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What Is a Madrasa?

What Is a Madrasa?

Ebrahim Moosa
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    What Is a Madrasa?
    Book Description:

    Taking us inside the world of the madrasa--the most common type of school for religious instruction in the Islamic world--Ebrahim Moosa provides an indispensable resource for anyone seeking to understand orthodox Islam in global affairs. Focusing on postsecondary-level religious institutions in the Indo-Pakistan heartlands, Moosa explains how a madrasa can simultaneously be a place of learning revered by many and an institution feared by many others, especially in a post-9/11 world.Drawing on his own years as a madrasa student in India, Moosa describes in fascinating detail the daily routine for teachers and students today. He shows how classical theological, legal, and Qur'anic texts are taught, and he illuminates the history of ideas and politics behind the madrasa system. Addressing the contemporary political scene in a clear-eyed manner, Moosa introduces us to madrasa leaders who hold diverse and conflicting perspectives on the place of religion in society. Some admit that they face intractable problems and challenges, including militancy; others, Moosa says, hide their heads in the sand and fail to address the crucial issues of the day. Offering practical suggestions to both madrasa leaders and U.S. policymakers for reform and understanding, Moosa demonstrates how madrasas today still embody the highest aspirations and deeply felt needs of traditional Muslims.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-2333-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE Inside Madrasas
    (pp. 1-12)

    One spring morning a few years ago, I walked through the town of Deoband, home to India’s most famous Sunni Muslim seminary. A clean-shaven man, his face glowing with sarcasm, called out to me. “Looking for terrorists?” he asked in Urdu. Swiftly and instinctively I protested and yelled back at him, “I have every right to visit my alma mater.” With a sheepish, almost theatrical grin, he turned and walked away.

    I shouldn’t have been so annoyed. The century-old seminary in Deoband came under intense scrutiny after the Taliban leadership claimed an ideological affiliation with similar institutions in Pakistan and...


    • CHAPTER ONE A Novice
      (pp. 15-30)

      Mumbai, still known as Bombay in 1975, was a bewildering city for an eighteen-year-old young adult from Cape Town, South Africa. Nothing prepared me for the intimidating throng of beggars and street urchins outside the airport, the countless people sleeping on sidewalks, and the city’s heavy monsoon air and strong odors. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the full impact of the “state of emergency” that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had imposed to silence her critics, but I knew that fear surrounded me: people whispered about danger and secret arrests. But there was a bigger fear that engulfed me....

    • CHAPTER TWO Wake, Wash, Pray
      (pp. 31-46)

      Wednesday, April 23, 1975: “The start of our four months in India. We slept after reading tworakʿas[formal Muslim prayers]. Afterfajr[predawn prayers] andishraq[optional after-sunrise prayers] we slept again. This was at Khar mosque in Bandra, Bombay.”

      So reads the first entry I made in the diary I kept periodically during my six-year journey in India’s madrasas when I was barely eighteen. At the time, this new routine of a prayer-filled life felt very strange, but I was comforted by the thought that I was part of the Tablighi Jamaʿat for only four months. Little did...

    • CHAPTER THREE Becoming Scholars
      (pp. 47-74)

      In January of 2011, there was an international media buzz about Darul Uloom Deoband in North India, the first campus of the Deoband movement, which was established in 1867. The buzz arose because Mawlana Ghulam Vastanvi was appointed vice-chancellor (or president) of this influential flagship campus of the Deoband school. Vastanvi’s appointment was a bold move on the part of Deoband’s leadership. In his previous job, Vastanvi had managed several madrasas in the Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. There he successfully combined madrasa education with secular education up to the college level. Perhaps, some thought, he could bring his...


    • CHAPTER FOUR Birth of the Contemporary Madrasa
      (pp. 77-107)

      “Whoever resides in India and ties the sacramental robes of learning will inevitably head for the Farangi Mahall,” the noted scholar and historian Shibli Nuʿmani writes romantically after a visit to the great North Indian city of Lucknow in 1896. “When I paid a visit to the shrine of Mulla Nizamuddin and saw his modest upper story institution, to my utter surprise,” he exclaims prayerfully, “I saw—God is greater than everything,allahu akbar, that this is India’s own Cambridge [University]!”¹

      Nuʿmani exalts the accomplishments of one stellar family franchise known as the madrasa at Farangi Mahall, “The European’s Mansion,”...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Texts and Authors
      (pp. 108-121)

      In the course of one day, a student would read a grammar text authored by an Egyptian author of the seventeenth century, a logic text written by an Indian author in the eighteenth century, and a book on prophetic traditions prepared by a central Asian scholar in the ninth century. Indeed, the madrasa tradition cultivates a commitment to scholasticism. The madrasa reveres tradition by preserving the knowledge of prominent scholars and celebrating their intellectual labors from all parts of the Muslim world in the form of texts and scholarship.

      Authors from distant lands and bygone eras are networked into the...

    • CHAPTER SIX From a Republic of Letters to a Republic of Piety
      (pp. 122-142)

      The eighteenth-century scholar Mulla Nizamuddin did far more than just provide a curriculum to train Muslim scholars in colonial India. He reinvigorated a learned community, and his efforts birthed, for modern India, a new iteration of what I call a Muslim Republic of Letters.

      Nizamuddin’s curriculum—stitched together as it was by nets of texts, by networks of teachers and students, by written commentaries and glosses on texts, by the exchange of letters, and above all by the circulation of the juridicalresponsaknown as fatwas within discrete legal and theological schools formed a community of learning that served as...


    • CHAPTER SEVEN Preserving the Prophet’s Legacy
      (pp. 145-175)

      Mufti Muhammad Taqi ʿUsmani is a distinguished traditional Pakistani scholar affiliated to the Deoband school in Pakistan. Like his equally renowned father, Mufti Muhammad Shafiʿ, Taqi ʿUsmani is a mufti, an expert authorized to issue scholarly opinions (fatwas) on matters related to Islamic legal and ethical teachings. For some years he served as a judge on Pakistan’s Shariat Appeal Court. Nowadays he serves on several influential advisory boards of internationally renowned Islamic banking and finance institutions. His innovative views on Islamic banking and more sober views on politics have earned him some notoriety among sections of Pakistan’s clergy. Many have...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Believe, Learn, Know
      (pp. 176-204)

      “Come in; sit down. It has been a long time.” Mawlana ʿAbdul Khaliq Madrasi welcomes me with a broad smile after I briefly introduce myself and jog his memory with names of my cohort.¹ I came unannounced to Deoband, where he is now a deputy vice-chancellor at the world-renowned seminary. He squints his eyes while scrutinizing me, trying to recall our connection decades ago. He has aged well and has not lost any of his good looks and charm that were characteristic three decades ago. I find Mawlana Madrasi nursing a water pipe in his spacious campus room, where several...


    • CHAPTER NINE Talking about Madrasas
      (pp. 207-218)

      In the twenty-first century Western imaginary, countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, and perhaps most Muslim majority countries, are viewed as the iconic symbols of Muslim otherness. As a people, according to this imaginary that is sustained by some sectors of scholarship and the media, Muslims are purported to lack both comparative and critical value because they adhere to a faith called Islam. And the term “madrasa” epitomizes only one aspect of an iconography of Muslim weirdness.

      In Euro-America’s war against the Taliban, madrasas—long-standing Muslim religious institutions with ancient pedigrees—have been turned into scapegoats by Western governments...

    • CHAPTER TEN The Future of Madrasas
      (pp. 219-232)

      In a meditation titled “Education: Old and New,” comparing madrasa education with modern education, the literary-minded genius and proinnovation traditionalist thinker Shibli Nuʿmani (d. 1914) poses the following questions. “Are one of these two systems superfluous?” “Are these mutually contradictory educational systems?” he asks.¹

      Nuʿmani’s questions might sound redundant, but almost a century later they remain contentious. The content of madrasa education is the hinge-question today. The topic is riven with deep divisions and risks for stakeholders. Perhaps the future of South Asia’s madrasas depends on a resolution of this pressing problem. Or, if one is skeptical, then paradoxically the...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Letter to Policy Makers
      (pp. 233-240)

      Often policy makers execute decisions based on media impressions or faulty intelligence reports. If I were to explain the role of the madrasas in Muslim religious life and advise the president of the United States and members of the U.S. Congress or any government around the world, I would send them a copy of my book,What Is a Madrasa?, along with the following letter.

      Dear Mr. President of the United States and Members of the United States Congress:

      Imagine a major attack on U.S. forces in South Asia, or God forbid, a terrorist attack on the United States mainland...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Letters to My Teachers
      (pp. 241-249)

      Almost four decades ago, I landed on the shores of India, a wonder-struck youth from South Africa in search of the truths of Islam. I stubbornly shunned South African universities offering Islamic studies. I decried them as inauthentic, a view I would come to reconsider years later. My own life experience about the arrogance and self-righteousness of youth has taught me to eat my words and revise my positions. At the time, I searched for Islamic authenticity and enrolled at madrasas in India. Over a period of six years I completed myʿalimiyyaeducation.

      The world was a very different...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 250-254)

    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. In writing this book I have been vaulting between two tensions within me. I vacillate between the impulses of a romantic humanist and that of a pragmatic realist. I suspect many, like me, are caught in this bind. One part of me continuously...

  10. Glossary
    (pp. 255-258)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 259-268)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-276)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 277-278)
  14. Index
    (pp. 279-290)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-292)