Rich Mix exhibition & event 2015

The Ottomans returned to London!

The Book of Travels reopened in Rich Mix, Shoreditch from Thurs 3rd December 2015 - Sun 3rd January 2016. More info at:

Find out more information about how schools can get involved here.


As part of the exhibition we held an event:

REBELS! Rethinking 'radical' - lessons in dissent

Wednesday 9th December, 2-4pm at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road E1 6LA

Government policies such as Prevent are shutting down freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Muslim communities remain under surveillance and are stigmatised on a daily basis, while many opportunities to think critically are being curbed. 

This event explored why we need radical thinking more than ever, learning from Ottoman and English rebels, and how different forms of dissent play a practical role in shaping and changing societies. 


  • How can unheard or alternatives narratives and stories be a form of dissent? Are there different forms of rebellion? - A conversation with renowned historians and academics Caroline Finkel and Martin Rose, Islington councillor Caroline Russell and Dr. Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, research fellow in faith and education, on how preventing critical thinking halts exchange between societies, referencing historical and present-day examples
  • Can puppetry challenge power? - School pupils from Walthamstow in partnership with artist and puppeteer Ellyn Stokes perform their own short pieces in the style of Karagoz shadow puppetry
  • Why did coffee help bring about revolutions? - Actor and storyteller Alia Alzougbi of HEC Global Learning takes on different characters to tell the story

Click here for a photo gallery. 

Photos by Amena Amer


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Read more about The Book of Travels on display in East London, December 2015

KCL workshop: links & resources

Below is a collection of articles and resources referred to during the workshop, all relevant and useful to working with diverse and minority communities in medical practice.

Public health in the UK should consider moving away from an epidemiologically driven risk-factor approach to health—targeting obesity, alcohol, smoking, and so on—and focus more on the whole lives of people living in their communities. If one looked at health in this way, one might be able to have a far broader and deeper attitude to the meaning of health, taking account not only of conventional determinants of health, but also wider issues—education, social and political participation, environmental aspects of living, food and nutrition, violence, poverty, employment. 

- Richard Horton, editor-in-chief, The Lancet



Dr Kate Granger's blog


'A Better NHS: Exploring the relationships between doctors, patients and health policy' by Jonathon Tomlinson, a Hackney GP @mellojonny

It’s taken me over 20 years to appreciate just how little attention is paid in medical education to what it’s like to be a patient.

- GP Jonathon Tomlinson



Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors (jointly produced by RCGP Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library)

The book is currently sold out, but you can browse the poems here, including 'Playing God'


Journal articles/reports

Hippocratic Oath: Modern Version (PDF)

Evidence-based medicine: a movement in crisis? BMJ, 2014;348:g3725

Clinical and economic consequences of patients as producers J Public Health Med 1995 Dec;17(4):383-6

What matters to patients? Developing the evidence base for measuring and improving patient experience 2011, KCL & The King's Fund

What matters to patients? Policy recommendations 2011, KCL & The King's Fund

The Development of Narrative Practices in Medicine c.1960–c.2000 2015, QMUL (PDF)

… if I have to explain to someone, like the anthropologist from Mars, what any of these words like compassion or whatever is, sooner or later I have to tell them a story.

- Professor Arthur Frank 


A diverse London

Statistics from the Census 2011:

Diversity in London briefing June 2013, Census Information Service (CIS), Greater London Authority

'2011 Census - 45% of Londoners white British' BBC article 11 Dec 2012

'Equality and equity Health profiles and demographics in Lambeth/Southwark' Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Trust

Lambeth State of the Borough report 2014, Lambeth Council

Southwark Demographic Fact Sheet 2014, Southwark Council (PDF) 

The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.

Hushpuppy, of the Bathtub



Meet the Somalis: illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe, produced for the Open Society Foundation by Positive Negatives



Maslaha health resources

Films, info, posters and research are all available online at the links below. The films are also available on DVD - contact to order.


Talking From The Heart - films in Somali, Urdu and Bengali/Sylheti on mental health, depression and anxiety

Understand Hep B and C - films in English and Urdu; poster in English

Diabetes in Tower Hamlets - films in English and Sylheti

Caring For Your Heart - films in English, Punjabi and Urdu on CVD

Your Healthy Pregnancy - films in English, Punjabi and Urdu on perinatal mortality; poster in English


The more specific a story is, the more universal it can seem.

