What is a Madrasa? An Investigation into the Madrasas of Damascus in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

In Islamic history, there are different views on the emergence and spread of madrasas. The early literature on madrasas centered on the Baghdad Nizamiyya Madrasa, but in recent years new studies have begun to focus on different regions and periods in the Islamic world. While this move has the potential to shed light on hitherto underappreciated aspects of madrasa development, it also runs the risk of misrepresenting that development if due attention is not paid to the important role played by political context in the way madrasas developed in different times and places. Through a close examination of the madrasas of Damascus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this article calls a number of traditional understandings of madrasas into question. Examining the emergence, spread, and function of madrasas in this period, it argues that one of the most important consequences of the rise of madrasas concerned the relationship between political-power holders and the ulama. The former aimed to design a society based on the ulama’s social and religious power, and to gain public support and strengthen their legitimacy. For the ulama, the madrasa meant the extension of opportunities, a place to stay, and a sustainable livelihood where they could devote themselves to scholarly activities. For this reason, madrasa appointments were highly valued by the ulama. This article therefore sheds light upon the political context rather than the religious and scholarly dimensions of madrasas.

Harun Yılmaz

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