What is a Madrasah?

There is a lot to a name. This becomes apparent when our emotions are stirred by the mere mention of a name. The name ‘Madrasah’ - commonly translated as school, has unfortunately become a politically loaded word with connotations of extremism, brainwashing and anti-Westernism. So how come we have decided to incorporate it into our name despite opting for an anglicized ‘Olive Tree’ as opposed to using the Arabian equivalent (Zaytoonah) which we see being the dominant trend in almost all Muslim institutions. To explain, we wanted to root ourselves in our local context of Scotland by using the language of the people, but instead of going all the way and saying ‘Olive Tree School’, we wanted to distinguish our institution from being like any ordinary school. We deliberately opted for that contrast to make the listeners’ ears prick up when they heard our institution’s name. So what is a Madrasah?

The Roots and Meaning of Madrasah

To properly understand this word, we need to refer to the language it originated from - Arabic, a semitic language whose words are constructed from triconsonantal (3 lettered) roots. In the case of Madrasah, the root DA-RA-SA is the verb to study. The M (meem) refers to the place where the verb occurs, and hence there is a tendency for names of places to begin with M in Arabic: noteworthy examples are Masjid (a place of prayer - mosque), Maktabah (a place of reading and writing - a library), Mat`am (a place of eating - restaurant). The -ah- sound at the end of the word Madrasah is usually added as a suffix to communicate that the particular verb or action which takes place in the particular place occurs frequently. In sum, a Madrasah from a linguistic point of view refers to a place where a lot of learning and studying takes place - a school. Interestingly, the Arabian word shares the same root as its sister Semitic language - Hebrew - where a Midrash is also a place of learning. In current modern standard Arabic, a Madrasah is the word for a school, without differentiation of what type it is: religious, secular, specialist, public, state etc. So how has this word come to acquire a specific ‘religious’ meaning?

The Religious Connection

Islam came and utilised the unique mechanisms of the Arabian language and culture to express itself and communicate its message. For this reason, the two - Islam and Arabic - have become intertwined, and hence in explaining and defining certain terminologies, we need to situate what it means in terms of the language before Islam came to give it a more technical meaning. With this outlined, we come to see how a religious connection is always seemingly inherent in Arabian words. In simple terms, the religious connection to Madrasah emerges from this intertwined relationship between the language and the religion, and it becomes apparent when events are looked at from a historical point of view and historians try to make sense of the events which occured by applying certain labels to classify and identify them. And from here, we can understand when scholars study the phenomenon of Islamic learning and trace the origins of the Madrasah, it takes this religious connection because the religion was the core ‘taught’ element to begin with. Hence Muslim historians trace the first Madrasah as being that established in the home of Zaid ibn Arqam in the beginning of the Islamic Prophetic mission around about 610CE.

Indigenous Madrasahs in Early Islamic History

The name of this first school was Dar al-Arqam - a name which many Madrasahs across the Muslim world carry. Dar-al-Arqam became a sanctuary of learning the Qur’an, Islamic creed and purification. The teacher was the Prophet Muhammad - prayers and peace be upon him - and the students were his Companions - may Allah be pleased with them all. In the early phase of Islamic history, subsequent indigenous and organically structured Madrasahs emerged such as that of as-Suffah in the vicinity of the Prophetic Mosque in Madinah ca. 623 CE.

Here, Ubadah ibn as-Samit, was commissioned with teaching the newly arrived migrants to the city a rudimentary curriculum of: Qur’an, Hadith, Fiqh, Fara’id along with complementary skills such as what can now be termed as basic first aid, calligraphy and wrestling.

Early Systematisation of the Madrasah as an Institute

As Islam spread across the Arabian peninsula and began to emerge in the Northern and Eastern fringes of the African continent, Middle and Central East, a notable trend of institutionalisation of places of learning emerged. Noteworthy examples are the establishment of what is claimed as the world’s first university - the Jamiah al-Qurawiyyin established by Fatimah al-Fihri in 859 CE in the Moroccan city of Fez and then al-Azhar in Cairo 959 CE. To begin with, both these prestigious institutions were labelled with the name Madrasah to denote the linguistic meaning of their function as places of learning even if, structurally, they were the predecessors of what would become the Jami`ah al-Islamiyyah - the Islamic univerisity.

