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Madrasa, is an Islamic college, literally a "place of instruction," especially instruction in religious law. In medieval usage the term referred to an institution providing intermediate and advanced instruction in Islamic law and related subjects. This contrasted with elementary schools, which provided basic Qur˒an instruction, and nonreligious institutions, which provided instruction in such subjects as medicine. In modern usage the term usually applies to schools offering Islamic religious instruction at any level. The madrasa can be considered as a building, as a legal entity, and as an educational institution. As a rule, the medieval madrasa served male students who were past the elementary level and who intended to acquire credentials as ulema, religious scholars. Elementary schools and schools offering vernacular or practical education were usually known by other names.

Description and Architecture

A typical Islamic madrasa contained rooms for students, a prayer hall, and classrooms and would likely also contain a residence for one or more professors, a library, and sanitary facilities. It was usually attached to a mosque, and large mosque complexes, such as those in Istanbul, might contain several madrasas. The typical Middle Eastern madrasa was a square building of one or two stories surrounding a courtyard. The student rooms opened onto the courtyard, and if the madrasa had two stories, the student rooms might be on the upper floor with classrooms and service rooms on the ground floor. Sometimes the central courtyard was replaced by a domed central hall. In their architecture madrasas are closely linked with other kinds of Islamic public buildings, notably mosques and caravansaries. There is, however, a great deal of variation in the design of madrasas. Some of the earliest surviving madrasas have few student rooms or none, perhaps because they served little more than a neighborhood, in contrast to great royal foundations that drew students from far away. Many madrasas, especially in Egypt, contain the mausoleums of their founders, with the madrasa proper being almost an afterthought. In crowded cities a cramped or irregular site often resulted in modification of the traditional plan. The fact that a madrasa's prayer hall might serve as a neighborhood mosque sometimes resulted in the addition of a minaret and the separation of the student rooms from the rest of the madrasa. When, as in the great Ottoman mosque complexes, the madrasa was closely associated with a mosque, the prayer hall shrank to make room for other facilities. When a madrasa was intended for more than a single legal school, separate teaching facilities were provided for each professor, so that there are cruciform madrasas providing symmetrical facilities for professors of each of the four Sunni schools of law. Finally, a house or some other existing building might simply be used as a madrasa without any special modifications.

The Medieval Madrasa

The madrasa appears as an institution in about the eleventh century and evolved from the informal schools that operated in mosques or teachers' homes. Islamic education was usually a distinctly personal and informal matter, and prior to the rise of the madrasa, as is still often the case, religious scholars would teach in a convenient mosque, perhaps teaching more advanced students, or controversial subjects, in their homes. It was customary for medieval Muslim students of the religious sciences to travel extensively to study with well-known teachers, and teachers also often traveled long distances seeking opportunities to teach, receive patronage, and further their own studies. A well-known hadith attributed to Muhammad says, "seek knowledge, even in China." A mosque, however, was not a suitable place for professors or significant numbers of students to live for long stretches, so by the tenth-century khans, inns, were being built adjacent to mosques. The first great burst of madrasa construction occurred in the eleventh century in the Seljuk empire and is associated with the name of the great wazir Nizam al-Mulk, who founded a number of madrasas known as Nizamiya, the most important of which, the Nizamiya in Baghdad, became one of the greatest educational institutions in the Islamic world. Whatever Nizam al-Mulk's philanthropic goals may have been, he probably also intended his madrasas to combat the threat posed to Sunni Islam by various forms of more or less revolutionary Shi ism. The institution of the madrasa soon spread across the Islamic world and became the dominant form of institution of higher learning. It was not the only form of educational institution; there were also Qur˒anic schools for younger pupils; Sufi monasteries; hospitals; observatories; vernacular schools for the children of merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans; and various forms of private tuition for the children of government officials.

Legal Status

A madrasa was legally a waqf, a charitable endowment. The founder would donate property, from whose proceeds the madrasa was built and maintained. The income from the endowment supported one or more professors, various servants and functionaries, and the students, who received room, board, and perhaps a small stipend. The founder's instructions governed such matters as the legal school to which the professor would belong. The extensive legal literature relating to madrasas deals with predictable problems of defining an adequate stipend, absentee professors, stipends for students who did not live at the madrasa, financial shortfalls, and responsibility for maintenance of the facilities. Madrasas as institutions did not issue degrees or diplomas. The closest counterpart to the Western degree was the ijaza, the license to teach a particular book or subject issued by an individual teacher. Madrasas had several advantages for donors. First, whereas the founder of a mosque had very little control after its establishment, the founder of a madrasa had a good deal of discretion in the terms of the endowment, so that in practice one could use the endowment of a madrasa to support one's descendants. Second, a madrasa was less expensive to build and endow than a mosque, putting it within reach of those of more modest wealth or allowing a ruler to build a larger number of institutions. Finally, a madrasa could be an ideological tool, a way to help Islamize newly conquered territories or to combat the influence of a rival sect.

