The Prophet of Islam encouraged his followers to “seek knowledge, even as far away as China” 1 and declared “the quest for knowledge [to be] incumbent upon every Muslim man and Muslim woman.” 2 Muslims have taken the advice of the Prophet very seriously: The importance of the pursuit of learning has been emphasized by every major Muslim scholar of the Muslim community. 3 “Knowledge,” says one, “is the highest [rank of] nobility, just as love is the highest of ties.” “If one is ignorant of knowledge,” wrote another, “it is as though he is ignorant of his father. Knowledge for one who seeks it is a father, only better.” 4 Books, which together with teachers were the principal carriers of learning at that age, were seen by Muslims as a symbol of power. An early modern Arab scholar wrote:
A book in a dream means power. He who sees the book in his hand in a dream will acquire power. 5
Initially, the process of transmission of learning in Islamic societies took place in mosques, as described in the following passage:
The teacher leaning against a pillar in the court of the mosque with a group of students around him in a semi-circle, side by side with similar groups-this is the typical picture of Muslim education. The teacher dictating, the student taking down his words; or someone reading a text, the teacher’s or an older authority’s, and the teacher expanding and commenting-this is a typical procedure. 6
This kind of educational environment determined the subjects that were considered appropriate for study: the Qur’an and its commentary, the hadíth , and jurisprudence ( fiqh ), which Abu Hanífa (d. 767), one of the founding fathers of this discipline, defined as “a person’s knowledge of his rights and duties.” 7 Some elements of medicine and hygiene were also taught, usually within the framework of juridical norms. Secular sciences such as astronomy, calculus, physics, and philosophy were normally excluded from the mosque curriculum, although philology, especially poetry and linguistics, was often offered as a subsidiary discipline to help students to understand the nuances of the text of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunna. The study of “foreign” subjects, such as fálsafa and medicine, was usually conducted in “academies” along the lines of the House of Wisdom established by the caliph al-Ma’mún, as well as in libraries and hospitals. The institution of the religious “college” ( mádrasa ), which gradually evolved from mosque-based schools to be discussed later in this chapter, did not offer “foreign sciences” due to their non-Islamic provenance. 8 Overall, “foreign sciences” were marginal to the premodern and early modern Muslim educational system, which was dominated by the study of Scripture and divine law.