- Frank Cottrell Boyce, children's author


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Umm Salamah

Umm Salamah

About Umm Salamah: 

Umm Salamah was a very active and foremost Muslimah. She never hesitated when she had the chance of doing something good. She was involved in many battles, helping soldiers and the wounded. She was also very eloquent and had the gift of being able to speak and write beautifully, poetry and prose alike. Umm Salamah was very knowledgeable about religious matters and she narrated no less than 387 hadiths and issued many fatwahs. 

After the death of Prophet Muhammad her scholarship became even more important and many people, men as well as woman, from all walks of life used to come to her to ask her counsel. She had many students and placed great emphasis on teaching women even though she taught men as well as women. Her daughter is said to be her greatest student.  

Her story

Umm Salamah or Hind (her given name) was born to a rich and prestigious family from the Quraysh tribe and happily married Abdullah ibn Abdulasad from an equally wealthy family. They had a comfortable life until they accepted Islam along with a few other people. All of a sudden the once so popular couple became the target of the Quaraysh’s anger and persecution. The more they stayed steadfast with Islam, the more they got harassed until life in Mekkah became unbearable and they received the permission from Prophet Muhammad to emigrate to Abyssinia with a number of other Muslims. Their journey is passed on to us in detail thanks to Umm Salamah who documented their tales. 

They soon returned from Abyssinia to be closer to Prophet Muhammad. During their absence many other great people accepted Islam, which strengthened the Muslim community.  Unfortunately life has not become any easier for the Muslims in Mekkah, and the young couple, who had three children by now, decided to emigrate again, this time to Medina. When Umm Salamah’s family heard about this they became enraged and demanded she stay with them instead of leaving again with her husband who apparently didn’t give her the comfortable life she deserved. Her husband’s family in turn took away their children as revenge to her parents for not letting her leave with Abdullah. A big family feud ensued and Umm Salamah ended up being separated from her children as well as husband. She was in such despair about her situation that she went back to the spot where she got separated from her family every day to just sit down and cry and weep. 

Eventually her tribe returned her children and Umm Salamah wasted no time in leaving with them to find her husband. Happily, they were reunited in Medina soon after. Umm Salamah fell pregnant once more and all was well until tragically her husband was injured in battle and passed away. Umm Salamah could not have been more devastated. She was pregnant, her young children were orphans now and she did not only lose her husband but also her best friend. She tried making the dua her husband had taught her while still alive: ‘Surely from Allah we are and to Him we shall certainly return. O Lord, give me in return something good from it, which only You, Exalted and Mighty, can give.’ However, every time she tried to utter the last part of the dua she would break down and ask ‘but who could be better than Abdullah?’ After a while her question was answered when the Prophet Mohammed asked for her hand in marriage and Umm Salamah became one of the mothers of the believers. 


Sipra, M., (2014), ‘The precious Pearls', Darussalam Publishers

Webb, S. (2011)  'Mothers of the Believers', Audio Series

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Umm Salamah was a woman of knowledge and bravery, her counsel on religious issues was sought by men and women alike.

Nusayba bint Ka'b al-Ansariyah

Nusayba bint Ka’b al-Ansariyah


Nusayba bint Ka’b al-Ansariyah, also known as Umm Omara and al-Maziniyyah, was one of only two women who joined in the second pledge of allegiance to Islam by newly converted Muslims.  Nusayba is most known for her early conversion to Islam and her bravery at the Battle of Uhud where she was the only woman to fight in defence of the religion. Umm Omara was part of the Banu Najjar tribe living in Saudia Arabia during the time of the Prophet. She fought in many battles alongside the Prophet against the Meccans in the Battle of Uhud, the Battle of Hunian, the Battle of Yamama, and the Treaty of Hudaibiyah. 

Initially, Umm Omara was attending the Battle of Uhud alongside the warriors to offer assistance and supplies. However things escalated very quickly and the battle turned from a victory to a defeat. When Prophet Muhammad’s archers disobeyed him and started retreating from the battle field, Umm Omara entered the battle with a sword at the ready to defend and shield him from the enemy, receiving several wounds while fighting.

Umm Omara was of one of the first advocates for the rights of Muslim women and she was the first woman to ask Prophet Muhammad why revelations of the Qur’an only addressed men and excluded women. Soon after this exchange this verse was revealed:

“Verily, the Muslims men and women, the believers men and women, the men and the women who are obedient, the men and women who are truthful, the men and the women who are patient, the men and the women who are humble, the men and the women who give Sadaqat, the men and the women who observe fast, the men and the women who guard their chastity and the men and the women who remember Allah much with their hearts and tongues, Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward.” (Quran 33:35)

This revelation addressed both genders and for many confirms that both men and women have spiritual, and human rights to an equal degree.

