Institutional Decentralization in the History of Islamic Cities: The Role of Political and Religious Schism

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

Alongside the phenomena of rapid urbanization, madrasahs and Sufism, the problem of escalating socio-political and religious schism in the Muslim nation likewise contributed significantly to the institutional decentralization in Islam. As a severe trial from Allah for the followers of the last Messenger, Muhammad (pbuh), schism arrived at the Muslim scene following the assassination of the third rightly guided caliph, Uthman b. Affan, in 36 AH / 656 AC, and it never departed ever since. After the unavoidable institutional decentralization, political and religious schism among Muslims was brought to another level of mutual confrontational theorization, functioning and propaganda. However, at times when mosques played their unified and centralized roles as solid community centers, things somewhat were kept under control. Indeed, the unity of Muslims could have been fostered way more easily under institutional centralization rather than under institutional decentralization. Even the most off-putting elements of the emergence of various sects and innocent madhhabs, Muslimmainstream schools of law or fiqh(jurisprudence), did not really start to materialize and did not become more and more pronounced until the institutional decentralization in question came to pass. This however by no means implies that the institutional decentralization caused the emergence of sects and the repulsive elements of madhhabs. Rather, it means that the latter, having been caused by other both internal and external factors, hit upon some fertile ground in the former for its proliferation and sustenance, spurring and accelerating in the process the on-going institutional decentralization. It was then that the proponents of different sects and madhhabs embarked on hewing some social and educational institutions and establishments, like madrasahs and bookshops, for example, so as to promote a sect or a madhhab, or certain sects and madhhabs. Even some mosques were built and fully utilized, as were the private houses of some notables, for the purpose. Thus, a favorable climate for some unwarranted intellectual and religious squabbles, lethargy, fanaticism and bigotry was created, and as the time passed, the situation steadily worsened.

An excellent case in point here is the intense conflicts at all levels, including the institutional one, between the Shiite Fatimids and the Sunnis in regions once controlled by the former, especially in Cairo, from the 10th to the 12th AC (4th – 6th AH) century, as well as the passionate conflicts between the Shiite Buyids and the Sunnis in territories once controlled by the former, especially in Baghdad, in the 10th and 11th AC (4th and 5th AH) centuries.

As regards the mainstream madhhabs of the Muslimlaw (fiqh), as another case in point, many madrasahs cropped up in their support. In Baghdad, for example, construction of madrasahs began during the late 5th AH / 11th AC century on a scale that increased during the course of the next century. According to Daphna Ephrat, during this period, madrasahs were built for the three dominating madhhabs, or schools of law: Shafi’i, Hanafi and Hanbali. Of the 24 madrasahs whose location, founders and beneficiaries are known, ten were built for the Shafi’i madhhab, seven for the Hanafi madhhab, and the remaining seven for the Hanbali madhhab.[1]The first schools built in Baghdad were in support of the Shafi’i and Hanafi madhhabs. “The Hanbalis were at first reluctant to adopt the madrasah as a center for their teaching activities; thus the teachings of the madhhab appear to have been conducted in the mosques and private homes long after the spread of the madrasah system in Baghdad and in other Islamic cities. What appears to have been their first madrasah dates from the beginning of the 6th AH / 12th AC century, nearly half a century after the first Shafi’i and Hanafi madrasahs made their appearance in the city.”[2]This madrasah, which is called the Madrasah of Mukharrimi, was a combination of a Hanbali and a Sufi disposition.[3]

In Cairo during the reign of the Shiite Fatimids, as reported by al-Maqrizi, educational activities where Shi’ism was promoted were carried out mainly in certain designated mosques, like the mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As in al-Fustat, in mosques-cum-madrasahs, like the mosque of al-Azhar, and in some private houses of the ruling elite.[4]Besides, in the year 395 AH / 1004 AC, the Fatimid ruler al-Hakim bi Amr Allah founded an academy on the lines of similar institutions already existing in Baghdad and elsewhere. This new foundation was named Dar al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom, virtually replicating the name of the famous Abbasid Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad. To it a number of professors were attached, “both of the traditional sciences and the Qur’an and canon law, and also of the natural sciences. A library was connected with it and was filled with books transferred from the royal palace nearby. All who came to it were supplied with ink, pens, paper and rests for books.”[5]

On the whole, a majority of the Fatimid rulers, especially the early ones, were munificent patrons of learning and science. They established a number of educational institutions, public libraries and scientific academia for both the religious and worldly knowledge and sciences. Those institutions were manned by a large professional staff. Astronomical observatories were also erected in various places. One of its prominent rulers, al-‘Aziz, who ruled from 365-386 AH / 975-996 AC, is credited with having converted the al-jami’ al-Azhar into an academy. He was also a great bibliophile, who started a royal library at his palace which contained at the time about 200 000 books on different subjects, especially jurisprudence, grammar, hadith (Prophet Muhammad’s traditions), history, mathematics, logic, philosophy, etc. It was the greatest library of its time in the entire Muslim world.[6]Al-‘Aziz was succeeded by al-Hakim bi Amr Allah who was equally enthusiastic about learning and science. Besides founding the renowned Dar al-Hikmah academy, as mentioned above, he also established an observatory on al-Muqattam hill overlooking Cairo which was equipped with the best available astronomical instruments at the time.[7]