Curriculum and Instruction

The madrasa education was intended to teach the student how to deduce religious law from the authoritative Islamic texts. The students who went through the whole course were qualified to be judges and religious scholars, but most students doubtless dropped out earlier, becoming mosque imams or pursuing secular careers with the added prestige of a religious education. The method of instruction was scholastic and dialectical: intense debate about the interpretation and difficulties of a set of standard textbooks. Students came to the madrasa knowing the Qur˒an by rote and a fair amount of Arabic. Students studied Arabic, logic, and the core subjects of the Islamic religious sciences: fiqh (Islamic law), Qur˒an interpretation, and the hadith, sayings of the Prophet. Better students went on to study usul al-fiqh (jurisprudence), along with some theology, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and sometimes medicine.

Modern Developments

The arrival of modern educational institutions was a major challenge to the madrasas. Colonial administrators, nationalists, and Islamic reformers alike dismissed the scholastic madrasa education as out-of-date. Traditional sources of income dried up. Talented students sought new opportunities in modern universities and professions. Islamic revivalists complained of the rationalist character of the traditional madrasa curriculum and its neglect of core religious subjects. Postcolonial governments sometimes attempted to close or co-opt madrasas, fearing that they might become centers of opposition. This was the case in Turkey, where Ataturk closed the madrasas, and Indonesia, where the government tried to reduce the influence of the madrasas, known there as pesantrans, by controlling the curriculum, giving teachers government salaries, and establishing rival institutions. In many cases, standards of instruction and numbers of students declined precipitously, though in most places the major institutions survived. The attempts of the Pahlavi regime in Iran to control the madrasas failed, creating bitter opposition to the government among the ulema.

The Islamic revival of the late twentieth century has resulted in the revival of madrasas in a number of countries. The Iranian revolution of 1978–1979 was organized by ulema, so after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran the Iranian madrasas, especially in Qom, received a huge influx of new students and financial support. Saudi Arabia, through both its government and wealthy individuals, has subsidized madrasas in many countries, thus increasing the influence of Saudi-style Wahhabi literalist Islam at the expense of both rationalist and mystical approaches to Islam. In the subcontinent the major Islamic revivalist movements have competed through their educational institutions since the nineteenth century. The most important of these was the Deoband movement. Its founders established a large educational complex in Deoband, near Delhi, devoted to propagating a revived, hadith-oriented Islam. The Deobandis thus opposed not only the new European-style education system of British India and the modernist Islamic Aligarh Muslim University but also the traditional Islamic religious education of India associated with the Firingi-Mahall educational complex in Lucknow, which was strongly rationalist and also closely associated with Sufism. Religious competition through madrasas has been particularly pronounced in Pakistan, where various Islamic groups have established tens of thousands of madrasas on the elementary, secondary, and university level. The Taliban (lit. "students") movement in Afghanistan in the late twentieth century was an outgrowth of madrasa training in Pakistan. These institutions are appealing to poor families, both because of the prestige of Islamic education and because, unlike the usually inadequate government schools, the madrasas provide room and board and charge no fees. Their quality varies tremendously and is, in general, quite poor. Finally, immigrant Islamic communities in Europe and North America have begun establishing their own religious schools, usually on the model of Sunday schools but sometimes as independent parochial schools. There are no schools training ulema outside of the Islamic world.

The madrasas have not kept their monopoly on training ulema. Increasingly, advanced Islamic education is taking place in modern universities. In the late nineteenth century the University of the Punjab in Lahore began granting Islamic clerical degrees. There are now faculties of theology in many universities in Islamic countries producing Islamic legal scholars and religious leaders. Finally, it is not uncommon for more talented madrasa students to go on for graduate degrees in secular universities in fields such as Arabic, Islamic studies, and philosophy.

See alsoAligarh ; Azhar, al- ; Deoband ; Education .


Eccel, A. Chris. Egypt, Islam, and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation. Berlin: K. Schwarz, 1984.

Makdisi, George. The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning inIslam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Metcalf, Barbara D. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband,1860–1900. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Sufi, G. M. D. Al-Minhaj, Being the Evolution of Curriculum in the Muslim Educational Institutions of India. Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 1941.

Tibawi, A. L. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernization into the Arab National Systems. London: Luzac, 1972.

John Walbridge

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Arabic word for an Islamic college and, more specifically, a center for religious and legal studies.

The madrasa originated in Eastern Iran in the tenth century and spread to major urban centers throughout the Middle East by the late eleventh century. The architect of the madrasa as a state-sponsored institution of higher education was Nizam al-Mulk (died 1092 c.e.), the prime minister of the Seljuk empire. These residential colleges were designed by the ruling elite both as a training ground for state bureaucrats and as a Sunni Islam response to the propaganda of Ismaili Shiʿism w at al-Azhar, the theological learning center founded by the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo in 969 c.e. As part of a Sunni Muslim religio-political agenda, the madrasa spread throughout the Islamic world. The madrasa system augmented already extant mosque-centered training sites for the study of religion and law. Unlike these centers, the madrasa forged links between the ulama, the religious scholars who directed Islamic education, and the ruling government authorities whose financial support made their control of the madrasa possible.

