Preparation for the madrasa. Until the mid-20th century the pursuit of education in Kurdistan was possible only through mosques, as only mullas were literate. Concomitant with their function as places of worship, mosques served as social centers and as rest houses for travelers and itinerant mendicants. Every mosque also contained a chamber called a ḥojra, where the mullaoffered lessons in religion and theology free of charge to Muslim boys. Boys, though very seldom girls, began their studies at the age of seven years. Instructors would be hired for girls at home, or they would memorize the Koran under barely literate widows or blind women (also called mullas) who held mixed classes for boys and girls in their homes. Such schools were called qotāb-ḵānas (kottāb-ḵānas), and the pupils were known as qotābīs (kottābīs). At this stage education consisted of learning the alphabet and the expressions Yā Allāh, Yā razzāq, and Yā fattāḥ (O God! O Provider! O Conqueror!). Thereafter they learned al-Ḥamd (sura 1) and ʿAmma jozʾ (suras 78-114) of the Koran, together with spelling. Beside the Koran they studied books in Persian like Esmāʿīl-nāma and Nāgahān, as well as the Kurdish Rol¯abzānī (My child, you must know), about the fundamentals of religion. The mulla received small payments in cash or kind from parents. Students who successfully completed their education as qotābīs, between the ages of twelve and fifteen years, could either enter the service of local khans as secretaries or scribes (mīrzās) or enroll in the madrasa or faqyatī (seminary).

The madrasa. The student at the madrasa was engaged solely in Arabic-language and theological studies, in preparation for becoming a mulla. Madrasa education was divided into two basic stages: In the first students were known as soḵtas, in the second as mostaʿedds. Soḵtas studied under the mostaʿedds and were obedient to them. They performed all their own daily chores, as well as those of the mostaʿedds and the ḥojra.

In this traditional educational system the student was considered a soḵta until he had completed ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmī’s Naḥw (see below); he was then promoted to the level of mostaʿedd. This sequence was neither defined nor universal, however. It was the teacher’s level of knowledge and mastery of his subject matter that largely determined the student’s preparedness. It was possible, for example, for a student who had completed the study of Jāmī and been promoted to mostaʿedd under one instructor to find himself in the ranks of the soḵtas under another.

Soḵtas studied Arabic conjugation and syntax (ṣarf wa naḥw), logic, rules of disputation and rhetoric, theology (kalām), rhetoric (balāḡa), exposition (bayān), style (badīʿ wa maʿānī), methods of deriving religious rulings (oṣūl-e feqh), astronomy and astrology (falakīyāt), prosody (ʿarūż), Shafiʿite canon law (šarʿ), Koran commentary (tafsīr), and Hadith. Among the books they were expected to study were Ebrāhīm Zanjānī’s Taṣrīf (conjugation of verbs); Mollā ʿAlī Ašnawī Šayḵānī’s Taṣrīf (conjugation of verbs), the commentary Šarḥ-e neẓām by Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh (conjugation), Mīr Sayyed Šarīf Jorjānī’s ʿAwāmel (syntax), Onmūḏaj (syntax) by Maḥmūd b. ʿOmar Zamaḵšarī and the commentary on it by Jamāl-al-Dīn ʿAbd-al-Ḡanī Ardabīlī, Jāmī’s Naḥw (syntax), Aristotle’s Īsāḡūjī (logic), ʿAbd-Allāh b. Ḥosayn Yazdī’s commentary on Tahḏīb al-manṭeq wa’l-kalām by Saʿd-al-Dīn Masʿūd Taftāzānī (logic), Mollā Esmāʿīl Galanbavī’s Borhān (logic), his Ādāb (disputation), ʿAbd-al-Wahhāb Tāj-al-Dīn Sobkī’s Jamʿ al-jawāmeʿ fi’l-oṣūl (jurisprudence), Abū Zakarīyā Yaḥyā Nawawī’s Menhāj al-ṭālebīn or Fatḥ al-moʿīn (canon law), and ʿAbd-Allāh ʿOmar Bayżāwī’s Anwār al-tanzīl wa asrār al-taʾwīl, known as Tafsīr (commentary on the Koran). The more intelligent and motivated students could also study history, mathematics, natural sciences, and other subjects.

