"Madrasa" and "Medrese" redirect here. For the village in Azerbaijan, see Mədrəsə.

Madrasah (مدرسة, madrasa pl. مدارس, madāris) is the Arabic word for any type of school, college or university, whether secular or religious (of any religion). It is variously transliterated as madrasah, madarasaa, medresa, madrassa, madraza, madarsa, etc.


The word madrasah is derived from the triconsonantal root د-ر-س (d-r-s), which relates to learning or teaching, through the wazn (form/stem) (مفعل(ة mafʻal(a), meaning "a place where X is done." Therefore, madrasah literally means "a place where learning/teaching is done". The word is also present as a loanword with the same innocuous meaning in many Arabic-influenced languages, such as: Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Indonesian, Malay and Bosnian. In the Arabic language, the word مدرسة (madrasah) simply means the same as school does in the English language, whether that is private, public or parochial school, as well as for any primary or secondary school whether Muslim, non-Muslim, or secular. Unlike the understanding of the word school in British English, the word madrasah is like the term school in American English, in that it can refer to a university-level or post-graduate school as well. For example, in the Ottoman Empire during the Early Modern Period, Madrasahs had lower schools and specialized schools where the students became known as danismends. The correct Arabic word for a university, however, is جامعة (jāmaʿat). The Hebrew cognate midrasha also connotes the meaning of a place of learning.

A typical Islamic school usually offers two courses of study: a hifz course; that is memorisation of the Qur'an (the person who commits the entire Qur'an to memory is called a hafiz); and an 'alim course leading the candidate to become an accepted scholar in the community. A regular curriculum includes courses in Arabic, Tafsir (Qur'anic interpretation), shari'ah (Islamic law), Hadith (recorded sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), Mantiq (logic), and Muslim History. In the Ottoman Empire, during the Early Modern Period, the learning of the Hadith was introduced by Suleyman I. Depending on the educational demands, some madrasahs also offer additional advanced courses in Arabic literature, English and other foreign languages, as well as science and world history. Ottoman madrasahs along with religious teachings also taught "styles of writing, grammary, syntax, poetry, composition, natural sciences, political sciences, and etiquette."

People of all ages attend, and many often move on to becoming imams. The certificate of an ‘alim for example, requires approximately twelve years of study. A good number of the huffaz (plural of hafiz) are the product of the madrasahs. The madrasahs also resemble colleges, where people take evening classes and reside in dormitories. An important function of the madrasahs is to admit orphans and poor children in order to provide them with education and training. Madrasahs may enroll female students; however, they study separately from the men.

In South Africa, the madrasahs also play a socio-cultural role in giving after-school religious instruction to Muslim children who attend government or private non-religious schools. However, increasing numbers of more affluent Muslim children attend full-fledged private Islamic Schools which combine secular and religious education. Among Muslims of Indian origin, madrasahs also used to provide instruction in Urdu, although this is far less common today than it used to be.

Early History of Madrasahs

Madrasahs did not exist in the early beginnings of Islam. Their formation can probably be traced to the early Islamic custom of meeting in mosques to discuss religious issues. At this early stage, people seeking religious knowledge tended to gather around certain more knowledgable Muslims. These informal teachers later became known as shaykhs; and these shaykhs began to hold regular religious education sessions called majalis.

Established in 859, Jami'at al-Qarawiyyin (located in Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque) in the city of Fas, Morocco, is considered the oldest madrasah in the Muslim world. It was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Mohammed Al-Fihri. This was later followed by Al-Azhar University, established in 959 in Cairo, Egypt.

During the late Abbasid period, the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk created the first major official academic institution known in history as the Madrasah Nizamiyyah, based on the informal majalis (sessions of the shaykhs). Al-Mulk, who would later be murdered by the Assassins (Hashshashin), created a system of state madrasahs (in his time they were called, the Nizamiyyahs, named after him) in various Abbasid cities at the end of the 11th century.

During the rule of the Fatimid and Mamluk dynasties and their successor states in the medieval Middle East, many of the ruling elite founded madrasahs through a religious endowment known as the waq'f. Not only was the madrasah a potent symbol of status but it was an effective means of transmitting wealth and status to their descendants. Especially during the Mamluk period, when only former slaves could assume power, the sons of the ruling Mamluk elite were unable to inherit. Guaranteed positions within the new madrasahs thus allowed them to maintain status. Madrasahs built in this period include the Mosque-Madrasah of Sultan Hasan in Cairo.

