University of Oxford

Educate the Masses, Lessons from Islamic History



A deeper study of the history of the nations reveals that the most effective factor in the rise of a nation is education. The capability to acquire knowledge elevates status of human beings above all other creatures. The creator of the universe taught Adam (AA-Aali Assalaman: Peace Be Upon Him) the knowledge about his creation and advised the angles to prostrate him as token of their submission. This is the secret of superiority of human race. Every human being should realize that he is capable to harness universal powers and conquer the forces of nature if he educates himself.

The source of unlimited knowledge is Allah. There are channels of knowledge from Him. Direct knowledge through his messages which is termed as knowledge of the Book (Kitab). And the wisdom (Hikmah) which shows us how to gain knowledge from the universe.

The knowledge of the book is categorized as religious science while the knowledge gained through wisdom and research is the natural science. The religious science gives answers to the fundamental questions such as purpose of life,the beginning and the end of the universe and teaches us the best morals. Through the natural sciences we learn how the systems of the universe are working and how can we facilitate our life on earth.

The very first educators of human being were the prophets who taught the skills for a successful eternal life. The last of them, Prophet Muhammad (SA-Sallaho Alaihe Wassalam: Peace and Blessing of Allah Be Upon Him) started teaching the verses of Quran as were being revealed to him. The first school of Islam was established in the house of one of his companion, Arkam (RA- Radi Alah Ho Anho: May Allah be pleased with him) on the hill of Safa in Makkah at the early stages of the relevations.

The process of education continued till Muslim migrated to Madina and the first Islamic state was established there. Here the first residential school was established on a platform (Sufa) inside the Masjid-e-Nabvi.

The very first scholars of Islam were educated here. They were the pioneers in spreading of Islam. Once the Holy Prophet (SA) enters the Masjid and observes two groups. One is busy in praying and supplications while the other is engaged in scholarly discussions. He (SA) joins the second group. It is a clear and practical proof that Islam encourages seeking knowledge through discussions and arguments. The Holy Prophet (SA) deputed the non- Muslim prisoners of the battle of Badr to teach reading and writing skills to the Muslims. A prisoner was released when he successfully taught ten persons. Since the mission of the Prophet (SA) was to propagate the word of Allah, he used all available means to accomplish this mission. The skills of reading and writing is necessary to record, preserve and spread knowledge. He (SA) encouraged his companion to gain knowledge even if they have to travel to the place as far as China. These instructions encouraged Muslims to gather knowledge of natural sciences along with the religious science.

In another saying Holy Prophet (SA) declared that acquiring knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim man and woman. This commandment broke down the barriers which allowed access of knowledge to some privileged groups and denied access to less fortunate ones including woman. Because of such emphasis on seeking knowledge, the early Muslims did acquire all kind of knowledge religiously. It was a common faith and a common language which helped spread Islam to almost half of know world during the caliphate of Omar (RA). Under his instructions, a Maktib was established in the Masjid. Here reading and writing was taught along with the Islamic education. Maktab is an Arabic word used for the place of writing. It is also used for modern day office. Word Like (Kitab) Book and Maktaba (Library) have the same root.Sooner these institutions were established throughout Islamic world and brought an educational revolution. During the period of Khalifa Omar (RA), memorization of Sura Al-Baqra, Nisa, Al-Maid and Al-Hajj were encouraged and recited in prayers. In these chapters of Quran, the basis of Islamic laws are explained. The long recitations in the morning and evening prayers in a Masjid is nothing less than the heavenly lectures  of All- Knower delivered through Imam (Leader) and listened by the students with full attention. The Masjid and Maktab system is financed by the government a well as by the individuals. Every well to do Muslim tries to gain perpetual reward by building Masjid and Maktab. It was because of these institutions that the literacy rate in Muslim areas like Spain raised to hundred percent in short period of time at the time when the remaining Europe was in dark ages.

In accordance with Quranic principle,Muslims are allowed to eat whatsoever they like, do what they want to do and gain knowledge of every kind until and unless the limits set in Quran are not crossed. This concept opened their minds to accept knowledge about all creations of the Creator. This freedom inspired Muslims to travel to far off places and collected knowledge beneficial to humanity. This knowledge was inslamized and was taught in the Maktab schools inside Masjid. At initial stage there was no discrimination in religious sciences and natural sciences.Both were taught inside Masjid. Arithmetic was must for calculations of the zakat, inheritance and to conduct business. The knowledge of geography was required for determination of the direction of Makkah.

Children from both genders were admitted at an early age. Education was free for all. Various subjects were taught in the study circles called Halqas. The central Masjid of Cairo had one hundred study circles. The teacher used to sit on chair from where the term “Chairman” was developed which is being used till today. Research “Chair” in modern day universities has the same Muslim root.

