The Madrasa, an Ancestral Architectural Jewel of Marinid Morocco

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n Arabic, the term “madrasa” refers to a place of study, while the words “Dirasa” and “Mudarris” mean study and teacher respectively.

Madrasas hold a privileged place in the history and culture of Morocco, playing a key role in the education and training of young students, while being an important symbol of the country's historical, spiritual and architectural wealth.

Being major educational institutions throughout the kingdom, they offer students training in learning the Quran, theology, Maliki jurisprudence and the Arabic language. The specificity of madrasas was such that they welcomed students from various backgrounds, although often modest, offering education, housing and food to those who could not afford to pay the tuition fees of a private school.

Today, most madrasas are popular tourist sites in Morocco due to their charming and highly detailed structures.

Madrasas are characterized by traditional Moroccan architecture that results in intricate patterns and designs, elegant archways, peaceful interior gardens, and sumptuous fountains. The madrasas are decorated with mosaics, stuccos, and hand-carved wood, making them true masterpieces.

In short, madrasas are an essential ingredient in the fleshing out of Moroccan heritage. They have contributed to the preservation of Islam and to the training of numerous students over the centuries. Madrasas are therefore an enduring testament to Morocco's cultural wealth, and are a must-see attraction for those seeking to understand the depth of Moroccan culture.

The Madrasas, imperial jewels

The birth of madrasas in North Africa has sparked debate among researchers due to the lack of accurate information and reliable historical sources: Some believe that the Almoravids and Almohads introduced this institution, while others argue it's rather an adaptation of the already existing Levantine model where it proved its effectiveness in the service of science, religion, and power.

It's archaeologically attested to however that the oldest of such establishments in North Africa is the Madrasa Shammiya located in Tunis, built by the Hafsid ruler Abu Zakariyya in 1249. It'ill be followed by the Saffarin Madrasa in Fez, which was in turn  erected by Abu Yusuf Yaqub in 1271.

Leo Africanus, also known as Hassan al-Wazzan, devoted part of his work “Description of Africa” to an eloquent description of Moroccan madrasas. On his arrival to Fez, he was amazed by the scale and splendor of the schools, which vastly surpassed those he had previously seen in Africa. The classrooms, crafted with fine marble, blew his mind and the attention to detail, including the doors and windows carved from cedar wood, impressed him. These details were beautifully enhanced by ornaments of fine mosaics and skilfully worked plaster, amplifying his fascination with these places of learning.

The illustrious writer Tahar Ben Jelloun will pay particular attention to the importance of madrasas in Morocco in his work. He tells us that throughout the kingdom and from each imperial city, these Quranic schools, madrasas, sprang up, becoming incandescent homes of thought and intelligence. These institutions have worked patiently to shape generations of scholars, poets, lawyers, artists, and men of culture and faith. Ben Jelloun describes how they ensured the transmission of knowledge, the values of Islamic tradition and Moroccan heritage. For him, madrasas have established themselves as the true guardians of the soul and spiritual identity of Morocco.

Historian and anthropologist Alain Roussillon contributes to the conversation by affirming madrasas represent more than just educational spaces. For him, they are real architectural treasures bearing the imprint of Moroccan Islamic art and culture. Their splendor not only dazzles the eyes, it is also a mirror of the devotion and the quest for artistic excellence of those who built them.

Morocco's full of architectural treasures, but among the most emblematic of them are undoubtedly the madrasas, these magnificent historic buildings that've survived throughout the centuries all whilst maintaining their beauty and emblematic character.

Now that we've seen the history and importance of madrasas in the country, let's discover the most beautiful of these architectural gems which fascinate visitors from around the world.

The al-Attarine Madrasa (1325), Fez

The al-Attarine Madrasa is located in Fez, Morocco, near the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, and was erected by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris in the 14th century. It takes its name from Souk al-Attarine, a spice and perfume market located nearby. It's recognized as one of the greatest achievements of Marinid architecture because of its sumptuous and harmonious decoration, as well as its clever use of limited space.

According to the book Rawd el-Qirtas, the supervision of the construction of the madrasa was entrusted to Sheikh Beni Abu Muhammad Abdallah ibn Qasim al-Mizwar. The Sultan himself attended the laying of the foundations of the madrasa in the company of local ulemas (religious savants). As with all religious and charitable institutions of the time, the creation of the madrasa required the endowment of a habous, a charitable trust generally made up of dead property.

The Sultan had ordered the establishment of this habous to provide income supporting the operation of and maintenance of the madrasa. According to the Sultan's instructions, the madrasa was to accommodate an imam, muezzins, teachers, and housing for 50 to 60 students. Most of the students in this madrasa came from cities in northwestern Morocco, such as Tangier, Larache, and Ksar el-Kebir.

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The Saffarin Madrasa (1280), Fez

The historic Saffarin Madrasa is located in the city of Fez in Morocco. It was built in 1271 by  the Marinid sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf, making it the first madrasa built by his dynasty.

