Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Boys in Mauretania learning Quran verses from wooden tablets

Boys in Mauretania learning Quran verses in a maktab from wooden tablets

Schools in the Islamic Empire

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”). A few girls went too (look at the picture below). Most towns had a small maktab near the mosqueIbn Sina wrote that boys should start school when they were six years old.

What is a mosque?
Arabic literature
West Asian schools
All our Islamic Empire articles

What did you learn in school?

In the maktab, kids learned mainly about Islam. Kids 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 kids, that was all they ever learned. Still, many more kids could read in the Islamic empire than in the Roman Empire, or in the Sassanian Empire, or in medieval Europe.

What is the Quran?
Medieval Islamic math
Indian numbers

Why are they holding wooden tablets?

A lot of kids learned the Quran using wooden tablets like these in the picture. The school had stacks of these tablets, each with one verse of the Quran on it. When you could read Arabic, you got the first one, and you sat with it until you had memorized the verse. When you knew it and could repeat it to the teacher, you handed in your tablet and got a new verse to learn. In this image from the 1400s, the children are holding just the same sort of wooden tablets.

Layla and Majnun at school together, from a manuscript of the Khamsa that belonged to Timur's son and is now in the Hermitage Museum (1431 AD).

Layla and Majnun at school together, from a manuscript of the Khamsa that belonged to Timur’s son and is now in the Hermitage Museum (1431 AD).

Did they go to high school too?

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 home