Books, programs, ijazah: a look at the education system in Ottoman madrasas

One of the most important elements of islamic culture and civilization was its universities called “madrassas” – institutions that kept the empire afloat for centuries and shaped its structure. They are, so to speak, the arsenals of Islamic culture and civilization. Madrassas formed the ruling elite in addition to educating students in the fields of religion, law, medicine, and astronomy, among other subjects, during centuries of Ottoman rule. Every famous scientist, artist and statesman in predominantly Muslim countries was educated in the madrassa system until the 20th century.

The first miniature of the illuminated manuscript, “The Book of Bliss”, represents the reading of Sultan Murad III.

The Razi school

Scholars call the Nizamiyyah madrassas the institutions of the “Islamic Renaissance”, founded by the Persian scholar and Grand Vizier of the Seljuk Empire Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi, better known as Nizam al-Mulk, in the 11th century. These madrassas were among the first well-organized institutions of higher education in the Islamic world, the quality of education being so superior that they were renowned in Europe. Although the Mongol invasion destroyed the madrassas’ knowledge accumulation and seriously crippled it, the Ottomans supported the system pursued in Nizamiyyah’s madrassas.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, scholars who came from Anatolia to frequent the scientific centers of the East collected major works of Islamic cultural heritage and brought them back with them. These scholars were affiliated with the school of the Persian mathematician and Islamic scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1150-1210). Shams al-Din al-Fanari was the first representative of the school in the Ottoman Empire. Rumor has it that when al-Fanari died he left a collection of 10,000 volumes of books.

A miniature shows Ottoman scholars consulting old manuscripts.
A miniature shows Ottoman scholars consulting old manuscripts.

After al-Fanari, the main representatives of this school were Mullah Yegan, one of the famous scholars during the time of Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, and Khidr Bey, the first qadi of Istanbul – a Muslim judge who interprets and administers Islamic jurisprudence.

Academics did not teach according to a compulsory curriculum, which made it difficult to categorically enumerate books taught in Ottoman madrasas every century. Professors directly determined the principles of education and taught reference books in their area of ​​expertise. Teachers would issue an “ijazah,” or license, to impart certain knowledge given by one who already has authority to students once they have reached a certain level.

These teacher-written ijazahs included information about the books the student had read, which branches of science he had learned and which courses he could teach, as well as the names of previous ijazah recipients. Most of the ijazahs issued by the Ottoman madrassas reveal a chain of scholars dating back to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.

The first page of
The first page of “Bustan” from a Mughal copy.

We need to follow several paths to determine which books have shaped the minds of madrassa students, with history books and autobiographies providing insight. Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali (1541-1600), an Ottoman historian who wrote reference works in various fields, is one of the sources which provided the first detailed list of books taught since the era of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. “Kevakib-i Seb’a” (“Seven stars”), written by a committee headed by Mustafa Efendi, then Reis ül-Küttab (chief clerk, equivalent to today’s Foreign Minister), is the first study to describe the taught books in detail. The book was prepared at the request of the Marquis de Villeneuve, who was the French Ambassador to Istanbul.

Another clue is the list of books foundations for the establishment of libraries in madrasas. The “tereke” (heritage) registers, kept to determine the heritage of deceased teachers and students, also shed more light. Literary historian professor Ismail Erünsal, who reviewed these documents, published lists of the common books he identified.

Truth Cannot Be Reached Without Method

Examination of the available evidence, especially the autobiographies of Ottoman scholars, reveals that madrassa students first read and memorized the Quran. Knowledge of Arabic and its literary arts was considered an essential quality in an Ottoman intellectual, and learning the Quran was believed to have helped to lay this foundation.,

Painting “Reciting the Koran” by Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey from the collection of the Sakıp Sabanci Museum, Istanbul. (Getty Images)

In a sense, Arabic was the common academic language of the Islamic world. The most common books taught in madrassas were Arabic grammar books and dictionaries. Scholars who had never even been to an Arab country had books of Arabic grammar, such as the Muslim scholar and moralist Muhammad Birgivi. His books “Izhar” and “Avamil” have been taught in madrassas for centuries because they provided an easier way to learn Arabic.

Apart from his studies, Birgivi never left the town of Birgi near Izmir in the Ottoman Empire where he worked as a scholar. However, the books he wrote in a variety of fields would roam the empire. His book “Vasiyetname” was a bestselling religious book that captivated not only students but the public at large.

The teaching of Arabic grammar books was followed by methodological books in madrasas, as the goals cannot be achieved without a proper method. Books on astronomy, geometry, and calculus were also taught to encourage methodological thinking.

The students studied books on different scientific fields such as astronomy in madrasas to provide this methodological reflection.  (Getty Images)
The students studied books on different scientific fields such as astronomy in madrasas to provide this methodological reflection. (Getty Images)

Books on logic were essential for students’ methodological thinking skills. The Syriac philosopher Porphyry’s book, “Isagoge” (“Introduction”), the standard textbook of philosophy through the Middle Ages with translations into Latin and Arabic, was one of them.

Book that governs the sultan

Through education, the madrassas created an infrastructure for literary, legal, historical and social knowledge which formed the basis of Islamic culture and civilization. Everyone from sultans to statesmen and travelers to scholars have been educated under this system.

Teaching one of the important reference books to a student was deemed sufficient for the individual to graduate, after which the student would improve in the field in which he intended to specialize. If the student faced a problem, he knew where to find the relevant information.

Professor Erünsal found two main books in the “tereke” archives of intellectuals. The first was the most famous work by Islamic jurist Ibrahim al-Halabi, “Multaqa al-Abḥur” (“Confluence of the Seas”), written in 1517. The work is a Condensation of a number of earlier standard compilations of the Hanafi jurisdictional sect. Referring to the influence of the book, diplomat and writer James Lewis Farley said: “The Sultan rules the Turks, and the Quran and Multaqa rule the Sultan.” The other, “Dürer’ül-Hükkam” (“Beads of provisions”), on the theme of Islamic law, was written by Mullah Hüsrev, the mentor of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.

An illustration from
An illustration from “Gulistan” shows Saadi Shirazi being greeted by a youth from Kasghar during a forum in Bukhara.

Madrasas mainly taught divans, a collection of poems by an author, in terms of literary works. Literature was a space where students could rest amid deep and exhausting readings. During the breaks between classes and in the evenings, the students discussed literature and even organized poetry competitions.

In these competitions, a student reads a couplet chosen at random from a book of poetry. The other competing student reads another piece that begins with the last letter of the previous student’s poem. In this way, they tested their memorization abilities through mutual readings. In the event of a tie, the poet must use the last syllable of his opponent’s last word. It is said that in some competitions thousands of verses were recited.

According to records, the books of the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi titled “Bustan” (“The Orchard”) and “Gulistan” (“The Rose Garden”) were most often taught. The couch of the poet Jami and “Mesnevi” (“Mathnawi”) of the 13th century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and their annotated texts are also among the most common literary works.

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Janice G. Ball