Saturday, October 02, 2010

Islam and the invention of the University

From time to time, it is alleged that the invention of the University, one of the crowning achievements of Medieval Christendom, was copied, or at least strongly influenced by Islam. A typical example is Diarmaid MacCulloch in his History of Christianity (Penguin, 2009). In a similar vein, it is claimed that the world's first university was not Bologna but the the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It's date of foundation is about 970AD. Bologna was founded between 1088 and 1158 when it was recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor.

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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

Do you guys address the dispute that christianity omitted certain books from the bible because they undercut the validity of the christian message? Only asking because the history channel keeps showing this show on books that were banned from the bible. Bart ehrman say a that early Christianity was not a unified whole early on.

James said...

Hi Anon,

You might find this article I did a while back useful:

Ehrman's logic is backwards though. The Christian message came from the earliest and most authentic texts. These texts were then used to judge the other less certain ones.

If the cut off for "early" is 100AD, the NT contains 95% of such texts and 90% of the NT is made up of such texts (2 Peter and Revelation probable exceptions). Most of the stuff that got missed out was not included simply because it was too late.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Thanks James!
Reading that article right now.

Would you also be willing to offer a title of some books that address this topic? I'm just not certain who's considered a reliable and valid source. I have been told to read books by Craig Evans.

Thanks again!

TheOFloinn said...

What about Carrier's contention that the ancient Greek academies were too the same as (if not better than) the medieval universities?

Anonymous said...

copied from or copied by Islam? I assume you mean "copied from" but it reads as "copied by".

Pierre Sogol said...

In university I too was informed that the first universities were under Islam in an introductory course on Islam - and should have been suspicious when a definition of "university" was not given. The professor used much missionary material as course material as well. thank you for this piece! I'm soon to order your most recent book as well.

James said...

Yes, copied from. Sorry

And that is another post on the ancient academies TheOFloinn

Ocham said...

Thank for that James. I am reading Rashdall Hastings on medieval universities at the moment. He notes that one great contribution of the middle ages to world culture (if not the greatest) was the university. I immediately went to Wikipedia suspecting that it would have a quite different view, but surprisingly it agreed. "The Al-Azhar is considered by one author the world's second oldest surviving degree granting university.[5] However, this claim on precedence appears to confound the distinct nature of madrasas and medieval universities which followed very different historical trajectories until the former were expanded to the latter in modern times,[6][7] and fails to take into account that the Islamic Ijazah certificate deviated in concept and procedure from the medieval doctorate out of which modern university degrees evolved.[8][9][10]"

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