The Saffarin Madrasa is located in the historic district of Fez el-Bali, just south of the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which is considered to be the oldest working university in the world. The madrasa is also located on Saffarin Square, which was once the workplace of boilermakers, hence its name.

The foreigners who resided at the Saffarin Madrasa came mainly from the Zerhoun region, from the north of Beni Zeroual and from the south of the Souss region. Due to its growing popularity, the Mohammadia Madrasa was built in the 18th century next to the Saffarin Madrasa, thus serving as an annex to accommodate a larger number of students. It extends over an area of 752m2 and also includes two levels of rooms revolving around a long central courtyard.

Madrasa Bou Inania (1351), Fez

The Madrasa Bou Inania was built for and named after the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris in Fez between 1350 and 1355. It's the only madrasa in the city along with the Saffarin one to have a minaret. It was adjacent to shops allowing its financing, as well as having vast latrines, bearing witness to its public nature. Indeed, the madrasa functioned as both a school as well as a congregational Friday mosque.

Most madrasas have a small prayer hall, but Bou Inania has a full-fledged mosque with a minaret. Normally, madrasas were built near an already established mosque and the two institutions cooperated closely with each other for religious and educational activities. But as there were none in the vicinity, the Bou Inania has the rare particularity of housing a sumptuous mosque within its boundaries.

Because of its unique history, the Bou Inania madrasa has the status of a congregational mosque, the only one of its kind in all of Morocco housed in a madrasa. Congregational mosques or Friday mosques are where the most important prayer session of the week takes place on Friday and brings together all the worshipers from the many other mosques in the region.

There is another madrasa with the same name in the city of Meknes but although the origin of theit names are similar, they're not entirely identical. The one in Fez was built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris as we've established. That of Meknes on the other hand was built by his father 15 years prior, then restored by the son, and from that moment on, it bore the same name of Madrasa Bou Inania.

Like most iconic landmarks in Fez, the Madrasa Bou Inania has its legends. One of them says that Abu Inan, feeling guilty for the overthrow of his father, sought advice from scholars on how he could ask God for forgiveness. They advised him to build a madrasa in a part of the city that had hitherto been a dump. By improving and purifying a part of the city, he would do the same with his soul.

Another legend says that the Sultan's desire to build a majestic and beautiful madrasa was such that the budget got out of control. When the builders showed him the accounting book, he threw it into the river, saying “beauty is never expensive, no matter the price.”

The Mesbahiyya Madrasa (1347), Fez

The Mesbahiyya Madrasa, also called Madrasa Rokham (School of Marble), or Madrasa El Khossa (School of the Fountain), is a madrasa built in 1347 in Fez by the Merinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan.

It contains 35 rooms and two classrooms. Partially in ruins, the madrasa was still being restored in 2016 until a year later when the king of Morocco inaugurated it and 26 other historical monuments in the Medina of Fez, the latter announced for this purpose that in addition to this Madrasa, the others (Saffarin, Mohammedia and Sba'iyyin) would open for the relocation of some students of the al-Qarawiyyin who were in their senior year.

The Cherratin Madrasa (1670), Fes

Located in the heart of the Medina, the Madrasa was named after the space where “Cherrite” rope manufacturers operated. The first cultural and scientific achievement under the Alawite dynasty, this madrasa was once a housing center for students from distant lands in search of science and knowledge.

With its 125 cells spread over three levels along galleries protected from view by “moucharabieh”, the architectural arrangements of the Madrasa, in particular the layout of the rooms around courtyards in the four corners of the building, recall some ancient schools in Cairo.

Its double portal covered in chiseled bronze gives access, through a corridor covered with a carved and painted wooden ceiling, to the central courtyard, surrounded by galleries on all floors.
“The style of this national heritage is distinguished by its simplicity. Heritage specialists emphasize this temperance in decoration and the style of ornamentations. It is different from other madrasas, especially those of the Marinid dynasty in the 14th century,” explained Ms. Tajmouati.

The Sahrij Madrasa (1323), Fes

The Sahrij Madrasa owes its name to the large pool located in its courtyard. It's composed of three buildings: the main madrasa with the basin, the Madrasa of the Sba'iyyin (the seven readers of the Koran), and a guest house called “Dar Chiakh”.

The Madrasa contains two classrooms and twenty-six rooms for students coming from far away, reserved for students in the Moroccan calligraphy course at the al-Qarawiyyin University.

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The Madrassa of Oujda (1323), Oujda (not sure)

Built in 1935, the Marinid Madrasa of Oujda precedes the famous Madrasa Bou Inania in the city of Fez by five years. Despite its modest dimensions, it manages to be a masterpiece of Marinid art and is now one of the jewels of its city. This school has the prestige of having welcomed famous ulemas who marked their times and who remain references in their fields to this day.

And to this day, the madrasa remains in activity, receiving annually, in summer, young people seeking to learn the Quran, making religious chants echo in the corridors of this learning center.

