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What is a Madrasa?
By Ebrahim Moosa
Dev Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi
290 Pages, Price: 650

This book is a useful primer about the multiple roles that madrasas play in the cultural, intellectual and religious experiences of Muslims, past and present.

Reviewed by Roshan Shah

The word madrasa means ‘school’ in Arabic, but in South Asia and among the South Asian Muslim diaspora, it refers to an Islamic seminary. Much has been published about madrasas in recent years. This book is different from many others on the subject in that it provides an insider’s account of madrasa education. South African-born Moosa came to India in 1975 and spent some six years studying in some of the most widely-known madrasas in the country, including the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband and the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow. Presently, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, (USA) Moosa brings together his personal experiences as a madrasa student, insights gained through recent visits to madrasas in various parts of South Asia and interviews with leading madrasa authorities to provide an engaging portrayal of contemporary madrasa education.
Behind the Walls of the Madrasas
This book is a useful primer about the multiple roles that madrasas play in the cultural, intellectual and religious experiences of Muslims, past and present. It focuses on madrasas in South Asia, particularly Sunni madrasas, especially those linked to the Deoband tradition (which represents, the author says, the largest and fastest-growing madrasa network). Moosa takes us behind the walls of the madrasas and into their classrooms, portraying the daily life of the students in these institutions. He introduces us to texts studied by madrasa students, and tells us about relations between teachers and students, while also giving us a feel of the history of madrasa communities and their contemporary functions in supporting Muslim societies.

Inculcation of Piety
Ideally, Moosa says, daily activities in the madrasa””including prayers, classes, discussions and recreation””are ‘all viewed as part of a seamless pursuit of worship and the inculcation of piety’. The student’s goal is ‘to cultivate sincerity and satisfy God’. Underlying the philosophy of madrasa education is the cultivation of qualities of the heart. Knowledge is prized as a means for spiritual transformation and as an antidote to sin. Yet, madrasa students also have to function in the world and, once they graduate, they need to search for jobs for sustenance. Moosa notes in this regard that ‘The debate over whether knowledge has two roles, both for worldly flourishing and after worldly salvation, remains unresolved in madrasa circles.’
On the other hand, Moosa tells us, in the Muslim past, this-worldly learning, too, enjoyed great prestige. (This is evidenced from the many great Muslim scientists and men of letters down through history and from the fact that many of what are today termed ‘secular’ subjects were also once taught in several madrasas). Moosa hopes that contemporary madrasas would revive this lost tradition of a more holistic understanding of knowledge, while noting that efforts for over a century to synthesize traditional and modern knowledge in South Asian madrasas ‘have been largely stillborn.’
‘Experiments to integrate multiple knowledge traditions in order to enhance the study of religious discourses,’ he opines, ‘have been shockingly incompetent with little to show in tangible outcomes.’ In this regard, he says, ‘The best that some madrasas have done was to incorporate elements of high school subjects ranging from English to computer literacy, geography and history into the lower elementary levels of madrasa curricula.’

Lived Realities of the Present
Relevant religious guidance for Muslims, Moosa indicates, requires Islamic scholars to have knowledge of both the scriptural tradition as well as contemporary contextual and social realities. This, he suggests, necessitates a considerable reform of the present madrasa curriculum, which pays scant attention, if at all, to the latter aspect. ‘Little effort is invested in enabling the madrasas to fully and intelligibly engage with the lived realities of the present’, he explains. In this regard, he stresses the need for Islamic scholars to understand that the contemporary context requires ‘a different literacy’, including knowledge of the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences, in order to produce a competent theologian and for an ‘enlightened Muslim orthodoxy’.
Repositories of Classical Learning
As someone who is closely familiar with both madrasa education in South Asia as well as contemporary Western education, Moosa is perhaps in a rare position to provide a balanced assessment of the state of madrasa education today. Describing himself as ‘a friendly critic of madrasa education’, he points to what he says is ‘its inability to provide the big picture of Islamic ideas’ and its ‘failure to effect the intellectual transformation of contemporary Muslim societies, especially in the sphere of religious thought.’ Yet, he says, madrasas can offer something of great value if suitably upgraded. ‘Properly harnessed,” he explains, ‘they are repositories of classical learning and seeds for intellectual sophistication that might challenge the shallow discourses of fundamentalism and revivalism that too often passes as Islam today.’ In this regard, he calls for ‘pluralizing knowledge and constructively exposing Muslim religious thought to newer methods of inquiry such as critical readings of history, sociology, theological anthropology, philology, and hermeneutics using a variety of intellectual resources and tools.’
Underlining this appeal for suitable reform of the madrasa curriculum, Moosa writes
“The absence of a credible orthodox tradition opens the door for rank scripturalism and toxic versions of do-it-yourself Islam that jettison tradition in order to make self-serving instruments out of the tenets of faith and the teachings of scripture. Contemporary Muslim societies are exposed to dangerous distortions of faith and are paying a very high price. Constructive engagement with tradition in the madrasas holds out the promise for constructive religious thought and the opportunity to meaningfully serve humanity in the ways of faith and tradition.”
Moosa insists that the time for madrasas to undertake major reforms is now. He stresses:
“South Asia’s madrasa tradition presents potential opportunities for a serious renewal of religious scholarship if such a moment is seized. For, if serious reforms are not implemented, then I fear the negative features of the current madrasa system will at some point in the future reach a breaking point and in the process undermine a great tradition.”
A work of great effort and detailed scholarship, this book is a fine introduction to contemporary madrasa education. It might serve an even more useful purpose if it could be summarised and rendered into Urdu and other languages with which South Asian madrasa scholars are familiar so that Moosa’s plea for wide-ranging madrasa reforms might have a better chance of being put into action.