History of Islamic Education

Thus, in this way, Islamic education began. Pious and learned Muslims (mu’ allim or mudarris), dedicated to making the teachings of the Koran more accessible to the Islamic community, taught the faithful in what came to be known as the kuttāb (plural, katātīb). The kuttāb could be located in a variety of venues: mosques, private homes, shops, tents, or even out in the open. Historians are uncertain as to when the katātīb were first established, but with the widespread desire of the faithful to study the Koran, katātīb could be found in virtually every part of the Islamic empire by the middle of the eighth century. The kuttāb served a vital social function as the only vehicle for formal public instruction for primary-age children and continued so until Western models of education were introduced in the modern period. Even at present, it has exhibited remarkable durability and continues to be an important means of religious instruction in many Islamic countries.

The curriculum of the kuttāb was primarily directed to young male children, beginning as early as age four, and was centered on Koranic studies and on religious obligations such as ritual ablutions, fasting, and prayer. The focus during the early history of Islam on the education of youth reflected the belief that raising children with correct principles was a holy obligation for parents and society. As Abdul Tibawi wrote in 1972, the mind of the child was believed to be “like a white clean paper, once anything is written on it, right or wrong, it will be difficult to erase it or superimpose new writing upon it” (p. 38). The approach to teaching children was strict, and the conditions in which young students learned could be quite harsh. Corporal punishment was often used to correct laziness or imprecision. Memorization of the Koran was central to the curriculum of the kuttāb, but little or no attempt was made to analyze and discuss the meaning of the text. Once students had memorized the greater part of the Koran, they could advance to higher stages of education, with increased complexity of instruction. Western analysts of the kuttāb system usually criticize two areas of its pedagogy: the limited range of subjects taught and the exclusive reliance on memorization. The contemporary kuttāb system still emphasizes memorization and recitation as important means of learning. The value placed on memorization during students’ early religious training directly influences their approaches to learning when they enter formal education offered by the modern state. A common frustration of modern educators in the Islamic world is that while their students can memorize copious volumes of notes and textbook pages, they often lack competence in critical analysis and independent thinking.

During the golden age of the Islamic empire (usually defined as a period between the tenth and thirteenth centuries), when western Europe was intellectually backward and stagnant, Islamic scholarship flourished with an impressive openness to the rational sciences, art, and even literature. It was during this period that the Islamic world made most of its contributions to the scientific and artistic world. Ironically, Islamic scholars preserved much of the knowledge of the Greeks that had been prohibited by the Christian world. Other outstanding contributions were made in areas of chemistry, botany, physics, mineralogy, mathematics, and astronomy, as many Muslim thinkers regarded scientific truths as tools for accessing religious truth.

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