginning, which sheds light on some on the great benefits of being a part of the Islam society during this time period. The madrassa was founded in 859 C.E. as previously mentioned, in Fez, Morocco by a young princess, Fatima Al-Fihiri. The young princess migrated to Fez with her father, Mohammad Al-Fihiri, from a town named Qairawan (present day Tunisia). Mohammad Al-Fihiri was known as a successful businessman and, at the time of his death, passed along a great fortune to Fatima and her sister, Mariam. Both sisters were believed to have been well educated, as is typical in Muslim society, and decided the best way to spend their inheritance would be the building of a large mosque in their new hometown. They decided to name the mosque Al-Qairawaniyyin, which was slowly shortened to Al Qarawiyyin due to the fact that many people of their old city Qairawan now resided with them in Fez. Originally the mosque was built of only medium size when compared to its sister madrassas which were mainly on the eastern half of what was known as the Greater Middle East. From the mosque’s history, we are able to see that women played a large role in many factors of Muslim life and the fact that the two sisters were even able to be educated attests to the greater amount of equality within Muslim society. Also interesting, when considering the history of Al-Qarawiyyin, is the devotion that people had towards education. These two sisters could have spent that money for their own personal gain, but chose to better their society’s educational prospects instead. Fatima and Mariam were also not alone in their contributions, as various sultans did not delay in providing the mosque with subsidies, gifts and sometimes with treasures, especially books.

After its completion, Al-Qarawiyyin quickly developed into a place of religious instruction and political debate, gradually extending its curriculum to include the natural sciences as well. Among the subjects taught, alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh, were courses on grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography and even music. The great variety of topics that were able to be deeply explored quickly drew in scholars from the entirety of the Muslim world, which was quite huge during this period. Eventually the number of applicants became so overwhelming that the university had to introduce a much more rigorous selection system than it previously had which included many things, but primarily required a completion of learning the entire Quran. This rigorous system did not go to waste, as Al-Qarawiyyin quickly attained prestigious fame for producing a number of high profile scholars and pioneer scholars: Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti, Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, Ibn Maimun (Maimonids), and Al-Idrissi. Sources also list a number of peers such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan, all said to have all taught in Al-Qarawiyyin.

A university with such a high number of scholars who would inevitably shake the foundation of the world over with their treatises, experiments and conclusions surely had a great pedagogy and there were many factors to the madrassa model that would inevitably demand its fame for teaching. The madrassa model was also very distinct at the time of its creation for not just being heavily involved with spirituality and the sacred, but also for having almost its entire curriculum based on the teachings of such. This is where the madrassas gain most of their negative speculation, however I believe that this is where the madrassas also gain most of their benefits.

There are many strengths, alongside with having your education based on religious devotion, a few of which I will be addressing in this paper. First and foremost, the enthusiasm and determination in which Muslim students place upon their education is completely outstanding when compared to students in an educational system without religious devotion. This is because of many things, but primarily because of what the entirety of the Muslim religion is all about: a person’s submission to god. A submission to god requires many things within the Muslim religion, one of them being a devotion to the acquisition of knowledge. Before a Muslim student can even begin their path towards higher education, that same student must first go through the basic and elementary teachings of the Quran. The Quran will eventually become the students guide book to life not only in a moral sense, but also in an educational one when considering many upper division classes use the Quran as their textbook. It is only after the student has mastered the Quran and its verses that this student may then begin their application process to one of the many mosques that involve themselves higher education. When a student is put in a classroom and is asked to participate in the enhancement of their knowledge it is surely beneficial to have sufficient reasoning. This is exactly where institutions without religious devotion severely lack behind the madrassa model, for it is the initial focus of the student that will lead to their better acquisition of knowledge. This is why parents are always so greatly connected to the educational system, for without religious devotion it becomes the parent’s job to encourage their children to sit in a classroom all day when they could be involving themselves in the simple pleasures of childhood. When you are able to connect education to the purpose of someone’s existence, it surely makes a great impact on that person’s thinking. Children within Muslim society quickly learn of the necessity of their devotion to God and when it states in a person’s guidebook to life, like the Quran is for these Muslim children, that a person must educate themselves, they gain an initial enthusiasm which will push them to surpass those without it. This kind of determination is key to the success of the madrassa model and can also be shown within many factors of it. For example, a Muslim child reads the Quran and follows the society in which he or she was born into. This same child eventually succeeds into higher education and performs their devotion to God. Now that this person has followed through with their education, they many now go into one or many of the several working positions of the Muslim society. For the purpose of this example, let’s say this person decides to become a teacher. Now we have the initial factor – children who believe they are doing God’s work by receiving education, and we have a secondary factor – the teacher who believes in the same submission to God. Both of these factors can only be benefited by their respective enthusiasm and determination, thusly leading to just one of the many great strengths of the madrassa system.

