The Madrasa in Mamluk Egypt

A review of The Role of the Madrasah and the Structure of Islamic Legal Education in Mamluk Egypt (1250-1517), by Robert Moore.

Robert Moore’s dissertation revisits a central debate in scholarship on Islamic education in the premodern period: the question of the nature of the madrasa. A consistent feature of the colonial discourse on Islamic countries was the theme of disorder, including in the realm of education. Nineteenth-century accounts of madrasas, such as that by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), paint an image of a beehive-like institution where students seemingly randomly drift from one teaching circle to another, eat, drink, and have their hair cut. Based on this apparent chaos, Hurgronje and others asserted that there was no structure to madrasa education, no exams, no curriculum, or any of the other trappings of institutional coherence.

In a series of articles and books in the 1970s and 1980s, George Makdisi offered an important corrective to this view by demonstrating that classical Islamic education had developed sophisticated institutions of learning that were structured by their own intelligible logic. Makdisi focused particularly on the madrasa, an institution that began to spread throughout the Islamic world in the late eleventh century. However, in the process of excavating the history of Islamic education Makdisi tended to interpret the material in a way that was both overly comparative and hyper-institutionalized. For him, madrasas were the models for European universities, and the Islamic legal schools were guilds for which the madrasas provided entrance exams. These included a quasi-doctoral dissertation (the taʿlīqa) that concluded a course of study in which the student passed through distinct stages of undergraduate and graduate education.

The sweeping nature of Makdisi’s conclusions, which generalized primarily Mamluk material to stand for almost all times and places and had a tendency to define terms as institutionally rigidly as possible (e.g., reading ṣāḥib as “graduate student” rather than as “senior student,” “close student,” or “mentee”), opened his work up to criticisms by the next generation of scholars, such as Jonathan Berkey (1992), Michael Chamberlain (1994), Nicole Grandin (1997), and Daphna Ephrat (2000).  According to these studies, educational practices centered on the madrasa were much less formalized than Makdisi had suggested; education remained first and foremost an interpersonal process between teacher and student, regardless of where this interaction took place. Chamberlain went even further, arguing that madrasas were primarily sources of funding for students and teachers and played no particular role in the actual education of students.

Robert Moore’s 2010 dissertation, written at Emory University under the supervision of Devin Stewart, a student of George Makdisi, is an erudite, detailed study of the madrasa in the Mamluk period (1250-1517). Moore’s work is based on a variety of sources, most prominently biographical dictionaries (principally al-Sakhāwī’s Dawʾ al-lāmiʿ), educational manuals (such as Ibn Jamāʿa’s Tadhkirat al-sāmiʿ), polemical works (e.g., Ibn al-Ḥājj’s Madkhal ilā al-sharʿ), and endowment (waqf) deeds for actual madrasas.

The dissertation begins with a long and helpful introductory essay, which lays out the debate on madrasas so far. In Chapter 2 Moore then provides a number of insightful biographical sketches of Mamluk-era jurists and their role in the educational landscape. In the course of this rich description, he answers questions such as, How did one become a professor? Why were professors appointed to particular positions? What were the politics of founding madrasas and hiring professors? Pace Chamberlain, Moore shows that a madrasa career had a clear meritocratic dimension, especially evident in the phenomenon of the ijāza, or license, that authorized a student to teach or to issue fatwas (a practice whose importance has also been highlighted by Stewart). On the other hand, the existence of scholarly families indicates that it was easier to become a professor if your father had been one, which of course is still true today.

Chapter 3 delves into waqf deeds to examine the various positions established for madrasas. These documents show that professorships in law were the highest-paid academic positions (madrasa administrators earned even more), and while madrasas always taught law, the other subjects taught varied. In addition, various service positions were provided for, demonstrating that madrasas were centers of both social life and learning. Moore contrasts the higher stipends and wages offered in the field of law versus other subjects with the apparent priorities of educational manuals, in which the study of the Quran and Hadith clearly surpasses law in importance, and argues that the practical uses of law account for the discrepancy. Again, parallels to today’s academic life are highly obvious.

Chapter 4 sketches the professionalization of Islamic education effected by the madrasa through the ingenious lens of exclusionary practices. Identifying criticisms of such practices, Moore argues that we can observe a move toward limiting madrasa education to enrolled students. The Mamluk period thus witnessed a shift from the essentially public teaching performed in the mosque to instruction in an exclusive venue where access to professors was controlled by doormen at the madrasa’s entrance and by assistants in individual teaching circles.

