Mubeena Ramzan

History and Development of ‘Deeni Madaris’

History and Development of ‘Deeni Madaris’
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Seeking knowledge has been an integral part of the Islamic Tradition. Religious knowledge and its transmission are central to the identity of a Muslim. Historically, Madrasas have served this cause as an important social institution in Muslim countries. The early years of Quranic revelations to the Prophet (saw) were embedded in the oral tradition. However, as Islam expanded and it became necessary to preserve this vast knowledge, these verses were written down and compiled into various chapters. This compilation became to be the book of Islam, the Quran.

From early on, Islam emphasized two types of knowledge, revealed and earthly –i.e., revealed knowledge comes straight from God and earthly knowledge is to be discovered by human beings themselves. Islam considers both to be of vital importance and directs its followers, both men and women, to go and seek knowledge.

After Prophet’s (S.A.W) departure, when Muslims faced situations for which no answer could be found in the revealed knowledge of the Quran and the Prophet (saw) was not there to guide them, the Muslim scholars sought answers in the sayings and practical life of the Prophet (S.A.W). This led to the development of traditions of following the Sunnah, the knowledge of deeds of the Prophet (saw) and Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet (S.A.W).

However, as Islam expanded to other regions and came into contact with other indigenous traditions and languages, it became necessary to create a cadre of Muslim experts who would develop sophisticated writings and textbooks on Fiqh – Islamic jurisprudence, Sunnah – Prophet’s (saw) traditions, Hadith – Prophet’s (saw) sayings, and Tafseer – the interpretation of the Quran, to cater to the needs of non-Arab Muslim populations. Thus began the tradition of Madrasa, the centre for higher learning, the initial purpose of which was to preserve religious conformity through uniform teachings of Islam for all.

The first known Madrasa is said to have been established in 1005 AD by the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt. This Madrasa taught the minority Shi’ite version of Islam. When the Sunni Muslims conquered Egypt, they revamped the Shi’ite version of Islam in this Madrasa and replaced it with the Sunni version. Huge number of books were taken to Baghdad where a Seljuk Vizier called Nizam- ul-Mulk Hassan Bin Al-Tusi (d.1092) established the first organized Madrasa in 1067. However, the establishment and the organization of Madaris has been debated by the scholars throughout the ages with difference.

Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi, better known by his honorific title of Nizam al-Mulk was a Persian scholar and vizier of the Seljuq Empire.

In the new madrasa established by Nizam- ul-Mulk, two types of education were provided: Scholastic theology to produce spiritual leaders, and earthly knowledge to produce government servants who would be appointed in various countries and the regions of the Islamic empire. Later, Nizam-ul-Mulk established numerous madrasas all over the empire that in addition to providing Islamic knowledge imparted worldly education in the fields of sciences, philosophy, public administration and governance. He is considered to be the father of the Islamic public education system. His name is associated with the famous Nizamiyya academy in Baghdad, which boasted the presence of famous scholars like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). In the twelfth century, the Zengid ruler Nur al-Din ibn Zangi and the famous Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (known as Saladin in west) were prominent patrons of madrasas in Syria and Egypt.

Even though a majority of the madrasas during the subsequent centuries would remain the centres of Islamic learning, a large number of them produced renowned scholars and philosophers who contributed to worldly knowledge too. Ijtihad – independent reasoning was a special feature of these madrasas. This is especially true for madrasas in Spain where the Muslims ruled for almost 800 years and which is usually referred to as the Golden Age of Islamic advancement in science, technology and philosophy. It was in Andalusia that Islam is said to have given birth to a number of scholars who combined spiritual knowledge with the earthly knowledge and contributed to the preservation of Greek and European knowledge, which was at the verge of becoming extinct. Famous scholars produced there include, Ibn Massara of Cordoba (883-931), man was responsible of his own history; Ibn Hazm of Córdoba (994-1064) was a pioneer of the comparative history of religions; and Ibn Gabirol of Malaga’s (1020-1070) whose fundamental work was the synthesis of the Jewish faith and the modern philosophy. Muslim scholars pioneered the knowledge of rational sciences, mathematics and medicine. Many of these scholars have become familiar to students in the West under their Latin names, men such as the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the mathematicians al-Zarqali (Arzachel) and al- Bitruji (Alpetragius), and the physician Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) to name a few.

These days of learning and scholarship in madrasas did not last for long. After the defeat of the Muslims empires one by one at the hands of the crusaders and political rivalries among Muslim leaders, Muslim learning and scholarship went into a state of decay, from which unfortunately, it has not bounced back. The defeat and the humiliation faced by the Muslims in terms of both the loss of material wealth, power and spiritual integrity, resulted in the Muslim Scholar (Ulama) of the later days to shun any pursuit of worldly knowledge and go back to the basics. In other words, they closed the door to Ijtihad – independent reasoning. Going back to the basics for this cadre of Muslim scholars meant following those trends and gaining that level of spirituality due to which the earlier Muslims were able to acquire great power and wealth.

One particular region in which madrasa went through a radical shift in ideology was the Indian Sub-Continent. When this region came under the British rule and a new educational system was introduced, which was perceived to be a threat to the Islamic identity of the Muslims, the madrasa system in India took upon itself the task of opposing the cultural and educational hegemony of the British. However, it is important to point out that the madrasa system in the Indian Subcontinent was the only one that underwent drastic changes in terms of Islamic education curriculum and teaching styles and quality and abandoning of the earthly science studies. So the need of the hour is to regain that lost glory of Deeni Madaris again by dedication and sincerity.

(The author is chairperson of Mahdul Muslimat Educational Trust which runs girls-only seminary style residential institute ‘Jamia Islamia Mahdul Muslimat’ having branches at Sopore and Srinagar. She can be contacted at 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.

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