Francis Robinson

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online December 2009 | | DOI:


Knowledge is central to Muslim societies. Through time there has been no more important activity than seeking knowledge: “Seek ye knowledge” goes the saying attributed to the Prophet, “even if it be in China.” By the same token there was no one more worthy of respect than the ʿalim (plural ʿulamaʾ) the person who had knowledge (ʿilm) and transmitted it. The knowledge concerned was: knowledge of the Qurʾan, God's revelation to humankind through the Prophet Muhammad, the Hadith, Tradition, the sayings and doings of the Prophet as transmitted by his companions, and all the skills that were needed to make this knowledge socially useful, primarily in the form of law, but in other forms as well. As time went on, this knowledge came to be bound up in distinctive disciplines and represented by great books. These books with commentaries would be transmitted orally by the ʿulamaʾ. When a pupil demonstrated that he (or sometimes she) had full command of a book, he was given an ijaza, a permission to teach it, indeed, authority over it. From the 11th century there developed formal institutions, or madrasas, in which teaching took place. But it should be understood that these were never schools or colleges in the European sense. The transmission of Islamic learning remained an informal, person-to-person activity, which could take place inside a madrasa or a mosque but could equally take place on a river bank or under a tree. What was crucial was the person-to-person relationship of teacher and pupil. At the same time as this essentially legal education developed by the ʿulamaʾ there also grew up the mystical education developed by the Sufis. This was knowledge of how to internalize the formal knowledge taught by the ʿalim: that is, knowledge of how to know God in one's heart. Different Sufis developed different techniques for doing this and their successors developed different orders or brotherhoods. The roles of the ʿalim and the Sufi are often separated for didactic purposes, but they were in effect two sides of the same coin, and most ʿulamaʾ were also Sufis, but not necessarily vice versa. Down to the eighteenth century the systems of ʿulamaʾ for transmitting knowledge, often bound up with those of Sufis, came to be spread throughout the Muslim world from West Africa through Central, South and Southeast Asia. Over the period there were also some more distinct forms or targets for education—slaves, women, the very young and the people at large. In the 19th century the Muslim world came to be overwhelmed by the West so that by 1920 only Afghanistan, North Yemen and central Arabia were outside Western control, and the Turks and Iranians were under very considerable pressure. The outcome of Western hegemony was a bifurcation of educational practice in most Muslim societies. On the one hand, either as an independent Muslim society striving to resist Western power or as one subject to Western power, some Muslims became divorced from their traditional education and came to be educated in Western-style schools and colleges, and learned subjects defined by Western definitions of knowledge. On the other hand, and often in the poorer parts of Muslim societies, the traditional forms of education associated with the madrasa were maintained. Only in rare cases has there been some form of unification of the different educational traditions. The issue of the so-called modernization of madrasas is one of considerable debate.

Article.  16316 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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