The following excerpt provides a brief synopsis of the historical origins and starting points for the teachings that took place in the Ottoman madrasahs in the Early Modern Period:

"Taşköprülüzâde's concept of knowledge and his division of the sciences provides a starting point for a study of learning and medrese education in the Ottoman Empire. Taşköprülüzâde recognizes four stages of knowledge - spiritual, intellectual, oral and written. Thus all the sciences fall into one of these seven categories: calligraphic sciences, oral sciences, intellectual sciences, spiritual sciences, theoretical rational sciences, practical rational sciences. The First Ottoman medrese was created in Iznik in 1331, when a converted Church building was assigned as a medrese to a famous scholar, Dâvûd of Kayseri.Suleyman made an important change in the hierarchy of Ottoman medreses. He established four general medreses and two more for specialized studies, one devoted to the hadith and the other to medicine. He gave the highest ranking to these and thus established the hierarchy of the medreses which was to continue until the end of the empire."

Elementary education

In the medieval Islamic world, an elementary school was known as a maktab, which dates back to at least the 10th century. Like madrasahs (which referred to higher education), a maktab was often attached to a mosque. In the 11th century, the famous Persian Islamic philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), in one of his books, wrote a chapter dealing with the maktab entitled "The Role of the Teacher in the Training and Upbringing of Children", as a guide to teachers working at maktab schools. He wrote that children can learn better if taught in classes instead of individual tuition from private tutors, and he gave a number of reasons for why this is the case, citing the value of competition and emulation among pupils as well as the usefulness of group discussions and debates. Ibn Sina described the curriculum of a maktab school in some detail, describing the curricula for two stages of education in a maktab school.

Primary education

Ibn Sina wrote that children should be sent to a maktab school from the age of 6 and be taught primary education until they reach the age of 14. During which time, he wrote that they should be taught the Qur'an, Islamic metaphysics, language, literature, Islamic ethics, and manual skills (which could refer to a variety of practical skills).

Secondary education

Ibn Sina refers to the secondary education stage of maktab schooling as the period of specialization, when pupils should begin to acquire manual skills, regardless of their social status. He writes that children after the age of 14 should be given a choice to choose and specialize in subjects they have an interest in, whether it was reading, manual skills, literature, preaching, medicine, geometry, trade and commerce, craftsmanship, or any other subject or profession they would be interested in pursuing for a future career. He wrote that this was a transitional stage and that there needs to be flexibility regarding the age in which pupils graduage, as the student's emotional development and chosen subjects need to be taken into account.

Higher education

During the formative period of the madrasah, used to refer to a higher education institution, philosophy and the secular sciences were often excluded from its curriculum, which initially only included the "religious sciences". The curriculum slowly began to diversify, with many later madrasahs teaching both the religious and the "secular sciences", like logic, mathematics and philosophy. Some madrasahs further extended their curriculum to history, politics, ethics, music, metaphysics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry. The curriculum of a madrasah was usually set by its founder, but most generally taught both the religious sciences and the physical sciences. Madrasahs were established throughout the Islamic world, the most famous being the 10th century Al-Azhar University and the 11th century Nizamiyya, as well as 75 madrasahs in Cairo, 51 in Damascus and up to 44 in Aleppo between 1155 and 1260. Many more were also established in the Andalusian citites of Córdoba, Seville, Toledo, Granada, Murcia, Almería, Valencia and Cádiz during the Caliphate of Córdoba.

In the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period, "Madrasahs were divided into lower and specialized levels, which reveals that there was a sense of elevation in school. Students who studied in the specialized schools after completing courses in the lower levels became known as danismends."


The origins of the college and university lie in the medieval Islamic world. While "madrasah" can now refer to any type of school/college/university, the term "madrasah" was originally used to refer more specifically to a medieval Islamic college, mainly teaching Islamic law and theology, usually affiliated with a mosque, and funded by an early charitable trust known as Waqf, the origins of the trust law. The internal organization of the first European colleges was also borrowed from the earlier madrasahs, like the system of fellows and scholars, with the Latin term for fellow, socius, being a direct translation of the Arabic term for fellow, sahib.