Umm Omara was a warrior-woman who stood up for religion and what she believed in. Her self-sacrifice and perseverance has been an inspiration for Muslim women across time and she occupies a special place in the history of Islam. 


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 Nusayba bint Ka'b al-Ansariyah was one of the first advocates for the rights of Muslim women and a brave and admired warrior.

Fatma Al Fihri

Fatima Al-Fihri

Early Life

Fatima Al-Fihri was the daughter of a successful businessman, Muhammad Al-Fihri. She was born in Tunisia in the 9th century and moved to Morocco with her family as a child. She was from a prestigious family and inherited a fortune due to the early death of her father. She strived to help the community through her dedication and hope for her vision.


The young Fatima was pious, well educated and had a great passion for knowledge of Islamic religious science and architecture. She was renowned for being a deep thinker and her vision was cultivated and encouraged to grow in the Islamic society she lived in. She decided to use her resources to honour the Islamic tradition of learning and academic study and build a university and mosque in Fes, Morocco. 

The Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque

The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university complex is renowned for being one of the world’s oldest degree-granting universities in the world. The construction process was reported to have been overseen by Al-Fihri herself. Being situated in one of the most influential cities in the Muslim world, the university played a leading role in academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. It has also been renowned for centuries as a key centre of cultural and religious exchange. Thinkers associated with the university include the author Leo Aricanus and the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi. Almost 1200 years have passed since the university was founded and yet it continues to this day to graduate students from various disciplines.

Fatima Al-Fihri’s Legacy

To this day, Fatima Al-Fihri is highly respected and looked up to by Moroccan women for her kind-heartedness, perseverance and wisdom. She is held up as an inspiration to all and her rich legacy lives on in the excellence of the institution she founded.


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Fatima Al-Fihri founded the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university complex which is renowned for being one of the world’s oldest degree-granting universities in the world.

Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek

Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek 1893 - 1964

Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek was the founder of the first Muslim feminist magazine of the Ottoman Empire, Kadinlar Dunyasi [Women’s World.] A trailblazer of her time, Civelek, who was also known by the names Nuriye Ulviye and Ulviye Mevlan, wanted to create a space for women to develop and be empowered through informed conversation and debate with their peers. The magazine was formed as the official journal of the Osmanlı Mudafaa-i Hukuk-u Nisvan Cemiyeti (Association for the Defence of the Rights of Ottoman Women), which was also founded by Civelek and held the unique status of being the first women’s organisation recognized under Ottoman law.

 Kadinlar Dunyasi was published daily for its first 100 issues and weekly thereafter between the years of 1913 and 1921. 

 Among the aims of the publication were to produce a magazine to give a voice to women of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds in the Ottoman empire, to exchange views and experiences with feminist movements outside the Ottoman Empire, to foster dialogue and solidarity among women on an international level and to actively contest problematic gender stereotypes. The writer Serpil Cakir has noted that ‘Kadinlar Dunyasi’ differed from other women’s publications, such as Hanimlara Mahsus Gazete, in that it gave a platform to women from all walks of life as opposed to just elite or literary women.

 Kadinlar Dunyasi was also radical for its time in that men were not allowed to write for it. The editors reasoned that that ‘it would be more helpful if the men interested in furthering women’s status would write in newspapers that otherwise devoted no attention to women’s issues.’ 

 The association organized symbolic shows of action such as the entering of a post office en masse by association members to mark the beginning of a struggle for Muslim women’s right to enter public offices. They also established a place of businesses for seamstresses to emphasize the importance of women’s economic independence.

The association’s work inspired two journalists from Europe; Grace Ellison from The Times and Odette Feldman from the Berliner Tageblatt to come to Istanbul to inform the public of their own respective countries about the Ottoman women’s movement.

Why shouldn't a woman, a future wife and mother, as talented, well-educated and intellectual as men, not be paid the same income as men? And why should she remain silent and passive instead of protesting for her rights to equal payment? It is this very passivity, my dear friend, which feminism cannot allow accept."

(Ulviye Mevlan, "Düşünüyorum ", Kadınlar Dünyası, 22 Mart 1918, no. 166, p. 2. Quoted in: Serpil Çakır, Osmanlı Kadın Hareketi, Istanbul, 2011, 3. Ed., pp. 373-374.)



