Places Of Learning

In the pre-Ottoman Islamic world, scholarship was not rooted in any single specific venue. Nevertheless, the mosque has always been, and remains to this day, an important place of teaching. In the first Islamic cities, particularly the garrison towns built by the early Arab-Muslim conquerors in the seventh century, the mosque represented the public space par excellence. It was in the mosque that scholars sat between the five daily prayers, lecturing to their students as well as to interested passers-by. In the early centuries of Islam (and in some locations to the present day) each city had a single central mosque where the communal Friday prayer was held, which was at least in theory attended by every free and healthy resident Muslim man. These central mosques were places infused with the authority of the government. Only the representative of the government, or someone appointed by it, could give the Friday sermon, and the mentioning of the caliph or sultan in the sermon was one of the most important insignia of government authority and legitimacy. Such mosques were the preferred venues for teaching, as they permitted teachers to attract the attention of ordinary worshippers. There are countless anecdotes of distinguished scholars who had been drawn into their fields by passing a mosque teaching-circle by chance and pausing to listen in.

The importance of the congregational mosque as a teaching venue declined in the following centuries. The growing population of Baghdad and other urban centres simply could no longer fit into a single building, so the various urban quarters began to acquire their own Friday mosques. As a result, the unified public space represented by the single Friday mosque was fragmented. In eleventh-century Baghdad, the mutually hostile Shi'ite and Hanbalite quarters each had their own mosques, with their restricted ''public'' spaces that excluded the other. Such particularist venues allowed minorities, including the various Shi'ite groups, to develop their own legal and theological doctrines.

The privacy of the home was no less important as an environment of learning and scholarship. Intensive and advanced instruction was often carried out in the homes of scholars or wealthy patrons, as were formal scholarly debates. The seclusion of the home offered a sheltered space for the airing of controversial arguments beyond the reach of governmental interference: the state had limited ability and, in cases of non-political ''heresy'', little incentive to police and enforce orthodoxy in the private realm. The home also typically represented the first or even the only place of education for children, with family members serving as the first teachers. The acquisition of certain basic facts was considered a religious obligation for every Muslim, whether male or female. At the minimum, children were taught the basic tenets of belief and the correct performance of duties such as purification, prayer, almsgiving and fasting, but beyond this the content of study was not determined.

For girls, the home was particularly important as a place of learning. Given that the process of transmitting knowledge was based on an intimate relationship between student and teacher, the socially prescribed distance between the sexes severely curtailed women's opportunities to become apprentices to famous scholars. In effect, such apprenticeships were possible only in the rare instances when the senior scholar was female or the student's close relative. This is not to deny that women attended the public lectures of jurists, traditionists, theologians, Sufis and other scholars. However, women were rarely among the closest or most advanced students of the teacher. In general, although there are countless examples of highly educated women in the medieval Islamic world, they are conspicuously absent in the production of scholarly literature and do not feature in the top echelons of any field of study.

The only real exception to this trend is represented by the study of prophetic traditions. Most notably in the Mamluk period, women played a significant role in this field and it is not uncommon to find in the biographies of the top male scholars of the time that a quarter or even a third of their teachers in hadith were women.2 A good example of a female traditionist is Umm Hani' Maryam al-Huriniya (1376-1454), an extraordinary woman whose education had been supported from childhood by her grandfather, an influential judge. She was well travelled (she performed the pilgrimage to Mecca from Egypt thirteen times), wealthy, and one of the most important transmitters of hadith of her time. Her many students, both male and female, show deep reverence when mentioning her name in their writings, praising her learning and piety. Nevertheless, she seems never to have authored a book herself, and her training in other fields appears to have been basic. The only formal training beyond traditions that she is known to have received consisted of the study of a short and basic text on Shafi'i jurisprudence. This suggests that while she was a learned individual and a much-loved teacher, as a woman she lacked proper socialisation and entrance into the predominantly male scholarly discourse. This discourse was multi-disciplinary and expressed itself most significantly in the publishing of literary works that either advanced the field or served as textbooks that synthesised earlier scholarship.

Between the public mosque and the private home, the tenth and eleventh centuries saw the appearance of semi-public venues for scholarship. The economic basis of these institutions was formed by pious foundations (awqaf, sing. waqf) established by private individuals who set aside a source of revenue, such as a market, a mill or a parcel of agricultural land, and dedicated the funds to the establishment and upkeep of a recognised pious cause, such as the support of religious learning.3 The founding deed drawn up by the benefactor specified the nature of the activities that would be supported by the foundation. We know that at least by the tenth century, awqaaf provided wages for teachers and financial aid for students, and from the eleventh century onwards they enabled the emergence of specific institutions of learning, most prominently the madrasa and the Sufi lodge (zawiya, tekke, khanqah, ribat).4

A typical madrasa came to consist of a common prayer area similar to that of a mosque, with dedicated classrooms in which teaching took place, and lodgings for teachers and students, all within a single building or complex. Some madrasas were built adjacent to the shrines of famous scholars, such as those of the Shi'ite imam al-Rida in Mashhad and of al-Shafi'i in Cairo. The richest madrasas, often founded by sultans and other prominent figures, incorporated charitable institutions such as hospitals and soup kitchens that catered for the general public. Sufi lodges became especially widespread with the emergence of organised Sufi orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were usually headed by a master who instructed a group of devoted students in the theory and practice of the ''path to God''. There were also regular occasions on which the public was able to participate in the ceremonies by listening to spiritual poetry, celebrating the birthday of the Prophet or a saintly individual, or simply by enjoying the blessed presence of the master. Certain particularly influential orders even counted sultans among their members. In addition, Sufi lodges functioned as places where unmarried or widowed women found shelter, where the wealthy distributed food in times of famine, and where people sought refuge from the law or from persecution.

Even within these new institutions, however, education, learning and research remained fundamentally informal in nature up to the Ottoman period. Institutions of learning never developed a corporate character: students did not graduate with ''degrees'' from particular madrasas, but rather received a number of certificates and teaching licences from individual, named teachers. Madrasas and Sufi lodges functioned as meeting-points for scholars and students and were a source of income for both, but they never monopolised higher education. Their contingent nature is evident in the format of the pre-modern version of the academic curriculum vitae, namely the relevant entry in a biographical dictionary. In such entries, we learn the names of the scholar's teachers, and the titles of the books taught; but whether this instruction took place in a mosque, a private home or a madrasa does not seem to have been thought relevant and is rarely mentioned. While institutions such as madrasas contributed to the professionalisation of the scholarly community by providing funding that liberated scholars from the need to practise other occupations, they did not initially change the personal nature of Islamic education.

A significant shift in the nature of the madrasa took place with the maturation of the imperial Ottoman educational system. Sultan Mehmed II (d. 1481) established a hierarchy of madrasas within the empire and outlined a fixed career path that permitted students and teachers to move gradually up the ladder according to merit and/or personal connections: the higher the position of the madrasa in the hierarchy, the higher the wages paid to its teaching staff. The madrasa hierarchy corresponded to a hierarchy in the judicial system, determining the level of position within the judiciary to which a madrasa teacher could transfer. The curriculum, hitherto determined by the interests and expertise of individual students and teachers, was standardised, with digests written by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century authors such as al-Iji, al-Taftazani, and al-Sharif al-Jurjani underpinning the theological syllabus. The driver of this unprecedented formalisation was the Ottoman Empire's continuous need for uniformly trained and loyal administrators for its immensely complex and highly centralised bureaucracy. However, although the formal training of the 'ulama' was oriented towards a likely career as civil servants, a minority of scholars and students continued to follow the traditional paradigm based on the personal teacher-student bond.

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