The transmission of knowledge has been a fundamental aspect of the Islamic tradition since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 C.E., a class of religious specialists or ‘ulamā‘ emerged in Muslim societies. These ‘ulamā‘ attracted students and devised systems for transmitting texts, ideas, and practices.  By the beginning of the eighth century C.E., influential study circles existed in cities throughout the Umayyad Caliphate, including in Mecca, Medina, Basra, Kufa, and Damascus. In the ninth and tenth centuries, mosques such as Al-Azhar in Cairo and Al Qarawiyyin in Fez began to develop into centers of learning that drew knowledge-seekers from across the Muslim world.
Some Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have referred to pre-colonial universities in Timbuktu and other centers of learning.  Yet the “Islamic university,” in the sense of a bureaucratically organized, degree-granting institution that aims to compete with Western-style universities, is a phenomenon that dates only to the colonial period. During and after colonialism, new kinds of centers for Islamic learning emerged. Some existing institutions were dramatically reformed, most notably Al-Azhar. These new and reformed institutions are Islamic universities in the contemporary sense of the term. They are distinct from the classical-style madrasa (school) and the ma’had (institute), where seekers of knowledge typically study one text — such as the Qur’an or a manual of jurisprudence — with one teacher and his or her advanced pupils, and obtain not a general certificate but rather an ijāza (authorization) to teach that text.