Medieval Arabic Education

Important in the creation of educational theories and practices in the medieval Arabic period were a handful of educators.

These educators had a lasting influence on curriculum and educational practices in the Muslim world. Under their influence Arabic education centered on the teaching of the Koran, Hadith and Muslim jurisprudence. The goals of the curriculum not only included mastering of subject-matter, but also learning to be pious.

One of the very earliest handbooks for Muslim teachers at elementary schools was written by Ibn Sahnun (817-870), a lawyer in medieval Tunisia. His book, Rules of conduct for teachers, provided recommendations to elementary school teachers on a variety of topics including the curriculum, examinations, and student supervision. The book also offered teachers legal advice about their appointments, salaries, and how to discipline students.

Specifically, Sahnun advised teaching children to do close reading of the Koran, to use good manners as and to perform their religious duties. He felt that the subject matter of the curriculum should also include the basics of Arabic language and linguistics, calligraphy, poetry, arithmetic and the history of the ancient Arabs. In his vision, pupils should study both individually and in groups others but boys and girls should be taught separately. Teachers, according to Sahnun should modesty, patience, and a passion in their teaching and that they not administer physical punishment, except when warranted and only in mild form.

Al-Jahiz (776-868), a theologian and educator from Basra (Iraq), stressed the importance of teaching children the following subjects: writing, arithmetic, law, religion, Koran, grammar prosody and poetry. He also emphasized the importance of teaching students recreational subjects including, polo, hunting, horsemanship, playing musical instruments, chess and other games.

Al-Jahiz saw memorization as useful but worried that it has the potential of inhibiting deductive reasoning:

The true proposition and the praiseworthy judgment is that, when [a student] learns only by memorization, this harms deductive reasoning; and when he uses only deductive reasoning, this harms learning by memorization—even if memorization has a more honorable rank than [deductive reasoning]. So, when he neglects rational reflection, ideas do not come quickly to him, and when he neglects memorization, [these ideas] do not stick in his mind or remain long in his heart (translation in Gunther, 2006, p. 372).

Another leading educational figure of this period was Al-Farabi (872-950), a Muslim philosopher and mathematician. He published a treatise or doctrine on education in his book Al Alfaz. His work was philosophical and religious in nature. He argued that educators should first teach students about God and his attributes and how they can reach the perfection that God intended for them. Included in his recommended curriculum were the fostering of moral, aesthetic, and political values and practices.

Al-Farabi proposed a two-track education—one for the common people and another for the elite. The common track focused on rhetorical techniques of persuasion. And the elite one emphasized demonstration. The demonstration curriculum, according to Al Farabi, was provided through aural instruction in which the teachers use speech, dialogue and debate to teach moral virtues.

Al-Farabi's educational methods included not only lecturing, dialogue, and debate but also imitation, repetition and memorization, though these were only recommended as a means to comprehension (Al Talbi, 2009).

Development was also considered relevant to education during this period. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037), a famous intellectual of this period, felt that the developmental stages of children should be taken into consideration when organizing the curricula. He placed special educational importance on emotions, and their development. He also emphasized wisdom imparted in the Koran which he felt was important for teaching ethics, exemplary traditions, morals, and good behavior. Like others of his time, Avicenna valued learning poetry in that it not only is enjoyable, but it also helps to strengthen memory, understand complicated concepts, expose students to eloquence, help students speak correctly, offers students models for proper diction, and increases their imagination, entertaining. Avicenna felt that teachers should be rational and devout. He offers his views on teaching in both The book of regimen and the Canon of medicine.

Another key person in the evolution of educational practices of this period was, Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), a theologian, jurist (lawyer) and teacher. He was considered to be a primary driving force behind Islam's classical educational philosophy and ethics. He framed Aristotelian ethical values as Sufi values. He felt that to achieve mystical knowledge, one must begin with traditional Islamic belief. He understood education as a kind of "guidance" rather than "rectification" of the young. This guidance principle that recurred in most classical writings on Islamic education. Al-Ghazali's most elaborate and influential text was The revival of the sciences of religion. (See Al Ghazali's rules of conduct for students and teachers in Gunther, 2006 p. 384-385).

Yet another Muslim medieval educator was, al-'Arabi (d. 1148) a judge from Seville, Spain. He stressed the physical aspects of Muslim education, advising that students harden their bodies by physical exercise and that they lead a "Spartan" life.

Later, Burhan al-Din al-Zarnuji (first half of the thirteenth century), a scholar from Iran, provided detailed advice on the study of theology, including the first steps in studying, the amount of material to be mastered, and the need for repetition of what was learned.

al-Tusi (d. 1274) was an Iranian Shiite philosopher and scientist. He promoted learning as a means to everlasting happiness and saw knowledge as being rewarded by God in the afterlife, and by humans in this life. Al-Tusi showed how to select the branches of knowledge to study, how to find study companions and a good teacher, and how to create study schedules. He also felt that a healthy lifestyle was a means for facilitating learning. Finally, al Tusi recommended that a student's education involve both the teacher and the father of the student.

In sum, early Muslim educators wrote about the importance of education. They emphasized analytical reasoning and developed theories that could be applied to people of different cultures.

Central to their educational concerns of this time were ethics, aesthetics and religion. The educators felt that teachers should be passionate about what they are doing, and that they should use the Koran as a guide to education.