Scholars in an Islamic Library

The Curriculum in Islamic Centers of Higher Education

There are several major differences in the curriculum of education in Shiite and Sunni institutions of higher education. The Sunni centers were established primarily to teach students in the areas of religious law and sciences. The programmatic emphasis was based on the study of the Qur'an and the Hadith, as well as in the exegesis of the holy texts. Sunni centers also sometimes taught Arabic grammar, literature, law, theology and rhetoric. At some centers, philosophy, history, mathematics, were also included.

In Shiite centers of higher education the curriculum frequently Greek philosophy and science. Neopythagoreanist and Hermetic philosophies were soon integrated consequently into the Shiite perspective very early on in the scholastic development of Islamic education. At some centers, some Shiite imams integrated the study of the awai-il or pre-Islamic sciences At the Sunni centers, scholars refrained from either teaching or authorizing the teaching of these philosophies and sciences.The only permissable philosophy in the Sunni centers was Aristotelian logic. On the whole, Sunni schools emphasized the study of law and theology, while Shiite schools tended toward the natural sciences and mathematics.

The Learning Environment

In spite of the curricular differences between Shiite and Sunni schools the general learning environment of the madrasah remains constant throughout the Islamic world. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "the transmission of knowledge has always had a highly personal aspect, in that the student has sought a particular master rather than an institution, and has submitted himself to that chosen teacher wholeheartedly."1

The relationship between teacher and student is characterized by reverence on the part of the student--for the student, the teacher is parent, teacher, and ultimate authority. In this relationship, the teacher not only guides the student through his course of study, but acts as mentor and advisor in the personal areas of the student's life.

The actual transmission of knowledge was eventually codified in the use of both oral and textual aids to learning. Islamic education emphasized the importance of the teacher's spoke instruction in that it established the literal chain--isnad-- that connected teacher and learner. Through the intimate bonds between teacher and master, the spirit as well as the letter of the various branches of knowledge were also thus transmitted from one generation to the next.

In the Islamic world, religious education was free and students were provided with board and lodgings. The life of a student could continue indefinitely and very little pressure was placed on either receiving a degree, or "finding a job." Ultimately, education was not perceived as a means of either finding future employment, or economic gain. Frequently, individuals went on being students throughout their lives, going from one master to the next. Once a student had completed his learning to the satisfaction of his chosen teacher, he would receive a ijazah --a sort of license--which certified that he had completed a course of study in a particular area. Occasionally, exceptionally gifted students became teachers themselves.

1Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (Barnes Noble Press, 1992) p.73.

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