The funding for madrasahs came primarily from Waqf instititions, which were similar to the charitable trusts which later funded the first European colleges. Syed Farid Alatas writes:


The first universities, in the sense of institutions of higher education and research which issue academic degrees at all levels (bachelor, master and doctorate), were the Jami'ah ("university" in Arabic) founded in the 9th century. While the madrasah college could also issue degrees at all levels, like a university college, the Jami`ah differed in the sense that it was a larger institution that was more universal in terms of its complete source of studies, had individual faculties for different subjects, and could house a number of mosques, madrasahs and other institutions within it. The University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco is thus recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world with its founding in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.

Al-Azhar University, founded in Cairo, Egypt in 975, was a Jami'ah which offered a variety of post-graduate degrees (ijazah), and had individual faculties for a theological seminary, Islamic law and jurisprudence, Arabic grammar, Islamic astronomy, early Islamic philosophy and logic in Islamic philosophy. Abd-el-latif also delivered lectures on Islamic medicine at Al-Azhar, while Maimonides delivered lectures on medicine and astronomy there during the time of Saladin. Another early university was the Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad (founded 1091), considered the "largest university of the Medieval world". Mustansiriya University, established by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustansir in 1233, in addition to teaching the religious subjects, offered courses dealing with philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences. The first universities in Europe were influenced in many ways by the madrasahs in Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily at the time, and in the Middle East during the Crusades.

Some of the terms and concepts now used in modern universities which have Islamic origins include "the fact that people still talk of professors holding the 'Chair' of their subject" is historically based on the "traditional Islamic pattern of teaching where the professor sits on a chair and the students sit around him" The term 'academic circles' is derived from the way in which Islamic students "sat in a circle around their professor", and terms such as "having 'fellows', 'reading' a subject, and obtaining 'degrees', can all be traced back" to the Islamic concepts of Ashab ("companions, as of the prophet Muhammad"), Qara'a ("reading aloud the Qur'an") and Ijazah ("license to teach") respectively. George Makdisi has listed eighteen such parallels in terminology which can be traced back to their roots in Islamic education. Some of the practices now common in modern universities that also have Islamic origins include "practices such as delivering inaugural lectures, wearing academic robes, obtaining doctorates by defending a thesis, and even the idea of academic freedom are also modelled on Islamic custom." Islamic influence was also "certainly discernible in the foundation of the first deliberately-planned university" in Europe, the University of Naples Federico II founded by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in 1224.

Law school

Madrasahs were the first to have law schools, and it is likely that the "law schools known as Inns of Court in England" may have been derived from the Madrasahs which taught Islamic law and jurisprudence.

The origins of the doctorate dates back to the ijazat attadris wa 'l-ifta' ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") in the medieval Islamic legal education system, which was equivalent to the Doctor of Laws qualification and was developed during the 9th century after the formation of the Madh'hab legal schools. To obtain a doctorate, a student "had to study in a guild school of law, usually four years for the basic undergraduate course" and ten or more years for a post-graduate course. The "doctorate was obtained after an oral examination to determine the originality of the candidate's theses", and to test the student's "ability to defend them against all objections, in disputations set up for the purpose." These were scholarly exercises practiced throughout the student's "career as a graduate student of law." After students completed their post-graduate education, they were awarded doctorates giving them the status of faqih (meaning "master of law"), mufti (meaning "professor of legal opinions") and mudarris (meaning "teacher"), which were later translated into Latin as magister, professor and doctor respectively.

The term doctorate comes from the Latin docere, meaning "to teach", shortened from the full Latin title licentia docendi meaning "license to teach." This was translated from the Arabic term ijazat attadris, which means the same thing and was awarded to Islamic scholars who were qualified to teach. Similarly, the Latin term doctor, meaning "teacher", was translated from the Arabic term mudarris, which also means the same thing and was awarded to qualified Islamic teachers. The Latin term baccalaureus may have also been transliterated from the equivalent Arabic qualification bi haqq al-riwaya ("the right to teach on the authority of another").

The Islamic scholarly system of fatwa and ijma, meaning opinion and consensus respectively, formed the basis of the "scholarly system the West has practised in university scholarship from the Middle Ages down to the present day." George Makdisi writes:

"It surely is no coincidence that in the next decades Mehmed and his successors brought in scholars from the Islamic heartland and established prestigious theological seminaries (medreses) as they moved their developing state toward Islamic orthodoxy."

Medical school

Though Islamic medicine was most often taught at the Bimaristan teaching hospitals, there were also several madrasah medical schools dedicated to the teaching of medicine. For example, from the 155 madrasah colleges in 15th century Damascus, three of them were medical schools.

