Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The light of wisdom

A new exhibition explores the intriguing commonalities between mediaeval Arab and European education, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Organised in conjunction with the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne and drawing on works owned by the Sorbonne library and other mostly French institutions, a new exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris is inviting visitors to reflect on the methods, institutional settings, and curricula of mediaeval Arab and European education.
It has long been recognised that the forms of education provided by mediaeval Arab and European schools and institutions of higher education were very similar, but the institut’s new exhibition aims to take this recognition further by highlighting such similarities across institutions in mediaeval North Africa, the Middle East and western Europe. The result is a thought-provoking show that raises some intriguing questions about even more modern forms of education.  
One main similarity lay in methods of instruction. Mediaeval education in both the Arab world and Europe placed a heavy emphasis on the relationship between teacher and pupil, the teacher’s responsibility being to explain a restricted canon of religious and other texts, often by producing voluminous commentaries on them, and the pupil being expected to learn these texts by heart before in turn transmitting them to future generations.
While this is not a model that will necessarily appeal to contemporary educationalists in either Europe or the Arab world because of its apparent emphasis on rote-learning and on the authority of a restricted canon of texts and their teachers, it is one that was common to both Christian Europe and the Muslim world in the Middle Ages.
At primary and secondary level it meant, in the Arab case, that boys would be firmly drilled in reading and writing skills and would receive a thorough grounding in religion. At tertiary and higher levels, young men would be invited to follow courses of study dispensed by individual teachers whose classes they might follow for several years almost as if they were apprenticed to them.
In neither mediaeval Europe nor the Arab world did girls or young women have much access to formal education. However, for those young men and their teachers who benefited from the system, in the Arab world it led to a highly developed respect for scholarship, extensive scholarly production, notably of the commentaries that teachers were expected to produce on the set texts of the curriculum, and something like an academic star system.
Young men and confirmed scholars would travel across the Arab world from one centre of learning to another in search of the best and most charismatic teaching.
Perhaps this model of education was taken over at least in part from classical antiquity, when education for the elite consisted of learning and transmitting works produced by previous generations along with works of interpretation and commentary. The writings of Plato, the lectures of Aristotle, and the works of scores of other lesser writers were endlessly copied and recopied across the classical Greek and Roman world by generations of scholars, some of them producing new interpretations of them. While in western Europe such chains of transmission were largely broken by the collapse of classical civilisation, in the eastern Mediterranean they continued until after the Arab conquests of the seventh century CE.
One of the items on show in the exhibition is a reconstruction of the Kom Al-Dikka educational campus in Alexandria, dating from the fifth to seventh centuries CE, which shows the lay-out of classrooms in late antiquity. These were designed as rectangular spaces nine to 10 metres long and five-and-a-half metres wide, with banks of seats built up in a kind of elongated semi-circle within them. The teacher would sit at one end of the room facing a class of not more than 20 to 30 students. As can be seen from this architectural arrangement, the focus was on the teacher, much as it is in a modern lecture hall. However, unlike in many modern lecture halls, classes were small, and different groups of students were attached to different teachers.
As the exhibition points out, the emphasis on the relationship between teacher and student could tend to diminish the authority of the educational institution, something that for various reasons might have been more in evidence in mediaeval Arab than in mediaeval European schools and universities. Tertiary or higher education seems to have developed in waves in both mediaeval Europe and the Arab world, with the development of universities in western Europe from the 12th century CE being paralleled by the spread of madrasas, at first mosque-based and then independent centres of secondary and tertiary instruction, which developed somewhat earlier from the 11th century onwards.
The mediaeval European universities, like the Arab mosques and madrasas, focussed on religious studies, but in them orthodoxy was dictated by the institutions of the Christian Church, either through the disciplinary function of the ecclesiastical hierarchy or through the decisions of specially convened synods. There was no parallel to this situation in Muslim religious teaching, where orthodoxy was decided by the consensus of the scholarly community. Moreover, and as the exhibition makes clear, mediaeval Arab education was not only intellectually independent of any single source of authority but was also administratively and financially decentralised.
Wealthy individuals, often, in Egypt and Syria, members of the ruling Mamluk caste, built and endowed mosque schools and madrasas, giving them independence from the state authorities. The teaching positions within these institutions, some of them corresponding to what might now be called professorships, were paid for either out of the founder’s original endowment (waqf) or from fees levied on the students. This system meant that each institution was effectively self-governing, and the emphasis placed on the relationship between the teachers and the students added to the autonomy of the teaching profession.
