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MADRASAH . The madrasah is an educational institution devoted to advanced studies in the Islamic religious sciences. Its origin has been much debated, but evidence that the term was in use in the eastern Iranian area as early as the late ninth century nullifies the hypothesis that it arose as the Sunnī competitor to the Azhar mosque school in Cairo, founded in 972 for the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿī sect. The same evidence likewise casts doubt on the idea that the Sunnīs copied the institution from the then-fledgling Karrāmīyah sect of Muslims, whose founder died in 869. It is also uncertain when the madrasah came to be associated with its characteristic architectural form, a rectangular courtyard with a broad arched area (īwān ) centered on each side and one or two stories of small student cells occupying the remainder of the interior wall space. This form, considered in the light of certain texts, has given rise to the hypothesis that the madrasah may ultimately derive from a Buddhist monastic model.

Prior to the mid-eleventh century, madrasah s were confined to eastern Iran and played a number of educational roles. Mysticism (Sufism) and the traditions of Muammad (adīth ) were as likely to be studied as Islamic law, which later took pride of place in the madrasah curriculum. Consequently, the earliest sense of the word itself is "place of study," a noun of place from the verb meaning "to study." An alternative suggestion that it means "place for studying Islamic law" and that it comes from another form of the verb does not fit the earliest usages.

The early Seljuk period of the mid-eleventh century marks a turning point in the history of the institution. Construction and endowment of madrasah s by pious private citizens had earlier been the rule, although pre-Seljuk instances of patronage by rulers or officials are not unknown. From the early Seljuks on, however, the madrasah became increasingly linked to official patronage. The first Seljuk sultan, ughril Beg, sponsored a madrasah in the northeastern Iranian city of Nishapur, but a far more significant development was the construction of a string of madrasah s by Niām al-Mulk, the famous vizier of ughril Beg's two successors, Alp Arslān and Malikshāh. The earliest and most important Niāmīyah madrasah s, as they were called, were erected in Nishapur (1058) and Baghdad (1067). Legal science (fiqh ) of a single interpretive school (madhhab ) was the primary subject taught, and this subsequently became the dominant pattern, although eventually more than one school of law might be taught in the same madrasah.

The significance of the Niāmīyahs has been variously explained: they were training centers for Sunnī officials to help the Seljuks supplant Shīʿī functionaries; they provided financial support for staff and students at an unprecedented level; they initiated the process of using patronage to exert government control over the elite of previously independent religious scholars. Yet there is no substantial evidence that bureaucrats attended Niāmīyahs; too little is known about earlier institutions to confirm a change in manner or level of funding; and it is apparent that Niām al-Mulk and other founding patrons of the period acted more in a private capacity than in a governing capacity.

Possibly the Niāmīyah in Baghdad was most influential because it was the first madrasah west of Iran; in Baghdad, teaching had previously been practiced in mosques, shrines, shops, and so forth. The Niāmīyah madrasah became the prototype for the madrasah s that spread throughout the western Islamic world from the twelfth century on, and the word madrasah became synonymous with Islamic higher education.

In its fully evolved form, the madrasah was typically founded by someone who endowed property in perpetuity (waqf, "endowment") for the pious purpose of religious education. The founder, whether a private person or a member of the ruling elite, could maintain a degree of control over the endowment during his or her lifetime and oversee the curriculum and the hiring of faculty, but ultimately, jurisdiction over madrasah s and their income reverted to the judge (qāī) of the Islamic court or to religious authorities designated by the government. The curriculum did not depart from the religious sciences, including jurisprudence, traditions of the Prophet, Arabic grammar, recitation of the Qurʾān. Secular subjects were taught elsewhere until the nineteenth century, when educational reform efforts in various countries forced some expansion of the traditional curriculum. Certification of the completion of specific courses took the place of an overall diploma.

Madrasah attendance seems always to have been quite popular, perhaps in part because of the financial support offered to students. But the madrasah education was more a certification of acquisition of religious knowledge than a specific preprofessional training. To be sure, religious judges, jurisconsults, mosque heads, professors, and the like normally had some amount of madrasah training, and in the Ottoman Empire there evolved a regular cursus honorum for such religious officials in certain elite madrasah s, which were the most common feeders into the higher ranks. Many students, however, attended simply to improve their knowledge of religion and make manifest their family's piety with no intention of seeking religious employment. Thus the madrasah came to serve a general educational function in society as well as a specialized one.

While some of the most important madrasah s, such as al-Azhar in Cairo, the Qarawīyīn madrasah in Fés, and various Shīʿī institutions in Qom and elsewhere, have survived to the present day as centers of religious education, most have been supplanted or diminished in importance through the growth of secular, government-supported school systems. Those that have survived educationally often have done so under financial and administrative regimes different from those of the pre-modern period, frequently within a government ministry, and as a consequence have suffered a diminution of their intellectual independence. Today, the madrasah is no longer the exclusive institution for advanced study of Islam.

See Also

Niām al-Mulk; Waqf.


Discussion of issues surrounding the origin of the madrasah can be found in George Makdisi's "Muslim Institutions of Learning in Eleventh-Century Baghdad," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 24 (1961): 156, and his The Rise of Colleges (Edinburgh, 1981); in my The Patricians of Nisha-pur (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), appendix 1; and in A. L. Tibawi's "Origin and Character of al-Madrasah," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 25 (1962): 225238. Representative of the largely uncritical accounts of Islamic educational history is Ahmad Shalaby's History of Muslim Education (Beirut, 1954). For studies of recent madrasah education in Iran and Morocco, see Michael M. J. Fischer's Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), chaps. 24, and Dale F. Eickelman's "The Art of Memory: Islamic Knowledge and Its Social Reproduction," Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (1978): 485516.

Richard W. Bulliet (1987)