In the Early Modern Period in the Ottoman Empire, "Suleyman I added new curriculums to the Ottoman medreses of which one was medicine, which alongside studying of the Hadith was given highest rank."

Female education

Women in Islam played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world, writing that women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters. Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. While there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:

The term 'awra is often translated as "that which is indecent", which usually meant the exposure of anything other than a woman's face and hands, although scholarly interpretations of the 'awra and hijab have always tended to vary, with some more or less strict than others.

Madrasahs in the Ottoman Empire

"The first Ottoman Medrese was created in Iznik in 1331 and most Ottoman medreses followed the traditions of sunni Islam." "When an Ottoman sultan established a new medrese, he would invite scholars from the Islamic world - for example, Murad II brought scholars from Persia, such as Ala al-Din and Fakhr al-Din who helped enhance the reputation of the Ottoman medrese". This reveals that the Islamic world was interconnected in the early modern period as they traveled around to other Islamic states exchanging knowledge. This sense that the Ottoman Empire was becoming modernized through globalization is also recognized by Hamadeh who says: "Change in the eighteenth century as the beginning of a long and unilinear march toward westernization reflects the two centuries of reformation in sovereign identity. Inalcik also mentions that while scholars from for example Persia, traveled to the Ottomans in order to share their knowledge, Ottomans traveled as well to receive education from scholars of these Islamic lands, such as Egypt, Persia and Turkestan. Hence, this reveals that similar to today's modern world, individuals from the early modern society traveled abroad to receive education and share knowledge and that the world was more interconnected than it seems. Also, it reveals how the system of "schooling" was also similar to today's modern world where students travel abroad to different countries for studies. Examples of Ottoman madrasahs are the ones built by Mehmed the Conqueror. He built eight madrasahs that were built "on either side of the mosque where there were eight higher madrasahs for specialized studies and eight lower medreses, which prepared students for these." The fact that they were built around, or near mosques reveals the religious impulses behind Madrasah building and it reveals the interconnectedness between institutions of learning and religion. The students who completed their education in the lower medreses became known as danismends This reveals that similar to the education system today, the Ottomans had a similar kind of educational system in which there were different kinds of schools attached to different kinds of levels. For example, there were the lower madrasahs and then the specialized ones and for one to get into the specialized area meant that they had to complete the classes in the lower one in order to adequately prepare themselves for higher learning.

This is the rank of Madrasahs in the Ottoman Empire from the highest ranking to the lowest: (From Inalcik, 167). 1) Semniye 2) Darulhadis 3) Madrasahs built by earlier sultans in Bursa. 4) Madrasahs endowed by great men of state.

Although Ottoman Madrasahs had a number of different branches of study, such as calligraphic sciences, oral sciences, and intellectual sciences they primarily served the function of an Islamic center for spiritual learning. "The goal of all knowledge and in particular, of the spiritual sciences is knowledge of God." Religion, for the most part, determines the significance and importance of each science. As Inalcik mentions: " Those which aid religion are good and sciences like astrology are bad." However, even though mathematics, or studies in logic were part of the madrasah's curriculum, they were all centered around religion. Even mathematics had a religious impulse behind its teachings. "The Ulema of the Ottoman medreses held the view that hostility to logic and mathematics was futile since these accustomed the mind to correct thinking and thus helped to reveal divine truths" – keyword being divine. Inalcik also mentions that even philosophy was only allowed to be studied so that it helped to confirm the doctrines of Islam." Hence, madrasahs – schools were basically religious centers for religious teachings and learning in the Ottoman world. Although scholars such as Goffman have argued that the Ottomans were highly tolerant and lived in a pluralistic society, it seems that schools that were the main centers for learning were in fact heftily religious and were not religiously pluralistic, but centered around Islam. Similarly, in Europe "Jewish children learned the Hebrew letters and texts of basic prayers at home, and then attended a school organized by the synagogue to study the Torah." Wiesner-Hanks also goes on to mention that Protestants also wanted to teach "proper religious values." This goes on to show that in the early modern period, Ottomans and Europeans were similar in their ideas about how schools should be managed and what they should be primarily focused on. Thus, Ottoman madrasahs were very similar to present day schools in the sense that they offered a wide range of studies; however, the difference being that these studies, in its ultimate objective, aimed to further solidify and consolidate Islamic practices, and theories.