The exhibition contains some fascinating descriptions of these mediaeval madrasas. Among the best known are the famous Nizamiya and Mustansiriya madrasas in Baghdad, the latter founded by the caliph Al-Mustansir in 1233 CE, and the Sultan Hassan Mosque and madrasa complex built in Cairo by the Mamluk sultan of the same name in 1356-9. The latter two buildings still stand today, and the Sultan Hassan complex is still in use. However, it seems that these grand buildings, lavishly endowed by their founders and with no expense spared on their construction, were just the tip of an educational iceberg.
Modern estimates, quoted in the exhibition, suppose there to have been some 130 madrasas or mosque-madrasas in Cairo in the 15th century, most of them clustered in the area between the Al-Hakim Mosque and Al-Azhar. Similar numbers, similarly managed and financed, existed in the other major urban centres of the time, among them Damascus and Baghdad. Madrasa building also took off in the west of the Arab world, with the Hafsid Dynasty in Tunis beginning a construction programme from the middle of the 13th century onwards and the Moroccan Marinid Dynasty commissioning madrasas in Fez and other cities.
Much of the instruction that took place in these institutions seems to have taken the form of canonical texts being read aloud by licensed teachers to small groups of students. Having copied these texts down, the students would then learn them. Items in the exhibition, among them a copy of the Al-Risala Al-Qushayriya (Epistle on Sufism) by the 11th-century writer Al-Qushayri, indicate how this system might have worked. This copy of Al-Qushayri’s book, a standard work, was made in the Maghreb in the 13th century, and it contains notes indicating that it was read aloud in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The notes also contain the names of students who had successfully completed the course of lectures, indicating that they could now be considered qualified to lecture on the book in their turn.
What the exhibition calls “the authority of the book”, when held in the hands of a licensed teacher, was also similarly understood in both the mediaeval Arab mosques and madrasas and the European universities. The reasons for this can perhaps be traced back to late antiquity, when educationalists and scholars, often based in Alexandria, put together standard curricula for instruction in the different fields of knowledge. In many areas the authorities were the same in the Arab world as they were in Europe — Galen in medicine, Aristotle in philosophy and the natural sciences, Euclid in mathematics, and so on — with some Arab commentators, for example Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) being elevated to the position of authorities in their own right.
This authority of the book implied the need for extensive libraries, and the last section of the exhibition looks at the evidence for some of these, including by displaying a 13th-century copy of Al-Nadim’s famous fihrist, or catalogue, of the books available in 10th-century Baghdad. This work, divided into lists of books on religious and on secular subjects, shows both the sheer number of books in different languages that would have been available to the Arab scholars of the time and the ways in which their subject matters were divided up and classified.
Education in both the mediaeval European and Arab worlds was directed towards religious ends, another overlap between the two systems, and this would have meant that neither the mediaeval Arab nor the European schools and universities would have offered what the humanists of the European Renaissance would have considered to be a “rounded” education, and nor would they, with their emphasis on debating questions framed within the terms of pre-existing authorities, have appealed to the thinkers of the later scientific revolution.
Because of this fundamentally religious emphasis, natural in societies that gave so important a place to religion, institutionalised education, whether in Arab madrasas or European universities, must have been strictly organised. According to Eric Vallet, a professor at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne, writing in the exhibition catalogue, “it was the mastery of the ensemble of the sciences on offer,” both religious and non-religious, “that represented the ideal to be aimed for” — that of the “kamil [complete] scholar, the man who was accomplished in every field.”
However, the hierarchy of subjects taught in the mediaeval madrasas — “fiqh, hadith, tafsir, Quranic interpretation, kalam, usul al-din, grammar, lexicography, adab, logic, poetry, arithmetic and astronomy” — indicates that profane subject matters, such as adab (literature), were considered at best to be the handmaidens of religious subjects such as fiqh (religious law) and tafsir (interpretation). While religious education was not the only form of education available in the mediaeval madrasas, comments scholar Georges Makdisi in a standard study, “philosophy, philosophical or rationalist kalam-theology, mathematics, medicine, and the natural sciences, that is those sciences referred to as the ancient, or foreign sciences, as well as all fields not falling under the category of the Islamic sciences and their ancillaries, were sought outside them.”
Aside from the present exhibition of texts and manuscripts relating to mediaeval Arab and European education, the Institut du monde arabe has not organised a major exhibition this autumn, presumably because of cuts to its budget. Deplorable as this may be, particularly at a time when the European public is perhaps more in need than ever of reliable information on the history and cultures of the Arab world, the institut has nevertheless been able to make a virtue out of necessity by putting on this modest, but very thought-provoking, show within the framework of its permanent exhibition.
The exhibition comes with a particularly interesting catalogue containing essays on various aspects of comparative mediaeval education. On this showing, while modern educationalists would no doubt find much to criticise in mediaeval Arab education, it may be that its small class sizes, rigourous curriculum, and carefully graded individual tuition have not been bettered by contemporary institutions.

Lumières de la sagesse, écoles médiévales d’orient et d’occident, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 5 January 2014.

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