Chapter 5 examines life and education in a madrasa by drawing on advice literature and waqf documents. Descriptions of everyday life and its challenges are followed by a discussion of the muʿīd, a kind of mentor or teaching assistant, who had the task of monitoring the progress of students. The fact that waqf documents establish different stipends for beginning and advanced students points to an established educational progression within the madrasa. Educational advice literature also contains basic guidance for a curriculum, beginning with the study of introductory compendia, which enable the student to read more extensive works independently. The taking of notes (taʿāliq) also seems to play an important role in the advice literature, and Moore sees this as a validation of Makdisi’s claim regarding the centrality of the writing of a taʿlīqa in a student’s educational progress.

The evidence produced by Moore and summarized in the conclusion seems to point at a middle ground between Makdisi and his critics. On the one hand, madrasa education appears to have remained very personality-focused: Even Mamluk-era advice literature tells students what characteristics to look for in a good teacher, not which madrasas have the best reputation, the highest stipends, the best teacher-student ratio, or the best library. The only consideration given in advice works to the madrasa as a place of study is in terms of what to avoid: One should not study in a madrasa that was built on illegally seized property, for example. Also, the ijāzas that authorized students to teach and give fatwas were granted by professors as individuals, not by the institution of the madrasa. Education was thus not bound to madrasas; one could study with a scholar privately or in a mosque and obtain the same certificate. Indeed, it seems that madrasa students did just that: The high number of teachers listed by some of the scholars Moore describes indicates that students took lessons far and wide beyond their own madrasa. This conclusion is supported by the statement of Ibn al-Ḥājj, quoted by Moore, who complained about some students limiting themselves to studying with the teachers in their own madrasas, with the implication that seeking instruction beyond the confines of one’s madrasa was either the rule or at least the ideal. Moore’s findings thus serve to dislocate the dichotomy between Makdisian hyper-institutionalism, in which the madrasa works like a modern university, and the opposing tendency among his critics to conclude that since the madrasa did not fully meet the functions of a university, it was largely irrelevant. Moore’s work shows that the simple fact of the madrasa, as an endowed institution, providing financial security for teachers and students meant that it inevitably had institutionalizing tendencies, even if they never coalesced into firm rules. After all, it would have been easier for a student to stick to the teachers based at his own institution; and why would a professor who is paid for teaching the students enrolled at a specific madrasa allow passers-by into his class if they might be disruptive and/or unlikely to attend on a regular basis? The fact that madrasas were not public spaces (except maybe during prayer times) meant that knowledge could be commodified in a way that was impossible in the setting of a publicly accessible mosque.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Moore’s dissertation lies in the wealth of vignettes of thick description of madrasa life that it provides. Moore’s success in evoking that life so vividly is to a large extent due to the wide variety of sources on which he draws and which reveal the rich and still underused source base that is available for Mamluk history. Naturally, the diversity and heterogeneity of the source material also poses a challenge to historians who must navigate the differing ramifications of different types of sources. Waqf documents establish a theoretical ideal that might not always have been translated into practice, but they do show, for example, that the difference between beginning and advanced students must have been institutionalized at least to some extent. Advice literature, on the other hand, gives general guidance, such as a basic curricular sequence, but this does not equal an actual curriculum that lays down specific texts to be studied in order to reach a qualification. Finally, biographical dictionaries provide historical examples but rarely yield hard and fast rules. For example, the ijāza plays a large role in the biographies of several of the scholars whom Moore describes. But was it a necessary qualification for a career? A few dozen examples from the Mamluk period cannot establish conclusively that it was in that period, let alone in other periods and regions. This question thus invites further investigation along the lines sketched by Stewart and Moore.

Robert Moore’s dissertation offers a fascinating and lucid account of medieval Islamic education, and it provides insightful angles on fundamental questions surrounding the role and function of the madrasa in Mamluk society. I hope that his work will lead the way for a new generation of educational historians both to revisit existing material and to discover hitherto unutilized sources for the study of this important and rich period.

Ahmed El Shamsy
Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
University of Chicago

Primary Sources

Biographical dictionaries (e.g., al-Sakhāwī’s Dawʾ al-lāmiʿ)
Educational manuals (e.g., Ibn Jamāʿa’s Tadhkirat al-sāmiʿ)
Polemical works (e.g., Ibn al-Ḥājj’s Madkhal ilā al-sharʿ)
Endowment deeds

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2010. 340 pp. Primary Advisor: Devin J. Stewart.


Image:Photograph by Robert Moore.

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