In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

Islamic Studies Education
Francis Robinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0020


Knowledge is central to Muslim societies. Through time there has been no more important activity than seeking knowledge: “Seek ye knowledge” goes the saying attributed to the Prophet, “even if it be in China.” By the same token there was no one more worthy of respect than the ʿalim (plural ʿulamaʾ) the person who had knowledge (ʿilm) and transmitted it. The knowledge concerned was: knowledge of the Qurʾan, God's revelation to humankind through the Prophet Muhammad, the Hadith, Tradition, the sayings and doings of the Prophet as transmitted by his companions, and all the skills that were needed to make this knowledge socially useful, primarily in the form of law, but in other forms as well. As time went on, this knowledge came to be bound up in distinctive disciplines and represented by great books. These books with commentaries would be transmitted orally by the ʿulamaʾ. When a pupil demonstrated that he (or sometimes she) had full command of a book, he was given an ijaza, a permission to teach it, indeed, authority over it. From the 11th century there developed formal institutions, or madrasas, in which teaching took place. But it should be understood that these were never schools or colleges in the European sense. The transmission of Islamic learning remained an informal, person-to-person activity, which could take place inside a madrasa or a mosque but could equally take place on a river bank or under a tree. What was crucial was the person-to-person relationship of teacher and pupil. At the same time as this essentially legal education developed by the ʿulamaʾ there also grew up the mystical education developed by the Sufis. This was knowledge of how to internalize the formal knowledge taught by the ʿalim: that is, knowledge of how to know God in one's heart. Different Sufis developed different techniques for doing this and their successors developed different orders or brotherhoods. The roles of the ʿalim and the Sufi are often separated for didactic purposes, but they were in effect two sides of the same coin, and most ʿulamaʾ were also Sufis, but not necessarily vice versa. Down to the eighteenth century the systems of ʿulamaʾ for transmitting knowledge, often bound up with those of Sufis, came to be spread throughout the Muslim world from West Africa through Central, South and Southeast Asia. Over the period there were also some more distinct forms or targets for education—slaves, women, the very young and the people at large. In the 19th century the Muslim world came to be overwhelmed by the West so that by 1920 only Afghanistan, North Yemen and central Arabia were outside Western control, and the Turks and Iranians were under very considerable pressure. The outcome of Western hegemony was a bifurcation of educational practice in most Muslim societies. On the one hand, either as an independent Muslim society striving to resist Western power or as one subject to Western power, some Muslims became divorced from their traditional education and came to be educated in Western-style schools and colleges, and learned subjects defined by Western definitions of knowledge. On the other hand, and often in the poorer parts of Muslim societies, the traditional forms of education associated with the madrasa were maintained. Only in rare cases has there been some form of unification of the different educational traditions. The issue of the so-called modernization of madrasas is one of considerable debate.

General Overviews

An overview of the transmission of knowledge in the Muslim world is provided by Robinson 1996. Rosenthal 2007 explores the importance of knowledge to the classical Muslim world. Hodgson 1974 describes the way in which distinctive intellectual traditions came to be formed. Azra 2004 sets out the role of the transmitters of knowledge in fashioning a Muslim world connected by knowledge. Esposito1995 offers a good overview of modern education. Hefner and Zaman 2007 address issues relating to madrasa education in the modern world. The essays in Grandin and Gaborieau 1997 examine first of all the classical models for the transmission of knowledge and then the responses among transmitters to the challenges of the modern era across the Muslim world from West Africa to Central Asia, as well as to China and Indonesia.'

  • Azra, Azyumardi. The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern ʿUlamaʾ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. London: Allen & Unwin, 2004.

    This is an excellent exposition of our current state of understanding of the knowledge networks created by teaching across the Muslim world.

  • Esposito, John L. “Education.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Vol. 1. Edited by John L. Esposito, 406–428. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    This long entry covers: religious education, educational institutions, educational methods, educational reform, and the Islamization of knowledge. With useful bibliographies, it is a good starting point for exploring the modern dimensions of the subject.

  • Grandin, Nicole, and Marc Gaborieau. Madrasa: La Transmission du Savoir dans le Monde Musulman. Paris: Editions Arguments, 1997.

    A strong collection of essays in both English and French. Examines the transmission of knowledge both in its classical formations and in the major societies of the modern Muslim world.

  • Hefner, Robert W., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

    First-class survey by leading scholars in the field of madrasa education and its operations in a wide range of regional contexts.

  • Hodgson, Marshal, G.S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods. Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    Much of the content of this volume in Hodgson's great three-volume work sets out the intellectual and political context in which Muslim traditions regarding knowledge and its transmission came to be consolidated.

  • Robinson, Francis. “Knowledge, Its Transmission and the Making of Muslim Societies.” In The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. Edited by Francis Robinson, 208–249. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Straightforward overview of knowledge and its transmission in the Muslim world to the present.

  • Rosenthal, Franz. Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Boston: Brill, 2007.

    The classic exposition of the importance of knowledge in medieval Islam; it is deeply rooted in the sources.

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