Long Teaching Module: Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010

Heidi Morrison
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In recent years, westerners have been fascinated by the education of children in the Middle East, raising concern over whether or not schools teach extreme radicalism or anti-Americanism. The Arabic word madrasa, which literally means "school," has come to imply in the minds of some pundits and politicians a pro-terrorism center with political or religious affiliation. The situation was very different in the pre-modern era, when schools in the Middle East were world renowned: students from as far away as Spain traveled to regions such as Iraq to study with noted teachers. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the images or text for more information about the source.

This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, guidance on engaging with the sources, potential adaptations, and essay prompts relating to the twelve primary sources.



In recent years, westerners have been fascinated by the education of children in the Middle East, raising concern over whether or not schools teach extreme radicalism or anti-Americanism. The Arabic word madrasa, which literally means "school," has come to imply in the minds of some pundits and politicians a pro-terrorism center with political or religious affiliation. The situation was very different in the pre-modern era, when schools in the Middle East were world renowned: students from as far away as Spain traveled to regions such as Iraq to study with noted teachers.

In the early days of the Islamic community in the Middle East (i.e., from the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632CE through the four Islamic caliphates and the Umayyad Dynasty in 750CE), the leading Muslims of the Arabian peninsula employed tutors or owned slaves to teach their sons the basics of religion, to read and write, to use the bow and arrow, to swim, and to be courageous, just, hospitable, and generous. The elite expected their daughters to attain skills relating to the household as well as the basics of religion, and sometimes to learn music, dance, and poetry.

The majority of children in rural areas learned how to work the land from their families. The only formal education they received would be from the kuttab, or mosque school, listening to Qur'an readers in mosques, or from informal exchange of information in the family.

In urban areas, boys typically began apprenticeships at around eight years of age to master a craft or skill. In terms of higher education, if a child had memorized the Qur'an (by about 12 years of age) he would often then travel around the Islamic world in quest of a teacher who had an understanding of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Students would gather around these teachers in mosques and master the teacher's approach to law without much questioning.

With the consolidation and cultural development of the Islamic empire during the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258CE), a systematic method of schooling was established in the Middle East for both elementary and higher education. This remained the main form of education until the 20th century.

A maktab, or "elementary school," was attached to a mosque and the curriculum centered on the Qur'an, which was used to teach reading, writing, and grammar through recitation and memorization. Physical education was emphasized in childhood education because Islam gives importance to the training of the body as well as the mind. (Children of wealthy and prominent families continued to receive individual instruction in their houses.)

After attending a maktab, a student could attend a madrasa, or "higher education institution," attached to a mosque. Individual donors, rulers, or high officials funded these through pious endowments. The endowment funds maintained the building, paid teacher salaries, and sometimes provided stipends for students.

The madrasa founder generally set the curriculum. With a focus on fiqh, schools sometimes also taught secular subjects, such as history, logic, ethics, medicine, and astronomy. Memorization was a critical aspect of a student's training in law. The material memorized formed the base used by jurors to practice ijtihad, or the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of legal sources.

The most famous madrasas in the Middle East were Cairo's Al-Azhar, founded in the 10th century, and Baghdad's Al-Nizamiyya, founded in the 11th century. (Medical schools were usually attached to hospitals.)

The period of the Abbasid Dynasty is often referred to as the Golden Age of Islam, due in large part to the thriving centers of learning. Scholars during this time translated, preserved, and elaborated Greek philosophy (later used in European universities). They also made advances in algebra, medicine, trigonometry, mechanics, optics, visual arts, geography, and literature.

During the early-modern era (1500-1800), education continued to flourish under the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. One study suggests that up to half of the male population was literate in Cairo at the end of the 18th century, implying that maktabs were numerous.

The madrasa continued to be constructed as part of the mosque complex, reflecting the importance of education to religion and the sense that education took place within the religious framework. Scholarship under the Ottomans and Safavids centered on the notion that the most advanced science came from Islam and that scholars before them knew best. This was in contrast to Europe during the 19th century, where higher education in new types of institutions of learning began to free itself from church control to embody the Enlightenment value of questioning religion (i.e. putting the laws of science over the laws of God), although reform of the older universities in Europe proceeded slowly.

