A Syriac Source of a Madrasa’s Curriculum in Pre-Ottoman South East Anatolia

Submitted by Dr. Iskandar Bcheiry, ATLA Metadata Analyst 

The purpose of this article is to study the relations between Muslims and Christians in Anatolia during the pre-Ottoman period by observing not only the history of social and religious tensions but also the history of intellectual exchanges. One such exchange is found in the curriculum of a madrasa in Anatolia in the pre-Ottoman period. This list is found in a Syriac historical biography of a Christian Syriac Patriarch named John son of Šay Allah (d. 1496) who attended a Muslim educational religious madrasa in his home town of Mardin in southeast Anatolia.


The courtyard of Zinciriye Madrasa in Mardin, south east Turkey. Photo credit: Mardin Travel.

Through the history of Islamic civilization, different educational institutions were developed for teaching Islamic theology. Among these institutions, there are madrasas or schools for higher religious education, which emerged in northern Iran and Khurasan in the tenth century. During the Abbasid period and thanks to Nidhām al-Mulk (d. 1092), the prime minister of the Seljuk empire, the madrasa became a state-sponsored institution with teachers who taught the Qur’ān, theology, Islamic law, and literature. From the tenth to the fifteenth century, madrasas spread throughout the Islamic world as the highest form of an educational religious system. The madrasas received support from the ruling class as a training ground for the administration of the state and as a Sunni Islam response to al-Azhar, the theological learning center founded by the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo in 969 to promote Shi‘ism theology.1

The System of Education of a Madrasa

Typical houses in Mardin, South East Turkey. Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen.

The madrasa system of education was attached to the mosque, which usually was the first place of instruction for Muslims in the Qurʾān and in Islamic tradition. However, the madrasa also combined the site dedicated to education with the residences of the students and libraries. Moreover, the madrasas received financial support from the state in the form of a charitable endowment. The revenue of these endowments covered the expenses of the maintenance of the buildings, student stipends, and instructors’ fees. Lessons at a madrasa included the Qurʾān, Hadith, Arabic language, Islamic theology, geometry, and sometimes, medicine; however, the study of Islamic law provided the core of the madrasa’s curriculum. 3

The courtyard of Kassimiyye madrasa, Mardin, South East Turkey. Photo credit: Mardin Travel.

Madrasa in Anatolia during the Seljuk Turks and early Ottoman Period

After the invasion of the Mongols of Iran and Iraq in the thirteenth-century, famous scholars such as the mystic philosopher Jalal al-Din al-Rumi 1273 found safe havens in Anatolian towns under the dominion of the Seljuk Turks. The Ottomans inherited the madrasa system from the Seljuk Turks, who began to construct a mosque in conjunction with a madrasa as an essential part of their policy of conquest. This policy intended also to provide necessary religious and educational services to the society and to prepare administrative personnel for the state administration. A student at an Ottoman madrasa would be required to read a large number of books in different fields of study, such as books in morphology, grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, jurisprudence, inheritance, doctrines of Islamic faith, hadith, and exegesis on the Qur’ān.4

Syriac text of the biography of John son of Šay Allah (d. 1496): Library of the University of Cambridge, Syriac manuscript collection, DD. 3. 81.

A List of Textbooks in the Biography of Patriarch John son of Šay Allah (d. 1496)

The biography of John son of Šay Allah is part of a Syriac manuscript found in the library of the University of Cambridge, shelf marked as Dd. 3. 81 and dated October 3rd, 1496 A.D.5 In this account, the anonymous author highlighted John’s great love for knowledge, and he listed the textbooks that John read in the madrasa of Mudhaffariyyeh in his hometown in south east Anatolia. His biography tells us that John traveled to many places such as Syria, Anatolia, Iraq, and Egypt to obtain knowledge. In the following I would like to present the English translation of the Syriac original text which describes the scholarly activity of John son of Šay Allah in some phases of his life:

English Translation of the Syriac Text

“He (John son of Šay Allah) went through all the books that he read. These are their names: the books of the Old and New Testaments, which consists of 83 books that I don’t have time to name, with the rest of the books of the fathers who are accepted by the Church and who are so many in numbers, with the books of the Philosophers. These books are as follows:

      1. Isagoge, which is an introduction to Logic (book I of Logic)
      2. Categories, book II of Logic
      3. Interpretation, book III of Logic known as “al-‘Ibarah”
      4. Prior Analytics, book IV of Logic known as “al-Qiyāssah”
      5. Posterior Analytic, book V of Logic known as “al-Burhān”
      6. Topics, book VI of Logic known as “al-Ğadal”
      7. Sophistical Refutation, book VII of Logic known as “al-Muġālāṭāt”
      8. Rhetoric, book VIII of Logic known as “al-Kitābah”
      9. Poetics, book IX of Logic known as “Maqāṣid al-Šu‘ārā’”
      10. Logic of Physics, book I of Physics, known “al-Ṭabī‘ah”
      11. Heavens and the World, book II of Physics known “al-samā’ wa al-‘ālam”
      12. Generation and Corruption, book III of the Physics, known as “Kitāb al Kawn wa al-fasād”
      13. Minerals, book IV on Physics known as “al-Ma‘āden”
      14. Metrology, book V of Physics, known as “Ḥawādiṯ al-ğaw min Aṯār al-‘Ulwiyyah”
      15. Plants, book VI of Physics known as “al-Nabāt”
      16. Animals, book VII of Physics, known as “al-Ḥayāwān”
      17. Soul, book VIII of Physics, known as “al-Nafs”
      18. Philosophy, book I of Metaphysics, known as “mā warā’ al-ṭābī‘ah”
      19. Theology, book II on Metaphysics, known as “Ilahiyāt”, which is the second book of “mā warā’ al-ṭābī‘ah”(Also included is) the book of Practical Subjects, known as Philosophical Practice, which is divided into three volumes:
      20. Ethics, vol. 1 or the parts of Philosophy and the parts of its (philosophy) parts
      21. Economics, vol. 2 or the management of revelation and wisdom
      22. Politics, vol. 3 or the civil management
      23. Signs also known as Išārāt by Ibn Sinā

Their (the books) number are 23 [… … …] not including the book of Bar Sinā, which is called the Wisdom or Zibdat al-Ḥikmat, and several other books which I am unable to mention by name due to their multitude and not because they aren’t important, but because I don’t understand them. This is the reason why I did not mention them in my writing.”


  1. George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.
  2. Hamza Karamali, The Madrasa Curriculum in Context (Abu Dhabi, UAE: Kalam Research and Media, 2017). Also, see “Madrasa.” Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). 2 http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madrasa
  3. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, The madrasa of the Ottoman Empire (Manchester: Foundation of Science, Technology, and Civilization, 2004), p. 4.
  4. The biography of John son of Šay Allah is already published by me. See Iskandar Bcheiry, The Life and Deeds of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch John son of Šay Allah 1491 (Piscataway, N.J: Gorgias Press, 2013).

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