Understanding the role of Islamic seminaries (madrasahs)

27th Nov 2015
Understanding the role of Islamic seminaries (madrasahs)

What is a Madrasa? By Ebrahim Moosa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Pp. 290. 2015. PB. £19.99.

The author is currently Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, US, and linked to the Keough School of Global Affairs. He has authored/edited several publications including the acclaimed Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (2005). The author is well qualified to write a book on the subject of madrasah because, unlike most Muslim and non-Muslim academics, he studied for six years at two of the leading madrasahs (Islamic seminaries) of India, namely Dar al-Uloom Deoband and Dar al-Uloom Nadwat ul-Ulama before pursuing academic study of Islam at universities in his native South Africa and elsewhere.

What motivated the author to write this book? In his own words, ‘When opinions about Islam and Muslims washed up in every conceivable media and public conversation after September 11, I felt assaulted from at least two sides. First, the terrorists assaulted me. They murdered 3,000 innocent fellow citizens in New York, Washington, D.C., and the plains of Pennsylvania in the name of my faith.

Several dozen innocent Muslims were among those who died in New York….Second, a barrage of undisguised Islam-hating media assaults systematically violated and dehumanized me, and millions of other fellow believers, in a reckless, prolonged campaign of guilt by association that has, amazingly, not run its course….Yet one area that most people in the West and in the East do not fully grasp is this: September 11 catapulted the term “madrasa” into media currency but without coming to terms with the reality of this important institution.’ (p7)

In this book, the author not only seeks to explain the meaning and function of the traditional madrasahs, but also explores their role in the complex global geo-political context of our times, in addition to critically engaging with some of the leading personnel currently linked with those institutions. The book is both autobiographical as well as an academic study of the topic as, in part one, the author explains his own journey in madrasahs in India during the 1970s.

It is a fascinating account of a life in traditional seminaries, something that resonated powerfully with my own experience of life in a British seminary in the 1990s, one that was dominated by strict routine, rote learning and total assimilation, perhaps not too dissimilar to the traditional Jewish and Christian seminaries.

In part two of the book, the author explores the history and contexts of the Indian madrasahs focusing particularly on his alma maters. The chapter on ‘texts and authors’ is particularly useful but not exhaustive. However, his focus on Indian and, to some extent, on Pakistani madrasahs has duly narrowed his remit and consequently the coverage is not as representative as one would have liked. Comparing and contrasting the Indian madrasah system, not that they are monolithic, with those in Malaysia or Turkey or even Iran, would have shed new light on the traditional institutions of Islamic learning beyond the subcontinent.

However, the strengthen of the book lies in the fact that the author constantly emphasizes that the madrasah system, if we can call it a system at all, was always diverse and certainly the subcontinental ones are characterised by their theological divisions of Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl al-Hadith and Shi’a, among others. Lumping them all together, as if they were monolithic, with no understanding of their origin, background and contribution is nothing but ignorance and folly.

The other question that the author consistently asks throughout the book is whether the existing madrasahs, both in the subcontinent and elsewhere, are fit for purpose (see part three of the book in particular). He states, ‘The study of classical texts was once the pride of an intellectually robust madrasa tradition. Today, the relevance of these texts have come under intense scrutiny, both from within madrasa communities and from those outside them….Few will challenge the claim that the madrasa succeeded in producing an antique form of normativity, what we would otherwise call an Islamic orthodoxy. Some sections of the madrasa community are themselves agnostic as to whether the educational model they offer will be sufficient for a renewed and revitalized normative tradition that claims to be authentic and orthodox and yet relevant to the world.’ (pp140-1)

Indeed, the debate between the traditionalists and reformists within the world of madrasah is far from settled, with the former seeking to change and amend the curriculum to make them more relevant, while the latter (a small minority at that) do acknowledge that there is ‘an epistemological crisis in Muslim religious knowledge’ and as such the reform has to go beyond merely tweaking and tinkering with the existing methods of learning and teaching. Others have argued that there is a need for a parallel system that combines secular education with religious learning, although yet others have questioned the viability of such an approach.

Whilst the protagonists of different viewpoints are busy discussing and debating the future of the madrasah in many parts of the Muslim world, not least the subcontinent, in the final part of the book, the author analyses how the madrasah has come to be viewed and portrayed by commentators both in the media and academia as being malevolent institutions. He argues the combination of the ‘War on Terror’ and widespread ignorance, and prejudice have overshadowed the coverage of the role of the madrasahs in traditional Muslim societies like India, Pakistan and elsewhere. This part of the book ends with the author’s letters addressed to his former teachers and many world leaders, hoping to raise awareness and improve understanding of the madrasah system of education, in Muslim countries as well as the Western world. His call for understanding and co-operation needs to be heeded, sooner the better!

This is a very informative, rare, much-needed and beautifully written book, but it could have been edited better. There are inconsistencies and errors in spelling and transliteration (eg, Shaykh ul-Hind Mahmud ul-Hasan is wrongly written as Mahmud Hasan, and on page 199 his name is written in two different ways, as is done with Husayn Ahmad Madani, etc). Even so, the author deserves much credit for his efforts; highly recommended reading for students, scholars, journalists, diplomats and policy-makers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Muhammad Khan, is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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