Now that we have both students and teachers essentially working with the enthusiasm one might work with when considering the entirety of one’s purpose, the madrassa model can really start to pick up pace. This initial enthusiasm to submit one’s self to god, which as I have shown eventually leads to the enthusiasm in everything a Muslim person might do, only benefits virtually every factor of Muslim education. The required completion and understanding of the Quran in its self can also be shown as a benefit to the Madrassa Model. It is widely known today that a person’s reading is directly relevant to that same person’s intelligence. It is through this and the idea of cognitive development that the madrassas of Al-Qarawiyyin’s time period were able to gain the interest of Professor Glenn Hardaker of the University of Huddersfield. Professor Hardaker took note of how, “The level of memorization that students can achieve and the importance of orality in transmitting the sacred text underpin the teaching. For example, a typical student of al-Qarawiyyin is able to memorise a page of text in approximately five minutes.” This is an incredibly remarkable task that was likely only possible during the period in which Al-Qarawiyyin was first constructed by the methods of the madrassa model. Professor Hardaker went on to explain that, “Our observations found that Islamic pedagogy shares many similarities with the cognitive perspective to learning theory… Chomsky (1962) claimed that higher learning could only be achieved through a combination of conditioning and the internal mental state of the learner, which, he argued, should also be analyzed and understood. This view is extended by research into cognitive learning styles that also identifies the increasing importance of cultural sensitivity (Evans and Cools, 2009). The notion of ‘conditioning’ and ‘cultural sensitivity’ can also be seen in the context of the educational environment of al-Qarawiyyin, where pedagogic strategies for influencing the internal mental state of the learner are adopted.” Alongside this, the separation from the modern environment in Fez, Morocco completely compliments these ideas of ‘conditioning’ and the ‘internal mental state of the learner’ both physically and spiritually. It is physically supported through Al-Qarawiyyin’s lasting architecture, which for example does not allow automobile access. It is supported spiritually through how “classes are scheduled around the five daily prayers, and the call to prayer (adhan) sets the rhythm of the day.” This type of approach on education also reflects the importance of the cognitive learning theory. Professor Hardaker shows this by mentioning how, “al- Qarawiyyin supports the belief of knowledge and the sacred through the daily recitation of the Qur’an from sunset or maghrib prayer. For some the education of the day is reinforced by the continual recitation of the Qur’an… The cognitive perspective adopted by many educationalists has similar constructs of importance and for some an acceptance of spiritual belief playing an important part in the cognitive learning process. The concept of self-efficacy, a learner’s belief that they can positively take action to manage a situation, was central to the development of the theory. In our experience at al- Qarawiyyin we felt that the institution’s pedagogical model provides a unique insight into such an application, in particular, through memorization and the potential for the embodiment of knowledge.” Al-Qarawiyyin’s unique construct and the entirety of the madrassa model surely thusly can be shown to greatly improve a student’s perception, attention, memory, language and thinking; all a part of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps one of the greatest parts about the madrassa model’s ability to develop a student’s cognitive skills is that the development of those skills were likely started at a very early age. Furthermore, this cognitive ability would have already been at least slightly developed by the time the student went into higher education as the recitation of the Quran is required for the madrassas that dealt with higher education. Considering this, it can be assumed that when a Muslim student was deemed ready for higher education, that same student had the determination of his life goal carrying him and his cognitive ability was at least slightly matured. This brings us to the next strength of the madrassa model, which is simply the madrassa’s basic format: the Halaqat al-‘Ilm (Halaqa for short).

