Institutional Roots of Muslims' Limited Provision of Modern Education in 19th Century Beirut

By Hania Abou Al-Shamat
Submitted to Session P2265 (Comparative Education Policy, 2009 Annual Meeting
Arab States; Lebanon;
Development; Education; Islamic Studies;
Institutional Roots of Muslims’ Limited Provision of Modern Education in 19th Century Beirut

At the turn of the 20th century in Beirut, the Muslim population was roughly 40 per cent. Yet, Christians’ share of new schools outnumbered those of the Muslims’ by a 17 to 1 ratio. This study focuses on the institutional roots of Muslims’ limited provision of modern education. It raises two questions: why Muslims failed to reform their religious schools to incorporate modern education, and why their supply of new schools continued to be limited. In addressing the first question, the dynamics of change within the waqf institution, upon which Islamic traditional schools depended financially, is analyzed. It is found that despite elements of static perpetuity, waqfs enjoyed relative flexibility, illustrating that change and reform of Islamic schools were theoretically possible. Yet, throughout Islamic history, attempts at reform remained sporadic and uncoordinated. The study shows that the process of change within Islamic education hinged on the discretion of individuals, qadis, muftis and teachers, who lacked coordination and whose legitimacy was measured by the degree of their compliance to established rules. Both factors limited the potential for change and confined innovations to specific place and time.

The study then moves to analyze Muslims’ limited engagement in founding new schools. Comparison of the resources and institutional flexibilities available to Muslims and Christians is carried out through thorough analysis of the waqf deeds of two 19th century schools: the Islamic Benevolent School or al- Maqa>s}id for the Muslims, and the Zahrat al-Ih}sa>n for the Christians. It is found that the structure and scale of both sets of waqfs were pivotal to each group’s ability to found new schools. Contrary to the Christians, Muslims faced at least three factors within their institutions that adversely affected their ability to establish new schools. The absence of collective legal entities in Islamic law and the lack of central management hindered Muslims’ ability to pool resources. The state’s centralization policies of the waqf affairs further limited resources by altering potential endowers’ motives for founding large-scale charitable waqfs.

This study shows that incremental change within Islamic education was pursued. Yet, it was not carried out to its full potential due to the individualistic character of Islamic institutions, the structure of legitimacy that hindered institutional change, and the lack of structural reorganization.