Dar al-Ulum

Dar al-Ulum

The Egyptian Dar al-Ulum (founded in 1871) is an educational institution designed to produce students with both an Islamic and modern secondary education. It began as a means to introduce those in mosque colleges to new knowledge emanating from the West. Its graduates include powerful activists like Hasan al-Banna (died 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brothers group and Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966), the author of “Social Justice in Islam,” and “Milestones.” Dar al-Ulum was incorporated into Cairo University in 1946 and is now referred to as “The Faculty of Dar al-Ulum.” The Faculty is delegated by Cairo University to offer B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in Arabic language and literature & Islamic studies.

Concept and History

Mosque colleges traditionally provided a combination of secondary and adult education, and specifically produced teachers and legal personnel for Islamic institutions. It is not surprising, then, that efforts for adaptation associated with these innovations were directed, in differing degrees at different times, towards such functions. The orientation of the efforts, in response to the challenge of modern knowledge and functions, or the desire to revive and vitalize aspects of indigenous culture, had various thrusts. One was to provide public lectures that represented a "window" through which one was to become enriched by an exposure to modern subjects or occasionally new presentations of local culture. Another was to develop modified programs that were to provide the basis for an educational "middle-way," or alternative to the traditional and official modern schools. A third was to produce an institutional "conduit" through which those with a traditional education could qualify for new jobs and move into the modern sector.

The pre-colonial challenge of modernity in Egypt began to assume a particular intensity in the 1860s. There had recently been an accelerating expansion of Christian missionary schools at the elementary level and the Khedive Isma'il promoted the development of French-type government schools on the higher level, reviving an effort started by a predecessor earlier in the century. In this connection ‘Ali Mubarak, a product of the early program of sending students to Paris for study, became the first ethnic Egyptian to be placed in charge of government education. Apparently his initial effort to establish a new mixed form of education was largely a response to the missionary challenge. This took the form of modernized kuttabs, referred to as maktabs, that he hoped would become, under the direction of the government, the basis of a more nationalized system of education.

In 1871 Mubarak was involved in a series of public lectures on Islamic and modern education in pre-colonial Egypt, subjects that were held in an amphitheater called Dar al-Ulum. These lectures, attended by older students from al-Azhar and a few Egyptians with a modern education, were presented by members of the ulama, modern Egyptians, and foreigners who were given simultaneous translation into Arabic. Aware that a new type of teacher was needed to support the system of modernized kuttabs, ‘Ali Mubarak converted Dar al-Ulum into a regular school that would train Azhari students as teachers for the new elementary schools. The curriculum included courses in Islamic sciences to perfect the students' previous study as well as introductory work in modern subjects such as mathematics, history, geography and science. Thus, in terms of instruction, the school provided higher education in traditional subjects and elementary education in modern subjects, an anomaly that persisted well into the 20th century. In this form Dar al-Ulum was the key institution in ‘Ali Mubarak's conception of an educational "middle way" of national schools between the traditional and Europeantype systems.

But even before the era of colonial rule Dar al-Ulum, functionally and then also structurally, was becoming a "conduit" through which students entered the modern government schools as teachers. Once they had received the elements of a more modern education, most of the early students preferred employment in European-type schools, as teachers of Arabic and sometimes modern subjects, to teaching in modernized kuttabs, as had been intended. The normal pattern of Turko-Egyptian direction of government education was resumed after Ali Mubarak left. Under the recommendation of a Swiss advisor and the Commission of 1880, dominated by Turko-Egyptians and foreigners, Dar al-Ulum was redesigned as a normal school for the modern government system. Although the ulama opposed the control of the government over this "daughter" of al-Azhar, this promised to be the pattern of the future. British rule, which supported the local supremacy of the Turko-Egyptian elite and gave additional importance to the government schools, had the effect of reinforcing this trend. As a four year government institutions to prepare a limited number of al-Azhar students primarily for teaching posts in official schools, the modern content was increased with additions such as foreign language and pedagogy. With one exception, this specific professional orientation was maintained throughout the colonial period."

The exception occurred in 1889-91 when ‘Ali Mubarak was given the direction of government education for the last time. He tried to revitalize his earlier scheme for a mixed system of popular education and so he added a special section to Dar al-Ulum to train teachers for the reformed kuttabs. At the same time Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), the great Islamic reformer who subsequently attempted to modernize al-Azhar with minimal success, proposed to the British that Dar al- Ulum replace al-Azhar as a sort of modernized Muslim university. It could, he felt, be a center for neo-Muslim development and represent a new form of education that would be closer to the spirit of the population than were the prevailing government schools. This "middle way" approach was largely in harmony with ‘Ali Mubarak's outlook, and it was perhaps with this in mind that he again added another section to Dar al-Ulum to train a more modern variety of Muslim judges.

The ultimate failure of these efforts to renew or expand the "middle way" component in Dar al-Ulum was in a large part due to a continuation of the patterns and forces that affected the efforts in the pre-colonial period. While it was possible for an ethnic reformer to assume office and take initiatives, he was inevitably replaced by a Turko-Egyptian who often was not interested in educational synthesis. And the small number of students from al-Azhar willing to enroll tended to be more interested in opportunities in the modern sector than the less developed and less rewarded roles in the reformed Islamic area. The colonial power, with its prior concerns for fiscal health and political stability, provided an additional check. The scope of ‘Ali Mubarak's plans was initially curtailed by the British on grounds of limited funds, although there was also alarm because it was felt that his measures were too abrupt and ambitious for sound development.