The Madrasa Loukach (1758), Tetouan

Built in 1758 by Caid Omar Loukach on the orders of the Alawite Sultan Mohammed bin Abdallah, it was meant to serve as a boarding house for students hailing from the surrounding regions to study theology in the medina of Tetouan.

Closed in the 1980s, the madrasa will be rehabilitated by the architect Aamiar Mohammed Anass and will thus be transformed into a museum retracing the religious heritage of the Medina of Tetouan and exhibiting various historical objects and articles relating to religious life and traditional education. The museum was inaugurated by King Mohamed VI in 2011.

Madrasa of Sale (1340)

Built in the first half of the 14th century under the reign of the Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan ben Uthman, in the Talâa district near the Great Mosque of Sale, which was the same time other madrasas were erected in various cities of Morocco. It was completed on Friday November 30th, 1341.

When Ibn al-Khatib, the Andalusian Arab writer, visited the madrasa shortly after its inauguration, he found at least a hundred poets there. He also indicates in his book "The Exemplary Way" that in his time, the people of Sale “made a great contribution to all sciences, by having the exclusive prerogative of certain fields of knowledge”, since several dignitaries from Fez and other cities went to Sale to learn medicine, Sufism, etc...

The first dean of the madrasa was Ahmed ibn al-Hafid, while Ali bin Brahim al-Malqi was the first teacher of the Arabic language. The latter also taught fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in the morning and tafsir (explanation of the Quran) between the two evening prayers.

Then, the teaching was provided by several ulemas from Morocco, Tlemcen and Andalusia.

The last teacher was Ahmed ibn Mohamed ibn Moussa al-Hamssassi, who taught grammar, rhetoric, logic and religious sciences there (fiqh, Hadith and Sufism) from 1884 to 1892. The madrasa would then become a school focused solely on teaching the Quran, with Mohamed bin Salem al-Hanawi being the last to have taught there.

Restored at the end of the 18th century by the Cadi of Sale Mohamed Ben Hajji Zniber, then in 1864 by Mohamed Ben Abd el-Hadi Zniber and finally by the French Fine Arts Department, the madrasa was classified as national heritage by the dahir of September 9, 1922. It is described by the historian Mohamed ibn Ali Doukkali as one of the smallest and most beautiful madrasas because of its layout, decor and architecture that reached a high level of perfection.

After the establishment of the French protectorate in Morocco, the madrasa no longer functioned as before. Unlike the other madrasas, the Sale madrasa was completely redesigned between 1921 and 1924; underpinning and consolidation work continued between 1922 and 1924.

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The Madrasa Bou Inania (1351), Meknes

In the city of Meknes, there is the Bou Inania madrasa — one of the more distinctly beautiful of such establishments in Morocco. Built from 1331 to 1351 (under the reign of Abu al-Hasan and then under that of Abu Inan Faris), this madrasa is a historic and traditional palace and a core part of the protected heritage of Meknes.

Until the 1960s, the Bou Inania madrasa in Meknes was a mosque and a Quranic school where religion and law were taught.

Visitors of the madrasa are able to discover architecture typical of the time of the Marinid dynasty: cedar wood ceilings, a central courtyard in marble and onyx, glazed earthenware mosaics... Even the small rooms the students occupied can be visited, along with a passage on the terraces allowing an exquisite view of the Medina.

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The Ben Youssef Madrasa (1565), Marrakech

The Ben Youssef Madrasa is not only the most important of such architectural jewels but also the largest in Morocco. Commissioned by the Saadian Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib, its construction was completed in 1565CE. It has 130 rooms, making it able to accommodate up to 900 students.

A madrasa would have existed in the Almohad Kasbah in Marrakech, which could have served as a model for the Ben Youssef Madrasa. It was described at the beginning of the 16th century by Leo Africanus.

A new madrasa was founded by Abu al-Hasan ben Uthman, a Marinid sultan, around 1350CE near the old Ben Youssef mosque (of which only the Almoravid Qoubba remains) which will give it its name. It was rebuilt and inaugurated in the year 1564-65CE by the Saadian Sultan Abdallah el-Ghalib Billah.

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The Khaldounia Madrasa (1337), Tlemcen

Nestled in the heart of the village of El Eubad, on the heights of the city, it was initially a mausoleum built by the Almohad caliph Muhammad an-Nasir, honoring the memory of the Arab-Andalusian saint Sidi Boumediene at the beginning of the 13th century.

It was restored, embellished and expanded upon by the Merinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan Ali in 1337CE who integrated a mosque as an annex to the mausoleum.

In addition to the mosque, the El Eubad religious complex includes a small palace and a madrasa where Ibn Khaldoun taught fiqh as well as a traditional hammam of which only remains persist.

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Références :

Rawd Al-Qirtas, Ibn Abi Zar

Origin and role of the medersa in Islamic Morocco, BAM 22, 2012

Description of Africa, Leon the African