Institutional Decentralization in the History of Islamic Cities: The Role of Madrasahs

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

Apart from rapid urbanization in Islamic cities, the creation and full institutionalization of independent madrasahs (schools or colleges) in the 5th AH / 11th AC century expedited greatly the physical decentralization of the mosque institution and other social institutions. This is so because the world of scientific and empirical knowledge, in which the Muslims by then were assuming a global dominant role, was becoming more and more sophisticated, specialized and demanding. This called not only for the creation of independent and specialized madrasahs, but also for the creation of several other often autonomous educational institutions, both private and public, such as observatories, libraries, laboratories, “houses of wisdom”, bookshops, etc, so that the scientific tasks and challenges could be duly met. There were other less relevant, and rather supporting, institutions, too.

However, although it is a widespread belief that madrasahs as independent and specialized institutions were introduced in the Muslim world by the creation of a group of the institutions of higher education by a Seljuki vizier Nizam al-Mulkin the 5th AH / 11th AC century, the most important one of which was the al-Nizamiyyah school founded in 460 AH / 1067 AC in Baghdad, nonetheless, there are those who dispute this assertion claiming that the phenomenon of independent and specialized madrasahs in Islam started emerging much earlier, as early as in the 4th AH / 10th AC century.[1]The likely truth, however, is that there is some strong evidence suggesting that some instances of madrasahs did exist before the 5th AH / 11th AC century after all,[2]but such were rather isolated and unsystematic cases precursory to, rather than representing, a trend or a culture. What is more, such were the bold and noble initiatives essentially of the public, and not the well-structured holistic governmental programs.[3]When the Seljuki vizier Nizam al-Mulkand some of his contemporaries and even predecessorsin the 5th AH / 11th AC century, embarked on creating a succession of madrasahs, such was truly an inauguration, as it were, of a new full-fledged and methodical civilizational trend or a culture in Islam which, undoubtedly, had its earlier antecedents. So, those who claim that the madrasah institution in Islam originated in the 4th AH / 10th AC century seem to be alluding to the first antecedents, whereas those who maintain that madrasahs as independent institutions in Islam did not begin until the 5th AH / 11th AC century seem to be talking about the matured and full-fledged trend or a culture which enjoyed total governmental backing and assistance. One of the earliest madrasah antecedents, perhaps, was a madrasah in Nishapur which was founded by the city’s residents for their leading jurist (faqih) from the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence, Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayani (d. 418 AH / 1027 AC). Another antecedent was a madrasah which was established also in Nishapur most probably again by the city’s residents for another scholar of theirs, Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi (d. 458 AH / 1065 AC).[4]

As a consequence of this unmatched original educational process in the Muslim world, it was not long before universities as institutions of higher learningand research, which granted academic degreesor ijazahs in a variety of religious and worldly subjects, started to emerge. Some of the earliest universities, not only in the Muslim lands, but also in the whole world, whose educational beginnings, coming as no surprise, were an integral part of the broad religious and social roles and functions of the jami’ mosques which at first used to house them, were – just to name a few — the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which was first founded as a jami’ mosque-cum-madrasah in 243 AH / 857 AC; the University of Qayrawan, Tunisia, which was founded firstly as a jami’ mosque – the great mosque of Qayrawan — in 50 AH / 670 AC, and was then promoted to a university most probably in the second half of the 3rd AH / 9th AC century; the University of al-Zaytunah in Tunis, Tunisia, which was also first founded as a jami’ mosque most likely in 84 AH / 703 AC and was then promoted to a university status,albeit much later than the great jami’ of Qayrawan; the University of al-Azhar in Cairo which was first founded as a jami’ mosque-cum-madrasah in  363 AH / 973 AC. Medieval Muslim universities, apart from enlightening, guiding and transforming Muslims and their societies, also played a leading role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans, so much so that Muslims and their cultural and civilizational contributions and roles are often regarded as “central to the making of medieval Europe”.[5]

Even the hospitals which were springing up all over the Muslim world were turned into vibrant educational institutions with all the facilities, human resources and funds needed. We have seen earlier that the first to open a hospital was the Umayyad caliph al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik. After the enthronement of the Abbasids, and after the creation of Baghdad, the first free public hospital before long was opened there, during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (d. 193 AH / 809 AC). During the reign of caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 218 AH / 833 AC), Harun al-Rashid’s son, medical schools were extremely active in Baghdad. According to Sir John Bagot Glubb — who is quoted by A. Zahoor — as the system developed, physicians and surgeons were appointed who gave lectures to medical studentsand issued diplomasto those who were considered qualified to practice. The first hospital in Egypt was opened in 259 AH / 872 AC, during the Tulunid dynasty which was semi-independent from the Abbasids. Thereafter, public hospitals both as welfare and educational institutions sprang up all over the state from Spainor Andalusia to Iran.[6]

Certainly, one of the most famous teaching hospitals was al-Nuri hospital in Damascus founded in 549 AH / 1154 AC by Nuruddin al-Zanki, who was succeeded in Egypt and Syria by Salahuddin al-Ayyubi. The hospital had some of the best equipments at the time, and was served by some of the best physicians. The traveler Ibn Jubayr on visiting Damascus in 580 AH / 1184 AC wrote that the city had two eminent hospitals, one of them being that of Nuruddin al-Zanki. To him, they were the great prides of Islam.[7]

Another educational institution which is worth mentioning here, and which also functioned like a university, was the Abbasid Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) in Baghdad which was founded by caliph Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid ruler, and was elevated to an excellent and world-class scholarly institution by caliph al-Ma’mun, Harun al-Rashid’s son and the seventh Abbasid sovereign. To be fair, the Bayt al-Hikmah was not created in a vacuum. Its foundation was the culmination of a string of scientific initiatives and programs which had been instigated by the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur, the creator of the city of Baghdad in 145 AH / 762 AC.[8]

