Rise of Madrasas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

From the tenth through the beginning of the twelfth century, a system of self-contained and privately funded institutions of higher learning called madrasas appeared throughout the Islamic world, becoming centers for the production of knowledge and normative practices in Islamic society.

Summary of Event

The rise of the madrasa system marked the confluence and culmination of several defining aspects of medieval Islamic culture, among these traditions of rigorous scholarly inquiry, the rise of specifically Islamic forms of jurisprudence and the fields of intellectual activity that complemented and assisted these, and the practice of pious personal donation as a form of worship. The madrasa (literally “a place of study”) became a site for the production of knowledge, and for the production of a knowledgeable subculture, that of the ՙulama. The madrasa shaped the character of Muslim intellectual and religious life, effectively circumscribing the range of questions that could be legitimately posed, pondered, and answered within Islamic society. [kw]Rise of Madrasas (c. 950-1100) [kw]Madrasas, Rise of (c. 950-1100) Madrasas Education;Muslim Iraq;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Iran;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Education;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Organizations and institutions;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Religion;c. 950-1100: Rise of Madrasas[1180] Niẓām al-Mulk

The advent of the madrasa system took place as part of a series of developments in medieval Islamic learning. Since the eighth and ninth centuries, groups of scholars had met in mosques throughout the Islamic world to discuss matters crucial to the formation of an Islamic identity and community. These meetings of study circles, which were known as halaq (singular halqa) or majalis (singular majlis), were presided over by an acknowledged teacher or authority in topics of formal religious study, including those of law, Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet, and Qur՚ānic commentary and interpretation. These “Islamic sciences” were set in opposition to the “foreign sciences” of philosophy and rational inquiry into the natural world, both of which represented the intellectual legacy of Hellenistic scholarship and study.

During the ninth century, four schools or madhabs of Islamic law—the Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali—developed separate but equally orthodox modes of legal interpretation among Sunni Muslims. The doctrine of these schools evolved as part of widespread advancements in Islamic law Laws and law codes;Islamic , and the study of law itself became more complicated. Legal education thus required more intensive and more prolonged efforts on the part of students and steady, stable venues for their teachers. Thus the study and teaching of the increasingly complex nuances of Islamic law each became full-time vocations.

Over time, hostels for students and teachers known as khans sprang up in proximity to mosques in which legal studies took place. In this way, local communities of scholars and students took shape, and students and masters from around the Muslim world were able to come together, thus fostering continuity of legal theory and practice. Khans were frequently built as communal gifts by rich Muslims. Such foundations combined the imperatives of local hospitality—khans were frequently at the disposal of travelers and pilgrims as well as students and teachers—with the religious obligations enjoined upon Muslims regarding the sharing of wealth with other Muslims.

The advent of the madrasa system proper is perhaps best understood as the intersection of the educational trends in the Arab world with the distinctively Islamic institution known as the waqf. From the time of the earliest Arab conquests, one question that consistently confronted the Muslim community was the disposal of communal wealth and the rights and obligations of individual Muslims with regard to the needs of other individual Muslims and the Muslim community as a whole. Among the doctrines that evolved out of these concerns was that of the waqf. A waqf is a pious donation of private funds to the community of Muslims. Often these funds went to mosques, libraries, Sufi monasteries, or hospitals; to ransom prisoners of war; or as simple alms for the poor. The religious objective in making such a donation was to attain greater nearness to God. Of course, other, more worldly objectives might prompt the donor as well. For whatever reason a waqf donation was made, however, its purpose and conditions could be laid out very specifically by the donor prior to the giving of the gift, but once the capital was turned over to its overseer (typically a respected qadi or judge), the waqf became “like an emancipated slave,” free of its founder’s direct control.

Increasingly during the tenth and eleventh centuries, waqf donations were earmarked for the foundation of what came to be known as a madrasa. This trend was exemplified by the foundation of madrasa complexes throughout the heartlands of the Islamic empire, and especially in Iraq by the powerful Seljuk executive officer Niẓām al-Mulk Niẓām al-Mulk . Among Niẓām’s most noteworthy foundations was the Madrasa Nizamiya Madrasa Nizamiya in the intellectual hub of Baghdad, which was an immensely rich and prestigious institution that attracted the brightest and most revered scholars in Islam and that also housed vast collections of books.

