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The very first educational institutions of the Islamic world were quite informal. Mosques were used as a meeting place where people can gather around a learned scholar, attend his lectures, read books with him/her, and gain knowledge. Some of the greatest scholars of Islam learned in such a way, and taught their students this way as well. All four founders of the Muslim schools of law – Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i, and Ibn Hanbal – gained their immense knowledge by sitting in gatherings with other scholars (usually in the mosques) to discuss and learn Islamic law.

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Idem, A Few Events in the Early History of the Parsis and Their Dates, Bombay, 1905.

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Ibn Khaldun states in his Muqaddimah, “It should be known that instructing children in the Qur’an is a symbol of Islam. Muslims have, and practice, such instruction in all their cities, because it imbues hearts with a firm belief (in Islam) and its articles of faith, which are (derived) from the verses of the Qur’an and certain Prophetic traditions.”

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Today, education of children is not limited to the information and facts they are expected to learn. Rather, educators take into account the emotional, social, and physical well-being of the student in addition to the information they must master. Medieval Islamic education was no different. The 12th century Syrian physician al-Shayzari wrote extensively about the treatment of students. He noted that they should not be treated harshly, nor made to do busy work that doesn’t benefit them at all. The great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali also noted that “prevention of the child from playing games and constant insistence on learning deadens his heart, blunts his sharpness of wit and burdens his life. Thus, he looks for a ruse to escape his studies altogether.” Instead, he believed that educating students should be mixed with fun activities such as puppet theater, sports, and playing with toy animals.

Dosabhai Framji Karaka, History of the Parsis, Including Their Manners, Customs, Religion and Present Position, 2 vols., London, 1884.

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Madrasas were usually attached to a large mosque. Examples include al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (founded in 970) and al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco (founded in 859). Later, numerous madrasas were established across the Muslim world by the great Seljuk vizier, Nizam al-Mulk. At a madrasa, students would be educated further in religious sciences, Arabic, and secular studies such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, history, and geography, among many other topics. In the 1100s, there were 75 madrasas in Cairo, 51 in Damascus, and 44 in Aleppo. There were hundreds more in Muslim Spain at this time as well.

Rustam Borjorji Paymaster, Early History of the Parsees in India: From Their Landing in Sanjan to 1700 A.D., Bombay, 1954.

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The Arabs
Islam was the impetus for the spread of power from east to west across northern Africa. The most popular modern definition of "Arab," which places any native speaker of Arabic in the same ethnic category, rings as slightly simplistic to the ears of the medievalist. But Arabic is the language of the Koran, and in its earliest years Islam was inextricably linked to Arab culture. Around 670 the Arabs founded Kairouan (Qayrawan), considered the first Muslim city of northern Africa, and by 700 the place we now call Tunisia was already under Muslim Arab influence. Before long the great majority of Tunisians had converted to Islam and Arabic was the language that united them, but they were the descendants of Berbers, Carthaginians, Romans and even Vandals. For this reason, identifying the medieval Tunisians (or even the Moroccans) generically as "Arabs" or "Saracens" or "Moors" is something of a simplification. Whatever we call them, there is no doubt that these peoples flourished as part of a larger Arab society.

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The tradition of madrasas and other classical forms of Islamic education continues until today, although in a much more diminshed form. The defining factor for this was the encroachment of European powers on Muslim lands throughout the 1800s. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, French secularist advisors to the sultans advocated a complete reform of the educational system to remove religion from the curriculum and only teach secular sciences. Public schools thus began to teach a European curriculum based on European books in place of the traditional fields of knowledge that had been taught for hundreds of years. Although Islamic madrasas continued to exist, without government support they lost much of their relevance in the modern Muslim world.

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Throughout Islamic history, educating women has been a high priority. Women were not seen as incapable of attaining knowledge nor of being able to teach others themselves. The precedent for this was set with Prophet Muhammad’s own wife, Aisha, who was one of the leading scholars of her time and was known as a teacher of many people in Madinah after the Prophet’s ﷺdeath.