Education in the Islamic Golden Age

Parvez Mahmood on how the idea of formal education developed from pre-Islamic times to the medieval era

Education in the Islamic Golden Age
We often see references to a Golden Age of Muslim learning that flourished in the historical Khorasan region. This period was quite far spread out – starting from 750 AD with the rise of Abbasid Caliphate and continuing till the Mongols devastated the Muslim lands and peoples of Central Asia in the 13th century. Though some embers continued to sparkle for two more centuries, the destruction of great centres of scholarship like Samarkand, Balkh, Bamiyan, Herat, Rey, Nishapur and Baghdad, and wholesale slaughter of their inhabitants effectively put an end to this learned era.

There were thousands of physicians, astronomers, geographers, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, theologians and poets in this Islamic Golden Age. This kind of profuse proliferation of sciences and arts in a society is an evolutionary process that cannot occur in a cultural vacuum.

From a manuscript of the Shahnameh - the Vizier Bozorgmehr discusses a game
of chess with Khosrow I

This article will study the education system in the erstwhile Greater Khorasan region that gave rise to such abundance of scholarship. The geographical extent of this region is the area east of the Tigris including Northern Iran, Western Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. Much of the information contained herein is derived from the 4th volume of exhaustive 7-volume History of Civilization of Central Asia compiled by UNESCO, that derives information from scores of studies and written contemporary records.

Before Islam reached North Iran and Transoxania, the region was a crossroad of various religions and cultures such as Persian, Greek/Hellenic, Buddhist, Shamanist, Animist, Manichaen, Indian, Nestorian and Zoroastrian. After the Muslim conquest, Arab supremacy came to be challenged by local population allowing various Persian and Turk dynasties to become autonomous rulers. These dynasties included the Turgesh Khagnate (724 AD), Tahirids (821 AD), Saffarids (867 AD), Samanids (874 AD), Buwayhids (932 AD) and Ghaznavids, followed by the Seljuks. The interaction of these varied religions and people created a society that was conducive for the spread of liberal sciences.
The Sassanid-era student learned to compete in wrestling, backgammon and chess. He was skilled in the art of cookery and was well acquainted with the varieties of garden flowers and the means of extracting various perfumes from them

The seeds of education in the Persianate lands came from the Byzantine world and Nestorian Christians. An ancient “Persian school” of theological studies was established in the 2nd century at Nisbis in the upper Mesopotamia that moved to Edessa in the 4th century when the former fell to the Persian forces. Following the Nestorian schism, when emperor Zeno closed this school in 489 AD, the school moved back to Nisbis and its scholars settled in the Persian territories. Both these cities are situated in now Turkey, along its border with Syria.

Warqa bin Naufal, a cousin of Hazrat Khadija (RA) who was the first to testify to the Prophet’s (PBUH) revelations, too, was a Nestorian scholar. The Nisbis school played a major role in the spread of education, first in Sassanid and then in Muslim Persia. Nestorians played a major role in the translation of Greek manuscripts into Latin, which were then retranslated into Arabic during the Abbasid era, igniting the spread of scientific and philosophical thoughts in the Muslim world.

Astronomical Observatory where Nasir-al-Din Tusi studied the heavens

In the early third century, the Roman Emperor Valerian was defeated and taken prisoner by Sassanid King Shapur I. The Roman prisoners of war included men of medicine who were employed by the Persians to establish a bimaristan – medical school and hospital – at Gundeshapur in modern-day Khuzestan province. Later, when the East Roman Emperor Justinian closed the pagan schools and perhaps the ancient Academy at Athens too, their staff migrated to Gundeshapur – making it an important centre of Greek medical practices. Indian scholars, too, joined this famed school and introduced Indian methods of medicine. Subsequently, the Gundeshapur hospital served as a model for many such bimaristans across the Caliphate.

The modern hospital is a concept that grew in the Abbasid caliphate. The US National Library of Medicine website states,

The hospital was one of the great achievements of medieval Islamic society. [...] The hospitals were largely secular institutions, many of them open to all, male and female, civilian and military, adult and child, rich and poor, Muslims and non-Muslims.”

This code of conduct continues to guide hospitals in the modern world.

The Courtyard of the Mustansiriya Medical College - an educational institution originally built by Abbasid calpih al-Mustansir

There are reports of large well-staffed and financed hospitals from Central Asia to Baghdad, Damascus and Andalusia. A bibliography on medicinal writings from that era exists on the above quoted website.

The Sassanid rulers of pre-Islamic Persia had established a wide network of educational institutions in their empire to train and educate the dabirs, as the government secretaries and scribes were known. These schools were called dabiristan and were places of higher secular studies. A letter dated to the reign of Khusrow I (531-579) narrates the study cycle of a young scribe. The studies began in the temporal subjects of history, literature and philosophy and subsequently went on to mastering the skills of horse riding, archery, javelin and chawgan (polo). This was followed by music, where the student learnt to play the lute, the drum and the stringed instrument. Furthermore, the student learned to compete in wrestling, backgammon and chess. He was skilled in the art of cookery and was well acquainted with the varieties of garden flowers and the means of extracting various perfumes from them.

As may be seen from this list, the range of liberal knowledge dispensed in the dabiristans was fairly wide and comprehensive. Their curriculum under Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries AD was probably no different. Ibn Sina proposed sending children to school from the age of 6. He believed that a teacher should be wise, devout, sagacious and knowledgeable about the methods of moral and intellectual schooling. He advised that teaching should be a gradual process and that boys should acquire manual skills, irrespective of their social status. Girls were excluded from formal education with the result that we do not find female scholars in this entire period.

