Medieval Islamic Schools - Maktabs
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What is a Maktab?

Studying the Quran
Boys in Mauretania learning
Quran verses from wooden tablets

In the Islamic empire and in Africa, as in West Asia before Islam, most kids never went to school. Both girls and boys usually worked in the fields, plowing or weeding. But some boys, especially from richer families, went to a maktab (Arabic for "grade school"). Most towns had a small maktab near the mosque. Ibn Sina wrote that boys should start school when they were six years old.

In the maktab, boys learned mainly about Islam. Boys began by learning to read and write in Arabic, and then memorizing the Quran. They probably also learned some basic arithmetic - maybe the new Indian number system. For many boys, that was all they ever learned. Still, many more boys could read in the Islamic empire than in the Roman Empire, or in the Sassanian Empire, or in medieval Europe.

If your parents had enough money, especially if you lived in a bigger town, you might go on after you were done at the maktab to a madrassa - like our high schools and colleges. Ibn Sina recommended that you should stay at the maktab until you were fourteen (the same age where we finish grade school), but some boys, like Ibn Khaldun, entered the madrassa as young as twelve.

Learn by doing: memorize a few verses of the Quran
More about Islamic madrassas (universities)

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Islamic schools:

More about the Islamic Empire
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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