The British subsequently felt Dar al-Ulum was becoming a "rallying point of political and fanatical intrigue." In 1895 Douglas Dunlop, the British advisor who was to control Egyptian education for about three decades, eliminated ‘Ali Mubarak's additions, attached the original teacher training school to the government's model primary school, and made the program more "practical." While this British intervention gave a pronounced organizational impetus to Dar al-Ulum's long term evolution as a "conduit" to educational posts in the governmental schools, the curricular synthesis was maintained. Under the immediate direction of an ethnic Egyptian and still recruiting from al-Azhar, it balanced Islamic studies and Arabic with modern subjects. For a decade it was the only source of trained Egyptian teachers for the government schools, but its output was limited. Only when salary increases for such teachers were announced, and there were new openings for Egyptians as school inspectors, did the enrollment begin to expand significantly. At the end of the period of direct British rule Dar al-Ulum created a preparatory section, became organized like a government secondary school, and offered a Baccalaureate-level diploma. The old tie with al-Azhar as a source of students was effectively eroded, largely because of the existence of its own feeder section.

During the colonial period various forms of attempted educational synthesis that had been associated with Dar al-Ulum but proved abortive were resumed by ethnic Egyptians. In the case of training teachers for reformed kuttabs the effort had clear British encouragement. From about the turn of the century it was British policy to encourage Egyptians to develop and attend reformed kuttabs on the one hand, and on the other to assure that these new schools would be terminal and would not allow access into the relatively small and stable number of modern government schools that were oriented towards government employment.

As the old dualism between one education for the masses and another for an elite became more rigid, Provincial Councils were allowed and helped to establish schools to train teachers for reformed kuttabs. These schools represented a degree of educational synthesis on the post-elementary level, but they were forbidden to teach foreign languages or modern subjects that might encourage students to seek admission into government schools.

In the cases of lectures on traditional and modern subjects for adults, and a modernized training of Islamic judges, the British were reluctantly acquiescent. At the end of Lord Cromer's reign there was a rising amount of nationalistic activity and some temporary concessions were made by the Protectorate, notably the appointment in 1906 of Sa‘d Zaghlul, an ethnic Egyptian and later nationalist leader, as Minister of Education. In this context a group of ethnic Egyptians with a modern education met to found the first Egyptian University. The impulse was a cultural one, and represented a reaction to a British policy towards higher education that maintained the existing professional schools, where foreign language was used, and prevented the development of the liberal arts. In contrast they wanted to provide a general education for Egyptians to raise their cultural level in eastern and western subjects, and make Arabic a language of higher and modernized learning.

The attempt to provide a new education for Muslim judges was resumed in 1907 with the creation of the Qadi School. It was attached to al-Azhar but controlled by Egyptian representatives of the Ministry. As a middle and higher level school for students from al-Azhar, it included modern subjects taught in Arabic. Subsequently, the school was completely taken over by al-Azhar, a development which weakened the modern component. Essentially, then, it was Dar al-Ulum that inaugurated and maintained a balanced state of educational synthesis on the secondary level. Insofar as it could be considered a form of neo-Muslim education, it represented by the end of the colonial period the first clear demarcation of a secondary stage in Islamic education. As a bi-cultural institution oriented towards educational functions, Dar al-Ulum and its graduates eventually played a leading role in Egypt, and the Arab world, in the renovation of Arabic and the creation of a new and adapted educational literature. And as a training school for bi-cultural teachers going into government schools, a tie facilitated by British, it provided an important base for the subsequent adaptation of official education.


  • David C. Kinsey, “Efforts for Educational Synthesis under Colonial Rule: Egypt and Tunisia,” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Colonialism and Education. (Jun., 1971), pp. 172–187. Comparative Education Review is currently published by The University of Chicago Press.

Cited in Kinsey’s article:

  • J. Heyworth-Dunne, An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt (London: Luzac, 1939);
  • Yacoub Artin, L'instruction publique en Egypte (Paris: Leroux, 1890);
  • Ahmad Izzat Abd al-Karim, Ta'rikh al-ta'lim fi Misr: 1848-1882, 3 vols. (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1917);
  • Muhammad Abd al-Jawwad, Taqwim Dar al-Ulum (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1952), p. 6;
  • Ibrahim Salama, L'enseignement islamique en Egypte (Cairo: Imprimerie nationale, 1939), p. 254;
  • Robert L. Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966);
  • David C. Kinsey, "Egyptian Education Under Cromer: A Study of East-West Encounter in Educational Administration and Policy, 1883-1907" (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1965);
  • Abu Al-Futouh Ahmad Radwan, Old and New Forces in Egyptian Education (N.Y: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1951);
  • 'Lord Cromer, Annual Report for 1906, House of Commons Sessional Papers, Egypt, No. I (1907) (London: HMSO, 1907), p. 94;
  • Douglas Dunlop, "Note on the Progress and Condition of Public Instruction in Egypt in 1913" (mimeographed, 1914), pp. 17–18;
  • Sir Eldon Gorst, Annual Report for 1907, House of Commons Sessional Papers, Egypt. No. I (1908) (London: HMSO, 1908), p. 39.

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