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 Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan was the founder of the first Muslim feminist magazine of the Ottoman empire and a dedicated women's rights advocate

Fatima Aliye Topuz

 Fatima Aliye Hanim (Topuz) 1862 - 1936

"I had a separate room as well as a desk, even a bookcase."


Fatima Aliye Hanim is held to be the first female Muslim novelist of the Ottoman Empire. 


Her first novel, ‘Hayal ve Hakikat’ (Dreams and Reality) which was penned together with the author Ahmed Mithat Efendi was published under the names ‘Bir Kadin (A Woman) and Ahmet Mithat.’ She published her first book, Muhazarat (Useful Information)  under her own name in 1892. 


Topuz was highly concerned with the rights of women and she addressed this in her works. She wrote for the magazine ‘Hanimlara Mahsus Gazete’ (Newspaper for Women) without reportedly giving up her conservative views and founded the Society for supporting Ottoman Women (Nisvan-ı Osmaniye İmdat Cemiyeti) in 1897. In her 1896 book Nisvan-ı İslam ("Women of Islam"), she aimed to shed light on the experiences of Muslim women and address criticisms leveled at them or misconceptions about Muslim women in Europe and beyond. She suggested that Ottoman women could solve many of their problems if they took the example of the lives of women in early Islam.


She developed her ideas for women’s rights within an Islamic framework and spoke up against Ataturk’s ‘modernizing’ reforms with regard to women.  At the same time she also spoke out against practices such as polygamy.


Despite all her work, Topuz has been overlooked often in Turkish history. Some suggest this may be because she was always in the shadow of her father, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, who was a prominent scholar and historian. Indeed her gravestone made no reference to her literary works or achievements but instead was inscribed only with the fact that she was the daughter of Ahmet Cevdet Pasha.In recent years however, Fatima Aliye’s legacy has been in some senses revived. In 2009 she was chosen as the first Turkish woman in history to have her portrait featured on a bank note.


This decision was criticized by secularists who argued that a figure such as Halide Edip Adivar, who fought alongside Ataturk and championed his views, would have been a more appropriate choice. Mustafa Ozyurek, an MP for the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) described Aliye as a “dubious personality” who most Turks had never heard of.


Refreshingly however, the Istanbul Modern Museum organized an exhibition named after her first work ‘Hayal ve Hakikat’ in September 2011. This exhibition showcased the works of 72 Turkish women artists from different generations and reflected how they transformed their dreams into reality. The legacy of Fatima Aliye, who was not afraid to stand up for what she believed in and strived to better the lives of women while remaining true to her own values and heritage, lives on.


"… I am not writing these lines in order to defend women. For in matters of humanity, there is no difference between women and men. We are all human beings."  Fatma Aliye, Çok Eşlilik Taaddüd-i Zevcat, (Polygamy), Ankara, 2007, p. 66


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Fatima Aliye Topuz is held to be the first female muslim author of the Ottoman empire.

Maslaha is one of Britain's 50 New Radicals

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Islamic calligraphy, the skilled practice of writing letters so artfully that they become decorative art in themselves, is a beautiful creative form that is tightly intertwined with Islam as a whole. The art has developed and transformed over the course of many centuries, but maintains strong ties to the very beginnings of Islam. In part, Islamic calligraphy flourished because the religion prohibits the depiction of animate objects, meaning that artists are forbidden to draw humans or animals. This limitation inspired creativity amongst Muslim visual artists, who set themselves to task developing a high art based around writing words with extra detail and flair. 

Calligraphy is all the more central to Islam because writing was so crucial to the establishment of the religion. An old Arabic saying teaches that “Purity of writing is purity of the soul.”[1] The act of writing is considered sacred in Islam, because the writing down of the Quran was what enabled the word of God to be carried to new corners of the world.[2] Originally, most calligraphy therefore involved copying the Quran – considered an highly honorable activity – but over time calligraphy became an art in its own right. It has grown to include the artful writing down of other texts, including hadith texts, poetry, literature, and even official documents.[3]  

People usually point to two main styles of Islamic calligraphy: Kufic and Naskh. Both of these styles have been around for hundreds of years, but Kufic seems to have been more popular in the early days of calligraphy.[4] This may be because of the kinds of tools that were used in the early period of Islam – the 7th century – when calligraphy first blossomed. At the time, artists used hard materials like leather, bone, stone, and bark when working on their calligraphy.[5] The lines of the Kufic style are quite harsh, rigid, and geometric, and good Kufic calligraphy would therefore have been easier to accomplish with these hard objects. In contrast, letters written in Naskh style are much more soft, rounded and flowing.[6] Naskh may have only come into being around the year 900, a few centuries after the start of Islam, and didn’t truly become popular until later.[7]

