But in fact, Al-Azhar was founded as a madrasa, a charitable school of religion and law. It was not an independent corporation and could not award degrees until 1961. In contrast, the Western universities are corporations with separate legal personality. They set their own statutes and are not restricted in the subjects they could teach or how they organised themselves. For this reason, science and medicine found a home in the University but never in the madrasa.
The standard authority on the connection between Islam and western universities is George Makdisi, whose book Rise of Colleges: Instituions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh,1981) is cited by MacCulloch in his own misleading comments on this subject. Makdisi is worth quoting (pages 224-5):
The university as a form of organisation owes nothing to Islam. Indeed, Islam could have nothing to do with the university as a corporation. Based on the concept of juristic personality, the corporation is an abstraction endowed with legal rights and responsibilities. Islamic law recognises the physical person alone as endowed with legal personality.
The university was a new product, completely separate from the Greek academies of Athens and Alexandria, and from the Christian cathedral and monastic schools; and it was utterly foreign to the Islamic experience.
Makdisi goes on to claim that the college, a charitable residence for students, may have had Islamic antecedents. It is colleges that MacCulloch is thinking of when he says in his History of Christianity western schools "copied in a remarkably detailed fashion the institutions of higher education which Muslims had created for their own universal culture of intellectual enquiry." But MacCulloch misleads by missing the most important elements of western higher education which had no Islamic antecedent at all.
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