The madrasa combined the elements of the majlis and khan and became a venue in which students and teachers alike could take up more or less permanent residence. The conditions of the waqf foundations varied from madrasa to madrasa—sometimes they provided a salary for teachers and stipends for students, sometimes only salaries for teachers, sometimes only the physical facilities themselves. It was not uncommon for the funds associated with the madrasa’s initial foundation to derive from an orchard or some other form of productive capital.

The madrasa itself was devoted first and foremost to the study and transmission of Islamic law, although such subsidiary (and necessary) pursuits as the study of Arabic grammar, prophetic tradition, and Qur՚ānic commentary might also be taught. The method of instruction was typically a lecture by a respected master of a given field of knowledge, during which his students would surround him and take notes. The master would frequently recite from memory his own works on questions of jurisprudence, religious doctrine, traditions of the Prophet, or other topics. In addition, he would cite, also from memory, important works of other masters, including his own teachers. Memory was highly prized in this setting, and students were encouraged to memorize the knowledge they “collected” and free themselves of the need for the written word.

Although within the madrasa, the study of Islamic law was exalted above all other pursuits, including the study of literature and the foreign sciences, these realms of knowledge systematically made their way back into the madrasa through the extracurricular activities of resident students and teachers who studied these “lesser” disciplines away from the madrasa. In this way, the methods and modes of disputation encountered in Greek philosophy, for example, affected the discussion and debate of points of Islamic law profoundly (if covertly). Similarly, histories, biographies, and other works of belles-lettres were read to enhance the students’s and teacher’s imagination and capacity for analogous reasoning.

Learning was understood as a lifelong process, and there are numerous anecdotes that depict famous Muslim scholars taking the time on their deathbeds to learn one last prophetic saying or one last poem. Once a student had mastered one science, there were always more to study and always more knowledge to acquire. Learning was thought to leave its imprint on the individual, and through diligent study, individuals were understood to refine themselves and become better Muslims and more honorable social beings. As one scholar put it, learning shone out from the learned man and not only illuminated those around him but also marked him as a communal exemplar.

Perhaps the most important function of the madrasa from the point of view of the Islamic community was that it served as a venue for the creation of consensus in a society ruled by custom and common public assent. Medieval Islamic society had no organizing bodies with which to produce such consensus, or with which to interpret or refine custom. In other societies, such functions may be fulfilled by ecclesiastical hierarchies or by formal public judicial bodies. In medieval society, questions of law and normative custom were regulated by a dialectical process by which propositions were either popularly assented to or objected to. The madrasa became the site in which the legal scholars whose voice was authoritative in such matters debated matters of custom and law, and the site in which they determined the acceptability or permissibility of thousands on thousands of questions and propositions large and small, all of which would manifest themselves in the day-to-day lives of millions of Muslims over the space of generations.


During the centuries of the Crusades, and following the overthrow of the Shīՙite governments of the eastern Muslim world in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the madrasa became a center for the production of specifically Sunni Sunni Islam , and increasingly militant, ideologies. During the same period and in later centuries, the madrasa was also a site for the forging of relationships between what were often non-Arab ruling elites and the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the communities over whom they held sway. Thus, despite the inherent separation between madrasas and secular leaders, they became and would remain crucial meeting points between the worldly power of their founders and patrons and the spiritual and moral authority wielded by the scholars whose work they fostered.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkey, Jonathan. The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. A concise and vivid study of the relationship between secular elites and institutions of learning and culture in medieval Cairo. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ephrat, Daphna. A Learned Society in a Period of Transition: The Sunni “ՙUlama” of Eleventh Century Baghdad. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. A study of the intellectual circles of Baghdad that were inspired by the founding and success of the madrasas. Chapters discuss the arrival of the madrasas, the ՙulama in the context of scholarly networks beyond Baghdad, and the halqa. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides a strong cross-cultural background on madrasas and their role in the rise of science and scientific knowledge in the Muslim world. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leiser, Gary. “The Madrasa and the Islamization of the Middle East: The Case of Egypt.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 22 (1985): 29-47. A study of the role played by madrasa institutions in producing and disseminating Islamic identity and communal mores.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leiser, Gary. “Notes on the Madrasa in Medieval Islamic Society.” Muslim World 73 (1983): 165-181. Considers the situation of the early madrasa system in its historical and social setting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makdisi, George. Religion, Law, and Learning in Classical Islam. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1991. These collected articles of the author represent the evolution of his scholarship regarding the intellectual milieu in which the madrasa system was born. An indispensable source. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makdisi, George. The Rise of the Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. The standard work on the rise of the madrasa and one of the foremost works on the intellectual culture to which the madrasa was home. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History