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.


Within the informal and decentralised institutional framework of the pre-Ottoman period, several divergent discourses of theological orthodoxy could emerge and flourish, both competing and overlapping with one another. Two of these, the discourses of the traditionists (muhaddithun) and the dialectic theologians (mutakallimun), stood at the heart of the debate that eventually yielded an extent of common ground between Sunni theologians of all persuasions. This shared understanding formed the theological core of what is commonly termed the ''Sunni consensus''.

The discipline of the traditionists rested on a shared methodology, an accepted body of material, and a minimum set of doctrines that together rendered the discourse remarkably stable and cohesive. Extensively travelled and cosmopolitan, the traditionists formed a transnational network of like-minded scholars whose focus was on gathering and then ascertaining the authenticity and accuracy of reported prophetic traditions. The emerging corpus of agreed-upon hadith and the conclusions drawn from these regarding correct belief and action formed the theological core of the traditionists' discourse. This core was articulated in the form of succinct credos ('aqa'id, sing. 'aqida), which were designed for easy memorisation by students and served as important pedagogical tools. The universally accepted methodology that was developed for the evaluation of prophetic traditions and their transmitters ('ilm al-rijal, literally ''the science of men''), and its application to a finite body of material, provided a centripetal force that ensured the cohesion and integrity of the discipline.

The discourse of the early dialectic theologians, and particularly those who adhered to Mu'tazilism, was in many ways diametrically opposed to that of the traditionists. The theologians focused not on a substantive set of materials but rather on a formal methodology of reasoning and debate. As a consequence, a student of kalam who attached himself to a teacher could not simply adopt and internalise authoritative statements regarding belief from his teacher in the way that students of traditions, who would memorise their teachers' credos, could. Instead, the aspiring theologian would be introduced to and trained in the theoretical paradigm developed by his master and the rational arguments that underpinned that paradigm. If he was intellectually capable, he could disagree with his master and eventually develop his own theory.

This rationalist methodology was appealing to scholars in other fields, such as grammar and law, who incorporated elements of the approach and techniques of the mutakallimun into their works. However, within kalam it created a centrifugal effect, which led to the emergence of countless schools and sub-groups of theologians. In contrast to the established schools of legal thought, the early theological schools did not possess an ethos of mutual toleration comparable to the jurists' principle that the considered judgement of a competent scholar was always valid,5 nor could they call upon a shared corpus of material like the traditionists. The uncompromising rationalist stance of the theologians further augmented the divisiveness of their approach. The assumption that the acquisition of rational proof for the existence of God and the truthfulness of the Prophet were prerequisites of genuine adherence to the Qur'an led many early mutakallimun to dismiss any faith not thus grounded as deficient, if not invalid. The resulting sectarianism and intellectual radicalism among dialectical theologians, exemplified by the three members of the prominent Mu'tazilite family of al-Jubba'i, who denounced one another as heretics, gradually alienated them from scholars of other backgrounds. The legal scholar al-Shaafi'ai advised his student al-Muzanai to engage in jurisprudence and to avoid theology on the grounds that if he, al-Shafi'i, were to give the wrong answer to his student's question, he would rather be told ''You are wrong!'' than ''You have uttered disbelief!''6

The stark distinction between the approaches of the traditionists and the kalam folk disappeared with the emergence of the Ash'ari and Maaturaidai schools of theology in the tenth century and the acceptance of these two schools into the mainstream scholarly community. An important reason for the success of this integration was the deliberate inclusiveness of Ash'ari and Maturidi theologians, who explicitly disavowed the denunciation of fellow Muslims. A particularly clear statement of this policy can be seen in the book The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Belief from Unbelief (Faysal al-tafriqa bayna al-islam wa'l-zandaqa) of al-Ghazali: the author declares not only Muslims but also most non-Muslims to be assured of eventual salvation.7 Although the Ash'aris and Maturidis continued to maintain that rational investigation was necessary for complete belief, they adopted the traditionist practice of authoring and teaching basic credos for memorisation. They argued that such texts served to implant the correct tenets of belief in the mind of the believer who would come to understand them more fully through reason at later stages in his intellectual development.

By the end of the tenth century, the broad outlines of the developed Sunni orthodoxy had taken shape. This orthodoxy was structured around several established schools of law, which defined right action, and the three main ''schools'' of theology (Ash'aris, Maturidis and traditionists) that defined right belief. Over the next few centuries, the 'ulamaa' worked out a system of mutual tolerance that was based on universal agreement regarding the sacred sources, a pragmatic acceptance of and respect for differences of opinion, and an ideal of intellectual humility that was expressed by al-Ghazali as follows:

I advise you, my brother, to have a good opinion of all people, especially the scholars. And it is part of having a good opinion of someone to look for the most positive possible interpretation of his words, and if you cannot find [one], then blame your own inability to find it [rather than him].8

The scholarly culture of Twelver Shi'ites developed roughly a century later. The primary reason for this lay in the role played by the infallible Imams as supreme guides for the community until 940: in the presence of a living, unerring religious authority, the cultivation of religious scholarship was not perceived as a pressing need. Only after the withdrawal into occultation of the twelfth and final Imam and the consequent disappearance of the Shi'i community's focal point did Twelver scholars set out to formulate the basis and content of Shi'i orthodoxy. The development of Twelver scholarship was facilitated by a unique source of funding: the khums, a fifth of all profits from trade, agriculture and crafts, which lay Twelvers had traditionally given to the Imam and which in the Imam's absence was argued to be due to his representatives, the 'ulama'. By deriving their primary means of support directly from the population, Twelver scholars were able to retain a higher degree of independence than their Sunni colleagues, who were often dependent on waqf funding, direct patronage or appointments in the state-controlled judicial system.

