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The Contribution of the Arabs to Education

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BOOK NAME: The Contribution of the Arabs to Education

AUTHOR: Khalil A. Totah (PhD)

PUBLISHER: Teachers College, Columbia University — New York


The following excerpt has been taken from Page: 13 – 17

Schools in Mosques

“To-day, the chief Muslim centre of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, is still called a mosque. In Muslim villages of Palestine, the schoolhouse as a separate building from the mosque is a novelty. Children still go for their tuition to the ‘jami’ (mosque), with its yard, mulberry tree, and turbaned shaikh. The teacher, moreover, is still the ‘sheikh’, ‘khatib’, ‘imam’, ‘alim’ or religious functionary in the village. Students circled about their teachers in the Mosque of Damascus and to this day classes are held in the Mosque of Umar in Jerusalem.

The Contribution of the Arabs to Education

“The Spanish Arabs never had schools as such, but carried on all their educational work in mosques. For this reason, the chief historian of Arab Spain says: ‘The people of Andalus (Spain) have no schools to assist them in the quest for learning, because they study all branches in the mosques by the payment of fees.’ Al-Maqqari says that he, himself, ‘sat teaching’ in the Mosque of Cordova, in the Mosque of Nakhilah, and in that of al-Zahirah. Abu al-Oasirn taught at Baghdad in the Mosque of Ibn Ahmad. We are justified in concluding from these facts that from the beginning of Islam to the present day, in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, and other places, mosques were used as schools. At present this practice is dying out, as Muslim education is becoming secularised, and the school is fast dissolving partnership with the mosque.

Schools in the Umayyad Period

“During the Umayyad period (661-750 a.d.), we have some record of schools being founded. This dynasty was fighting civil and foreign wars in order to maintain itself. It was a transition period-one of emergence from a nomad into a settled mode of life. The Arabs were then adjusting themselves to their new environment and endeavouring to understand their recently acquired heritage of Greek and Persian culture The Umayyads were busy consolidating and arabicizing their conquests. They were making the Arabic speech the official language of court and administration. Arabic was replacing Greek and Syriac in Syria, Coptic in Egypt, and Aramaic in Persia and Mesopotamia. Arabic coinage was being adopted. Under such conditions the Umayyads had little time for the establishment of a system of schools.

“There must have been a few schools in the first century of Islam (seventh century a.d.), however, because we have references, here and there, to teachers. Thus it appears that there were teachers even in the lifetime of the Prophet (570-630 a.d.).

“The same authority quotes al-Jahiz, an eminent Arab man-of-letters living in the ninth century a.d., as having said that school teachers during the first century of the Hegira were exclusively recruited from ‘mawlas’ and ‘dhimmis’ (non-Muslims).

“It is a well-known fact, moreover, that al-Hajjaj, the staunch supporter of the House of Umayyah, taught a school in the small town of al-Ta’if about the middle of the seventh century a.d. The poet al-Kumait taught school in the Mosque of Kufah about the beginning of the eighth century a.d. Al-Walid, the Umayyad Caliph (705-715 a.d.), is said to have ‘passed by a teacher of boys.’

“We conclude from the above that schools existed here and there during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 a.d.). To these must be added the court-schools which Lammens discusses at length as the education which the Umayyads offered to their princes. Abd al-Malik gave the tutor of his son full liberty to chastise him. When the Umayyad dynasty fell, some of its members were cast into prison. On being questioned to what was the bitterest part of their calamity, they replied ‘the loss of our children’s education.’

The Abbasids and Schools

“We now come to another Arab dynasty — the Abbasids — which reigned from 750 a.d., with varying fortunes and misfortunes on to 1517, when it relinquished the Caliphate formally to the Ottoman Turks. It was this House of Abbas which founded Baghdad. To this family the famous Harun al-Rashid belonged. Al-Ma’mun, the prince and Caliph, it was who enriched the Arabic language with the treasures of Greek culture. In fine, it was on the banks of the Tigris and under the banner of these Abbasid Caliphs that the Arabs had their Golden Age of wealth, influence, power, learning, and culture.

“When Charlemagne was learning to read his letters with the sons of his nobles in the palace school, al-Ma’mun was studying and discussing philosophy in Baghdad and at a time when most European children had no schools to attend, their Arab contemporaries were enjoying the full benefits of education.

“In the earlier Abbasid period there was a certain spontaneity about the growth of educational opportunities that was wholesome. There was an eager thirst for knowledge which was slaked most informally at the nearest source. There were ‘majalis al-’ilm’ and ‘majalis al-adab’ which served as classes, and pupils who distinguished themselves were rewarded by having almonds thrown to them as they were given a ride through the streets. It was on one of these rides that an unfortunate pupil lost his eye because of the nuts which were showered upon him.

“Schools were held in mosques, in ‘kuttabs’ i.e., elementary schools, in private houses and sometimes in shops. As the mosques have already been discussed as seats of learning, it is sufficient to state that they were numerous in the cities and existed in almost every village. Al-Ya’qubi, who has left us a description of Baghdad of the ninth century a.d., states that there were in that capital thirty thousand mosques, and it must be remembered that each mosque was a potential school. Aside from the mosques, we have frequent references to the ‘kuttab’ or ‘maktab’ which served as an elementary school. The author of ‘al-Aghani’ (ninth century) (mentions a ‘kuttab’ and a ‘maktab’ in Kufah). Al-Jahiz, who lived in the same century, uses the term ‘kuttab’ for school. The Caliph al-Mu’tasirn (ninth century) is said to have attended a ‘kuttab’. Other writers, such as Yaqut, very frequently refer to these elementary schools and their teachers.

“Educational activity, carried on in private houses and shops, supplemented that which was found in mosques and ‘kuttabs’. Thus it is reported of Ishaq ibn Ammar that he taught poetry in the house of a certain ‘Isa’. Ishma’il ibn Husain was in the habit of teaching in a private dwelling, ‘manzil’. Again, Yaqut speaks of a shaikh who used his house for a school. It is quite fascinating to read about the brilliant woman, ‘Amrah’, whose house served as a most informal school-a place ‘frequented by men for the purpose of conversation and the composition of poetry’.

“A still more fascinating school was the humble shop of the potter-poet Abu al-Atahiah. ‘Boys and litterateurs’ goes the record, ‘went to him and he would repeat his poems to them and they would take the broken pieces of pottery on which to write down these poems.’ That there were schools in this age of the Abbasids is further proved by an order which was issued by the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ninth century), requiring teachers to instruct the children that the Quran was ‘created’ that it was not an inspired book.

“Nor was the education of the Abbasids confined to that of children and primary schools, for al-Ma’mun founded Bait al-Hikmah, (the ‘House of Wisdom’), where the higher branches of learning were pursued. Such an authority as Ibn al-Nadim states that Salam, the principal of that College, was delegated by the Caliph to go to the ‘country of the Greeks’ for the purpose of translating their works into Arabic. This same principal seems to have been well versed in mathematics, as he was especially selected for the work of explaining Ptolemy’s book entitled Almagest. The College Bait al-Hikmah boasted of a library with a librarian who was a noted mathematician and astronomer. This man was al-Khwarizmi, whose treatise on algebra is still extant. With a chief who was conversant with the Almagest and a librarian such as al-Khwarizimi, Bait al-Hikmah must be regarded as a true college or university.”

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