A Comparative Evaluation of the Scholastic Excellence of Nalanda and Al-Qarawiyyin

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Nalanda was primarily the Buddhist institution of higher learning, in India. Al-Qarawiyyin has been a centre of Islamic studies, in Morocco. While Nalanda was lost in the ravages of time, Al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest existing educational institution in the world, according to UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records. Debjani and Shilpa, the two authors, highlight the salient points of these seats of excellence, exclusively in Different Truths.  

Nalanda and Al-Qarawiyyin are the famous names of higher learning institutions in the ancient world. Pupils from the various parts of the world were attracted and came to these higher learning institutions to satisfy their urge of knowledge. When Al-Qarawiyyin of Morocco started its journey, Nalanda had already reached its zenith. Here the authors attempt to highlight the academic brilliance of Nalanda system of education in the perspective of Nalanda-contemporary (415 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) global higher education, with special reference to Al-Qarawiyyin.

Nalanda had a very long history and great contributions to world higher education. It was situated in latitude 25º30′ and 25º83′ north and longitude 85º16′ and 85º27′ east. The scattered ruins of Nalanda are situated near the village Bargaon, 11 km north of modern Rajgir and 85 km southeast of Patna, in Bihar. The foundation of Nalanda took place in the reign of Sakraditya (Kumara Gupta I, Mohendraditya – 415 A.D. – 455 A.D.) around 427 A.D. On the other hand, Al- Qarawiyyin is a University located in Fez, Morocco. Al-Qarawiyyin situated in latitude 34°02′13″ north and longitude 4°59′59″ west. It was founded by Fatima al- Fihri in 859 A.D. with an associated school or Madrasa.

Nalanda was primarily emerged as a centre of Buddhist tradition and education, gradually it covered a wide range of subjects including all branches of Buddhism, other Indian philosophical systems, Chikitsavidya or Medicine, Astronomy, Geography, Mathematics, Hetuvidya or logic, Sabdavidya or Grammar and other arts and science subjects of the day. The wonderful event is that when the present highly economic developed countries were asleep into the depth of darkness, mainly in the areas of literacy and civilisation, the then India was most advanced in the field of education. Meanwhile, the pattern of education in Al-Qarawiyyin was mainly concentrated on the Islam and its associated matters with a heavy emphasis on classical Arabic grammar and Maliki law, though some of the non-Islamic subjects were also taught English, French, Medicine, Mathematics and even History, Geography and Music.

The admission of a student possessed a complex procedure in Nalanda. The entrance examination was very strict so that its standard might be in keeping with that of its studies. Dwar-Pandita asked various questions, which were connected with difficult problems. Most of the students failed to give answers. Only about twenty to thirty per cent students were successful. Similarly, in Al-Qarawiyyin, the quality of education was so high that the students from all-over the Muslim world were attracted. There were a large number of applicants who tried to take admission in the University but the University had to introduce a selection system that the student must have the knowledge of the entire Quran, knowledge of Arabic language and of general sciences and belong to the Muslim community.

Nalanda was enriched with its high degree of teachers. Actually, the fame of Nalanda as a centre of learning was mainly due to the reputation of its teachers. Among them were Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Sthiramati, Gunamati, Chandragomin, Chandrakirtti, Dharmapala, Dharmakirtti, Silabhadra, Pravakara Mitra, Rahulabhadra, Nagarjuna II, Aryadeva, Santideva, Santarakshita, Kamalasila and many of others. Similarly, Al-Qarawiyyin Madrasa also produced a number of eminent scholars, who had significantly influenced the intellectual and cultural history of the Muslim world as well as the Jewish world. The famous theorist of the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence, Abu Imran al-Fasi, the famous writer Leo Africanus, Ibn Maimun, Al-Idrissi, Ibn al-Arabi, Ibn Khaldun and many others were associated with Al-Qarawiyyin.

Nalanda was noted for its specialisation in the last stages of a University education. At that time, Nalanda was particularly a research institute for advanced students. The stamp of its approval was necessary for any opinion to gain currency in the country. The highest academic degree of distinction of the times was a fellowship of Nalanda. It also had a department of secondary education for regular internal students for whom the above tests of admission did not apply. Al-Qarawiyyin Madrasa took a vital role too. It might be termed as the leading role in developing culture and academic prosperity in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. Mohammad al-Idrisi, a famous cartographer said that European exploration in the Renaissance had lived in Fez, Morocco for some time. The Al-Qarawiyyin Madrasa and its glorious pattern of education produced numerous scholars, who had a significant role in the intellectual and academic realms of the Muslim world.

The Great Nalanda University’s nadir and demise were the results of waning enthusiasm for Buddhism in India, the declining financial support from successive Indian monarchs and corruption among university officials and the final straw was the burning of the building by Muslim invader Bakhtiyar Khalji.

Nalanda had been dilapidated and devoured by time, but Nalanda should not be considered only an educational institution, it should be treated as the witness of the educational history of the human civilisation. Thousands of years passed, dynasties rose and fell, political turmoil and upheavals occurred – Nalanda and its pride might have been de-memorised, but its significance is still relevant. The history of the Indian education system cannot possibly be analysed without its pioneering contributions.

However, Al-Qarawiyyin still exists. At present, it is the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world, according to UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records.


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 ©Debjani Guha & Shilpa Bhattacharyya

 Photos sourced by the authors and from the Internet

Shilpa Bhattacharyya: Research Scholar, Department of Education, University of Kalyani, W.B., India. Research Interest: History of Education, Comparative Education.



#AlQarawiyyin #Nalanda #Buddhist  #History #Madrasa #UniversityEducation #DifferentTruths

Dr. Debjani Guha: Associate Professor, Department of Education and Director-in-Charge, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Kalyani, Kalyani, WB,India, Area of Research Interest: Women’s Education, International & Comparative Education