During the medieval period, gifted children who successfully memorized the entire Qur'an left their home at the age of about 12-14 to travel to a nearby town and eventually around the Middle East to study with renowned academic authorities to hear historical, religious, philosophical, and legal texts. When the student could recite the material flawlessly, the authority issued the student an ijazah (diploma). The ijazah system was based on a system of learning that prioritized memorization, face-to-face student-teacher contact, and oral recitation. An ijazah could vary in length from one paragraph to a sizable volume. They contained: an opening prayer; a flattering introduction of the student; the date of issuance; the authority's biography; and a genealogy of the chain of transmission of the mastered material, reaching back to the original author.
Accurate oral transmission was important in the age before printing and this is why teachers evaluated students on memorization and oral recitation. The main goal of education was to train students to be future scholars of Islamic law, which required the ability to trace long chains of transmission that proved the validity of hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet). The hadith were used in legal decisions that did not have a clear answer in the Qur'an itself. Students seeking specialized education in medicine, astronomy, or other fields would study at the courts or centers known for these fields, or would travel to read in the libraries where collections were found, perhaps receiving the hospitality of the library’s patron or a foundation during the period of study.
The quantity of acquired ijazahs contributed to a student's future status as a scholar. Status was largely based on the links a scholar could document to earlier generations of scholars in the Muslim community. Each time a student received an ijazah, it meant that he had mastered a body of material that had been transmitted through a long series of scholars. The symbolic importance of these certificates can be noted in their artistic prose and artistic appearance. One notable difference between the ijazah and the medieval European university degree––an individual rather than an institution.
This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.
Translation of a certificate of proficiency in Arabic writing
Giving charity in secret extinguishes the Lord's wrath
The prophet of God, may peace and blessing of God be upon him, said:
"The best among you is the best to his family"
Thus spoke the prophet truthfully.
And Owaiss, the best of the generation of the followers said: Thus spoke the prophet truthfully.
I authorized and certified the author of this piece Ali Raef Effendi may God increase his provision and knowledge, and may God grant him long life and fulfil all his wishes. I am the humble, the guilty who seeks God's forgiveness Sayyed Mostafa Alhaleemi.
Dated: 1106 Hijri (1694 C.E.)
I authorized and certified under the writing of the author of this piece Ali Raef Effendi, may God grant him long life, increase his provision, knowledge day and night, fulfil all his wishes.
I am the most humble; Sayyed Hussein Hamed, may God forgive him.
Dated: 1200 Hijri (1785/1786 C,E,)
Translation of the ijaza portion of the document
Praise be to God, who grew the tree of knowledge in the issuance (chest) of scholars and made (deduced from) its fruit the Shariah principles. Glory be to Him, he has the knowledge of everything whether it is in the heavens or in the earth. He knows what appears to His creatures before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except what He wills. And May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon his blessed messenger Muhammad and the rest of his prophets. And may peace and blessings be upon his family and his companions who gave authorization and licensing only to those who are worth of having it, as follows:
I am the humble, the poor to his lord’s guidance and the guilty who seeks Allah forgiveness, Abo Mohammad Alzehny Othman Noury Alhanafy. I authorized and certified under the writing of Ibn Mohammad Ameen, may Allah forgive both of them.
'Ali Ra'if Efendi, Ijazah (diploma), 1206/1791, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.amed/ascs.198. Ijazah, given by Abu Muhammad al-Dhihni 'Uthman Nuri al-Hanafi al-Miyawardi to his student 'Umar Lutfi ibn al-Hajj Muhammad Hilmi known as Munla Isma'ilzadah al Arkhawi. 4 Jumada al-Akhirah 1312 H / 3 Dec. 1894, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, http://www.library.yale.edu/neareast/exhibitions/exhibit20071.html (accessed May 1, 2010). Annotated by Heidi Morrison.