Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

SAFAR
- RABI-UL-AWWAL 
1425 H
APRIL
2004
Volume 17-0
4 No : 208
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Back To The Past


The Tradition of Halaqa

The Tradition of Halaqa

The mosque played a very great part in the spread of education in Islam throughout history.

 

By Salah Zaimeche

The Quran urges the faithful to, think, ponder, reflect and acquire knowledge that would bring them closer to God and to His creation. The Quran uses repetition in order to imbibe certain key concepts in the consciousness of its listeners. Allah (God) and Rab (the Sustainer) are repeated 2,800 and 950 times respectively in the sacred text; Ilm (knowledge) comes third with 750 mentions.

Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) commanded knowledge upon all Muslims, and urged them to seek knowledge as far they could reach, and also to seek it at all times.

Following these commands and traditions, Muslim rulers insisted that every Muslim child acquired learning, and they themselves gave considerable support to institutions, and learning in general. This contributed largely with the commands of Islam to make elementary education almost universal amongst Muslims. In Muslim Spain, according to Scott, there was not a village where `the blessings of education' could not be enjoyed by the children of the most indigent peasant, and in Cordoba were public schools frequented alike by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and where instruction was imparted by lectures. The Spanish Muslim received knowledge at the same time and under the same conditions as the literary pilgrims from Asia Minor and Egypt, from Germany, France, and Britain. And in the great Muslim university of Cordoba, both Jews and Christians attained distinction as professors. `In scarcely any other culture,' Pedersen holds, has the literary life played such a role as in Islam. Learning (ilm), by which is meant the whole world of the intellect, engaged the interest of Muslims more than anything. The life that evolved in the mosques spread outward to put its mark upon influential circles everywhere.'

Every place, from the mosque to the hospital, the observatory, to the madrassa was a place of learning. Scholars also addressed gatherings of people in their own homes. Al-Ghazali, Al-Farabi, and Ibn Sinna, amongst many more, after teaching in public schools, retired to their private libraries and studies, and continued teaching `those fortunate enough to be invited.'

This universality, not even equalled today, thirst and impetus for education was proper to those days, when Islam was the banner, and like most achievements only proper to those days, and none others.

The mosque played a very great part in the spread of education in Islam. For Tibawi, the association of the mosque with education remains one of its main characteristics throughout history. For Scott, the school became an indispensable appendage to the mosque. From the start, the mosque, Wardenburg explains, was the centre of the Islamic community, a place for prayer, meditation, religious instruction, political discussion, and a school. And anywhere Islam took hold, mosques were established, and basic instruction began. Once established, such mosques could develop into well known places of learning, often with hundreds, sometimes with thousands of students, and frequently contained important libraries.

The first school connected with a mosque, was set up at Madinah in 653, whilst the first one in Damascus dates from 744, and by 900, nearly every mosque had an elementary school for the education of both boys and girls. Children usually started school at five, one of the first lessons in writing was to learn how to write the 99 most beautiful names of God and simple verses from the Quran. After the rudiments of reading and writing were mastered, the Quran was then studied thoroughly and arithmetic was added. For those who wanted to study further, the larger mosques, where education was more advanced, offered instruction in Arabic grammar and poetry, logic, algebra, biology, history, law, and theology. Although advanced teaching often took place in madrassas, hospitals, observatories, and the homes of scholars, in Spain, teaching took place mostly in the mosques, starting with the Cordoba mosque in the 8th century.

The basic format of mosque education was the study circle, better known in Islam as `Halaqat al-ilm' or in brief: Halaqa. Halaqa, spelled Halka in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, is defined as `a gathering of people seated in a circle,' or, `gathering of students around a teacher. Visiting scholars were allowed to sit beside the lecturer as a mark of respect, and in many Halaqat a special section was always reserved for visitors. Al-Bahluli (d.930) a magistrate from a town in Iraq went down to Baghdad, accompanied by his brother, to make a round of such study circles. The two of them came upon one where a scholar `aflame with intelligence,' was taking on all comers in various fields of knowledge. Ibn Battuta, recorded that more than 500 students attended the Halaqat of the Ummayad mosque. The Mosque of Amr near Cairo had more than forty halaqat at some point, and in the chief mosque of Cairo, there were one hundred and twenty halaqat. The traveller, geographer Al-Muqaddasi, reports that between the two evening prayers, as he and his friends sat talking, he heard a cry `Turn your faces to the class' and he realised he was sitting between two classes; altogether there were 110. During the halaqats, whilst teachers exercised authority, students were still allowed, in fact, encouraged to discuss and even challenge and correct the teacher, often in heated exchanges. Disputations, unrestricted, in all fields of knowledge were known to take place on Friday in the study circles held around the mosques, and `no holds were barred.'

Teaching and learning in most large mosques became according to Mackensen, `a fully fledged profession,' and the mosque school took on the semblance of an academy or even a university later on. So important centres of higher learning, indeed, that many of them still exist today as the oldest universities in the world. Amongst these, Al-Qayrawwan and Al-Zaytuna in Tunisia, Al-Azhar in Egypt, and Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. As places of renown, they attracted great names of Muslim scholarship, either as students, or teachers, or both. Many among the graduates of the mosques of Muslim Spain were Ibn Roshd, Ibn Al-Sayigh, and Ibn Bajja. In Basra (Iraq) Al-Khallil Ibn Ahmad gave lectures on philosophy at a mosque, and one of his students was Sibawaih who later became one of the most renowned Arabic grammarians of all times. From the beginning of the 9th century until our time, `the glory' of the Qarawiyyin, it is held, was its body of scholars (ulamas).'

Among the scholars who studied and taught there were Ibn Khaldoun, Ibn Al-Khatib, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, Ibn Maymoun, and Ibn Wazzan, and possibly even the future pope Gerbert (d.1003), who later became Pope Sylvester II, and who introduced the Arabic numerals into Europe. Al-Azhar attracted Ibn Al-Haytham who lived in its quarters for a long period, whilst Ibn Khaldoun taught there towards the end of the fourteenth century, and Al-Baghdadi taught medicine at the end of the 12th century.

The renown of such places attracted large numbers of students. In large numbers they flocked to the Mosque of Madinah, which had one of the earliest and most advanced school. Al Qarawiyyin attracted scores of students from all over Morocco, the rest of North Africa, Andalusia and even the Sahara. Generally they were housed by the successive Moroccan dynasties and the people of Fes. The universities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba were held in the highest estimation by the scholars of Asia, Africa and Europe, and in the ninth century, in the department of theology at Cordoba, alone, four thousand students were enrolled, and the total number in attendance at the University reached almost eleven thousand. And on the eve of the British occupation, in Al-Azhar, were already 7600 students and 230 professors.

(To be continued)

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