The Madrassah – Cultural Archetypes

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

There is a one-to-one correspondence between the educational system and the archetypes that a civilization produces. These archetypes capture the functional aspirations of a society much as architecture captures its spiritual longings. The archetype in modern day America is Bill Gates. In 19th century England it was the merchant. In classical Japan it was the Samurai. Each archetype personifies what a civilization is and what it wants to become.

One of the difficulties in formulating a consistent educational reformation of the madrasa is that there is no single archetype that captures the essence of Islamic civilization today. Modern day Muslims live in different ages. Some live in the 7th century, some in the age of the Crusades, some in the age of the Taj Mahal, some in the twenty first century, and some in dreamland. The resulting confusion is all too apparent.

In Islamic history, we may identify at least seven different archetypes in the fourteen hundred years since the Hijra (migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina). Each archetype corresponds to a specific educational structure.

The first century after the Prophet belonged to the visionaries (632-765). The instructional structure was a halqa and the teachers were the Suhaba (the Companions), the Tabiyeen (those who learned from the Companions) and Tab-e-Tabiyeen (the second generation after the Prophet). The teacher and the pupil were both animated by the love of the Prophet and the archetypes were a product of this love. The Companions emulated the Prophet. The obedience was without question in matters of faith. It was with due consultation and wise counsel in social and political matters. The Prophet was the lamp and the Companions received the light from the lamp. The archetypes of this age included Abu Bakr Siddiq, Omar ibn al Khattab, Uthman bin Affan, Ali ibn Abu Talib and Salman Farsi. The generations that followed learned from these stalwarts. The names of Omar bin Abdel Azeez, Ja’afar as Saadiq and Abu Haneefa are in the honor roll of the successor generations. What these luminaries did – and did not do – set the course for Islamic history in the centuries to come.

As the boundaries of the Arab empire expanded, Zoroastrians, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists entered the fold of Islam. They brought with them their cultures, languages, customs and their mode of relating to the mysteries of creation. Of particular interest was the impact of classical Greek thought. The Eastern Mediterranean was a bastion of Greek thought and the Muslims often found themselves engaged in religious debates with Christians who had mastered Greek philosophy. The need to justify their beliefs in rational terms provided an impetus to rational thought. Muslim scholars studied classical Greek philosophy, developed it, and took it to new heights. Foremost among them were Wasil ibn Ata (748), Amr ibn Ubayd (762), an-Nazzam (840) and Abu Hudhayl (849). They applied reason to the solution of philosophical problems. They upheld the preeminence of human free will over predestination and deduced from it man’s responsibility for his own actions. The Muslim rationalists were called the Mu’tazalites.

The Caliph al Mansur embraced the Mu’tazalite school and founded a school of translation, the Baitul Hikmah (house of wisdom) in Baghdad wherein the works of classical scholars from Greece, Persia and India were translated into Arabic. A galaxy of scholars, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians worked at the Baitul Hikmah. The Mu’tazalites guided the intellectual ship of Islam for almost a hundred years (765-846). The educational system reflected the rational bent of the age, and the syllabus included philosophy and logic in addition to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The archetype of this age was the rationalist philosopher. Included among these were the mathematician al Khwarizmi (d 840) and the noted philosopher al Kindi (d 873).

As rationalists, the Mu’tazilites applied speculative logic to the transcendence of God and revelation, and in the process fell flat on their face. They overlooked the limitations of the rational method and disregarded the assumptions built therein, such as the assumption of before and after, and subject and object. The rational method cannot explain the conditions of heart such as love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and the divine attributes that transcend time and space. Opposition to the rationalist school set in. To preserve their privileged position, the Mu’tazilites used the whip and a great many scholars were brutally punished. Faced with this opposition, the Caliph al Mutawakkil abandoned the Mu’tazilites and embraced the orthodox Asharites. In turn, when the Asharites came to power (846), they whipped the Mu’tazilites and some were expelled.

It must be emphasized that the Mu’tazilites were not the inventors of modern science. A great many writers – both Asian and Western – look back at the age of reason (the Mu’tazilite period) with nostalgia and assert that the decay of science in Islam came about because the rational approach was suppressed, and was finally dealt the death-blow by Al Ghazzali (1111). This betrays a lack of understanding of science and civilization in Islam and the philosophical limitations inherent in the rational approach.

The modern scientific method, which is based on observation, collection of data, interpretation, extrapolation and generalization was developed only after the Mu’tazilites were vanquished and in spite of them. The basis for this empirical approach was the Qur’an. It was not Greek rationalism but Islamic empiricism that was the father of modern science, which is based on the inductive, not the deductive method. Muslim scholars built an edifice of science on a foundation that was laid by the earlier civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. In the 12th century, it was this empirical method that found its way to Christian Europe through Muslim Spain.