The Halaqa was and still is today possibly the most distinctive part of the madrassa model. Halaqa, which can literally be defined as ‘a gathering of people seated in a circle,’ or ‘a gathering of students around a teacher,’ was essential to the means of a Muslim education. The ‘study circle’ as it is sometimes referred to, has many strengths behind it and was possibly one of the greatest reasons as to why Muslims dominated education during the time of Al-Qarawiyyin’s initial construction. Part of this is because of the close connection between the students and their teacher. Firstly, the environment is obviously extremely informal, allowing both the students and the teachers to feel more at ease. This informal environment was essential to the pedagogy of Muslim education, as much of what was taught was taught through debate. Allowing both the teachers and students to be more at ease would insure that these debates not be quiet by any means and, “Although the teachers were in charge of the Halaqas, the students were allowed – in fact, encouraged – to challenge and correct the teacher, often in heated exchange.” Knowing that a person wouldn’t be discouraged then for their comments or questions surely led to a strong teacher-student connection. This brings us to the second strength of these Halaqas – these teachers were likely greatly respected by their students. Especially at a young age, the teacher becomes an instant role model for their students, whether they like it or not. Everything that teacher therefore does will reflect directly upon to the students. Considering this, I cannot think of a stronger bond than that of a teacher and student, other than those of family. When you add that type of bond to the enthusiasm in which both persons are reacting, something truly special must have been created. Such relationships were a standard for the madrassa model and when such a relationship is used educationally, the possibilities surely must be endless. Students would automatically be more at ease, which in turn relaxes the teacher. With the teacher relaxed, discussions go more smoothly. When students are more at ease they are more likely to speak their mind, resulting in more advanced and complete discussions. When these same students speak their mind, their vocational skills mature and the cycle continues. All of this complimented by the fact that both teacher and student believe they are acting upon God’s will, and such an act is the purpose of their life – the submission to God.

Such a system continued itself into our own present day, giving us with the longest continually operating educational institution of the world. But could anyone be surprised that such a solid pedagogy became what it is today, for I surely am not. However there are still those naysayers who don’t believe such a system should be acknowledged for its accomplishments and there are still those who believe that it’s nothing but dangerous to teach opinions of how to live as absolute fact. I might agree with the latter, but not with the Muslim religion. Furthermore, I would point out of any of the Ten Commandments can be found in multiple places of the Quran. Therefore, if these Muslim schools have no place teaching religious items as absolute fact then neither do the Christian ones of the western world. Also, to those who would mention that knowledge and the sacred should simply be separate of each other, I would say that their separation is clearly impossible. Although there are those who have completely de-sacrilized knowledge after being formed as such by modernization, “the root and essence of knowledge continues to be inseparable from the sacred for the very substance of knowledge is the knowledge of that reality which is the Supreme Substance, the Sacred as such, compared to which all levels of existence and all forms of the manifold are but accidents.” Considering that intelligence is the tool of man towards knowledge, and that intelligence can also and is also used every day to try to define the Absolute, I must inevitably find them inseparable. Regardless of this idea, I believe it must be allowed, for not only Al-Qarawiyyin but by all religious universities, that such universities exercise their own pedagogy. For that of Al-Qarawiyyin and the rest of the madrassa model, I believe the system by which they teach their students must be recognized firstly by its unprecedented success. Furthermore, the religious aspect of the madrassa model must be recognized solely by its ability to inspire not just students but the entirety of that educational system.

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