Madrasa (Arabic: مدرسة, madrasah pl. مدارس, madāris) is the Arabic word (of Semitic origin; viz Hebrew midrash) for any type of educational institution, whether secular or religious (of any religion). It is variously transliterated as madrasah, madarasaa, medresa, madrassa, madraza, madarsa, medrese, etc. In English the word normally specifically means any type of religious school or college for the study of the Islamic religion, though this may not be the only subject studied. Today, 20,000 Madrassas educate over 1.5 million students per year.
The word madrasah is derived from the triconsonantal Semitic root د-ر-س D-R-S ‘to learn, study’, through the wazn (form/stem) (مفعل(ة mafʻal(ah), meaning ‘a place where something is done’. Therefore, madrasah literally means ‘a place where learning and studying are done’. The word is also present as a loanword with the same innocuous meaning in many Arabic-influenced languages, such as: Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, Azeri, Kurdish, Indonesian, Malay and Bosnian / Croatian. In the Arabic language, the word مدرسة madrasah simply means the same as school does in the English language, whether that is private, public or parochial school, as well as for any primary or secondary school whether Muslim, non-Muslim, or secular. Unlike the understanding of the word school in British English, the word madrasah is like the term school in American English, in that it can refer to a university-level or post-graduate school as well. For example, in the Ottoman Empire during the Early Modern Period, madrasas had lower schools and specialized schools where the students became known as danişmends. The usual Arabic word for a university, however, is simply جامعة (jāmiʻah). The Hebrew cognate midrasha also connotes the meaning of a place of learning; the related term midrash literally refers to study or learning, but has acquired mystical and religious connotations.
However, in English, the term madrasah usually refers to the specifically Islamic institutions. A typical Islamic school usually offers two courses of study: a ḥifẓ course teaching memorization of the Qur’an (the person who commits the entire Qurʼan to memory is called a ḥāfiẓ); and an ʻālim course leading the candidate to become an accepted scholar in the community. A regular curriculum includes courses in Arabic, tafsir (Qur’anic interpretation), sharīʻah (Islamic law), hadiths (recorded sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), mantiq (logic), and Muslim history. In the Ottoman Empire, during the Early Modern Period, the study of hadiths was introduced by Süleyman I. Depending on the educational demands, some madrasas also offer additional advanced courses in Arabic literature, English and other foreign languages, as well as science and world history. Ottoman madrasas along with religious teachings also taught “styles of writing, grammary, syntax, poetry, composition, natural sciences, political sciences, and etiquette.”
People of all ages attend, and many often move on to becoming imams. The certificate of an ʻālim for example, requires approximately twelve years of study. A good number of the ḥuffāẓ (plural of ḥāfiẓ) are the product of the madrasas. The madrasas also resemble colleges, where people take evening classes and reside in dormitories. An important function of the madrasas is to admit orphans and poor children in order to provide them with education and training. Madrasas may enroll female students; however, they study separately from the men.
The first institute of madrasa education was at the estate of Hazrat Zaid bin Arkam near a hill called Safa, where Prophet Muhammad was the teacher and the students were some of his followers. After Hijjah (migration) the madrasa of “Suffa” was established in Madina on the east side of the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi mosque. Hazrat ‘Ubada bin Samit was appointed there by the prophet as teacher and among the students. In the curriculum of the madrasa, there were teachings of The Qur’an,The Hadith, fara’iz, tajweed, genealogy, treatises of first aid, etc. There were also trainings of horse-riding, art of war, handwriting and calligraphy, athletics and martial arts. The first part of madrasa based education is estimated from the first day of “nabuwwat” to the first portion of the “Umaiya” caliphate.
Established in 859, Jāmiʻat al-Qarawīyīn (located in al-Qarawīyīn Mosque) in the city of Fas, Morocco, is considered the oldest university in the world by some scholars, though the existence of universities in the medieval Muslim world is debated. It was founded by Fāṭimah al-Fihrī, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Muḥammad al-Fihrī. This was later followed by the establishment of al-Azhar in 959 in Cairo, Egypt.
During the late ʻAbbāsid period, the Seljuk vizier Niẓām al-Mulk created one of the first major official academic institutions known in history as the Madrasah Niẓāmīyah, based on the informal majālis (sessions of the shaykhs). Niẓām al-Mulk, who would later be murdered by the Assassins (Ḥashshāshīn), created a system of state madrasas (in his time they were called the Niẓāmiyyahs, named after him) in various ʻAbbāsid cities at the end of the 11th century.
Alauddin Khilji’s Madrasa, Qutb complex, built in the early-14th century in Delhi, India.
During the rule of the Fatimid and Mamluk dynasties and their successor states in the medieval Middle East, many of the ruling elite founded madrasas through a religious endowment known as the waqf. Not only was the madrasa a potent symbol of status but it was an effective means of transmitting wealth and status to their descendants. Especially during the Mamlūk period, when only former slaves could assume power, the sons of the ruling Mamlūk elite were unable to inherit. Guaranteed positions within the new madrasas thus allowed them to maintain status. Madrasas built in this period include the Mosque-Madrasah of Sultan Ḥasan in Cairo.
Dimitri Gutas and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy consider the period between the 11th and 14th centuries to be the “Golden Age” of Arabic and Islamic philosophy, initiated by al-Ghazali’s successful integration of logic into the madrasah curriculum and the subsequent rise of Avicennism.
At the beginning of the Caliphate or Islamic Empire, the reliance on courts initially confined sponsorship and scholarly activities to major centers. Within several centuries, the development of Muslim educational institutions such as the madrasah and masjid eventually introduced such activities to provincial towns and dispersed them across the Islamic legal schools and Sufi orders. In addition to religious subjects, they also taught the “rational sciences,” as varied as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, alchemy, philosophy, magic, and occultism, depending on the curriculum of the specific institution in question. The madrasas, however, were not centers of advanced scientific study; scientific advances in Islam were usually carried out by scholars working under the patronage of royal courts. During this time,[when?] the Caliphate experienced a growth in literacy, having the highest literacy rate of the Middle Ages, comparable to classical Athens’ literacy in antiquity but on a much larger scale. The emergence of the maktab and madrasa institutions played a fundamental role in the relatively high literacy rates of the medieval Islamic world.
The following excerpt provides a brief synopsis of the historical origins and starting points for the teachings that took place in the Ottoman madrasas in the Early Modern Period:
“Taşköprülüzâde’s concept of knowledge and his division of the sciences provides a starting point for a study of learning and medrese education in the Ottoman Empire. Taşköprülüzâde recognizes four stages of knowledge—spiritual, intellectual, oral and written. Thus all the sciences fall into one of these seven categories: calligraphic sciences, oral sciences, intellectual sciences, spiritual sciences, theoretical rational sciences, practical rational sciences. The first Ottoman medrese was created in İznik in 1331, when a converted Church building was assigned as a medrese to a famous scholar, Dâvûd of Kayseri. Suleyman made an important change in the hierarchy of Ottoman medreses. He established four general medreses and two more for specialized studies, one devoted to the ḥadīth and the other to medicine. He gave the highest ranking to these and thus established the hierarchy of the medreses which was to continue until the end of the empire.