After the fall of the Fatimids, the Ayyubids arrived at the political scene of the Middle East, dominating it for almost a century, from the second half of the 6th AH / 12th AC century to the middle of the 7th AH / 13th AC century. The epicenters of their power were Egypt and Syria. This period was especially marked by the Ayyubid exertions to upstage and eventually uproot the Shiite influences in the region, as well as to strengthen Sunni dominance by constructing numerous madrasahs in the cities under the Ayyubid administration.Being the custodians of the Sunni Islam, so to speak, and being munificent patrons of learning and educational activity, who themselves were well-educated, the Ayyubids built madrasahs for imparting knowledge according to all four of the Sunni systems of religious-juridical thought, or madhhabs.

Because the Ayyubids followed the Shafi’i madhhab, most of the madrasahs which they built, naturally, were dedicated to that madhhab. So, therefore, there was nothing unusual when the first Ayyubid ruler, Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, founded one of the first madrasahs in Cairo right next to the tomb of Imam al-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi’i madhhab, thus setting a tone for the future educational as well as religious endeavors of all the Ayyubid rulers. To add more symbolism to, and to augment the legitimacy of the leadership of the Ayyubids and their Sunni struggle, an immense mausoleum, with a wooden dome over the grave of Imam al-Shafi’i, was later erected in 608 AH / 1211 AC by the fifth Ayyubid ruler in Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, whose grave, along with his mother's, is also under this dome and a few steps away from the Imam's. It is interesting to note that Imam al-Shafi’i’s was the first officially sponsored mausoleum to be built for a Sunni theologian in Egypt after the eviction of the Shiite Fatimids from there in 567 AH / 1171 AC.[8]Imam al-Shafi’i’s mausoleum and its adjoining madrasah exemplified both Sunnism and the Ayyubids in Egypt.

However, the Ayyubids also built scores of other madrasahs in support of the other three madhhabs, namely the Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali. In the mid-7th AH / 13th AC century, which signified the final phase of the Ayyubid reign, some estimates suggest that in Damascus alone there were 40 Shafi'i, 34 Hanafi, 10 Hanbali, and three Maliki madrasahs.[9]Comparable, or slightly lower, figures, it stands to reason, existed in Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo and Jerusalem as well. When the traveler Ibn Jubayr was in Damascus in 580 AH / 1184 AC, which was the early phase of the Ayyubid dynasty under Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, he commented that there were 20 madrasahs in the city and they all symbolized the prides of Islam.[10]Such was the intellectual climate under the Ayyubids that their rulers’ wives, sons and daughters, commanders and nobles established and financed numerous educational institutions as well. What was unusual of the time, some accounts reveal, even some common people followed suit. In Egypt alone about 18 madrasahs, including two medical institutions, were established by commoners.[11]

What is more, there were Ayyubid madrasahs wherein teaching was jointly conducted according to all four madhhabs. Such madrasahs, surely, stood out as the most authentic Sunni establishments where mutual collaboration, acceptance and tolerance among the major Sunni sections and systems of thought were both preached and practiced. One of such madrasahs in Cairo was the Madrasah al-Salihiyyah which was founded by Sultan al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub in 641 AH / 1243 AC. Al-Maqrizi, while dwelling on this madrasah, observed that that was the first time in the history of Egypt that teaching was performed according to all four madhhabs at one place.[12]Truly, the age of the Ayyubids was the age of learning and its numerous institutions. Educational institutions were regarded as prestigious institutions in society. In the words of Abdul Ali, “an idea of their importance may be derived from the fact that it was not possible to get a job in the government for anyone who did not receive his education in a madrasah.”[13]

And finally, the partial institutional decentralization between the “mother” mosque institution and the other social institutions in the nation of Islam, on top of what has already been said, was aided and accelerated also by an alarming trend whose seeds had been sown and the ground paved as early as during the most critical phases of the Umayyad caliphate. That trend was a rift between the religious intellectual leadership and the ruling political elites, which was deteriorating showing no signs of abating as the reins of power moved from one ruling dynasty to the other. But the rift was not only between the scholars and the rulers; it was, in equal measure, between the mosque and the palace as the two most powerful institutions in the state. This subject matter, however, due to its uniqueness and multidimensionality, will be discussed separately under its own heading later.


[1] Daphna Ephrat, A Learning Society in a Period of Transition, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 25.

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Ibid., p. 27.

[4] 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. 200.

[5] De Lacy O’Leary, A Short History of the Fatimid Khalifate, (London: Kegan Paul, 1923), p. 139.

[6] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, (New Delhi: MD Publications PVT LTD, 1996), p. 11.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Ismail Abaza, The Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi’i,

[9] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, p. 39.

[10] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlah Ibn Jubayr, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), p. 221.

[11] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, p. 39.

[12] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 4 p. 217.

[13] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, p. 39.

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