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The Seven Lives of the Madrassah-2 

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, U.S.A.


(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by E-mail: <>   )


There is a one-to-one correspondence between the educational system and the archetypes that a civilization produces. These archetypes capture the functional aspirations of a society much as architecture captures its spiritual longings. The archetype in modern-day America is Bill Gates. In nineteenth century England it was the merchant. In classical Japan it was the Samurai. Each archetype personifies what a civilization is and what it wants to become.

One of the difficulties in formulating a consistent educational reformation of the madrassah is that there is no single archetype that captures the essence of Islamic civilization today. Modern-day Muslims live in different ages. Some live in the seventh century, some in the age of the Crusades, some in the age of the Taj Mahal, and some in dreamland. The resulting confusion is all too apparent.

In Islamic history, we may identify at least seven different archetypes in the fourteen hundred years since the Hijra. Each archetype corresponds to a specific educational structure. The first century after the Prophet belonged to the visionaries (632-765). The instructional structure was a halqa and the teachers were the Suhaba, the Tabiyeen and Tab-e-Tabiyeen. The teacher and the pupil were both animated by the love of the Prophet and the archetypes were a product of this love. The archetypes produced by this age included Omar ibn al Khattab (r), Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), Salman Farsi (r) and Omar bin Abdel Aziz (r). What these stalwarts did - and did not do - set the course for Islamic history in the centuries to come.

The Muítazilites (rationalists, men and women of logic, also called the philosophers) took over when Khalifa al-Mansur founded the Baitul Hikmah (765) in Baghdad. Muslim scholars studied classical Greek philosophy, developed it, and took it to new heights. Foremost among them were Wasil ibn Ata (748), Amr ibn Ubayd (762), an-Nazzam (840) and Abu Hudhayl (849). They applied reason to the solution of philosophical problems and were the founders of the kalam sciences in the madrassahs. They upheld the preeminence of human free will over predestination and deduced from it manís responsibility for his own actions. The Muítazilites guided the intellectual ship of Islam for almost a hundred years (765-846). The educational system reflected the rational bent of the age, and the syllabus included philosophy and logic in addition to the Qurían and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

As rationalists, the Muítazilites applied speculative logic to the transcendence of God and revelation, and in the process overextended their reach. Opposition to the rationalist school set in. To preserve their privileged position, the Muítazilites instituted the Mihnah (inquisition) and a great many scholars were brutally punished. Faced with this opposition, Khalifa al Mutawakkil abandoned the Muítazilites and embraced the orthodox Asharites. In turn, when the Asharites came to power (846), they whipped the Muítazilites and some were tortured.

It must be emphasized that the Muítazilites were not the inventors of modern science. A great many writers - both Muslim and Western - look back at the age of reason (the Muítazilite period) with nostalgia and assert that the decay of science in Islam came about because the rational approach was suppressed, and was finally dealt the death-blow by Al Ghazzali (1111). This betrays a lack of understanding of science and civilization in Islam and the philosophical limitations inherent in the rational approach.

The modern scientific method, which is based on observation, collection of data, interpretation, extrapolation and generalization was developed by the Muslims only after the Muítazilites were vanquished and in spite of them. The basis for this empirical approach is the Qurían. Islamic empiricism, not Greek rationalism, was the father of modern science. In the twelfth century, it was this empirical method that found its way to Christian Europe through Muslim Spain. In formulating a strategy for the reconstruction of the madrassah, this observation is so important that we shall revisit it in a later article.

The al-Hakims (integrators) emerged when the rationalists lost out. These were the stalwarts who produced the intellectual eruption that is sometimes referred to as the ďgolden ageĒ of science in Islam. Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Al Baruni, Al Masudi, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Sina, and Al Idrisi all belonged to this class of archetypes. The al-Hakims dominated the historical landscape until the devastations of the Mongols and the Maghribi Crusades (1212-1258). It was in this period that the Islamic approach to man and nature found its fullest expression. The syllabus in the madrassah embraced the sciences of man, nature and the soul.

