Muslim educational activity began in the 8th century, primarily in order to disseminate the teaching of the Qurʾān and the sunnah of the Prophet. The first task in this endeavor was to record the oral traditions and collect the written manuscripts. This information was systematically organized in the 2nd century AH, and in the following century a sound corpus was agreed upon. This vast activity of “seeking knowledge” (ṭalab al-ʿilm) resulted in the creation of specifically Arab sciences of tradition, history, and literature.
When the introduction of the Greek sciences—philosophy, medicine, and mathematics—created a formidable body of lay knowledge, a creative reaction on the traditional religious base resulted in the rationalist theological movement of the Muʿtazilah. Based on that Greek legacy, from the 9th to the 12th century AD a brilliant philosophical movement flowered and presented a challenge to orthodoxy on the issues of the eternity of the world, the doctrine of revelation, and the status of the Sharīʿah.
The orthodox met the challenges positively by formulating the religious dogma. At the same time, however, for fear of heresies, they began to draw a sharp distinction between religious and secular sciences. The custodians of the Sharīʿah developed an unsympathetic attitude toward the secular disciplines and excluded them from the curriculum of the madrasah (college) system.
Their exclusion from the Sunnī system of education proved fatal, not only for those disciplines but, in the long run, for religious thought in general because of the lack of intellectual challenge and stimulation. A typical madrasah curriculum included logic (which was considered necessary as an “instrumental” science for the formal correctness of thinking procedure), Arabic literature, law, Ḥadīth, Qurʾān commentary, and theology. Despite sporadic criticism from certain quarters, the madrasah system remained impervious to change.
One important feature of Muslim education was that primary education (which consisted of Qurʾān reading, writing, and rudimentary arithmetic) did not feed candidates to institutions of higher education, and the two remained separate. In higher education, emphasis was on books rather than on subjects and on commentaries rather than on original works. This, coupled with the habit of learning by rote (which was developed from the basically traditional character of knowledge that encouraged learning more than thinking), impoverished intellectual creativity still further.
Despite these grave shortcomings, however, the madrasah produced one important advantage. Through the uniformity of its religio-legal content, it gave the ʿulamāʾ the opportunity to effect that overall cohesiveness and unity of thought and purpose that, despite great variations in local Muslim cultures, has become a palpable feature of the world Muslim community. This uniformity has withstood even the serious tension created against the seats of formal learning by Ṣūfism through its peculiar discipline and its own centres.
In contrast to the Sunnī attitude toward it, philosophy continued to be seriously cultivated among the Shīʿah, even though it developed a strong religious character. Indeed, philosophy has enjoyed an unbroken tradition in Persia down to the present and has produced some highly original thinkers. Both the Sunnī and the Shīʿah medieval systems of learning, however, have come face to face with the greatest challenge of all—the impact of modern education and thought.
Organization of education developed naturally in the course of time. Evidence exists of small schools already established in the first century of Islām that were devoted to reading, writing, and instruction in the Qurʾān. These schools of “primary” education were called kuttābs. The well-known governor of Iraq at the beginning of the 8th century, the ruthless al-Ḥajjāj, had been a schoolteacher in his early career. When higher learning in the form of tradition grew in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was centred around learned men to whom students travelled from far and near and from whom they obtained a certificate (ijāzah) to teach what they had learned. Through the munificence of rulers and princes, large private and public libraries were built, and schools and colleges arose. In the early 9th century a significant incentive to learning came from the translations made of scientific and philosophical works from the Greek (and partly Sanskrit) at the famous bayt al-ḥikmah (“house of wisdom”) at Baghdad, which was officially sponsored by the caliph al-Maʾmūn. The Fāṭimid caliph al-Ḥākim set up a dār alḥikmah (“hall of wisdom”) in Cairo in the 10th–11th centuries. With the advent of the Seljuq Turks, the famous vizier Niẓām al-Mulk created an important college at Baghdad, devoted to Sunnī learning, in the latter half of the 11th century. One of the world's oldest surviving universities, al-Azhar at Cairo, was originally established by the Fāṭimids, but Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn al-Ayyūbī), after ousting the Fāṭimids, consecrated it to Sunnī learning in the 12th century. Throughout subsequent centuries, colleges and quasi-universities (called madrasah or dār al-ʿulūm) arose throughout the Muslim world from Spain (whence philosophy and science were transmitted to the Latin West) across Central Asia to India.
In Turkey a new style of madrasah came into existence; it had four wings, for the teaching of the four schools of Sunnī law. Professorial chairs were endowed in large colleges by princes and governments, and residential students were supported by college endowment funds. A myriad of smaller centres of learning were endowed by private donations" (Islām. (2010). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.).