Muslims were the first civilization to institutionalize higher learning through models of systemized education. In fact, modern-day colleges are ‘descendants’ of Islamic universities, which were very common in various cities across the Muslim world. Two of them are the world’s oldest running operations since their inception: University of Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, and Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt; they have been continuously operating since 841 AD and 988 AD respectively.
These, and many others like them, originated from mosques. The term for ‘university’ in Arabic is Jamiah, the feminine form of the word Jami, which is used for ‘mosque’. According to “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World”, this derivation shows that “in Arabic the place of religion and the place of advanced learning are completely tied together.” Therefore, it is no surprise that “some of the mosques of Islam are the oldest universities”.
Al-Qarawiyin mosque and university was built by Fatima Al-Fihri during the Idrisid rule. The university was well-equipped with astronomical instruments and tools to calculate time. Additionally, it offered studies in Quran and theology, law, logic, geography and medicine along with courses on chemistry and mathematics among others. The University had a rigorous selection process which included conditions such as “learning the whole Quran and good knowledge of Arabic and general sciences,” as mentioned in “1001 Inventions”.
Royal families were so keen on furthering the cause of education that, unlike today, students of Al-Qarawiyin did not have to pay tuitions and were actually given stipends for food and accommodation. Many illustrious personalities are associated with this pioneering institution such as Ibn Al-Arabi, Al-Bitruji, and the Jewish figure Musa Ibn Mamun (aka Maimonides). As for Al-Azhar, Ibn Al-Haytham lived there for a long time and Ibn Khaldun taught there.
Universities were equipped with exceptional libraries. In 1050, the book collection of Al-Azhar library had “more than a hundred and twenty thousand volumes, recorded in a sixty volume catalogue totaling about three thousand five hundred pages,” as stated in “1001 Inventions”.
R.S. Mackensen, a contemporary European historian of Islamic librarianship, has remarked: “Books were presented and many a scholar bequeathed his library to the mosque of his city to ensure its preservation and to render the books accessible to the learned who frequented it. And so grew up the great universities of Cordoba and Toledo to which flocked Christians as well as [Muslims] from all over the world.”
During the later part of the 11th century, Baghdad introduced its precursor to the modern university in the form of a chain of Madrasahs, which housed students and a salaried faculty. They were known as the Nizamiyah, after their founder Nizam Al-Mulk, a Seljuk Vizier. The largest and most splendid of these was located in Baghdad; the great theologian Al-Ghazali and the celebrated historian of Saladin, Baha Eddin, were lecturers there.
Al-Mustansiriyah college was established in 1234 CE by Caliph Al-Mustansir. It was a large two-storied building, oblong in shape, with a courtyard in the center. Housing and food were provided for those students who required it. The curriculum included religious studies, mathematics, medicine, and history, among other subjects.
The Sankore university in Timbuktu, which also evolved out of the Sankore mosque, offered subjects such as Quran, Islamic studies, law, literature, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, sciences, etc. Students were also trained in trades and business ethics, with classes in carpentry, tailoring, navigation, fishing and so on.
These are just a few of the many universities which existed during the Golden Age of Islam. While scholars and intellectuals flocked to them to teach, they also produced marvelous theologians, inventors and thinkers who had a lasting impact on the modern world as we know it today.