As is previously mentioned, religion dominated much of the knowledge and teachings that were endowed upon students. "Religious learning as the only true science, whose sole aim was the understanding of God's word." Thus, it is important to keep this impulse in mind when going over the curriculum that was taught.

The Following is taken from Inalcik.

Social life and the Medrese

As with any other country during the Early Modern Period, such as Italy and Spain in Europe, the Ottoman social life was also interconnected with the medrese. Medreses were built in as part of a Mosque Complex where many programs, such as aid to the poor through soup kitchens were held under the infrastructure of a mosque, which reveals the interconnectedness of religion and social life during this period. "The mosques to which medreses were attached, dominated the social life in Ottoman cities." Social life was not dominated by religion only in the muslim world of the Ottoman Empire; however, was also quite similar to the social life of Europe during this period. As Goffman says: "Just as mosques dominated social life for the Ottomans, churches and synagogues dominated life for the Christians and Jews as well." Hence, social life and the medrese were closely linked, since medreses as is previously mentioned taught many curriculums, such as religion, which highly governed social life in terms of establishing orthodoxy. "They tried moving their developing state toward Islamic orthodoxy." Overall, the fact that mosques contained medreses comes to show the relevance of education to religion in the sense that education took place within the framework of religion and religion established social life by trying to create a common religious orthodoxy. Hence, medreses were simply part of the social life of society as students came to learn the fundamentals of their societal values and beliefs.

Madrasahs in South Asia

Madrasahs in India

In India, there are around 30,000 operating madrasahs. The majority of these schools follow the Hanafi school of thought. One of the most famous & islamic renowned madrasahs in world is Darul-Uloom-Deoband in India of Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah(Deobandi), Madrasahs of this school of thought follow the fiqh of Abu Hanifa and Abu Mansur Maturidi's thought in Aqidah and Kalam.The Darul-Uloom, Deoband, is today a renowned religious and academic center in the Islamic world. In the sub-continent it is the largest institution for the dissemination and propagation of Islam and the biggest headspring of education in the Islamic sciences. Such accomplished scholars have come out from the Darul Uloom in every period that they, in accordance with the demands of religious needs of the time, have rendered valuable services in disseminating and spreading correct religious beliefs and religious sciences.Darul Uloom Deoband, has been a center of both the Shariah and the Tariqa from the very day of its inception

Madrasahs in Pakistan

'' There are more than 10,000 madrasahs currently (as of 1998) operating in Pakistan. It is estimated that one to two million children are enrolled in madrasahs. There has been considerable intellectual disagreement about the linkages of madrasahs to conflict in Pakistan. A study conducted in 2005 by Saleem Ali for the United States Institute of Peace attempts to clarify some of these concerns by providing a detailed empirical comparison of rural and urban madrasahs (currently this study is being updpated and expanded as a book (expected to be completed in 2007), though an earlier draft is available online. The project also included a web video on such schools titled Children of Faith.

Misuse of the Word

The word madrasah literally means "school" and does not imply a political or religious affiliation, radical or otherwise. In post 9/11 United States political contexts, however, the word has often been used to define Islamic schools - in the negative context of anti-Americanism and radical extremism.

It is important to note here that there have been negative connotations applied to the word by news reports in Europe and the United States, in which madrasahs are often incorrectly inferred to be Islamic religious schools. Madrasahs are simply schools and they have different curriculums and are not solely religious in their system. Although, the main and primary reasons for Madrasahs were to gain "knowledge of God" they also taught other subjects including mathematics and poetry. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, "Madrasah's had seven categories of sciences that were taught, such as: styles of writing, oral sciences like the Arabic language, grammar, rhetoric, and history and intellectual sciences, such as logic." Although, they served as a means to become closer to the "divine truth", it nonetheless shows that there were teachings about science, mathematics etc and that religion was not the sole subject of the Madrasahs.

The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization examined bias in United States newspaper coverage of Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and found the term has come to contain a loaded political meaning:

"When articles mentioned 'madrassas,' readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination."

Various American public figures have, in recent times, used the word in a negative context, including Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell. and most recently Joe Biden in the 2008 vice-presidential debate.

The New York Times has published a correction for misusing the word "madrassa" in a way that assumed it meant a radical Islamic school. The correction stated, "An article... said Senator Barack Obama had attended an Islamic school or madrassa in Indonesia as a child referred imprecisely to madrassas. While some (madrassas) teach a radical version of Islam, most historically have not".


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