Those desirous of a life in teaching or law went on to a madrasa, where they studied a set of texts with acknowledged masters. Education in a madrasa was very much an apprenticeship, where the passage of a student was marked not by annual examinations and grades, but by mastering one text after another. The texts that were widely used in the madrasas in the late nineteenth century illuminate a great deal about the tradition that had crystallized in Central Asian Islam.
• Life in the madrasa began with the private study of several brief tracts:
o Avval-i ‘ilm, a short tract that covered the essential requirements (zururiyat) of Islam in question and answer format;
o Bidan, an exposition of the basic rules of Arabic grammar in Persian;
o Adab-i muta‘allimin, which covered the etiquette (adab) of being a student.
• The student then moved on to Arabic grammar, which was learned by reading Sharh-i Mulla, the Persian-language commentary by Abdurrahman Jami (1414-1492) on the Kifaya fi’n-nahw of Ibn Hajib (1174-1249), a treatise on Arabic grammar.
• At the same time, the student started studying formal logic with an assistant teacher, using the Shamsiya of Najmuddin Qazvini (d. 1276); when he was ready, he moved on to the Hashiya-yi Qutbi, a commentary on the Shamsiya.
• Concurrently, the student was introduced to theology (‘ilm-i kalam) through the ‘Aqa’id of Abu Hafs Nasafi (d. 1142), which he read with an assistant teacher.
• Later, the student moved to various glosses on this book.
o These were followed by the Tahzib ul-Mantiq va’l kalam, a tract on logic and dogma by Sa‘duddin Taftazani (d. 1381);
o Hikmat ul-‘ayn by Qazvini, a tract on natural science and metaphysics;
o Mulla Jalal, a commentary by Jalaluddin Davvami (d. 1502) on the ‘Aqa’id ul-adudiyat of Abdurrahmin b. Ahmad al-Iji (d. 1356), a tract on Muslim beliefs.
There was no formal termination of studies in the madrasa, and many students lingered on for decades. The core texts could, however, be mastered in nineteen years.
The madrasa reproduced a certain understanding of Islam. Students did not study the Qur’an and its exegesis, the traditions of the Prophet, and even jurisprudence, although they could do so if they could find a teacher willing to give them private lessons. Logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics played an important role in the curriculum. The corpus of texts that the students were expected to master consisted almost entirely of glosses and commentaries written from the Timurid age. Moreover, students studied a given text (usually itself a commentary) individually or with a teaching assistant (khalifa). The professor (mudarris) lectured only on a commentary. Students aimed at expertise in the interpretation of the texts that connected them to the Islamic tradition as it was understood in Central Asia. “Islam,” then, did not reside in certain scriptures that spoke for themselves; rather it was embedded in the social practices of transmission and interpretation from which it could not be separated. Much the same process was evident even among the ulama, for whom access to the Islamic tradition lay through layers of authoritative interpretation and commentary carried out locally. This Islam was consequently not scripturally “pure,” in the sense that “purity” and scriptural rigor would later be understood by modernist reformers and observers. Motivated by a new vision of the world, latter-day critics such as the Jadids were to take the ulama to task on this account as they set about purifying Islam; but their critique arose from assumptions that were inconceivable in the nineteenth century.
We can say, then, that the madrasa was a very particular kind of institution. Instead of thinking about it as a “college,” it is more fruitful to think of it as the site of the social reproduction of Islamic legal knowledge and its carriers, the ulama. Students acquired the basic skills needed to practice their trade, i.e., literacy, a knowledge of canonical texts of Islamic law, and some command of Arabic. Successful completion of the madrasa opened up various possibilities of employment in the legal-administrative nexus of power. A madrasa education was necessary to work as mufti (jurisconsult), qazis (judge), or mudarris (professor), and truly eminent figures could hold several positions at the same time.
Madrasas were supported endowments (waqf) set up by benefactors as godly deeds. They could also receive patronage and funding from rulers. They, and the tradition they reproduced, were intimately tied to a particular social, political, and epistemological order. The Russian conquest ushered in a new order that was to pose severe challenges to the tradition. Many of the Islamic movements discussed here emerge from those challenges.
Yet, the strength of the tradition should not be underestimated. It did not evaporate in the face of its critics. Traditional Islamic education continued in the Tsarist period and beyond, and in the late Soviet period even came to be seen as the repository of the essentially Islamic character of the region.