Although the textbooks and their annotations were generally in Arabic, the language of the classroom was Kurdish. Soḵtas had to learn the texts by rote, and no student studied more than two subjects on a single day. Classes did not meet on Tuesdays and Fridays or in the month of Ramażān. Students had no extracurricular pursuits. Teachers had the additional duties of settling religious questions and matters that touched the lives of ordinary people, as well as fulfilling, in the absence of a government bureaucracy, the functions of the judiciary and the registry (births, deaths, marriages, and divorces). Each locality provided for its mulla and students from its own resources, sometimes from religious endowments (waqf). Every Friday evening the soḵtas scattered through the various urban neighborhoods or village streets, visiting each home and asking for money, bread, and other food, a practice known in Kurdish as rātba. They also visited farmers and tent dwellers at harvest time, in order to obtain grains, legumes, and dairy products for the winter (daqna). Their visits were generally welcomed, and they were offered what was available, for most people believed that it was pleasing to God to supply students with the pick of the crops. During Ramażān each seminarian visited a village that had no mulla or prayer leader and assumed religious responsibilities for the month, being known as Malā Ramażānē (mollā-ye Ramażān). At the end of this period he received obligatory alms (feṭrīya and zakāt), which provided him with means to acquire such necessities as books, pens, sugar, and tea.

Mostaʿedds studied directly under a mulla. Instruction was through questions and answers. They were free to choose their teachers; a student displeased with a particular teacher’s competence could leave him and study with someone else. Seminarians were not allowed to marry; they did much to propagate knowledge of Islam and culture in remote areas and to promote the homogeneity of customs and traditions in the various Kurdish territories. Their lives were fraught with hardship, and they spent a great deal of time hungry and in poverty.

After completing his education and mastering the so-called “twelve sciences” (Arabic grammar; logic; Hadith; rhetoric; law; Shafiʿite jurisprudence; theology; argumentation; Persian and Arabic literature; history and geography; and mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences) the student would request from his teacher an authorization to issue legal opinions (fatwās) and to practice independent judgment (ejtehād). The authorization letter typically began as follows: “The rank of learning is a lofty one, a beam among the rays of divine light. He who attains unto it shall be saved and honored in both worlds.” The writer would add that the student “has asked me to grant him an authorization to teach, which I have done, provided he guards it dutifully, just as it was given me.” At this point he would list the chain of his authorities, going all the way back to the Prophet Moḥammad and to the angel Gabriel. After reading aloud the letter of authorization, the teacher would invest the student with clerical robes.

In Kurdistan education was formerly in the hands of a few learned families, like the Barzanjīs, the Čūrīs, the Ḥaydarīs, the Ḏakīs, and the Mardūḵīs. The important educational centers were the Dār al-Eḥsān mosque in Sanandaj; the mosque at Solaymānīya in Iraq; Mahābād; Torjān, a village near Būkān; and Abā ʿObayda, a village in Iraqi Kurdistan.



M. ʿAbd-al-Karīm, “Faqē u Faqēyatī la Kurdistanī jārāndā,” Bayān 8, 1973, pp. 51-56.

E. Afḵamī, Tārīḵ-e farhang wa adab-e Mokrīān I, Saqqez, n.d., pp. 509-26.

E. Ayyūbī, Jāmeʿa-šenāsī-e āmūzešī, Tehran, 1355 Š./1976.

M. Bāyazīdī, ʿĀdāt o rosūmāt-nāma-ye akrādēh, Moscow, 1963, pp. 154-57.

Y. Maʿrefat, Progrām-e Wezārat-e jalīla-ye farhang, Kermānšāh, 1328 Š./1949.

Idem, Dar maḏhab-e šāfeʿī. Hedāyat-e aṭfāl, n.p., 1372 Š./1993.

M. Qazlajī, al-Taʿrīf be masājed al-Solaymānīya wa madāresehā al-dīnīya, Baghdad, 1938.

ʿA. Sajjādī, Kordawārī, Baghdad, 1974, pp. 81-123.

(ʿAbd-Allāh Mardūḵ)

Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 9, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 2, pp. 187-189