Teaching Module

Education in the Middle East


In recent years, westerners have been fascinated by the education of children in the Middle East, raising concern over whether or not schools teach extreme radicalism or anti-Americanism. The Arabic word madrasa, which literally means "school," has come to imply in the minds of some pundits and politicians a pro-terrorism center with political or religious affiliation. The situation was very different in the pre-modern era, when schools in the Middle East were world renowned: students from as far away as Spain traveled to regions such as Iraq to study with noted teachers.

In the early days of the Islamic community in the Middle East (i.e., from the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632CE through the four Islamic caliphates and the Umayyad Dynasty in 750CE), the leading Muslims of the Arabian peninsula employed tutors or owned slaves to teach their sons the basics of religion, to read and write, to use the bow and arrow, to swim, and to be courageous, just, hospitable, and generous. The elite expected their daughters to attain skills relating to the household as well as the basics of religion, and sometimes to learn music, dance, and poetry.

The majority of children in rural areas learned how to work the land from their families. The only formal education they received would be from the kuttab, or mosque school, listening to Qur'an readers in mosques, or from informal exchange of information in the family.

In urban areas, boys typically began apprenticeships at around eight years of age to master a craft or skill. In terms of higher education, if a child had memorized the Qur'an (by about 12 years of age) he would often then travel around the Islamic world in quest of a teacher who had an understanding of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Students would gather around these teachers in mosques and master the teacher's approach to law without much questioning.

With the consolidation and cultural development of the Islamic empire during the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258CE), a systematic method of schooling was established in the Middle East for both elementary and higher education. This remained the main form of education until the 20th century.

A maktab, or "elementary school," was attached to a mosque and the curriculum centered on the Qur'an, which was used to teach reading, writing, and grammar through recitation and memorization. Physical education was emphasized in childhood education because Islam gives importance to the training of the body as well as the mind. (Children of wealthy and prominent families continued to receive individual instruction in their houses.)

After attending a maktab, a student could attend a madrasa, or "higher education institution," attached to a mosque. Individual donors, rulers, or high officials funded these through pious endowments. The endowment funds maintained the building, paid teacher salaries, and sometimes provided stipends for students.

The madrasa founder generally set the curriculum. With a focus on fiqh, schools sometimes also taught secular subjects, such as history, logic, ethics, medicine, and astronomy. Memorization was a critical aspect of a student's training in law. The material memorized formed the base used by jurors to practice ijtihad, or the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of legal sources.

The most famous madrasas in the Middle East were Cairo's Al-Azhar, founded in the 10th century, and Baghdad's Al-Nizamiyya, founded in the 11th century. (Medical schools were usually attached to hospitals.)

The period of the Abbasid Dynasty is often referred to as the Golden Age of Islam, due in large part to the thriving centers of learning. Scholars during this time translated, preserved, and elaborated Greek philosophy (later used in European universities). They also made advances in algebra, medicine, trigonometry, mechanics, optics, visual arts, geography, and literature.

During the early-modern era (1500-1800), education continued to flourish under the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. One study suggests that up to half of the male population was literate in Cairo at the end of the 18th century, implying that maktabs were numerous.

The madrasa continued to be constructed as part of the mosque complex, reflecting the importance of education to religion and the sense that education took place within the religious framework. Scholarship under the Ottomans and Safavids centered on the notion that the most advanced science came from Islam and that scholars before them knew best. This was in contrast to Europe during the 19th century, where higher education in new types of institutions of learning began to free itself from church control to embody the Enlightenment value of questioning religion (i.e. putting the laws of science over the laws of God), although reform of the older universities in Europe proceeded slowly.

In the face of Europe's growing power from advanced technology and commercial wealth, Ottoman rulers entered the modern era (1800-present) with a series of educational reforms. The reforms aimed to modernize the empire by adapting aspects of western life. (In contrast, Iran, under the Qajars, did not undergo the same level of educational reforms.)

The Ottomans sent envoys to Europe to translate their scholarship and learn new scientific discoveries. They secularized society such that educational opportunity became equal for all subjects in state schools. In cities such as Istanbul, Cairo, and Tunis, reforming governments established specialized schools to train officials, officers, doctors, and engineers. Some contesting voices in the Ottoman Empire argued, however, that the problems of the Empire were not from a lack of western ways, but from a need to return to the ways of the early age of Islam and the Golden Age.

Nonetheless, by the end of WWI, almost all of the Middle East had fallen under European colonial rule. The maktab and madrasa system of education began to wane in the place of French and British schools. These schools had limited enrollment due in large part to their scarcity in number; access was restricted to a select local elite trained to enhance colonial administration. Study in the maktab and madrasa no longer led to high office in government service or the judicial system.

Although the colonizing authorities introduced compulsory schooling measures of one kind or another, they often failed to include sufficient funding in colonial budgets, so the percentage of the total child population in schools remained dismally low. Children in rural areas who attended school often studied for a half day and worked the other half. In Algeria, for example, by 1939 the number of secondary school graduates was in the hundreds for the entire country.

Various types of private Islamic schools existed as alternatives to government secular schools, but the colonial governments sought to exercise close control through subsidies, curriculum expansion, and inspection systems. Religious schools often served—as they did in European efforts to extend education to the middle and lower classes—as a base from which to build capacity. A small number of European and missionary schools, as well as some indigenously operated Christian schools existed alongside the government and Islamic schools. In cities, these Christian schools of various denominations sometimes gained importance as institutions where children of elites accessed European education. In this way, a two-tiered education system developed under colonialism. In all of these systems, girls were able to acquire a nominal education; if it continued, it was usually in the form of training for teaching, nursing, or midwifery.

Post-colonial governments in the Middle East prioritized mass popular education to build strong nations. Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, for example, promoted free education and promised each graduate a position in the public sector. In countries such as Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria, schools underwent a process of "arabization." This meant a focus on teaching Arabic language and culture. Traditional schools either closed or became incorporated into the state system. Iran, in contrast, had never been colonized. It became increasingly westernized in the mid-20th century, until the Revolution and subsequent Islamization of the state and schools.

While access to education has improved dramatically in the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, the public education system tends to suffer from overcrowded classes led by poorly-trained, overworked teachers with inadequate materials. The curriculum is for the most part secular, and when the history of Islam is taught, the goal is not to incite children to violence. Many families must hire private tutors to help children with their end of the year exams, which emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of material. If children fail these exams, they can conceivably remain in the same grade level for as many years as it takes to pass, or they fail to qualify for secondary or post-secondary training of their choice. A very small percentage of families can afford to send their children to private European or American schools in the Middle East, which provide a western-style education.

How to Cite This Source

Heidi Morrison, "Education in the Middle East," in Children and Youth in History, Item #459, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/459 (accessed August 10, 2021).