The Bayt al-Hikmah was a library, translation and research institute. It was a major intellectual center of the Islamic golden age. In it, many of the most learned Muslim scholars, as well as some of the well known scholars from around the globe, were employed. The Bayt al-Hikmah was an unrivalled center for the study of philosophy, humanities, ilm al-kalam (an Islamic philosophicaldiscipline of seeking theologicalprinciples through dialectic), mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology and geography. Countless books were translated into Arabic from the Greek, Persian, Indian, Coptic and Aramaic languages.[9]

The Bayt al-Hikmah was also a teaching institution. Students received education there for free, and were provided with free food and medical care as well. For the rest of their expenses, each and every student additionally received one golden dinar every month.[10]The Bayt al-Hikmah was a multi functional institute. It had a hospital, baths and library, apart from laboratories and other teaching, researching and translating facilities. Many facilities were accessible to both the students and the teaching staff. The Bayt al-Hikmah also had an observatory which was one of several observatories which caliph al-Ma’mun had set up as part of the wide-ranging amenities and services needed for the perfect functioning of the Bayt al-Hikmah. At its peak, the Bayt al-Hikmah was one of the factors that spurred in people such passion for science and research that many affluent and influential persons later across the country built and financed private observatories with the best technological equipment available, donating them then to their scientists friends or acquaintances.[11]

Besides, there were several other places and institutions with which teaching and learning were associated, and whose active existence as such owed much to the amazing intensity and diversity of the intellectual life in Islamic societies and people’s remarkable zeal for it. In his book entitled“Muslim Education and the Scholars’ Social Status up to the 5th Century Muslim Era”, Munir-ud-Din Ahmedelaborated that in Baghdad in the 5th AH / 11th AC century, aside from the conventional educational institutions and centers, such as mosques and madrasahs, there were also part-time and unconventional, so to speak, ones. Examples of the latter in Baghdad were the private houses and shops of scholars, public squares, gardens, the houses of the rich and famous, public baths, the gates of the city and open spaces around them, markets, and even some thoroughfares.[12]

Regarding the houses and shops of scholars, so frequent and emphatic were the knowledge transmission and sharing sessions in them that such must have had some serious implications for the form and design of those houses and shops, and for their inner spaces’ organization and function. One scholar said that he spent three years or more at the door of the famed jurist Malik b. Anas (d. 179 AH / 795 AC), the founder of the Maliki madhhab.[13]

In Baghdad in the 5th AH / 11th AC century, knowledge was occasionally transmitted to the general public in the city’s public squares as well. Such meetings were attended by thousands of people. However, the meetings were irregular and their educational value was very limited.[14]The same could be said about the city’s public baths, the gates and open spaces around them, markets and thoroughfares, as erratic and impermanent teaching and learning venues.

In at least two cases, furthermore, the students and their teachers held their classes in gardens. In one case, “a young teacher, who was shy of reporting hadith in the city, where renowned teachers were present, took his pupils to a garden outside of the city. There he gave them dates to eat and reported hadith to them.”[15]

Also, the favorite hobby of many rich and famous people in Baghdad in the 5th AH / 11th AC century, was to patronize poets. Meetings for the recitation of poetry were most common at their places. Now and then, gatherings for studying hadith were convened there, too. One such man, the son of a minister, once pointed to different places in his house and told which of the famous scholars had held a scholarly session there. The list of them is astonishingly long. However, since these meetings were exclusive, allowing no access to ordinary students or the public, they had very little educational value for society at large.[16]

The first public library in Islam was founded by Ali b. al-Munjim, one of the translators to the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun. He was a doctor and he used to translate the books on medicine from the Greek language to Arabic. Some officers were employed to take care of the maintenance and the administrative aspects of the library. He paid them salaries from his own money. Ali b. al-Munjim is even said to have built some residential wings near his house in order to assist those who wished to stay there for the purpose of learning. He sponsored their food, too.[17]


[1] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), vol. 4 p. 199. Hasan Abd al-‘Ali, Al-Tarbiyyah al-Islamiyyah fi al-Qarn al-Rabi’ al-Hijri, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1978), p. 211.

[2] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 4 p. 199. Hasan Abd al-‘Ali, Al-Tarbiyyah al-Islamiyyah fi al-Qarn al-Rabi’ al-Hijri, p. 211.

[3]Khidr Ahmad AttAllah, Bayt al-Hikmah fi ‘Asr al-‘Abbasiyyin, (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1989), p. 101.

[4] Ibid., p. 100. Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 4 p. 199.

[5] S.M. Ghazanfar, Islamic World and the European Renaissance,

[6]A. Zahoor, Quotations on Islamic Civilization,

[7] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlah Ibn Jubayr, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 203), p. 221.

[8] Khidr Ahmad AttAllah, Bayt al-Hikmah fi ‘Asr al-‘Abbasiyyin, (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1989), p. 28.

[9] Ibid., p. 246.

[10] Ibid., p. 247.

[11] Ibid., p. 248.

[12] Munir-ud-Din Ahmed, Muslim Education and the Scholars’ Social Status up to the 5th Century Muslim Era, (Zurich: Verlag Der Islam, 1968),p. 112-114.

[13] Ibid., p. 135.

[14] Ibid., p. 112.

[15] Ibid., p. 113.

[16] Ibid., p. 113.

[17] Khidr Ahmad AttAllah, Bayt al-Hikmah fi ‘Asr al-‘Abbasiyyin, p. 35.

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