In the face of Europe's growing power from advanced technology and commercial wealth, Ottoman rulers entered the modern era (1800-present) with a series of educational reforms. The reforms aimed to modernize the empire by adapting aspects of western life. (In contrast, Iran, under the Qajars, did not undergo the same level of educational reforms.)

The Ottomans sent envoys to Europe to translate their scholarship and learn new scientific discoveries. They secularized society such that educational opportunity became equal for all subjects in state schools. In cities such as Istanbul, Cairo, and Tunis, reforming governments established specialized schools to train officials, officers, doctors, and engineers. Some contesting voices in the Ottoman Empire argued, however, that the problems of the Empire were not from a lack of western ways, but from a need to return to the ways of the early age of Islam and the Golden Age.

Nonetheless, by the end of WWI, almost all of the Middle East had fallen under European colonial rule. The maktab and madrasa system of education began to wane in the place of French and British schools. These schools had limited enrollment due in large part to their scarcity in number; access was restricted to a select local elite trained to enhance colonial administration. Study in the maktab and madrasa no longer led to high office in government service or the judicial system.

Although the colonizing authorities introduced compulsory schooling measures of one kind or another, they often failed to include sufficient funding in colonial budgets, so the percentage of the total child population in schools remained dismally low. Children in rural areas who attended school often studied for a half day and worked the other half. In Algeria, for example, by 1939 the number of secondary school graduates was in the hundreds for the entire country.

Various types of private Islamic schools existed as alternatives to government secular schools, but the colonial governments sought to exercise close control through subsidies, curriculum expansion, and inspection systems. Religious schools often served—as they did in European efforts to extend education to the middle and lower classes—as a base from which to build capacity. A small number of European and missionary schools, as well as some indigenously operated Christian schools existed alongside the government and Islamic schools. In cities, these Christian schools of various denominations sometimes gained importance as institutions where children of elites accessed European education. In this way, a two-tiered education system developed under colonialism. In all of these systems, girls were able to acquire a nominal education; if it continued, it was usually in the form of training for teaching, nursing, or midwifery.

Post-colonial governments in the Middle East prioritized mass popular education to build strong nations. Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, for example, promoted free education and promised each graduate a position in the public sector. In countries such as Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria, schools underwent a process of "arabization." This meant a focus on teaching Arabic language and culture. Traditional schools either closed or became incorporated into the state system. Iran, in contrast, had never been colonized. It became increasingly westernized in the mid-20th century, until the Revolution and subsequent Islamization of the state and schools.

While access to education has improved dramatically in the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, the public education system tends to suffer from overcrowded classes led by poorly-trained, overworked teachers with inadequate materials. The curriculum is for the most part secular, and when the history of Islam is taught, the goal is not to incite children to violence. Many families must hire private tutors to help children with their end of the year exams, which emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of material. If children fail these exams, they can conceivably remain in the same grade level for as many years as it takes to pass, or they fail to qualify for secondary or post-secondary training of their choice. A very small percentage of families can afford to send their children to private European or American schools in the Middle East, which provide a western-style education.

Primary Sources

Ijazahs (Diploma)

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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.

Ibn Khaldun's Study of History (1377 CE)

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Statesman, jurist, historian, scholar, and philosopher Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis on May 27, 1332. Ibn Khaldun is an exemplary example of product of the Islamic education that children and youth received. He received a traditional early education of Qur'an, jurisprudence, and Arabic grammar. In his early 20s, he traveled to Fes to complete his education with the eminent scholars of his day. Ibn Khaldun wrote The Muqaddimah in 1377 as the preface and first book of his world history volume. It is regarded as the earliest attempt made by any historian to discover patterns in changes in political and social organization and it represents a departure from traditional historiography that merely chronicled events. It also is often viewed as an early work of sociology and economics. Ibn Khaldun saw all societies as going through a cycle of growth and decline, followed by conquest, and then the conquering society would go through the same cycle. The majority of the volume was prepared in the form of academic lectures to be read aloud.

Ibn Khaldun was remarkably modern and scientific in his thinking. Existing religious, physical, and geographical assumptions should be open to scrutiny, he taught, as thinking is what determines human behavior. In this selection, Ibn Khaldun criticizes the traditional pedagogy of rote memorization that was practiced in Islamic societies for teaching children and youth. This document brings up the question of how effective memorization is as a pedagogical technique for teaching children and youth.

This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi's Autobiography

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In medieval times, education was a key factor of Islamic society. It was considered the purpose for which God created man. As such, belief and education were not separated from one another. The first revealed verse of the Qur'an is "Read," demonstrating the value placed on knowledge and learning. Islamic civilization created a golden age of education during the European dark ages. For example, in the 9th century the library of the largest monastery in Europe contained 36 volumes, while Islamic cities, like Cordoba and Baghdad, at that time built public and private libraries with more than 400,000 books. Many of the achievements of the European Renaissance were later based on the accumulated knowledge of medieval Islamic civilization. The selections from this document provide a glimpse into the education that made a great scholar of the Islamic Middle Ages. During childhood, such an education left little time for rest and play. Also, fathers played a large role in decision-making about a child's academic path. The selections from this autobiography document the important role blind people played as tutors for children in the education system. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Illustration from The Maqamat of al-Hariri

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During the Abassid period and onward, children four or older in villages and urban centers began attending schools (maktabs) attached to mosques to obtain a basic education in religious matters. Students in a maktab sat in a semicircle on the floor around the teacher writing their lessons on a tablet and then repeating it back for correction. In this illustration, one boy recites for the teacher while another boy takes his turn pulling the ceiling fan. Attendance at maktabs was voluntary; typically, wealthier families paid for their child to attend and poorer students exchanged the running of a teacher's errands for tuition. Successful students could go on to study with individual scholars at madrasas, which were supported by an endowment. Generally, girls did not attend schools and when they were educated, if at all, it was in separate facilities or by private tutors. Some women made notable contributions to Islamic scholarship in the medieval period, routinely giving lectures, traveling for knowledge, transmitting and critiquing hadith, and issuing legal decisions. They did so within the cultural conventions of modesty and avoiding, to the extent possible, mixing with men. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Devshirme System

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This Ottoman miniature painting from 1558 shows a group of boys dressed in red, being registered for the devshirme (usually translated as “child levy” or “blood tax”). The devshirme was a system of forced labor, probably begun in the late 14th century, in which Christian boys, mostly from the Balkans, were taken from their homes to serve the Ottoman government. The artist captures the first stage of this process, with the boys’ families kept behind a wall by an Ottoman official. The aim of the sultans was to create a group of officials and soldiers who would be loyal to him rather than to their own families, as many Turkish nobles were. The boys were taken to Istanbul, forcibly converted to Islam, and placed with Muslim families or in schools. Those sent to school learned Arabic, Persian, Turkish, math, calligraphy, Islam, horsemanship, and weaponry, passing through a series of examinations to determine their intelligence and capabilities. They were essentially slaves to the state, but some acquired power and prestige. Many became soldiers and army officers, including the elite Janissary corps, the sultan’s personal troops. Others became government ministers, provincial governors, and even grand viziers, the highest office except for the sultan. Because of these opportunities, there is evidence that some families (including Muslim families) volunteered their sons, though the practice was also a source of trauma and resentment against Ottoman rule. The devshirme system slowly declined in the 17th century.

Ottoman Decree, 1856

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The Ottoman Empire undertook extensive reforms between 1839 and 1876, a period known as the Tanzimat (reorganization). Europeanized Ottoman bureaucrats and a series of decrees from the sultan shaped these reforms that sought administrative, military, legal, and educational improvements. A series of reversals in wars with European powers during the 18th century and the realization that the West had outstripped the Ottomans in scientific and technological advancements, forced the Ottoman government to reevaluate its institutions and introduce changes to the traditional education system. At the heart of the new direction lay the intent to quell growing nationalist agitation in the European provinces, secure the loyalty of Christian subjects, and break down the millet system that administered legal and communal rights within religious communities. The goal was for secular identity and a common Ottoman citizenship to replace religious affiliation. This decree highlights the emphasis on placing schools under a central ministry to establish an educational system outside the control of the religious authorities. As in many societies of the time, including those in Europe, children's primary education took place in village and neighborhood religious institutions. There they learned to recite scripture, often acquired basic literacy and numeracy, and were socialized into the rites of their respective religious tradition. These schools were typically staffed by the imam or a person known for learning in the area and paid by the parents through donations or via charitable endowment or donation. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

British Parliamentary Papers

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Despite efforts to resist, by the end of the 19th century, almost all of the Middle East had fallen under the control of European powers. Whether in the form of a protectorate or colony, European powers made changes to the indigenous educational system that impacted children. Europeans offered European-style education to a very small elite group of Middle Eastern students and this education was intended to shape the children into abiding colonial subjects by teaching them that their civilization was backwards. These government schools created under the Europeans charged tuition that most families could not afford. The majority of children were deemed unfit for modern education and colonialists circulated the idea that Middle Eastern parents did not value education. Expansion of educational opportunities for non-elite classes was also gradual in Europe, the timeline of legislation similar to policies in lands under colonial rule or protectorates. Efforts to provide basic literacy and prepare students for specific types of career training also followed a pattern of using religious institutions as a base of expansion, adding training in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other subjects to enhance the skill set of future workers and identify talented youth for further training in specialized schools. Such children would receive scholarships or stipends to attend boarding schools organized under military-like discipline. Examples of such institutions were the Muhammad Ali's schools of engineering, military science, and medicine. The following selection relates to education in Egypt under the British protectorate. The single most common feature of most Egyptian childhoods during the British protectorate was participation in the labor force, particularly the cotton industry on which the Egyptian economy was almost exclusively based. During the protectorate, the demand for labor of children and the acquisition of literacy were inversely related. Many villages circulated petitions demanding the colonizers provide them with schools, but colonial administrators did not fund widespread education efforts. The British justified a lack of investment in indigenous education by saying it was not desired by parents who were too “dead” to know the value of education, as the following selection indicates. The British also attempted to pit the minority Christian Egyptian parents against Muslim Egyptian parents in their efforts to keep the Egyptian population uneducated. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Girls' Education is the Basis of Civilization and Moral Refinement, 1907

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At the turn of the 20th century, Tehran published magazines intended to reshape social practices, to "civilize" and "modernize" the nation. Many magazines addressed the education of girls, contending that uneducated mothers resulted in uneducated children and hence a nation that could not advance. These calls for reform of girls' education came at a time when many countries in the Middle East began to demand independence from colonial powers. They debated the merits of "modernity" (which some understood as "western") and "tradition" (understood as "eastern"). For many nationalists and feminists, "modernity" meant greater education rights for women with the goal of strengthening the nation and its quest for independence from colonization and/or western imperialism. As part of the nationalist efforts, an increasing number of girls began to be offered access to education. The curriculum for girls usually centered on learning home-making and parenting skills so that the girls could grow up to properly raise the next generation of citizens. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Taha Hussein, Minister of Education

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In the mid-20th century, countries in the Middle East struggled to establish a post-independence identity. Educational reformers and government officials tried to create national cohesion through expanded schooling, closing the gap between elites educated in private Francophone or Anglophone schools, and the masses of ordinary Egyptians. Taha Hussein (1889-1973) became a towering figure of educational reform in Egyptian 20th-century history. Despite being blind and coming from a poor, rural family, he achieved a high degree of education and power. With an advanced degree from the Sorbonne, Hussein served as academic advisor to the Minister of Education and then as Minister of Education (1950-1952). Hussein provided a conceptual framework for the development of a centralized national education system focused on schooling for all. He held that schools should be secular, promoting democracy, defending national economies, and maintaining a country's political independence. Taha Hussein's commitment to spreading literacy is embodied in this motto. When Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist regime took over in 1962, free education became a way to correct the disparities created by colonialism. Taha Hussein's legacy remains in Egypt until today, particularly because he achieved a high degree of education and erudition despite being blind and coming from a poor, rural family. The Taha Hussein Library at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina provides technological resources to the blind and visually impaired. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Education in Post-Colonial Algeria

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In the immediate aftermath of independence, post-colonial governments in the Middle East prioritized education as a cornerstone for economic growth. This included revamping the curriculum, turning classrooms, in many instances, into battlegrounds in political and ideological fights. When Algeria obtained its independence from France in 1962, for example, after 132 years of colonization, Algerians determined to forge an identity free from western influence. The arabization of the Algerian school curriculum began in earnest in 1971, banning French and requiring Islamic law and the study of the Qur'an. Today the Algerian government is trying to reverse the momentum of Islamists and aims to reengineer the Algerian identity through the schools. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Gülen Movement

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Despite media reports in the West that often link Islamic education with radical Islam, there are varieties of modern Islamic education. One such example is the Gülen movement. It has inspired the creation of hundreds of schools funded by Turkish entrepreneurs who are members of the Gülen movement, motivated by Islamic principles but offering nonreligious education, whose students often excel in academic achievement, science competitions, and university admittance rates. Founded in Turkey by Fethullah Gülen and now active in over 50 countries, the Gülen movement is an offshoot of Said Nursi's (1879-1960) Nurcu movement and derived from an understanding of Islam shaped by the secular Turkish context and by ideas formed in conservative Islamic circles. The Gülen movement seeks to implement Islam at an individual level rather than a state level, emphasizes science education rather than religion alone, and conducts interfaith dialogues. Some Turkish secularists believe that he is trying to transform Turkey into an Islamic state under the guise of peacefulness and goodwill, so Gülen lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. Education of children in the Middle East, like anywhere in the world, is an arena in which larger social issues play out. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Education in a Warzone

In some regions of the Middle East today, conflict impacts students' daily educational experience. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, militants have targeted educational establishments, thousands of academics have fled the country, and up to 70% of schools have been closed. People in this region maintain their high regard for education in the face of adversity, as this podcast relates. Recorded in 2008 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the allied military invasion of Iraq, this podcast is made by Iraqi journalists about the daily life experiences of Iraqi children trying to pursue an education during a period of war. Young Iraqis report dodging bombs on their way to schools, being forced to discontinue their studies, and having to complete homework assignments without electricity. This source is a part of the Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010 teaching module.

Teaching Strategies


This teaching module provides a wide variety of sources to explore the history of schooling in the Middle East, a topic that is largely misunderstood in the west. Schools in the Middle East today take various forms, from secular to Islamic. Current research of textbooks in the Middle East finds little in them that could be construed as incitement to violence in the name of religion, or for any other reason. Many western pundits, politicians, and academics portray schools in the Middle East as breeding grounds for terrorists and Islamic extremists. These schools are also portrayed as unchanging institutions, which implies that they have not evolved since medieval times and that even in medieval times the schools were static.

The truth is that medieval Islamic schools produced a wealth of knowledge that European scholars translated from Arabic after the 12th century, and incorporated into institutions of higher learning between the 14th and 16th centuries. Furthermore, in today's world, schools in the Middle East take various forms, from secular to Islamic. Current research of textbooks in the Middle East finds little in them that could be construed as incitement to violence in the name of religion, or for any other reason. Wherever military struggle is mentioned, it is always in the context of defense against an aggressor.

With the first four sources, encourage students to explore the various characteristics of schooling in the Middle East in medieval times. In regards to the emphasis on memorization, students should understand that there were scholars who challenged this accepted method, such as Ibn Khaldun. Likewise, students should themselves grapple with finding the strengths in a method of instruction that emphasizes memorization. Do students agree with the Ottoman reformers who thought that a modern nation must have an educational system similar to Europe's? Do students think that the various early 20th-century Middle Eastern reformers' justification for schooling girls marked a step towards modernization?

They key problem governments in the Middle East face today in regards to the educational system is not extremism, but rather identity crisis, underfunding, and conflict. The article on schools in Algeria since independence shows that colonization created an abused collective psyche that initially sought to heal itself through insulation. Might the educational system in Iraq be on a similar path? What evidence do we have that people in the Middle East value education, despite the challenges they have faced in its pursuit in the 20th century?

Discussion Questions
  • Look at the two ijazahs (diplomas) from medieval times. Even without reading the Arabic, what stands out to you most about them? For a system of education that emphasized rote memorization, do you discern a sense of creativity?
    Possible answer:
    Creativity can perhaps be discerned in the designs on the diplomas and the difference in appearance between the two. The annotation also mentioned that the diplomas used individualized flattery.
  • Imagine you are in a debate with Ibn Khadlun. Present an opposing argument, including in your stance some of the merits to memorization that el-Baghdadi lists in his autobiography as well as some of the achievements medieval Islamic society made for humankind as a whole.
  • Envisage yourself a student in a medieval maktab: Who would be in your class with you? What would you learn? How would your progress be evaluated? To what might you aspire in terms of higher education?
  • Arguably, schools can be viewed as a means of controlling a population. Provide examples of how this has been attempted through physical and intellectual means, particularly under colonialism and the independent nation-state.
    Possible answer:
    Some examples to include in the answer would be: schools were funded by endowments in the medieval period and the benefactors set the curriculum; as the devshirme illustration indicates, when first conscripted, the boys were dressed in red to avoid their escape; and, the reform of education during the tanzimat was for the sake of the nation and military; education under the colonists was intended to benefit the British; education in post-independence countries had economic and social development as a main goal. Students might also point out instances of where the student is a free agent, such as in medieval times when he would travel from scholar to scholar seeking knowledge. Generally speaking, students can discuss the role that the individual student can play in thinking on his/her own and not being fully controlled.
  • After you summarize the New York Times article about education in Algeria, analyze its tone. What approach does the author take to the issue? Do you notice any bias? Does the author leave out any important issues? How do you think context influences content? What information might this article reveal about modern-day US concerns regarding education in the Middle East?
  • The podcast on young people's accounts about war in Iraq focuses almost entirely on their experiences with school. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages to studying political issues through educational institutions? In your answer, reflect as well on some of the other sources provided.

Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan: Education in the Middle East

by Heidi Morrison

Time Estimated: two to three 45-minute classes

    Be able to accurately and succinctly summarize a document, in the context of the history of schooling in the Middle East.
    Articulate how context influences content, in regard to various documents published over time about schools in the Middle East and also in regards to one's own knowledge.
    Gather information about the history of schooling in the Middle East in order to state characteristics that can be used when grappling with regional stereotypes.
    Use the information about the history of education in the Middle East to formulate opinions on current-day debates about education's role in society.

Students must come to class already having read the primary documents (in the case of the podcast, listened to it and recorded notes). For this lesson, students will need a hard copy of the documents and/or their notes. A notebook, paper, and pen are also required.


Share with the students this quote from a widely-cited article in the New York Times Magazine reporting that in Pakistan, "There are one million students studying in the country's 10,000 or so madrasas, and militant Islam is at the core of most of these schools." 1 Tell students that other commentators have suspected that an equally militant spirit pervades schools in predominately Muslim countries.

Ask students what comes to mind when they think about schools in the Middle East, a predominately Muslim area of the world. Have them write down their thoughts anonymously and collect them to read out loud. They may mention variations of such terms as "jihad factories" or "backwards" or "outposts of medievalism." If these subjects come up, ask students to speculate about how and why schools in the Middle East have developed such negative associations with extremism.


Explain to students that they will learn about the history of schools in the Middle East. They will study primary sources that will help them understand the characteristics of schools in the pre-modern Middle East as well as the contemporaneous debates around schools. They will also study primary sources that will help them understand the changes that these schools have undergone in entering the modern era. This lesson will help students formulate an informed image of schools in the Middle East, which is the ultimate goal of the Document Based Question.

First Activity
The first activity will focus on piecing together information from the various sources about how schools functioned in the pre-modern Middle East.

Divide the class into four groups. Tell them that each group will be assigned part of the larger project that is to create an imaginary 11-year old male pupil living in the Middle East in the 10th century. After each group completes their part of the project, they will present to the entire class. Every student in the class is responsible for learning all components of the material. Assign each group one of the following topics to describe in detail about the virtual student and tell them to base their answers on the first four sources provided in this module:

  • Why he goes to school;
  • What he learns in school;
  • How he is taught in school;
  • His aspirations for the future.
Second Activity

Students will be challenged to advance their understanding of the history of schools in the Middle East, as well as to improve their critical reading skills.

Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one source from sources 6–12 to summarize. Tell students to pay attention to what the sources say about changes schools in the Middle East have undergone in the modern era. When the students are ready, have them present their group summaries to the class.

Now tell the students that there is as much information in what sources from what they don't say as in what they say. Tell the students to return to their groups and decipher new information based on what is not included in their source. When the students are ready, have them present their ideas to the class.

A final step to this activity is to have the students return to their groups and talk together about how context influences content. Students should discuss how the information they garnered from the documents was influenced by what they know about the author of the source and/or what was happening in society at the time of its production. This discussion should force students to reevaluate the information they presented to the class thus far. Each group should do one final presentation to the class about what they know from their assigned document about education in the Middle East in the modern era.

Third Activity

Students will synthesize what they covered in the last two activities.

In a general class discussion, have the students recap what they find to be the main characteristics of education in the Middle East over the pre-modern and modern eras.

After this is completed, tell students there are many ways in which the history of education (as a field) contributes to current-day debates. Now that students possess a wide breadth of knowledge about the history of schools in the Middle East, ask them to articulate their opinions on the following topics:

  • Do you think that schools are a means of controlling a given population?
  • What do you think are the best pedagogical tools for learning?
  • How does access to education, or lack thereof, impact society?

Many students may have a tendency to base their opinions about these questions on their experience/knowledge of schooling in the west. Ask the students to formulate opinions in the framework of their knowledge of the history of schooling in the Middle East. This exercise will force students to integrate what may have previously been foreign to them (schooling in the Middle East) into how they construct their worldview.

If there is time, conclude by telling students to "shift gears" and write down all the associations that come to mind when they hear the words "women in the Middle East" or "religion in the Middle East." Listen to their responses and ask why you might conclude a lesson on schooling in the Middle East with such a question. Encourage students to take away from this module not only information about schooling in the Middle East and an exposure to larger interdisciplinary debates on education, but also an awareness that just as the texts are shaped by their context, so too is our knowledge.

1 Goldberg, "Inside Jihad U.; The Education of a Holy Warrior," New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2000.

Document Based Question

(Suggested writing time: 50 minutes)

Using the images, texts, and audio recording in the documents provided, write a well-organized essay of at least five paragraphs in response to the following prompt:

  • Imagine you are at a dinner party and the topic of conversation turns to international politics. One person at the table makes the statement, "Since ancient times, children in the Middle East have been taught violence against infidels." Using at least six primary sources related to the history of schooling in the Middle East, write an essay that responds to this theoretical statement.
  • Your essay should:

  • have a clear thesis,
  • use at least six of the documents to support your thesis,
  • show analysis by grouping the documents into at least two groups,
  • analyze the point of view of the documents, and
  • recognize the limitation of the documents before you by suggesting an additional type of document or source to make your discussion more complete or valid.


Doumato, Eleanor Abdella and Gregory Starrett, ed. Teaching Islam: Textbooks and Religion in the Middle East. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.
The contributions to this edited volume explore the political and social priorities behind religious education in nine Middle Eastern countries. The authors find vast differences in how Islam is presented in textbooks and a general lack of incitement to violence in the name of religion, or for any other reason.
Hefner, Robert W. and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, ed. Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
This edited volume looks at Islamic education in countries as different as Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The contributors demonstrate that Islamic education is neither timelessly traditional nor medieval, but rather complex and evolving.
Nadwi, Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publication, 2007.
This book is an adaption of a larger 40-volume biographical dictionary of female Muslim scholars in the pre-modern period. This book can be used to understand the traditional system of transmission of knowledge and to counterbalance charges of misogyny against Islam.


About the Author

Heidi Morrison is an assistant professor of modern Middle East History at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse. She is currently writing a book entitled State of Children: Egyptian Childhoods in an era of Nationalism, Modernity, and Emotion. Heidi is also the editor of the forthcoming The History of Global Childhood Reader (Routledge Press, 2011). She is working on a project on the history of boys and mental health in Palestine.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following institutions for primary sources:

  • ABC National Radio,
  • Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris,
  • Fethullah Gulen Website,
  • Houghton Mifflin Company,
  • Library of Congress,
  • The New York Times,
  • Princeton University Press,
  • University of California Press, and
  • Yale University Library: Near Eastern Collection.

This teaching module was originally developed for the Children & Youth in History project.

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-education-middle-east-1200-2010 [accessed May 28, 2024]