At times, the style of a particular piece of calligraphy would impact how the text had to be presented. Some of the early Kufic styles, for example, were so complex that only 3-5 lines of the Quran could fit onto each page. To solve this problem, the text of the Quran was divided into 30 parts and each part was delivered in a small metal box that was also decorated with its own set of beautiful calligraphy.[8] Indeed, calligraphy was not only written on vellum (paper made from animal skin) or papyrus, but also carved or pressed onto other materials like stone, metal and mirrors. Those who could afford it might even request the production of special fabrics with personalized calligraphy woven into them – a form of ancient, haute monogramming![9]

Even when written on simple paper, Islamic calligraphy is extremely challenging because the artist has to follow many tricky technical instructions. Traditionally, the calligrapher sits holding the paper in his left hand. The paper rests gently on the left knee so that it is flexible enough to bend and move a bit when the pen touches it. The pen itself, cut from a reed, has to be cut and prepared in precisely the right way. The ink has to be made from scratch using ingredients like soot and ox gall – though many of these ingredients are secret, known only to practicing calligraphers.[10]

In the 10th century, Ibn Muqla, then the vizier of the Abbasid caliphate, established a set of concrete standards for the art of calligraphy. He based everything on very precise measurements of the letters, and on the proportions between different parts of the letters, which meant that calligraphers had to pay even more attention to technical details as they painted.[11] Later on down the line, other influential leaders stepped in and single-handedly shifted the trends in calligraphic style – Ibn Hilal al-Bawwab, for instance, pushed the art towards a softer and more elegant style than what Ibn Muqla popularized years before.[12] One of the most amazing things about Islamic calligraphy, however, is that the influence of individuals spread so successfully across the entire Muslim world. This was certainly true of the shift that took place in the 13th century: it was at that point that Kufic became less prevalent and Naskh truly entered the spotlight.[13] Softer and generally easier to read than Kufic script, historians observe that while the favoritism of Naskh probably began in Baghdad, it rapidly spread across the entire Muslim world – so rapidly that when we look back on them, the developments seem almost simultaneous.[14] 

In that sense, Islamic calligraphy can genuinely be imagined as a symbol of unity across the Muslim world. Not only is it a product of the Islamic tradition itself, but also for centuries it has unified millions of people across the globe by filling their world – books, official documents, palace and mosque walls – with a familiar set of exquisite designs. 

A popular story tells that once while traveling, the Turkish calligraphic master Hafiz Osman forgot his purse while en route from Istanbul to Cskudar. With no money, he was almost unable to board the ferry home. Fortunately, thinking on his feet, he successfully paid the ferryman with a beautiful calligraphic drawing of just one letter of the Arabic alphabet.[15] This tale demonstrates well the beauty and value of Islamic calligraphy, as well as the impression even one lone letter can make on the beholder. Perhaps it is also significant that Osman was travelling when the incident took place, carrying the art of calligraphy with him and helping – quite literally – to spread the word around the Muslim world. 


[1] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[2] Ibid.
[3] Dutton, Yasin. “Islamic Calligraphy by Sheila Blair.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 70.2 (2007) 421-3. 
[4] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[5] Ali, A.K.M. Yaqub. “Muslim Calligraphy: Its Beginning and Major Styles.” Islamic Studies, 23.4 (Winter 1984) 373-9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Qijano, Felipe. Journey Through Art History: Islamic Calligraphy. Google Sites, n.d. Web. 28 April 2013. 
[8] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. 
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Tabbaa, Yasser. “The Transformation of Arabic Writing: Part I, Qur’anic Calligraphy.” Ars Orientalis, 21 (1991) 119-48. 
[15] Lings, Martin. “Calligraphy and Islamic Culture by Annemarie Schimmel.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2 (1985) 199-200. 


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This beautiful and creative form is tightly intertwined with Islam - find out why here.


The madrasah tradition is one of the most ancient, rich and fascinating traditions of the Muslim world. Madrasahs, which are traditional centres of Islamic study and teaching, are these days often only talked about in conversations about Muslim extremists and terrorism. In reality, they are part of a broader and much more complex tradition which deserves thorough exploration in its own right. 

