Islam is a religion that prioritizes and gives great importance to science and education. The world's first higher education institutions were established by Muslims in the Islamic world, setting examples for future universities in Europe
Islam regulates all aspects of life from state administration to courts, markets and graves as well as people's daily worships. In other words, practicing the rules of Islam can only be possible through knowledge. This is why Islam gives science prominence. The old people said this with the phrase: "Wherever there is knowledge, there is religion. Wherever not, there is no religion."
The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, which was founded in 972, is one of the first universities that Muslims established. Islamic universities operated within a huge mosque complex in accordance with the traditions of the early Islamic era.
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, conveyed his message in his masjid (small mosque) in Medina. It was the first academy in the history of Islam. Roughly 70 of Prophet Muhammad's unmarried companions constantly lived in the yard of the prophet's masjid and did not leave his side. These people were called "Ashab al-Suffa" (those who lived in the yard). They recorded the verses of the Quran and hadith(prophetic sayings) and read these recordings to those who were not present at the time. Ashab al-Suffa played the most important role in spreading Islam to the remote regions and passing it down to future generations. Scholars that were meant to be sent to tribes were also chosen from among Ashab al-Suffa. They knew every Quran verse by memory and were familiar with the Islamic sciences.
In the world of Islam, higher education together with religious and literary sciences was practiced in masjids and sometimes in the houses of the "mudarris" (professors) in accordance with medieval traditions.
Starting from the ninth century A.D., separate madrasahs began to be established next to masjids. These madrasahs were called "mosque" which means "gatherer" in Arabic. In Europe, the Latin word "universitatis" was used as the equivalent of the word "mosque."
Universities were divided into kulliyahs (faculties) and each kulliyah offered education in a different field of science. Madrasahs featured a lecture hall, conference hall and classes, offices and lodgings for professors, masjid, library, infirmary, student dorms, baths and a dining hall. Madrasahs were not the properties of the state – they were established and managed via waqfs (foundations). Governments could not interfere with madrasahs, which provided the opportunity for scientific / intellectual autonomy in the Muslim world.
Founded in Fez, Morocco in 859, the University of Qarawiyyin is the oldest university in the world that is still active. The Qarawiyyih Library was founded by a woman. In the 9th century, Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Tunisia's Kairouan, arrived in Fez and began laying include the library, the Qarawiyyin Mosque, and oldest higher education institution in the world –with alumni including the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, and the Andalusian diplomat Leo Africanus.
The University of Cordoba, founded in Andalusia in 786, was the oldest university in Europe. French-descended Pope Silvester II (999-1003) graduated from the University of Cordoba. Universities of Kairouan and Zaytouna were founded in Tunisia in 726 and 732 respectively and they were followed by the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt in 972. All these institutions operated within a huge mosque complex in accordance with the traditions of the early Islamic era.
Universities separated from mosques
Universities that were independent from mosques were established in the 11th century. These universities that were founded on the initiatives of the grand vizier of the Seljuk Empire, Nizam al-Mulk, are called "Nizamiyya Madrasahs." The first one of these universities was founded in Baghdad in 1076 and its branches were opened in cities such as Esfahan, Rey, Nishapur, Merv, Balkh, Herat, Basra, Mosul and Amul. Famous scholars including al-Ghazali taught in these institutions. "Nizamiyya Madrasahs" were followed by "Nuriyah Madrasahs," which were founded by the Seljuk governor Nur ad-Din in Damascus. These chains of madrasahs, founded in 1168 for the first time, spread to Damascus and Egypt in time and served as models to the future Ottoman madrasahs.
Back then, cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Kairouan, Cordoba, Rey, Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Tabriz, Istanbul, Kazan and Delhi were cultural centers just like Hejaz. These cities became hubs for distinguished scholars; rooted madrasahs and libraries full of priceless books were established and the number of written and published books increased.
Those who wanted to specialize in sciences flocked to these cities and most of them returned to their hometowns in efforts to teach the knowledge they required to their fellow townsman. In the world of Islam, it was possible to come across well-educated scholars who delivered lectures on all kinds of science and gave fatwa, even in the simplest villages.
Ottoman madrasahs were the continuation of the Seljuks' madrasah model. The very first Ottoman university was founded in the mid-14th century in İznik. The Sahn-ı Seman Madrasah (madrasah with eight lecture halls), founded by Mehmed the Conqueror (Sultan Mehmet II) after he conquered Istanbul, was a university that was a match to its equivalents in Europe. By establishing the university, the education system in the land of the Ottomans was designed as well. Those who graduated from this madrasah were assigned to the highest offices in the Ottoman state such as the offices of judges, muftis and tax officers. The Ottoman universities took their final shape during the reigns of Ottoman sultans Bayezid II and Süleyman the Magnificent. Süleymaniye Madrasahs were institutions that offered graduate programs. Convenient to the tradition of the time, these universities provided education on theology, law, medicine and philosophy. These madrasahs continued to operate until they were closed by the republican government in 1924.
Firsts of Europe
The first known university in Europe was the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088. Founded in the mid-12th century, the University of Paris, provided education in the most primary conditions such as in public squares, and on piles of straw in the winter. The university finally had its first building in 1215. Oxford (1167) and Cambridge (1318) Universities, which were founded by English students who were expelled from Paris University, Italy's Pavia (1361) and Germany's Heidelberg (1386) universities were the first higher education institutions in Christian Europe. Their establishments were long after their Islamic equivalents in Europe.
The effects of universities established by Muslims can still be felt in Europe today especially on their academic grading, dressing, names and especially the architecture of their buildings. Those who toured the old madrasahs in Turkistan know that the madrasahs are composed of a two-story stone building surrounding a yard and a garden with a pool in the yard. The ground floor of the madrasah features lecture halls, the rooms for administration and instructors, a dining room and masjid, while the upstairs features the dormitories of the students. This architectural style can also be seen in old European university such as Oxford; so much so, that the masjid located in the entry was replaced by a chapel. Even the caps that are worn in these universities were inspired from "taylasan," a type of hat worn by the Muslim scholars.