Madrasa, A Definition

Madrasas are schools for higher learning. The earliest ones were built by the Seljuks in the 11thcentury and began as institutions to teach law. The madrasa’s building is often but not always often attached to a mosque. It can include residences for students, who would come to a madrasa after having learned Arabic and memorized the Qur’an in a kuttab, the local school.

Madrasas are endowed by private donors; the larger more important ones were endowed by the ruler. They could be endowed to teach one or more of the four orthodox Sunni schools of thought (Shafi’i, Hanafi, Mailiki, Hanbali). Other subjects taught are Arabic grammar, Hadith (the teachings, sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad as collected by his companions, which explain and elaborate the Qur'anic verses), jurisprudence (fiqh) and science.

Madrasas with a dome that covers the courtyard are usually smaller buildings, those with an open courtyard are generally larger and have central iwans surrounded by arcades.

Egyptian madrasas introduced the four-iwan plan where each iwan represented one of the four orthodox schools of law. This design was adopted for the building of the Mustansiriyya Madrasa in Baghdad.