Book Review – What is a Madrasa

Book Cover - What is a MadrasaThe prospects for peace in Afghanistan, dialogue between Washington and Tehran, the UN’s bid to stabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan, understanding the largest Muslim minority in the world’s largest democracy in India, or the largest Muslim population in the world in Indonesia – all require some knowledge of the traditional religious sectors in these countries and of what connection traditional religious schooling has (or not) to their geopolitical situations. Here, Adis Dujerija of Griffith University, Queensland, writes one book review.

Book Review – What is a Madrasa by Ebrahim Moosa, Edinburgh University Press, 2015, 290.

Ebrahim Moosa, a leading theoretician behind critical/progressive Muslim thought and a graduate of the ‘alimiyya program at Dar ulUlum ,Nadwatu lUlama, Lucknow, in the early 1980, has gifted us with a much needed, personal account and a compassionate yet critical analysis of the network of some major South Asian madrasas, their intellectual history, curriculum, their role in contemporary (South Asian) Islam and the kind of worldviews inhabited by those who are involved in their every-day operations.

The book discusses a number of crucial topics ranging from an analysis of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and its purpose in these traditional institutions of learning with a long history and the ongoing debates regarding their relevance and reform to their alleged links with terrorism in the wake of the ‘war on terror’.

The book is divided into four parts consisting of a total of twelve chapters. The first part titled “Lived Experience” (chapters one to three) recounts his days at the various madrasas he attended offing us a humane and at times funny description (e.g. discussion of young adult madrasa students’ reaction to definition of marriage “as sexual enjoyment” in strictly segregated Muslim communities) of madrasa life(including prayers, types of food eaten, extra-curricular activities and what constitutes knowledge) from that of a novice to that of an aspiring scholar.

In the second section of the book, “History and Contexts”(chapter four to six), Moosa offers us an illuminating description of the birth of the contemporary madrasas in South Asia and their historical cum intellectual genealogy. Moreover, the reader learns about the major scholars, texts and subjects used in the madrasa curriculum and the various phases of its development. Importantly, Moosa also discusses the hotly debated topic of curriculum reform both in the context of madrasa administrators themselves and their external critics offering his own perspective on the issue.

In the third part bearing the title “Politics of Knowledge”( chapters seven and eight) the author documents how people who are part of the madrasa educational system view themselves as purveyors and embodiments of the life and the teachings of the Prophet (“Sunna”/maslak) through an intensive study and internalization of the practices and values ( including strict and all-encompassing gender segregation) considered to fall under the aegis of Sunna. Here Moosa also provides us with glimpses of what goes on in female madrasas including the kind of curriculum they study. Because of the strict gender segregation rules, the insights on the life of female madrasas are recounts of what his former female graduate student from Pakistan gathered. In terms of curriculum content, Moosa notes a recent significant shift in the emphasis on the study of the hadith as a core of the curriculum and notes its implications that perhaps best echo the major approach the author takes in relation to the role and function of madrasas in South Asia in contemporary Muslim societies:

The absence of an updated and robust rationalist dialectic blended with a Sunna-centered approach to religious knowledge has only fomented an exclusionary faith-centered or hidebound received tradition centered mindset. This mindset generates extraordinary hurdles and roadblocks for religious discourse to engage with the challenges of the time. Institutional reforms, without substantive intellectual reformation, tend to yield fewer discursive dividends but a surfeit of apologetics.( p.175)

Moosa also revisits the issue of knowledge and contestations over its meaning and nature from the perspective of the traditional, as advocated by most of those who administer the madrasas, and modern approaches. Here Moosa highlights the utmost importance madrasa administrators place on the process of embodiment of knowledge through practice as avenue of reaching true piety as the noblest goal of the madrassa curriculum.

In the fourth, final part titled “Madrassas in Global Context” (chapters nine to twelve) discusses the negative and often ill-informed media coverage madrassas in South Asia get by being unintelligently and unfairly conflated with Al-Qaeda, Taliban and their ilk. Moosa considers these views to be “gross distortions” (p.218) of reality. The author also ponders over the future of the madrasas and the career options of their graduates.

In this fourth section one of the most important and unique features of the book, in the mind of this reviewer, is to be found, namely the letters Moosa writes to both policy makers in the west as well as his former madrasa teachers about the future of the madrasas and their potential role as important institutions for intercultural understanding between the two worlds Moosa’s interlocutors represent.

This important book, therefore, grapples with a large number of complex questions that pertain to the very core of the nature and role of Islam and its over millennia old tradition in today’s world. These include, among the most prominent others, the very question of the contested nature of the concept of Islamic tradition and knowledge itself and what it means to be a Muslim, the nature of religious authority at the time of its unprecedented fragmentation, issues pertaining to the nature of Islamic ethics, gender relations, Islam and politics and Islam and (post) modernity in general.

The book also contains helpful summaries of major historical concepts, religious doctrines and teachings of Islam and as such can be used in introductory courses on Islam, especially those which focus on Islamic education.

Consistent with his other writings,Moosa effortlessly combines a deep knowledge of the Islamic tradition with that of equally deep ‘secular western’ tradition to skillfully navigate and guide us through major concepts and topics under discussion.

While Moosa astutely diagnoses the problems and challenges of the educational systems of the madrasas as needing to incorporate contemporary knowledges from a variety of disciplines perhaps one aspect that did not get as much attention as this reviewer considers warranted is the need for madrasas to develop alternative interpretational approaches within the confines of the classical Islamic sciences in order to break away from dogmatic positions that were established many centuries ago and which are making them a source of continued Muslim intellectual stagnation. For example, the emphasis on contextualization of the Qur’an and Sunna beyond the classical disciplines asbabulnazul and/or naskhwamansukh or indeed a reexamination of the very concept of Sunna in traditional Islam.

This reevaluation of the intrinsic and internal hermeneutical mechanisms is, in this reviewer’s mind, the most promising avenue for a meaningful madrasa reform which builds further on the existing strengths of the madrasas’ curriculum but conceptualizing it through a different set of interpretational approaches which are to a large extent, albeit in underdeveloped form, readily available in the traditional sciences.

I highly recommend this book especially to all those who are interested in Islamic education and its reform as well as the question of reform of Muslim thought in general.

Book Details
280 pages
24 b&w illustration(s), 7 figures, 16 illustrations and 1 map


Paperback: 9781474401746
Hardback: 9781474401739
eBook (ePub): 9781474401760
eBook (PDF): 9781474401753

Note on Transliteration
PROLOGUE Inside Madrasas
1. A Novice
2. Wake, Wash, Pray
3. Becoming Scholars
4. Birth of the Contemporary Madrasa
5. Texts and Authors
6. From a Republic of Letters to a Republic of Piety
7. Preserving the Prophet’s Legacy
8. Believe, Learn, Know
9. Talking about Madrasas
10. The Future of Madrasas
11. Letter to Policy Makers
12. Letters to My Teachers


Book Cover - What is a Madrasa