The al-Hakims (integrators) emerged when the rationalists lost out. These were the stalwarts who produced the intellectual eruption that is sometimes referred to as the “golden age” of science in Islam. Al-Razi, Al Baruni, Al Masudi, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Sina, and Al Idrisi all belonged to this class of archetypes. The al-Hakims dominated the historical landscape until the devastations of the Mongols (1219-1258) and Crusades (996). It was in this period that the Islamic approach to man and nature found its fullest expression. The syllabus in the madrasa embraced the sciences of man, nature and the soul.

The Awliya emerged out of the ashes of Mongol and Crusader destructions. Focusing more on the esoteric than the exoteric, they developed the sciences of the soul and achieved a cosmopolitan Islamic culture that not even the most liberal Hakim could have dreamed of. Representing the archetypes of the age were Abdel Qader al Jeelani of Iraq, Khwaja Moeenuddin Chisti of India, Shaykh Shadhuli of Egypt, Maulana Rumi of Turkey, Shah Naqshband of Uzbekistan and Shaykh Maqdum of Indonesia. This period is known for its ecstatic poetry, architectural brilliance and development of the sciences of tasawwuf. The madrasa reflected the spiritual quest of the age and the sciences of tazkiyatun nafs (purification of the soul) found an honorable place alongside religious studies, mathematics, astronomy, technical trades, chivalry and good manners.

The age of tazkiyatun nafs culminated in a culture of akhlaq (good character) personified by the Great Moghuls of India, Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. Some of the “gems” of the Moghul courts, such as Tansen (the composer), Abul Fazal (the writer), and Tulsi Das (the administrator) were its archetypical products. The curriculum of the age, and the composite characters produced by it, reflected the akhlaq color. The Moghuls were not inventors of the akhlaq school. It was proposed as early as the 10th century by Al Farabi (950) and developed by that great man of science, Nasir uddin al Tusi (1276). Imported into India by Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq (1351), it found its fullest expression in the composite, cosmopolitan culture of the Great Moghuls (1526-1707).

As corruption ran amuck in the body politic, the traditionalists, always lurking in the background, asserted themselves (1650-1700). This was the beginning of the age of fatwa. Personifying this archetype were the Great Moghul Aurangzeb, Shaykh Abdul Wahhab of Arabia and Shehu Dan Fuduye of West Africa. In their zeal to purge the society of religious excesses, the traditionalists indulged in their own excesses, and injected rigidity into the educational process. So powerful was the downdraft from the traditionalist movement that even an intellectual giant like Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1762) had to guard his rear against an attack from this quarter.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, with India firmly under the heels of the British and the Indian Ocean trade under European control, that Muslims woke up to the challenge of the West. In the Ottoman Empire, this awakening resulted in a series of reforms, called the Tanzeemat. In South Asia, it produced Syed Ahmed Khan and Jamaluddin Afghani. The university at Aligarh is a product of this reformist thrust. The reformer archetypes sought to revive Islamic life through an educational process inspired by the European educational system. The orientation of the Islamic universities now shifted from the East to the West, from serving the needs of its internal renewal to serving the needs of a colonial age.

In the post-colonial era, one sees the emergence of the secular reformer. It is the secular reformer who has dominated the social and political landscape in the 20th century. Trained in the western tradition and mindful of his own past, the secular reformer sees the salvation of the Muslim body politic in learning from the western paradigm. Mohammed Abduh of Egypt was perhaps the first in this category. Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia, all fall into this category.

Sometimes there are clear demarcation lines between the disappearance of one archetype and the appearance of another, as happened with the repudiation of the Mu’tazilites and the appearance of the al-Hakims (845). At other times, there is a slow evolution from one archetype to the other, such as between the Sufi and the Salafi (18th century). And on other occasions, old archetypes make their appearance, like unexpected meteors in the sky, past their historical times. Some discontinuities stand out; others are fuzzy. In the modern times all of these archetypes exist side by side and are a primary source of tension in Muslim societies.

Summarily, the seven archetypes that characterize different periods in Islamic history are: the visionaries, the men of reason, the men of science, the Sufis, the Akhlaqis, the Salafis (the traditionalists) and the westernized reformers. In the emergence of these archetypes the madrasa, its structure and its curriculum, played a decisive role. When the syllabus and instruction were comprehensive and balanced including the natural sciences, the sciences of man and the sciences of the soul (I call it the stable Nature-History-Soul tripod), Islamic civilization thrived and contributed to world civilization. When education was marginalized to one discipline or the other, it withered. Where it once produced intellectual giants it now crafted statues without spirit, bodies without soul. Extremism followed and stares us straight in the face today.

* This article was submitted to the Encyclopedia of Islamic History ( on March 1, 1995. This date may be used as the first date of publication. The article is based on lectures given by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed in the 1967 to 1992 period.