Historians are not entirely sure of the exact date of the first madrasah [1] but we can say with certainty that they would have first appeared around 1,000 years ago.[2]  Madrasahs are basically schools that focus on teaching their students about Islam, often alongside other kinds of learning. The first madrasahs began to appear in Baghdad in the 11th century. These medieval schools were originally geared towards the teaching f Islamic law, or fiqh. They were not overspecialized or unchanging centres of learning, however, and over time they expanded to also offer training not only in the study of the hadith but also in philosophy and logic.[3]  

People tend to like to compare the madrasahs of the Islamic world to the universities that flourished historically all around Europe. It is true that there are a number of similarities between the two. In the same way that the traditional European university was a place where students could learn a varied array of subjects, madrasahs had diverse program offerings and taught students a wide range of topics. Within the madrasah, traditional religious topics such as Quranic studies, Islamic law, theology, and the study of the hadith were labeled “traditionally transmitted” subjects. In contrast, topics like logic, philosophy, astronomy and arithmetic fell under the umbrella of the “rational sciences”.[4] 

At the same time, there were some important differences between the traditional madrasah and the traditional university. According to some historians, one of the most interesting of these differences has to do with how these places of learning helped create and support a feeling of community and belonging for their students.[5]  In the Muslim world, all Muslims were brought together in unity by their faith. Each and every Muslim felt strongly that they were part of the larger devout population, in the way that one might feel part of a nation’s citizenry. In contrast, some scholars argue, there was no all-encompassing force like this in Europe. Because Europeans didn’t feel part of an obvious community, they looked to their universities to create a feeling of community and belonging. In a way, they thought of universities as tiny countries, in which each student became a citizen. Meanwhile, students in the madrasahs already saw themselves to be citizens of Muslim society. This meant that madrasahs were important for much more practical reasons: they were valued within Islamic culture because they provided an actual, physical building where locals could gather and learn together.[6] 

Madrasahs can adopt a formal role within the community – this was true both historically and today. For example, they are the schools where ulamas, or Muslim legal scholars, are trained.[7] Ulamas are central and fairly elite figures within the Muslim community, sometimes known as the “heirs of the prophet”.[8] The madrasahs, however, do not only serve the ulamas but also the populace at large. This is truer now than ever before. 

In the Middle Ages, rather than there being one central madrasah, there were lots of separate, locally-based schools. The leaders within each of these schools were able to run things entirely as they wished, and had a certain amount of control over how they worked within the community.[9] At the same time, madrasahs were elite schools funded by wealthy locals and mostly designed to serve wealthy rather than disadvantaged people. As a result, not everyone, least of all the poor, had access to the resources of the madrasah.[10] 

All of this eventually changed as a result of the British rule established through colonialism. English became the official language within the madrasahs and their curriculum and teachings changed somewhat to reflect British education. Later, when local communities began to resist colonialism and reject the influence of the English, there was a movement to undercut the influence of the madrasahs’ wealthy supporters. Instead, the leaders of the schools began to branch out into poorer and more rural areas to recruit new support.[11]  

Thanks to this trend, madrasahs are, more than ever, spread across a wide territory and a broad network. As a result, many madrasahs today are able to provide support, resources and education to people who might otherwise be quite isolated, even from the government and official authorities.[12] They are a space in which important human bonds are formed: whereas teaching in mainstream schools in Britain is based on coursework, exams and marks, certification in the madrasah system is much more about the unique and personal relationship between the teacher and the student.[13] And while much of the mainstream media talks about madrasahs as places where Muslims are taught to embrace extremist views, the close relationships that madrasahs encourage between students and teachers more often play an extremely positive role in society. It is in madrasahs that many children who might not otherwise have the opportunity are able to learn to read. In many cases, madrasahs even provide housing to orphans and other young people who cannot afford it.[14]

The madrasah tradition dates back to the time of the Dark Ages in Europe; throughout all these thousand years, madrasahs have changed and adapted fluidly to suit the needs of the community. At this point, there are tens of thousands of madrasahs with millions of students all around the globe,[15] so it is virtually impossible to try to say what all of them are like. What can be said is that they are an extremely important part of Muslim culture, close to the heart of even the most remote Muslim community, and capable of providing an extremely positive support system to people across all levels of society. 


 [1] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
 [2] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
 [3] Ibid.
 [4] Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41.2 (April 1999) 294-323. 
 [5] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41.2 (April 1999) 294-323.
[8] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Makdisi, George. “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages.” Studia Islamica, 32 (1970) 255-64.
[14] Evans, Alexander. “Understanding Madrasahs.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006. Online.
[15] Ibid. 

Creative Commons by Martha de Jong-Lantink


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Explore one of the most ancient, rich and fascinating traditions of the Muslim world

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