The accounts given by foreign travelers show that two Muslim legal schools, Hanafi and Shafi, were formed during the reign of the Abbasids. These schools differed greatly in their approach and outlook. According to the Hanafi school, education is the means to achieve intellectual understanding of God, while the Shafi school held that education is a medium for bringing people closer to God.
The Mughals did not have a regular department of education. Almost every mosque had a primary school where basic education was provided. Pathashalas and Maktabs were the primary institutions where beginners would come to learn. Maktabs were particularly common during the Mughal period. Education was imparted by Maulvis. Della Valle writes that during Jahangir’s time, there were private schools in every town and village.
The Curriculum: As the Mughal state was a theocratic organization, religion had a significant influence on the curriculum. Most schools were attached to mosques, and the teaching class generally consisted of the Mullah community. Their curriculum, teaching methods, and school organization all had a clear religious bias. Hindus and Muslims had their own specific subjects of study. Hindus studied Sanskrit, Vyakaran, and Patanjali, while Muslims studied the Ilahi, Riazi, and Tabii sciences, as well as theology and Islamic law.
The curriculum under the Mughals varied according to the stage of instruction. The Mughal Emperors, like their predecessors, were great patrons of learning. Akbar took a keen interest in child education. According to Akbar’s idea of education, as explained in the ‘Ain,’ every boy ought to read books on morals, arithmetic, agriculture, mensuration, geometry, astronomy, physiognomy, household matters, the rules of government, medicine, logic, the Tabii, Riazi and Ilahi sciences, and history, all of which could be gradually acquired.
At the primary stage, the curriculum comprised the three basic areas: reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the secondary and higher stages, it included ethics, divinity, astronomy, the art of administration, etc.
In advanced Arabic schools, the courses of instruction had a much wider range, including rhetoric, logic, law, the external observances and fundamental doctrines of Islam, and the study of treatises on metaphysics.
There are references in contemporary sources that during the reign of the Mughal Emperors, there were religious schools that provided education in theology, elementary physiology, mathematics, as well as practical and theoretical training in school etiquette and ethics. Popular works such as the Panchatantra, Nitishatak of Bhartrihari, Gulistan, and Bostan of Sadi were widely studied.
The curriculum of Madrasas throughout the country was known as Dars-e-Nizami, consisting of eleven subjects with prescribed books for each. These subjects included Declension and Conjugation, Grammar, Logic, Philosophy, Mathematics, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Jurisprudence, Principles of Jurisprudence, Exegesis, Traditions, Literature, Obligations, Disputations, and Principles of Hadith.
Regarding female education, in the Mughal era, attention was primarily given to the education of royal ladies. Female education was mostly limited to princesses and upper-class women. Educated women held an honorable position in society, with some rising to become advisors and counselors to the kings based on their merit.
There were no regular separate schools for girls, and sometimes coeducation was prescribed in elementary schools. Muslim girls were taught the Quran, and wealthy families employed tutors to educate their daughters at home. Special care was taken in the education of Mughal princesses, who would regularly read the Quran and occasionally correspond with their relatives. Some Mughal princesses composed verses and had knowledge of music. According to Monserrate, during Akbar’s reign, specific arrangements were made to provide regular education to the ladies of the royal harem. Mughal Emperors also employed educated women, often of Persian origin, to teach their daughters.
One notable lady in the Mughal harem who was well-versed in Turki and Persian was Gulbadan Begum, the daughter of Babur. She actively engaged in literary pursuits, composing verses and maintaining her own library. Gulrukh, the second daughter of Babur, also had a fondness for poetry and wrote numerous verses. Salima Sultan Begum, a niece of Emperor Humayun, was another woman involved in literary pursuits. She composed verses and had a good command of Persian, along with her personal library.
Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, was a highly educated lady who also composed verses in Persian. Zeb-un-Nisa Begum, the eldest daughter of Aurangzeb, was well-versed in Persian and Arabic. She excelled in the art of calligraphy, proficient in writing ‘Shikast,’ ‘Nastaliq,’ and ‘Nashk’ scripts. She authored the Diwan Makhfi and used the pen name Zeb. Mira Bai, Rupmati, and Zinat-un-Nisa also distinguished themselves as poetesses in the literary sphere.
The role played by the Mughal emperors in promoting learning is an interesting subject of study. Akbar had a deep love for knowledge and the pursuit of truth. He treated learned men and scholars with great respect and frequently attended their gatherings. The courts of Akbar’s successors continued to be centers of intellectual activity, with numerous literary talents and intellectual giants flocking to royal assemblies. Poets, writers, translators, and others thrived under the influence of the emperor’s patronage.
Unfortunately, the rational policies of the great Mughals were reversed during the reign of Aurangzeb. His iconoclastic actions and intolerance towards Hindus throughout his rule are a painful reminder of religious persecution. The libraries of Mughal India housed books on a wide range of subjects, serving various purposes. The books were categorized under sciences and histories and had separate cataloging and numbering. To facilitate reference, they were placed on different shelves according to their subjects.
However, the masses remained aloof and deprived of education. While some Mughal emperors expressed interest in educating their people, this aspect of public education was largely ignored.