Like early Sunnism, which was characterised by a tension between the discourses of the traditionists and the theologians, Shi'ism was also divided between two conflicting understandings of the nature of religious knowledge. The Akhbaris held that the basis of religious life - the traditions of the Prophet and the twelve Imams - could be accessed and grasped directly by ordinary believers, rendering the development of a specialised and authoritative scholarly class obsolete. Usulas, on the other hand, viewed theology and law as highly complicated disciplines requiring the rational investigation and evaluation of sources. Such erudition, they believed, could be reached only by a minority, leaving the general populace with no option but to follow the lead of the scholars who held a monopoly over religious authority in the absence of the Imam. Although both streams of thought coexisted in Twelver Sha'ism from early on, the great Twelver scholars in Baghdad under the Buyids, such as Abu Ja'far al-Tus!, and later key scholars who originated from the Jabal 'Amil area in Lebanon, were all Usulas. Although Akhbarism experienced a renaissance in the Twelver heartlands of Iran and southern Iraq in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its brief dominance ended with the reassertion and establishment of Usu 1i doctrine by a number of prominent scholars in the late eighteenth century, leading to the virtual extinction of Akhbarism. The Usula model, based on a rigidly hierarchical scholarly class headed by the ''Object of Emulation'' (marji' al-taqlad), forms the core of Twelver religious orthodoxy to the present day.9

The question that I will now turn to is how the orthodox positions were enforced by the community of scholars, both Sunm and Sha'a. The primary mechanism of enforcement available to scholars was exclusion. On the simplest level, basic human courtesies were denied to those who were deemed to have moved outside the boundaries of orthodoxy: smiling at them, initiating the Islamic greeting and participating in their funerary prayers. Going a step further, scholars sought to dissuade the public from accepting certain heretics as qualified to lead communal prayers (a qualification possessed in principle by every Muslim). According to the twelfth-century Sunm scholar Ibn Qudama, this prohibition applied to those heretics who practised and professed their beliefs openly. The most severe measure of exclusion available to scholars within the purely academic realm was exclusion from the community of 'ulamaa' itself. The traditionist method of categorising hadith by assessing the reliability of the individual transmitters featured in the chains of transmission provided a mechanism for this, as those whose views were considered too unconventional were discredited as transmitters. Similarly, given that the majority of Muslims considered the consensus of the community to have binding force, the views of heterodox individuals could be excluded from the consensus, meaning that their objections to the prevailing position could be ignored and the consensus declared valid. In addition, unorthodox scholars could be posthumously returned to the fold through the attribution of a deathbed recantation. Thus, for example, the great eleventh- and twelfth-century theologians al-Juwayni and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi were alleged to have repented of their engagement in dialectic theology and to have affirmed the non-speculative approach of the traditionists. Conversely, later Shaafi'ai scholars such as Ibn 'Asaakir attempted to explain away the critical stance taken by al-Shaafi'ai and many of his successors towards kalaam. These examples demonstrate that the struggle for the definition of orthodoxy was not only a struggle that took place in each moment, but also involved a re-evaluation and sometimes a rewriting of the past.

In order to carry out more drastic forms of exclusion, the 'ulama' required the support of the government. This was a delicate arena: early on, Muslim scholars had already developed a disdain for the corrupting effect of worldly power, and the emerging scholarly ethos prescribed the maintenance of a circumspect distance from government, the source of this corruption. The reluctance to accept prestigious state-appointed judgeships became a frequent theme in the biographies of pious scholars, and suspicion of the government and of its motives usually prevented scholars from appealing to the authorities to punish or persecute heretics. Nevertheless, scholars did occasionally join forces to demand that a particularly threatening figure be chastised; this was the case, for example, in 922, with the execution of the famous Sufi al-Hallaj. Those scholars who did serve as judges also held considerable power to enforce orthodoxy. They had the authority to appoint court witnesses, a status that was considered an emblem of moral and religious uprightness, and whose denial consequently implied a loss of social standing. Most dramatically, if the judge determined someone to have crossed the ultimate line from heresy to all-out disbelief, he could demand a recantation or sentence the offender to death.

In addition to judgeships, the informal role of advisor to powerful government officials could provide individual scholars with significant powers of enforcement. An extreme example of such a scholar is Ibn al-Jawzi, who lived in twelfth-century Baghdad and enjoyed the patronage of some of the most influential figures of his time, including the caliph al-Mustadi' and two viziers. Ibn al-Jawzi was a gifted speaker whose core teachings consisted of a strict version of Hanbalism, a traditionist school that had not yet reached a modus vivendi with Ash'arism or Maaturaidism. He first laid out his ideas in talks that he gave at the homes of his patrons, then he lectured in the caliphal palace mosque, in madrasas, and finally in public places in the presence of the caliph. Through this gradual movement from the private to the public sphere,

Ibn al-JawzI's teachings reached an ever wider audience, and the caliph eventually granted him legal powers to pursue heretics. Initially, Ibn al-Jawzi's campaign was directed against Shi'is, but soon also non-Hanbalite Sunni scholars began to feel marginalised. Eventually the persecution touched also the Hanbali community, when heretical philosophical works were discovered in a madrasa led by a prominent Hanbali scholar: the latter was relieved of his directorship and the madrasa was turned over to the direct control of Ibn al-JawziI. However, while Ibn al-JawzI's career is not unique, his inquisitorial powers represent an exception that was enabled not by the strength and dominance of the views he represented, but by the force of his personal charisma.

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