Perhaps the most significant figure to spur the growth and emergence of the Madrasah would be the Abbasid vizier Niẓām al-Mulk to the extent that the institution even became attributed to him in affiliation - Madrasah Niẓāmīyah becoming the first systematically structured academic institutions in the Muslim world ca. 1065 CE. These Madrasah institutes were found in the major cities of the Abbasid (Seljuk) Empire, with the noteworthy examples being Baghdad, Isfahan, Mosul, Nishabur and Basra.

The Madrasah as a Model of University Education

The level of education and curriculum offered in these institutions was so high that they have been reputed to provide the models upon which western universities were found. This is evidenced by the many features which current European universities adopt: from wearing academic robes to professors ‘holding’ a chair (ustadh kursi), and from the inaugural lecture to the symbolism of an ‘academic circle’ portraying students sitting in circles around their Shaykh. These developments gradually culminated into what would be seen as the Golden Age of Islamic civilization between the 11th and 14th centuries CE. This era saw the introduction of the rational sciences and disciplines into the Madrasah curriculum: mathematics, logic, philosophy, alchemy, astronomy and geography.

From the 11th century CE onward, scholars like Ibn Rush, recommended that children attend Madrasah from the age of 6 and be taught primary education until they reach the age of 14. During this time, he wrote, they should be taught the Qur'an, Islamic creed, Arabic, literature, Islamic ethics, and manual skills regardless of their social class. This early systematisation of the Madrasah contributed to the Abbasid Caliphate having the highest literacy rates of the Middle Ages, even surpassing that of Athens in Antiquity. The early models of these institutions of learning gradually evolved over time becoming sophisticated licence and degree granting institutes offering a range of subjects both rooted within and outwith the Islamic tradition from undergraduate study up to doctorate level.

The Unfortunate Decline

From 1299, the Ottoman empire inherited the rich legacy of these flourishing academic institutions established across the Muslim world. They further developed them to create their own educational system based on different levels of study from lower level to specialised schools offering different branches of study whose overall aim was to consolidate the Islamic tradition. The first Ottoman Medrese was established in 1331, and by the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the existing structure amalgamated into a six-fold school system: four general medreses and two specialised, one devoted to the ḥadīth and the other to medicine.

This structure remained in place up until the fall of the empire in 1923. As the empire gradually wilted as a result of multiple complex social, political and economic factors entrenched within religious stagnation, the educational establishments followed suit. Colonialism produced the legacy of an inferiority complex where the woes of the Islamic world were inaccurately pinned to their adherence to Islam along with its influence on their socio-political realities. And from there, the Madrasah as an institute started to be associated with backwardness over against the more secularised educational institutions which formed in response to colonialism.

The Madrasah: As we know it today

In the English speaking world, contact with migrant Muslim populations after the post-war era, and especially from the 1960s onwards has resulted in giving the term a distinct Islamic connotation where the Madrasah is defined as the place of instruction for Islam. Post-9/11, the word has tended to be conflated with meanings of extremism, fanaticism, fundamentalism and anti-westernism in the media, by political figures and the wider public discourse. Madrasahs have become suspect places where values which run contradictory to western values are perceived as being instilled into vulnerable, unsuspecting young minds. From an inward perspective, significant numbers of Muslims themselves hold negative perceptions of Madrasah either due to direct negative experiences or as an extension of popular opinion. The themes and reasons behind these negative portrayals range: from reports of physical abuse as a result of outdated teaching methods to a lack of transparency in terms of the regulation and governance of these Islamic institutions to inadequate curriculums and poorly qualified personnel.


Through this brief presentation of the history of the Madrasah, we are able to appreciate and recognise how the word is comprehensive for any environment of learning regardless of the level of education and the subjects of study. We have seen how the Madrasah as a distinct Islamic institution emerged within indigenous contexts in organic ways to teach curriculums of Islam befitting the times and places of their establishment. The immensely positive social impact of the Madrasah institute was realised when the systematic institutionalisation of these learning places served not only the Muslim world, but its structures, practices and rituals even made their way to inspire western academic institutions. And although in these contemporary times where many things ‘Islam-related’ have become heavily politicised and carry a burden of stigma and negative perception, the glimpse into the historical past of the Madrasah institute gives a light of hope of what can be possible through the dedicated institutionalisation of Islamic knowledge. And it is here that the Olive Tree Madrasah finds its niche. We recognise the collosal obstacles in the way However, resigning to the status quo isn’t a constructive option. Rather, it is about recognising the problems, along with seeing ways to bridge the faultlines in order to equip the future generations with the type of tools which the Golden Age provided for its children.


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