What is a Madrasa? By Professor Ebrahim Moosa: Book Review

In The Name of God, The Most Merciful, The Especially Merciful

What is a Madrasa?

By Professor Ebrahim Moosa

Review by Haroon Ibn Ebrahim Sidat

Given the context of spurious accusations of links to terrorism and the “us versus them” dynamic being played out in the West, this is a rare contribution from an “insider,” as it were, of madrasas in South Asia. Moosa challenges sensationalist stereotypical narratives by providing a nuanced and richly textured account of the place and importance of madrasas in Islam both historically and in the contemporary moment. Madrasas refer to the institutions of higher lslamic learning in South Asia and are equivalent to seminaries, where religious functionaries and experts in Islamic law and theology are trained. Blending with his own life experiences, Moosa lays bare his objective at the outset; the book “is a primer about the role madrasas play in the cultural, intellectual, and religious experiences of Muslims in the present and past”(pg. 8). It is clear, at least in Muslim eyes, madrasas promote the “public good” despite attacks from the West and secular elites in Muslim-majority countries.

Moosa navigates us through his “lived experience” with his time at Darul Uloom Deoband – “the most prominent and prestigious madrasa for those affiliated with the Deobandi interpretation of Sunni Islam” (pg. 21). Beyond the observation of religious rituals and quotidian acts that take place in a madrasa, we are treated to the warmth the pursuit of sacred knowledge brings – all the more familiar to anyone who has made the precarious leap from madrasah to university. Discontent pertaining to the utility of part of the curriculum (known as the Dars-i Nizami) is explored, where critics make the charge of anachronism, a claim that is partly true. His search for somewhere with less of a textual focus leads him to Darul Uloom Nadwatul ‘Ulama where he paints the move as one “from a conservative divinity school to a liberal one” (pg. 27). Moosa remains colourful about his experiences as a student, wanting to “remain a friendly critic” of the madrasa and like many of us, recognises that the madrasa offers enormous value.

Moosa charts the history and the context of the contemporary Madrasa, from its formative years through to the creation of the Nizami curriculum. It is worthwhile mentioning that the early iteration of the curriculum centered on subjects likes philosophy, logic and theology. It is only in the twentieth and twenty first century that the education has shifted to prophetic traditions and Islamic law. Nevertheless, the tradition cultivates a commitment to scholasticism and Moosa takes care to take us through texts, predispositions and idiosyncrasies of certain authors.

The discussion turns to where I feel Moosa is most concerned, where the “efficiency of the Nizami Curriculum is widely debated.” Taking us through five stages of education in the subcontinent (with each phase being distinguished by the addition or subtraction of texts and changes in the focus of curricula design), the madrasa has morphed from being an academic cum religious institution into an exclusively religious institution – a change from a “Republic of Letters” to a “Republic of Piety”. Despite knowledge of the tradition being a highly valued trait, excellence in knowledge is seen as being secondary to moral formation and ethical excellence. The debate expands into the interpretation of knowledge itself: should it be worldly and exoteric? Or should it be reserved to matters related to salvation? There are now those within madrasa circles who challenge the latter dominant interpretation which they argue has led to “intellectual monasticism”. The battle between those who would amend the curriculum and those who favour the status quo is far from resolved. What is required is a robust internal debate about the future of the curriculum and the shape of knowledge that is required in order to produce meaningful Islamic discourses that are compatible with the world Muslims now find themselves in.

There is no doubt that madrasas are the most orthodox representatives of Islam, and their future hinges on how far they are prepared to make a Faustian bargain with modernity and its knowledge system. Written in an exceptionally lucid fashion, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Muslim traditions of knowledge and education. It will also be particularly well suited for undergraduate and graduate seminars on Muslim intellectual thought, education, and Islam in South Asia.

WhatisaMadrassa -HSi

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