In the early centuries of Islam, Muslims set out to establish a society based on justice and the pursuit of knowledge. At the height of the Islamic empire, the Muslim world was the center for learning. Scholars of many faiths traveled from all over the world to participate in research and scholarly exchanges in the large Muslim cities. Indeed, several centers of learning gathered students, teachers, and researchers to live and study together. They were the first organized schools in the Muslim world.
The Early Madrasah
In the early years of Islam, those with religious knowledge informally tutored a group of students. Over time, more formal institutions of education were founded. The madrasahs, or schools for the training of religious and societal leaders, still exist today.
Madrasahs brought together young students to study, live, and learn from resident scholars. The Qur'an was the foundation of the curriculum. While learning to read and write the classical Arabic language, students were also instructed in Islamic beliefs, law, and behavior. This served as a foundation for all future studies.
There were several fundamental principles of the madrasah. First was the idea that all knowledge must be based on a strong spiritual foundation. Second, education was to be open to all, including both boys and girls, on equal terms. Students were not required to pay tuition; all costs (including room and board) were subsidized by the Islamic government and local rulers. Finally, while religious studies served as a foundation, the curriculum also included many other disciplines, including literature and poetry, mathematics and astronomy, and chemistry and the natural sciences.
The Quarouiyine (Karouine) University in Fez, Morocco, has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating university in the world. This center of learning was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima El-Fihria, in 859
For adult education, one of the most remarkable assemblies of scholars took place in Baghdad at the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). It was organized by caliph al-Mamun, the son of Harun al-Rashid. In the eighth century
At Bayt al-Hikmah, scholars from around the world gathered to translate the Greek manuscripts and conduct their own independent research in the free academic environment. These scholars made incredible achievements in mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and medicine. Most of them were generalists, not specializing in a particular field of study. It was not uncommon for one person to write treatises on subjects as diverse as rainfall, animal husbandry, and human anatomy.