The Seljuk-era Blue Madrassah in modern-day Sivas was opened to visitors by Turkish authorities after restoration this year

Al-Ghazali advised the secretaries to study the arts of drafting administrative documents, and to study geography, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, medicine, medicinal plants and the systems of underground irrigation. This comprehensive syllabus compares well with the Italian universities during the early Renaissance where, according to Peter Burke in his The Italian Renaissance, the studies consisted of grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry and medicine.

The Persian term Dabiristan for educational institutions was replaced with Arabic terms maktab and madrassah in 741 AD when the Ummayad caliph Hisham bin Abdul Malik mandated the use of Arabic as official language and prohibited the employment of non-Muslims in offices. In the 9th and 10th centuries, education took a firm root. For instance, one day in 997 a teacher of law in Nishapur drew a crowd of over 500 students. Another teacher attracted classes of over 300.

Islamicate eductional culture drew heavily upon the pre-Islamic Sassanid tradition

The Transoxanian model of schools provided the basis for the “Seljuk type” of madrassah. When the great Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk founded the celebrated Nizamiyya madrassah in Baghdad in 1065, he simply copied the Bukharan and Khorasanian models. Some sources mention as many as 33 madrassahs in Khorasan before the appearance of the first madrassah in Baghdad. The Seljuks established further madrassahs in Khorasan and Transoxania. Nizam al-Mulk built educational institutions at Esfahan, Nishapur, Herat, Merv and other cities where higher religious and secular education was provided by the madrassahs and elementary education by the maktabs. During the Seljuk suzerainty in 1164, Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish traveller from Spain, mentions ten rabbinical schools in the Jewish colony in Baghdad.

The career of Nizami Aruzi Samarqandi typically illustrates the educational and non-parochial culture of the region in that era. Born in Samarkand, he notes in his Chahar Maqala that he was a courtier, an astronomer and a physician to Ghaznavid sultans. He claimed to have studied astronomy under Umar Khayyam in Nishapur, where he spent five years. He also spent time in Herat, Balkh and Tus. In the last city, he visited Firdowsi’s tomb and collected material on the poet. His above mentioned book, that includes a scholarly introduction and preface, is a discourse of four professionals that Nizami thought a ruler must have around him. It has been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Swedish but, alas, not Urdu. We know about Nizami because one of the manuscripts of his book survived the vicissitudes of the Mongol and Timurid invasions. There were hundreds of such scholars in the rich literary environment of that time who contributed to the educational heritage of the era.

Between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD, there were numerous madrassahs containing libraries in Bukhara, Khwarazm, Merv, Nishapur, Balkh, Ghazna and Khuttalan. According to Abul-Fadl Bayhaqi, there were over 20 madrasas in the region of Khuttalan, and in large numbers in the region of Balkh and Ghazni. According to Muhammad Salih, the city had 400 madrassahs before it was captured by the Mongols in 1220. At that time there were some two dozen madrassahs in Merv. Madrassahs were especially concentrated in Nishapur, the capital of Khorasan and one of the great centres of learning in the East. Many of them held large collections of books. When the city was taken by the Oghuz Turks in 1153, most of these collections were burnt, and the remainder were sold for the price of the paper. Imam al-Haramayn Juwayni and al-Ghazali were professors at the Nizamiyya madrassah of Nishapur.

The spread of education in the region created a tolerant society. So much so that the rationalist blind Syrian scholar Abu’l Ala Al-Ma’arri of the 11th century wrote tracts openly critical of religious belief, which resonate even today with those who lean towards atheism. Yet he lived unmolested and died a natural death. A quote often associated with him is “There was nothing to be seen more marvellous than man.” It may be added, however, that the spirit of relative tolerance existed in Khorasan and Spain, whereas in Baghdad, the Hanbali faction continued to follow more hardline religious views and indulged in violence against perceived heretical ideas.

The basic techniques of teaching and education in the maktabs are methodically described in many contemporary works. They include Ibn Sina (980–1037), in a chapter entitled “The Role of the Teacher in the Training and Upbringing of Children”, Al-Ghazali in the book titled The Alchemy of Happiness, Burhan al-Din Zarnuji (12th century) in Teaching the Student the Method of Study, Nasir-al-Din al-Tusi (13th century) in Nasirean Ethics, Jalal-al-Din Dawani (15th century), Ibn Qutayba in Training of the Secretary and in the writings of classical poets of Persian literature such as Rudaki, Firdawsi, Nasir-i Khusraw, Sacdi, Hafiz, Jami and others. This impressive list of writings on the subject of education underlines the importance that was attached to teaching during the Islamic Golden Age.

The Mongols carried forward the spirit of education. Nasir-al-din Tusi built an observatory and a madrassah on the instructions of Hulagu Khan. Masud Beg built twin madrassahs in Bukhara, in each of which, according to al-Juwayni, 1,000 students could study. However, during the civil wars of the 1270s, when the city was laid waste for seven years, the madrassahs and their libraries were burnt down. Later in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Timur pillaged Iran, India, Turkey and Syria – even though his descendants continued to patronise arts, sciences and architecture Samarkand in 15th century.

Thereafter the springs of scholarship dried up and the region descended into relative obscurantism. Intellectually, it is a sad state of affairs from which it has not recovered fully as yet.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: