Why could Islamic schools not become universities?

Why could Islamic schools not become universities?

The Islamic madrasa and the Christian university were both religious educational establishments. However, over time the madrasa stayed a madrasa while the university transformed into the university we know today.  

Contemplating how the university of the West is the place where the revolution of scientific thought occurred, and how it is the origin of today’s Western civilization, is an exceptionally important and up-to-date subject. It is also very important, particularly for us in Turkey, to consider the reasons why the madrasa has not been able to go through the same transformation in the Islamic world. 

A new book by Professor Kemal Gürüz, titled “Madrasa vs. University,” starts by explaining various local developments of the Islamic and Christian religions. It is indeed very important to get a grasp of the local opinion clashes and interpretation movements of both religions. It is also crucial to understand how certain differences in these two monotheistic religions, which at first seemed unimportant, became increasingly important over time. 

Gürüz argues that the most essential difference is that Islam introduces an overall world order while Christianity does not do so. For this reason, Islamic law (fiqh) became the most important subject in the madrasa and in general in Islamic theology. The university, meanwhile, focused on the law in terms of church rules and canonical laws, concentrating mostly on the relationship between reason and revelation, Gürüz writes. 

According to Gürüz, Islam’s exclusion of philosophy (especially after the time of the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali) and Christianity’s continued discussion of philosophy led to the freezing of the madrasa. The madrasa sufficed with simply conveying knowledge, while the Christian university evolved into the knowledge-seeking institutions of today. 

Gürüz writes that the madrasa, which was previously able to function with individual initiatives, was transformed into a state institution during the era of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. Al-Rashid converted their main function into protecting the existing order as it is.

This situation did not change during the Ottoman period. The madrasa, as a place of educating legislators, practitioners of law, judges and muftis, became supplementary institutions to protect and maintain the current order.

Meanwhile, the universities of the West, because kings enabled them to be independent of the Catholic Church over time, did not take on the role of “protecting the order.” 

In the golden era of Islam until Imam al-Ghazali’s views dominated, many grand thinkers and scientists emerged. In fact, it was due to these Islamic thinkers that Christianity freed itself from the effect of Plato and rediscovered Aristotle. 

In Islamic madrasas the dialectic method - the discussion of a subject between two people to find the truth - was used as an educational method for centuries. The Christian university learned and adopted this method from the Muslims only centuries later. 

However, the university, also under the influence of the scientific thought revolution, was over time able to transfer from dialectic to dialogue. In other words it was able to move from the method of debates where one side “wins” to the method of mutual sharing of knowledge to reach a synthesis. In fact, although we do not have madrasas in today’s Turkey, we still continue to conduct our debates not with the dialogue method but with the dialectic method, assuming that one side has to defeat the other side.