The earliest revelation to Prophet Muhammad was about learning and knowledge. The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims. The incentive to read and learn the Qur’an provided the early Muslim community with its initial educational settings, in which instruction of the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet, and knowledge of the Arabic language, its grammar structures and forms took place.
The Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was a well-established business woman. His subsequent wife, Aisha, became well known for her role as a transmitter of tradition. His daughter, Fatima, and several other women associated with his household were acknowledged for their love of learning. In the foundational period, there existed several reference points to encourage the participation and pursuit of women in learning.
The mosque and the early Qur’an schools were the first Muslim educational institutions. Informal schools of learning on theological questions came to be developed in mosques and other public places, as well as in private homes. As a result, a variety of other institutional settings developed. These institutions were the maktab or kuttab, the masjid and majlis (literally means ‘a place to sit’ and refers to any formal gathering or assembly of peoples), jami‘ (Friday mosque), and libraries. The maktab or kuttab were places where children received instruction in the Qur’an and in other religious subjects. The masjid and majlis were meeting places associated with mosques where adults gathered in groups to discuss the Prophet’s life and sayings, issues pertaining to legal matters, devotional practice, and poetry. Many jami‘ eventually became seats of higher learning, such as the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.
Founded initially as the main mosque of a new capital city, Cairo, in 970, al-Azhar became a fully integrated mosque-university during the early period of Shi‘i Fatimid Ismaili rule. The Fatimid Caliphs, through a series of gifts and endowments, developed it into a major centre of learning. At its height, the curriculum taught at al-Azhar and related institutions in Cairo included the study and interpretation of the Qur’an, law, metaphysics, philosophy, the natural sciences, and poetry and literature.
The pesantren, developed in Southeast Asia, were based in rural areas and supported by parents and members of the local community. The subjects taught in the pesantren included Qur’anic studies, law, ethics, logic, history and Sufism.
The well-endowed vast network of institutions, learned scholars, and the students made medieval and pre-modern Muslim societies among the most literate of the time and greatly facilitated the transmission across geographical boundaries and cultural differences.
Azim A. Nanji, Learning and Education, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Hugh Kennedy, “Intellectual Life in the First Four Centuries of Islam,” Intellectual Traditions in Islam, edited by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Tauris, London, 2000
Compiled by Nimira Dewji