The Awliya emerged out of the ashes of Mongol and Crusader destructions. Focusing more on the esoteric than the exoteric, they developed the sciences of the soul and achieved a cosmopolitan Islamic culture that not even the most liberal Hakim could have dreamed of. Representing the archetypes of the age were Abdel Qader al Jeelani of Baghdad, Khwaja Moeenuddin Chisti of Ajmer, Shaykh Shadhuli of Cairo, the Maulana Rumi of Konya, Shah Naqshband of Samarqand and Shaykh Maqdum of the Archipelago. This period is known for its ecstatic poetry, architectural brilliance and development of the sciences of Tasawwuf. The madrassah reflected the spiritual quest of the age and the science of tazkiyatun nafs (purification of the soul) found an honorable place alongside the Quríanic sciences, Hadith, mathematics, astronomy, technical trades, chivalry and good manners.

The age of tazkiyatun nafs culminated in a culture of akhlaq (good character) personified by the Great Moghuls Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. Some of the ďgemsĒ of the Moghul courts, such as Abul Fazal (the writer), Tansen (the composer) and Tulsi Das (the administrator) were its typical products. The curriculum of the age, and the composite characters produced by it, reflected the akhlaqi color. The Moghuls were not inventors of the Akhlaqi School. It was proposed as early as the tenth century by Al Farabi (950) and developed by that great man of science, Nasir uddin al Tusi (1276). Imported into India and Pakistan by Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq (1351), it found its fullest expression in the composite, cosmopolitan culture of the Great Moghuls (1526-1707).

As corruption ran amuck in the body politic, the traditionalists, always lurking in the background, asserted themselves (1600-1650). This was the beginning of the age of fatwa. Personifying this archetype were the Great Moghul Aurangzeb, Shaykh Abdul Wahhab of Arabia and Shehu Dan Fuduye of Africa. In their zeal to purge the society of religious excesses, the traditionalists injected rigidity into the educational process. So powerful was the downdraft from the traditionalist movement that even an intellectual giant like Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1762) had to guard his rear against an attack from this quarter.

It wasnít until the nineteenth century, with India firmly under the heels of the British and the Indian Ocean trade under European control, that Muslims woke up to the challenge of the West. In the Ottoman Empire, this awakening resulted in a series of reforms, called the Tanzeemat. In South Asia, it produced Syed Ahmed Khan and Jamaluddin Afghani. The university at Aligarh is a product of this reformist thrust.

In the post-colonial era, one sees the emergence of the secular reformer. It is the secular reformer who has dominated the social and political landscape in the twentieth century. Trained in the western tradition and neglectful of his own past, the secular reformer sees the salvation of the Muslim body politic in emulating the western paradigm. Mohammed Abduh of Egypt was perhaps the first in this category. Kemal Ataturk, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Habib Bourgiba all fall into this category.

Sometimes there are clear demarcation lines between the disappearance of one archetype and the appearance of another such as happened with the repudiation of the Muítazilites and the appearance of the al-Hakims. At other times there is a slow evolution from one archetype to the other, such as between the Sufi and the Salafi. And on other occasions, old archetypes make their appearance, like unexpected meteors in the sky, past their historical times. Some discontinuities stand out; others are fuzzy. In the modern times all of these archetypes exist side by side and are a primary source of tension in Muslim societies.

Summarily, the seven archetypes that characterize different periods in Islamic history include: the visionaries, the men of reason, the men of science, the Sufis, the Akhlaqis, the Salafis (the traditionalists) and the westernized reformers. In the emergence of these archetypes the madrassah, its structure and its curriculum, played a decisive role. When the syllabus and instruction were comprehensive and balanced including the natural sciences, the sciences of man and the sciences of the soul (we may call it the stable Nature-History-Nafs tripod), Islamic civilization thrived and contributed to world civilization. When education was marginalized to one discipline or the other, it withered. Where it once produced intellectual giants it now crafted statues without spirit, bodies without soul. Extremism followed and stares us straight in the face today.

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