The teachers were appointed either by the Caliph (Khalifa) or by a committee of Scholars. A student who had learned reading and writing skills could specialize in the subject of his interest. He could learn the science of Tafseer (Explanation of Quran), Science of Hadith (Sayings of Prophet (SA)), Islamic Law, Fiqah, Language, Astronomy, Mathematics or etc.

The successful students from the Maktab schools entered the Madrassa which was normally attached to the Masjid. Word Madrassa is derived from the Arabic word “Dars” meaning lecture. Hence lectures on specialized subjects were delivered by the renowned professors in the madrassas. These madrassas are equivalent to the collages of modern age. As these are attached to the Masjid, these are supported by the same system of Islamic Trust (Waqf). The Arabic language played a vital role in transferring knowledge to the artisans. Muslims classified knowledge and defined pure and applied sciences. As the knowledge of engineering is based on mathematical science, it is called “Hindsa”. The medical knowledge is more associated with wisdom and hence is called “Hikma”. The basic technical knowledge and skills were taught by the professionals of the relevant fields. The degree was awarded by the professors.

In 1066 AD, Nizam-ul-Mulk, a minister of the caliphate founded Nizamia system of educational institutions which soon became popular throughout the Muslim world and survived for a millennium. Great imam Ghazzali was a professor at one of those institutions.

In 1231 AD, the first medical college was established in Damascus.In 15th century AD, huge complexes consisting of a Masjid with Maktab, a Madrassa, a hospital, a public kitchen and a dining hall became a common sight in the Muslim world. Such a complex was called Kulliya (College). These institutions revolutionized the higher education. As recorded by the great Muslim traveller, Ibn Batuta, not only education was free but food and medical facilities were also provided by the institutions. The talented youth from all walks of life had equal chance of education. The Fatieh college of Istanbul is an example of such an institution. It had 16 schools for teaching science and technology.

Along with traditional institutions, Muslims pioneered innovative concept of learning. The Bait-ul-Hikma (House of Wisdom) was one of these concepts. Caliph Haroon Rasheed invited renowned scholars from the Muslim world and facilitated them to perform their research work in an intellectual environment. The Muslim scholars translated contemporary knowledge from Greece, China, Persia, India and Egypt into Arabic. Al Kindi, Yuana Ibn Al Batrique Al Tarjaman and Hunain Ibn Ishaq were among the great translators at that time. In fact they Islamized the knowledge into Arabic which started the new era of scientific discoveries in the Muslim world. Bait Al Hikma was the greatest scientific institution of that time. A huge library was established there. Caliph Al Mansoor asked Cesar of Rome for the scientific works of the Greek scientists which were stored in the Roman Empire as these were banned in the Christian world.

Khalifa Haroon Al Rasheed wrote a letter to the King of Sicily demanding all available books in his kingdom. The king honoured the Khalifa with copies of books. Khalifa Al Mansoor brought 100 camels loaded with books from Iran. The Muslim scholars and translators even went to the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire to translate rare books under his custody. Beside Bait Al Hikma, Khalifa Mansoor constructed a great observatory. This was the most modern scientific research centre of that age. Of course, during the golden age of Islam, Muslims were a thousand years ahead of time compared to the rest of the world. Khalifa Al Mamun established 332 institutes of scientific studies in the Khilafa. These institutes produced the greatest scientists like Al Khawarzimi: the father of Algebra, Banu Musa brothers: the renowned mechanical engineers, Al Kindi: the inventor and Saeed Ibn Haroon Al Katib: the writer. These scientists paved the way of modern scientific revolution.

In Daily Guardian, Brian Y. Taker writes “Dar-ul-Hikma (the expanded Bait Al Hikmah) was a unique institution of science and other knowledge. Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicines, Chemistry, Zoology and Geography were among the subjects taught there. It had the largest collection of scientific works of Greece, Persia an India which was further developed by Muslim scientists.”

Khalifa Al Hakim established Dar Al Hikma in Egypt in 1003 AD. At the time of Khalifa Makhdoon, only Cordoba in Muslim Spain had 1800 institutions of higher learning . Granada University had 120 professors teaching various branches of knowledge. The city had 1200 schools and 17 colleges.

The most important institute of higher learning in the Muslim world was Jamia (University) Al Azhar of Egypt. It was established in 971 AD during the holy month of Ramadan. Today it is the greatest institution of higher learning in Islamic education and literature. It is the second oldest degree awarding university of the world. Like a Maktab and Madrassa, Jamia Al Azhar was also attached to the great Al Azhar Masjid and hence was supported by Islamic trust. The university has the second largest library of Egypt. Today under “Al Azhar Online” project, over seven million books are being preserved on its website including rare Islamic manuscripts. Engineering and Medical education is also given alongside religions education. It used to be the centre of excellence of Islamic law. Abual Hasan Ibn Nauman Al Khairanvi, the son of Imam Abu Hanifa was the first to conduct here an open seminar on Islamic law. He was the chief justice at that time. Such open seminars gave rise to the freedom of expression. The offices of the judges were established inside the university. Great historical personalities like Ibn Khaldoon, the historian, and Ibn Haythem, the father of optics, were associated with this great institute.

