Professor - Historical Islamic Usage

Historical Islamic Usage

In Muslim civilisation, the chair was designated by the caliph himself. Mostly through recommendation, the caliph made appointments to a professorial chair (Kursi in Arabic) in a jami (university or congregational madrasah). Such was the case of Ibn 'Aqil (died 1119 CE) who was appointed to a well-known chair in Jami' al-Mansur (Baghdad), becoming the main teacher of the madrasah. In other cases, a scholar could be appointed to two chairs at the same time, holding a chair in one jami’ and simultaneously holding another in another jami’ or in one of the exclusive institutions.

This is the case of particularly distinguished and popular scholars. For example a certain Ibn al-Banna' (d. 1079) had a chair in Jami' al-Mansur (Baghdad), located in the centre of the riwaq (nave of the mosque), while simultaneously holding another in Jami' al-Qasr (also Baghdad), around the maqsura (a separate room inside the mosque). Some chairs were also known by the discipline they represented; as, for instance, the chair or study-circle of the traditionalists (halqat ahl al-hadith), and that of the grammarians (halqat al-nahwiyin). Others were known by the name of the family whose members occupied it in succession; as, for instance, the chair of the Barmakids (halqat al-Barâmika). Sometimes institutions were specialised in particular study and therefore received a corresponding chair, e.g. the Nizamiya did not have a chair of Islamic theology, but only a chair of Islamic law.

As to tenure of the chair, once a professor was appointed by the caliph to a chair in one of the main madrasahs (Jamii), he ordinarily held it for the remainder of his lifetime. Cases of lengthy tenure are often reported by biographers, for example Abu 'All al-Kattani (d. 1061), who was in his eighties when he died, had occupied his chair for 50 years. According to George Makdisi and Hugh Goddard, "the fact that we still talk of professors holding the 'chair' of their subject" is based on the "traditional Islamic pattern of teaching where the professor sits on a chair and the students sit around him", and the term 'academic circles' derives from the way Islamic students "sat in a circle around their professor." The term 'professor' itself is believed a translation of the Arabic term mufti, which meant "professor of legal opinions."

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