The madrasa system of education was linked to the mosque, which traditionally had been the place of instruction for Muslims in the Qurʾan and in the Hadiththe traditions that preserved the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. The madrasa combined the site for education with student residences. Libraries and sometimes hospitals would adjoin the madrasa. Financial support for the educational institution was generated by the state in the form of a charitable endowment called waqf. The revenue on these endowments paid for the maintenance of the buildings, student stipends, and instructors' fees.

The course of instruction at a madrasa included the Qurʾan, tradition, Arabic language, theology, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and, often, medicine; however, the study of Islamic law (shariʿa) provided the core of the madrasa's rigorous curriculum. Initially, madrasas were founded to provide specialized instruction in one of the four Sunni legal schools. In time, legal instruction in one or more of the Sunni legal schools might be offered in a single madrasa.

The method of instruction relied heavily on memorizationof the Qurʾan and as many traditions as possible. Once these preliminaries were accomplished, students were trained in the technicalities of the law, divergent legal opinions, and the disputed questions that distinguished their law school from the other Sunni legal schools. After four or more years of study, an instructor determined whether an individual student could be licensed to teach law and given a diploma, a signed certificate called an ijaza. Any Muslim male could join a madrasa, but the number of students per teacher was usually limited to twenty. Only male students studied at madrasas; Muslim women were not allowed to study Islamic law. Major Sunni madrasas were founded at Medina, Cairo, Tunis, and Fez. Al-Azhar remains the most famous Sunni theological center in the Arab world; it underwent a series of curriculum reforms in the early twentieth century that made the director of that institution the prime link between the Egyptian government and the country's traditional religious elite. Shiʿite madrasas in Iran include those of Mashhad and Qom and, in Iraq, al-Najaf, and Karbala.

In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire founded schools influenced by European models to train their military officers, bureaucrats, and doctors. Similar professional schools were also created in Egypt and Tunisia during this period to offer instruction to those Muslims in government service forced to contend with the European colonial presence in the Middle East. These non-Islamic educational institutions created new urban nationalist elites. In the twentieth century, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of Arab states hastened educational reform; secular schools of higher education undermined the madrasa system in the Sunni Muslim world. State-sponsored higher education throughout the Middle East promoted new secular avenues of social mobility and professional prestige for male and female Muslim students in areas such as medicine and engineering. Shiʿite madrasas flourish in Iran since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution of 1979 reestablished Islamic rule.

see also arabic; azhar, al-; hadith; iranian revolution (1979); mosque; qurʾan; shariʿa; shiʿism; sunni islam; ulama; waqf.


Husayn, Taha. The Stream of Days: A Student at the Azhar, 2d edition, translated by Hilary Wayment. London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1948.

Makdisi, George. The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

denise a. spellberg

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madrasa, madrassa, madraseh, medresseh. Islamic theological and legal place of instruction, usually with a court with iwan, accommodation, and study-cells. The grandest madrasas resembled four-iwan mosque plans, with cells on two storeys ranged around the court (e.g. Madrasa al-Nuriya al-Kubra, Damascus, Syria (1171–2), and the Madrasas of Ulughbeg (1417–20), Samarkand, Uzbekistan). In some cases the open court was replaced by a smaller covered, domed space (e.g. the Inje Minare Madrasa, Konya, Turkey (c.1260–5), and in others they were part of much larger complexes (e.g. the Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey (1550–7), by Sinan. The Madrasa Madar-I-Shah, Isfahan, Iran (1706–14), was a late and very beautiful example of the fouriwan madrasa, complete with high, pointed domes, and two-storey arcades and a garden-court crossed by axial canals (the true paradise garden).


Blair & and Bloom (1994);
Hillenbrand (1994)

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madrasaamasser, gasser, macassar, Makassar, Mombasa, Nasser •relaxer, waxer •salsa •cancer, romancer •piazza • necromancer • madrasa •Kinshasa, Lhasa, passer, Tarrasa, Vaasa •advancer, answer, chancer, dancer, enhancer, lancer, prancer •tazza •addresser, aggressor, assessor, compressor, confessor, contessa, depressor, digresser, dresser, guesser, intercessor, lesser, Odessa, oppressor, possessor, professor, represser, successor, transgressor, Vanessa •Alexa, flexor, vexer •Elsa, Kielce •censer, censor, dispenser, fencer, Mensa, sensor, Spenser •seltzer •Faenza, Henze •indexer • hairdresser • predecessor •microprocessor, processor •acer, bracer, chaser, debaser, embracer, facer, macer, mesa, pacer, placer, racer, spacer, tracer •Ailsa • steeplechaser •greaser, Lisa, Nerissa, piecer, Raisa, releaser •pizza

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Also medersa, from the Arabic darasa, "to learn," and darrasa, to teach. The contemporary use of Madrasa designates a school, secular or religious, public or private.

Historically a madrasa was a Qurʾanic school, generally established near a mosque. It could be small or a large complex characterized by medieval architectural structure. A typical madrasa had one entrance leading to an interior courtyard with a richly decorated fountain and basin at the center. This couryard was surrounded by tiers of galleries containing openings into student rooms and halls used for prayer and study.

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Madrasa. Islamic school, for children, and for adult studies.