The madrasa system evolved over the centuries in the early Islamic period. During the Fatimid and Abbasid reigns Muslims felt an earnest demand to seek out critical answers to several new and old questions emerging from philosophy, theology, mysticism and philology. The Sufi, Asha’ari, Mutazilla and Ismaili discourses emerged during this period, as did the various strands within the Sunni and Shia schools of thought. The madrasas were a product of the struggle between legal traditionalism and theological rationalism. They developed more in the spirit of a tutorial tradition with a know-all teacher and a group of committed but immensely deferential students and became the main conduit of ecclesiastic and secular knowledge. Their main purpose was to ensure a continuous supply of clerics to meet the basic needs of community such as leading the prayers and teaching the Qur’an to the future generation. Several madrasas, with established scholars and self-sufficient libraries evolved as residential seminaries often in a charitable sector or with the nod from the sultans. For example, the Seljuk Sultans in Persia and the Asia Minor, the Ghanzanvids in Southwestern Asia, Fatimids in Cairo, the Samanids in Khorasan and the Delhi Sultans in India ensured a proper upkeep of eminent madrasas through the waqf system where land grants ensured self-sufficiency to these seminaries. In Konya, Delhi, Lahore, Nishapur, Qairawan, Fez, Isfahan and the Hejaz, madrasas attracted leading scholars and jurists to undertake residential tutoring. Arabic remained the supreme language of instruction, soon to be joined by Persian until the early modern era when religious literati become more receptive to ‘vernacular’ languages followed by a reluctant exposure to European languages.

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.


Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: