Organization of Early Islamic Centers of Higher Education
Until the 4th century C.E., aside from the maktab,post elementary education consisted of
majilis or what may been roughly translated as "circles of six people." These groups were
usually led which by a shaikh, hakim or ustadh, an individual who was probably
the counterpart of the modern day professor. In these circles of six, discussions were conducted in
philosophy as well as the various different sciences.
Some time between 395 and 1005 C.E., the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim built the Dar al-ilm or
House of Knowledge in Cairo. At this center both physics and mathematics were added to the
curriculum. The House of Knowledge also possessed a library with holdings of over one million books.
The Dar al-ilm became a model for later Islamic, and particularly Shiite centers of higher
education in the following centuries across the Islamic world.
These center of higher education (or universities) achieved their zenith between the 5th and 11th
centuries C.E. It was during this period that Nizam al-Mulk, Seljuq vizier, established a
multi-college system--similar to the present-day California State University System--that was
known as the madaris in several cities including Baghdad and Naishapur. The word
madrasah literally translated means "a place of study."
The best known college of this system (individual colleges in the system were known as
madrasah) was in Baghdad. This center was formed in 459 C.E. and reached its peak
around the middle of the 11th century C.E. Some of the most famous scholars and teachers
to emerge from this madrasah included Abu Ishaq al-Sh-iri the celebrated legal scholar.
The madrasah eventually became a fixture in the Islamic as colleges emerged in areas as
far-flung as Jerusalem, North Africa, Central Asia and Spain.
On the African continent,
Islamic scholarship and the pursuit of higher education flowered in Timbuktu in the Kingdom of Mali.
From the 11th till the 16th century C.E. Timbuktu gained the reputation of being a major center of
Islamic learning. Centers of scholarly enterprise such as the University, or jam'iyyah, at Sangkor
were famous in the then known world for their esteemed teachers or imams. These centers of great erudition
attracted students who were drawn from the noble and the well to do classes.
Many of the institutions of higher education in the Islamic world have continued to flourish from
the early medieval period to the present. There are several Islamic centers that are older than
the universities in England and France. Qarawiyin of Fez in Morocco, for instance is older
than Oxford or Chartres. It is eleven centuries old and probably the oldest university in the world.
Centers of higher learning such as the al-Azhar, which was originally the center of Sunni learning,
is a thousand years old. Similarly, the Shiite center higher education in Najaf that was founded in
the 5th century C.E. continues into our own time.
Faculty in Islamic Centers of Higher Education:
In both the Shiite and the Sunni schools, classes are led by a mudarris who is comparable to a
professor. The mudarris usually is assisted by has a na-ib, a sort of assistant
professor, and a mu-id. The function of the mu-id is to lead students through the
recitation of the material taught by the mudarris.
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