Seeking Knowledge In Muslim Civilisation: Universities


The public Library of Hulwan in Baghdad, from a 13th century manuscript of ‘Maqamât by Harîrî. (Source)
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page79)

Muslims were urged throughout the Quran to seek knowledge. This was a great incentive for reflection and understanding. This Quranic urge meant that all over the Muslim world, advanced subjects were taught in mosques, schools, colleges, hospitals, observatories, and the homes of scholars.

There was some overlap between school and university education. Both began in the mosque, but “university” in Arabic is Jami’ah, which is the feminine form of the Arabic word for mosque, Jami’. So in Arabic the place of religion and the place of advanced learning are conjoined. But both words preserve the idea of “bringing together,” or “combining into a whole;” in fact, they are the Arabic equivalent to the Western “univers(ity).” This “joining” was not so much at a religious level, but at a functional one. Some of the mosques eventually became universities as with the examples below:

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©1001 inventions House of Wisdom Sketch (Source)
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 68)


Al-Azhar University, Cairo (Source)

Al-Azhar

One of them is Al-Azhar, which still exists today—1,030 years later.[1] As the focal point of higher learning in Egypt, it attracted many students[2] and had illustrious teachers such as Ibn al-Haytham, who lived in its vicinity for a long time, and Ibn Khaldun, the leading 14th-century sociologist.[3]

Students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo included large numbers of foreigners, alongside Egyptians, many from areas outside Cairo.[4]

Al-Qarawiyin

Another grand complex was founded in Fes, Morocco. This university was originally built as a mosque, Al-Qarawiyin, in 859 during the Idrisids’ rule by Fatima al-Fihriya, a devout young woman. She was well educated, and after inheriting a large amount of money from her father, a successful businessman, she vowed to spend her inheritance on building a mosque that was dedicated to making learning available for her community in Fez (Fes). It is interesting to note that she supervised the building project. She issued a design constraint declaring that all the building material should be from the same land. She fasted daily until the building was completed.


Photo (Right) of the Al-Lija'i clepsydra clock located in the room of al-Muwaqqit (time keeper) in the minaret of the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque (Left) in Fes, Morocco. (Source)
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 68)

Like some of the great mosques, Al-Qarawiyin soon developed into a centre for religious instruction and discussion, gradually extending to include the natural sciences, and so it earned its name as one of the earliest universities in in history.[5]

Al-Qarawiyin was well equipped, especially with astronomical instruments. The “timekeeper room” had astrolabes, sand clocks, and other instruments to calculate time. Studies included the Quran, theology, law, rhetoric, prose and verse writing, logic, arithmetic, geography, and medicine. There were also courses on grammar, Muslim history, and elements of chemistry and mathematics.[6] Scholars and students came from a widespread area.


A lecturer sits in a chair, or minbar, while giving a sermon at a mosque
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 70)

Zaytuna Mosque

At the Zaytuna Mosque in Tunisia, there were works on grammar, logic, documentation, cosmology, arithmetic, geometry, minerals, and vocational training.[7] At the Tunisian Qayrawan’s Atiqa Library, there was an Arabic translation of the History of Ancient Nations, written by St. Jerome before 420.[8] 


(Left) The Zaytuna Mosque college complex was built in 732 n Tunis, Tunisia. In the 13th century, its library contained more than 100,000 volumes. (Right) Prayer mats lie in the courtyard of Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali.
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 69 & 76)

University of Sankore

In the southerly part of the Muslim world, the University of Sankore, in Timbuktu, reached its economic and intellectual apogee in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the wake of the return from Hajj to Makkah of the ruler of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa, it became an important centre for the diffusion of Islamic culture. It included at its peak the University of Sankore, 180 Koranic schools, and 25,000 students. It also developed into a major trading centre, which included a vast exchange of manuscripts.[9] The had several indepesndent colleges, each run by a single master. Subjects included the Quran, Islamic studies, law, literature, medicine and surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language and linguistics, geography, history, and art.

“Timbuktu,” UNESCO World Heritage List, available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/119


A manuscript page from Timbuktu showing a table of astronomical information (Source)

References

[1] J. Jomier, “Al-Azhar,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. I (Leiden: Brill), 813-21.
- See Also: M. Alwaye, `Al-Azhar...in thousand years,' Majallatu'l Azhar, Al-Azhar Magazine, English Section 48 (July 1976), 1-6, at 2.
[2] Bayard Dodge, Muslim Education in Medieval Times (Washington, D. C.: The Middle East Institute, 1962), 26-27 in particular.
[3] J. Jomier, “Al-Azhar,” op. cit., 816-17.
[4] J. Jomier, “Al-Azhar,” op. cit., 816.
-Baedeker's Egypt (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1974), 60.
[5] Rom Landau, “The Karaouine at Fes,” The Muslim World, 48 (April 1958), 104-12.
[6] R. Le Tourneau, Fes in the age of the Merinids, tr. from French by B.A. Clement (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 122.
[7] M. J. Deeb, Al-Zaytuna, in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 4, J.L. Esposito, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1995), 374.
-Muhammad Abd al-Qadir Ahmad, `Al-Maktaba al-Tunusiya wa Inayatuha bi Almakhtut al-Arabi,' Majallat Mahad al-Makhtutat al-Arabyia 17 (May 1971), 179-87, at 186.
[8] Hassan Husni Abd al-Wahab, `Bait al-Hikma al-Tunusi, Bath Tarikhi fi Awwal Musasa Ilmiya jamia fi al-Bilad al-Ifriqiya, Majallat Majma al-Lugha al-Arabiya, 30 (Cairo, 1963-64), 128, in M. Sibai, Mosque Libraries: An Historical Study (London and New York: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1987), 98.
[9] “Timbuktu,” UNESCO World Heritage List, available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/119.


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Further Reading


The public Library of Hulwan in Baghdad, from a 13th century manuscript of ‘Maqamât by Harîrî. (Source)
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page79)