The honour of oldest degree awarding university of the world goes to Jamia Al Al-Qarawiyyin (Morocco) as per the Guinness Book of World Records.In 841 AD, a pious lady Fatima Al Nehri founded Masjid Al-Qarawiyyin in the city of Fez. It was later on developed into a university. The laboratories of the university were equipped with the scientific instruments such as astrolabes and water clocks.

Khalifa Mustensar Billah established Mustansaria University in 1233AD in Baghdad. In 1327AD, Sarkore University was founded by Kankan Musa in Mali.

The great scientific institution, Dar Al-Fanoon was established in Istanbul, Turkey in 1453 AD which was upgraded to university in 1933. In Tehran, Iran, Dar AL-Fanoon University was founded in 1851 AD. In 1780 AD the famous Madrassa College was established in Calcutta, India.

In medical education, the first Bimaristan Medical University started awarding degree in the 9th century AD. Bimaristan was the word used for the hospitals at that time in the Muslim world.

It is interesting to note that the modern educational term “Baccalaureate” is the Latinized version of the Arabic word “Bahaqalrawayat” which Muslims used to write on the degrees. It means that the degree holder has the right to teach and propagate knowledge. Inspired by the educational system of the Muslim world, Pope Gregory adopted this kind of educational system in the University of Paris in 1231AD. In English language Baccalaureate became Bachelors with the same root and meaning. The highest degree called “Risali” was awarded to those students whose research work was published. It was the basis of the modern day Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD).

If we think deeply on the cause of Renaissance of Europe, it becomes clear that the scientific approach and enlightenment originated from early European universities. In fact Muslims translated the available knowledge into Arabic and brought it to the door steps of Europe in Spain. Inspired by the development of the Muslim world, the wise men of Europe started collecting knowledge from Muslims. The books were translated from Arabic to Latin language. The biggest centre of translation movement was Toledo, Spain.

Like the Maktab schools in the Muslim world, Cathedral schools were established in Europe. In France. Thierry of Chartres based his enlightenment drive on Islamic literature found in his library. He established “Chartres” schools based on his philosophy. These institutions gave rise to the European universities. In 11th Century AD the oldest university in Europe was founded in Salerno, Italy on the basis of the Islamic books brought by Constantine from the Masjid of Al Kairouan. Montpellier, a French city, became the centre of educational excellence because of its proximity to Muslim Spain. Muslim professors used to teach here. The renowned British scholar, Robert, got educated from here. In 1270AD he wrote on Astrolabe and geographical coordinates on the basis of knowledge gained from Muslim scholars and literature.

The Islamic books travelled from Toledo to England where Oxford University was established on the basis of this knowledge. The historians note that the basic layout of Oxford was a replica of the Islamic University of Cordoba. The first curriculum of Oxford University was prepared in Arabic Language as the medium of instruction was Arabic the beginning.

Compared with the historic achievements by Muslims in the field of education, the situation today is not very encouraging .According to the Muslim Scholars, Ibn Khaldoon and Dr. Omer Chapra, the decline of Muslim civilization has a direct relationship with knowledge. The decline started when science was kicked out of Masjid. This happened when useless philosophical theories started penetration into Islamic literature. Our religious Scholars, with a sincere intention opposed this penetration. With this honest effort, the Islamic literature was saved and preserved in its original and pure form and was not polluted with un-Islamic ideas. However this action gave rise to rejection of all natural sciences by religious institutions. Muslim students were not encouraged to gain beneficial knowledge which is even necessary for understanding of religions text. Knowledge of natural sciences became least important in Muslim Societies. Even in religions institutions, a kind of hatred was planted into minds of young Muslims by narrow minded religious teachers. The Masjid which was the centre of all kind of scientific knowledge is now limited to only pure religious education. It is interesting to note the Masjid used to be the hub of the scientific activities like calculations of time and mapping of the Islamic territories. The office of the Muhtasib (Quality Controller) used to operate from the Masjid where the Standards of Measurements were kept. The quality of industrial products from bricks to boats was controlled from this office.

The nations who realized importance of knowledge and excelled in the natural sciences are now the developed nations. These nations including Europeans, Americans, Russians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and even Indians put all their energies in learning of natural silences. Since the religions prevailing in the non-Muslim Societies are not compatible with modern science, these societies cannot follow both. Though it is never declared, Science and Technology is the religion being practiced today in whole world except the Muslim countries. Due to a number of benefits of scientific discoveries and inventions, human being has now a stronger faith in science than in religion. Hence the non-Muslim societies are becoming more secular day by day. Since we cannot live and progress without science and technology, most of the Muslim countries tried to follow the secular science model but failed. Turkey and Japan started almost at the same time. After a century, Japan became the wealthiest nation while Turkey is not even considered a developed nation though it is inside the developed Europe and possesses much more human and material resources than Japan. The same is true for Pakistan and India. With all efforts Pakistan is unable to achieve the technological goals which Indians are achieving easily. Yes! There are external factors like support to the secular societies from the West but there is a definite internal built-in cause. And it is non other than the educational system of the Islamic World. From the early stage a Muslim child is told by his parents and religious teachers that Islam is a true religion and we cannot  lead a successful life without following Islam. When the child grows he learns secular science in such institutions which do not have any Islamic connection. The Muslim youth realizes that the secular societies are the most developed while Islamic societies are the least developed. Muslim youth is now confused. He does not want to deny Islam but his faith gets weaker and weaker as he learns secular science.

The need of the hour is to Islamize science and bring it back to Masjid. All natural sciences should be taught to the child along with religious sciences in the Maktab. Student must be taught about the compatibility of science with Islam. The scientific discoveries by Muslim scientists are to be highlighted. This will plant a love for the natural sciences in young minds along with the religious sciences.

In Pakistan there are four educational systems all running in parallel for separate goals. In Masjid and Madrassa there is pure religious education of Quran and Sunnah. Hence those educated from these institutions become Muazzan, Imam and Khateeb only. Since they do not possess contemporary knowledge, the speeches of Khateebs are not very effective and educated youth do not take much interest in these. Highly religious parents or those who cannot afford other schooling  send their children to these Madrassas. Then there are Urdu medium schools in public and private sector. Islamic studies are taught as a subject in these schools. Majority of the middle class of Pakistanis are educated in these institutions. There are English medium schools which teach the same curriculum but in English. The elite class however gets their children educated in the British system developed by the Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Hence the society is divided into four classes depending on their educational background. Because of this unnatural classification, the ruling elites cannot understand the problems of the masses. A country like Pakistan with limited resources cannot build and operate four different types of institutions. In recent past, quality of education in the public sector in Pakistan is further deteriorated. The private sector institutions delivering quality education and charging high fees are on rise. There is a considerable expansion of Madrassas in Pakistan in past twenty years. This is because of political motives, people’s trends towards religious education and free education and facilities in these institutions. It is the time to establish a comprehensive educational system in these institutions. Every Muslim community does have a Masjid in the center place. A Maktab is to be established in every Masjid where basic skills of reading and writing are to be taught in Urdu, Arabic and English. The basics of religious and natural science are also to be taught here. After every prayer, study circles may be arranged to teach reading and writing to adults. In this way we don’t have to invest much on primary education and still can achieve 100% literacy rate in next 5 to 10 years. Pakistan may become a model for other Muslim countries to follow. Both genders may be enrolled in these institutions at the age of 4. Till the age of 9, their primary schooling is completed and they move to the separate Madrassas for boys and girls which are quivalent to the high schools of modern age. The students will get education in all branches of religious and natural sciences. The natural sciences are to be Islamized and a balanced curriculum is to be implemented. These institutions are to be managed by a committee of Masjids of the area and may be supported by the public or private sector. These multi-dimensional modern day educational institutions may revolutionize the concept of education in the Muslim World. Professionals of all fields of religion, science and humanities are to be produced with sound Islamic base. They will have solid personalities with clear vision instead of the divided personalities of Muslim youth who are stretched apart by religion and secular science. A person with a clear head, open mind and strong faith will deploy all his energies religiously to excel in his field. If he becomes an engineer or a doctor, he will love and respect his profession as it becomes an act of worship (Ibada) for him. He will become the best scientist ,if from the core of his heart, he believes that his professional knowledge and skills will make him successful in this world and the world to come. With this unified educational system, Islamic world produced polymaths like Ibn Sina and Al Khwarizmi.

In fact the education of science and technology is the heritage of Muslim youth and he neads to pursue it religiously. It was the educational system of Islam which helped Muslims spread Islam to half of the known world within a period of less than half a century. The Muslim world expanded from Spain in Europe to Sind in India during the very first century. This educational system paved the way of the modern scientific age. It made the Ottoman Caliphate, the greatest naval power on earth. With this organized educational networks of Maktab and Madrassa, Muslims developed India to be the richest country on globe possessing 25% of the wealth of the world. Hence we need to develop the same educational system which will not only ensure education of the masses but will also pave the way of scientific development in the Muslim World.