What Is a Madrasa?

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Ebrahim Moosa
Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The madrasa discourse has become an area of polemic debate in the post 9/11 era. Western media and anti-Muslim factions have campaigned against the madrasa, connecting it with terrorism. The opposing camp has met these allegations by glorifying the madrasa and its history. This necessitated a serious academic study on the madrasa and its current socio-political state. This is where Ebrahim Moosa’s book fills the gap and contributes an in-depth understanding of today’s madrasa. Apart from the prologue and epilogue, the book has been divided into four parts. In the first part, Moosa remembers his own experience in Indian madrasas as a student in different parts of the country. His narrations about the inside experience help readers to understand what is happening “inside” the institution. The second part provides a critical, and at the same time, a deep understanding of the major texts and disciplines studied in the madrasa. Here Moosa goes to the historical development of the Nizamiya curriculum in the eighteenth century. He tries to explain the intellectual vibrancy that existed in the Indian subcontinent during the period. But, it was only when he met the modern disciplinary discourses in his post madrasa life Moosa realized the beauty of texts and syllabus that he studied in the madrasa. In the third part, “Politics of Knowledge”, Moosa argues that an outdated philosophical tradition and hadith-centered discourse has “fomented an exclusionary faith-centered” mindset in madrasa (p.175). Moosa also notes that the absence of interactive engagement with modernity has led to the lack of dynamic and diverse interpretation of knowledge within madrasas. This has led to a situation in which only “pious” and “salvific” knowledge is considered valid in the madrasa sphere. The fourth part clearly explains Moosa’s motivation for undertaking this study. He discusses, in the ninth chapter, how the Western media and cheap journalism try to caricature the madrasa and connect it with Jihadi terrorism. In the next chapter, he calls for the reform of the madrasa system so that it may survive in the future. He points out that there are two large, opposite camps within the madrasa circle debating the matter. But the complexities of the opinions among the scholars make the way difficult. Though Moosa does not have much hope for changing the current situation, he underlines the fact that change is necessary to address a crisis in religious knowledge. The letters he writes to policymakers and teachers are very interesting and worth reading. The book ends with the note that the madrasa is the reservoir of a great tradition of Muslim society, but that is needs to be updated, which is possible only through creative engagement with the knowledge of the present.

What Is a Madrasa? is not a true representation of the Indian madrasa, insofar as it does not look specifically at madrasas in Kerala. Unlike Muslims in other states, Mappila (Muslims in Kerala) have unique experiences in their socio-political and educational history that shape their modern life. In Kerala, there are concerted efforts and experiments with reform in the madrasa system which began in the early decades of twentieth century. It is interesting to see that many of these activities have been taking place under the initiatives of Ulema (scholars).  Recently, C. Muhammed Faizy,  a well-known scholar in Kerala, made a historical point, in his speech at 40th anniversary of a Muslim educational institution in Calicut (a Northern district of Kerala) where he is the General Manager, that it was unfortunate that somewhere in their history, Muslims made the distinction between Deeni (worldly) and Dunyawi (otherworldly) knowledge. We, he said, should not favor such distinction anymore, and should consider all knowledge relevant for Muslims.

Generally, the book attempts to send the message that the madrasa is not a space for terrorism. Rather, it is a traditional system of learning in Muslim societies. The book is strongly recommended for madrasa teachers, Ulema, and students as well as for general readers and those who work in the area. It is written without jargon, and with clear explanations of basic terms and concepts in the field, so it is accessible for general readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muhammed Failurahman Pallikuzhi is a graduate student in Education at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, with appointments in the department of history and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School for Global Affairs. The author of the prize-winning Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination, Moosa was named a 2005 Carnegie Scholar.




Ebrahim Moosa

I thank Muhammad Failurahman Pallikuzhi for his generous review of my book. However he concludes his review by saying: "What Is a Madrasa? is not a true representation of the Indian madrasa, insofar as it does not look specifically at madrasas in Kerala. Unlike Muslims in other states, Mappila (Muslims in Kerala) have unique experiences in their socio-political and educational history that shape their modern life." Pallikuzhi is right to draw readers' attention to other kinds of madrasas in South Asia and what he says about Mappila Muslims might be true but is unrelated to my endeavor. He is incorrect in saying that my book is not a "true representation" of madrasas in India. In my book, I do not claim to exhaustively address the multiple networks, or what I prefer to call madrasa franchises, but rather my focus was on Deobandi madrasas and to a lesser extent the Barelwi and even more marginal to my project, the Salafi or Ahl-i Hadis franchises and those madrasas affiliated to the Jamat-i Islami. My focus has been on the traditional madrasas of South Asia where an eighteenth century curriculum, a version of the Nizami curriculum, is taught with a focus on classical texts and an emphasis on law, theology, hadith and Qurʾan studies. The reviewer would also know that the Deobandis are the largest franchise of madrasas in India, followed by the Barelwi franchise. The institutions he talks about in Kerala are of a different order, ones that combine modern secular education and a reduced curriculum for religious education with a different goal and outcome. They differ significantly from the orthodox madrasas I study and which are the subject of my book. He ought to know that  even in Kerala there are traditional orthodox madrasas known as institutions that offer "dars" often run in mosques. The madrasas the reviewer refers to are institutions that allow students to enter the national educational system and funrish students with ways to preserve their Islamic identity, but they do not produce the theologians and religious leaders, unless these graduates seek further advanced education elsewhere. My book focused on the movers and shakers of orthodox Islam on the subcontinent and to the best of my knowledge, the graduates of the modern Kerala madrasas the reviewer refers to have yet to make their mark in these circles, or perhaps they have identified a different target audience and vocational futures for their graduates. So what we learn and what I have pointed out in my book is that there are "madrasas" and "madrasas" and they mean very different things in different contexts. I clearly define the nature and scope of the kinds of madrasas I investigated and these do not include the ones the reviewer has in mind. But in terms of influence, number and significance, the madrasas I investigated and wrote about are in the majority and they do represent what are called "madrasas" in India.


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