Understanding the role of Islamic seminaries (madrasahs) – Reviewed in The Muslim News

What is a Madrasa? By Ebrahim Moosa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Pp. 290. 2015. PB. £19.99. Reviewed by Muhammad Mojlum Khan.

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.

Source: Understanding the role of Islamic seminaries (madrasahs) – The Muslim NewsThe Muslim News

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

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Responding to the Paris attacks


Important Voice and Opinion

Originally posted on David Cortright:

French military strikes in Syria are an understandable reaction to the killings in Paris, but they will not diminish the threat from ISIS and could make it worse.

As Andrew Bacevich reminds us, the United States and its partners have been waging war against terrorism for decades, killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, but the extremist threat continues to grow, aroused in part by our attacks. Military strikes from the West are exactly what the militants want, providing fodder for recruitment and justifying what is otherwise unjustifiable. Will we fall into that trap again?

Air strikes cannot defeat terrorism, and a ground invasion of Syria or Iraq would be unacceptable politically and unsustainable militarily. A more realistic and effective response is needed to counter the growing ISIS threat.

Instead of pursuing the illusion of military solutions, France should join with the United States and…

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Op Ed: A Community is Judged by It’s Conduct says al-Kasani

Please read my op-ed in today’s Orlando Sentinel. Comments on my WordPress page are welcome.

ʿAlā al-Dīn Abū Bakr al-Kāsānī (d. 1189) in what might be a throw away line in his Badāʾiʿ al-Ṣanāʾiʿ fī Tartīb al-Sharaʾiʿ, The Immaculate Calling in Ordering Normative Traditions really startled me. He wrote: المذاهب تمتحن بعبادها/ al-madhāhib tumtaḥanu bi ʿibādihā vol 3:466, Kitāb al-Nikāḥ. I translate this as: schools of thought or moral orders are tested by the their followers. Kāsānī’s editor writes, bi fasād ʿibādihā, by the corruption of its followers. I thought this man’s insights required commentary and he shares a common sense sensibility over time. So I started my op ed by channeling the insight of Kāsānī.

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Tribute to Professor Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015)

s200_shahab.ahmedEver since I heard of Shahab Ahmed’s illness, a few weeks ago, to say I was terribly unsettled, would not be an exaggeration. A particular malignant form of leukemia overwhelmed his body. I was praying for a miracle, but the hour finally came.
وَلَنْ يُؤَخِّرَ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِذَا جَاءَ أَجَلُهَا ۚ

His passing is surreal and still painful to comprehend, but then some things are beyond our control. And with pious resignation, we say innaa lillaahi….

I did not know Shahab as well as many other people knew him. Many others knew him better. I met him through a friend, Shamil Jeppie who studied with him at Princeton. But we bumped into each other occasionally. I can recall clearly now, we once met briefly at a Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Francisco in the late 1990’s, then in Marrakesh somewhere around 2006, thanks to an invitation from Kambiz GhaneaBassiri of Reed College, where Shahab and I walked endlessly in the old city, talking about ideas and he shared with me the larger project of his Satanic Verses book. If, I recall correctly, he had something to say about how the hadithi-fiqhi movement did the work of consensus building and in defining what Islam is, just as the various early councils decided the nature and meaning of Christianity. Again, when he visited the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle area, when I was still teaching at Duke, we spent some time talking about scholarship. I encouraged him to get his book published, since from what he told me, he had more than enough material for several books. But Shahab, by the look on his face, that pensive smile mixed with irony, let me know by way of his body language that he was not ready to let his work go yet.

He sent me a kind email last year, February 1, 2014 after I posted something on the Islam list of the American Academy of Religion: “Dear Ebrahim,I hope this finds you well. Long time no see! I am very glad that this thread has provided you with a reason to post these articles of yours, in which I am much interested, and of which I was not aware. With all good wishes,

Now there is silence, but his words will resonate, as will his brilliant thoughts, in the forthcoming work, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015, and we also expect another book of his to be published, Before Islamic Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in the Thought of the Earliest Muslim Community (ca. 632-800), Cambridge: Harvard University Press (forthcoming, 2016). At the end of the day, Shahab did it his way. And, in hindsight, he did indeed have the last word.

In her message announcing his death, his wife Nora Lessersohn, wrote that “Shahab always loved this quote, which he has put at the start of the Conclusion of his forthcoming book.”

“What account of my deeds, to anyone, could I give?

All the questions were wrong; what answers could I give?”

—Munīr Niyāzī (1928–2006)

Imprinted in my mind is his animated telling and enthusiasm during our walk in Marrakesh: “Ebrahim, I want to get back to literature. There is a lot there.”

So I mourn him with a selection of literature.

From al-Mutanabbi:

إذا رَأيْتَ نُيُوبَ اللّيْثِ بارِزَةً فَلا تَظُنّنّ أنّ اللّيْثَ يَبْتَسِمُ

وَمُهْجَةٍ مُهْجَتي من هَمّ صَاحِبها أدرَكْتُهَا بجَوَادٍ ظَهْرُه حَرَمُ

رِجلاهُ في الرّكضِ رِجلٌ وَاليدانِ يَدٌ وَفِعْلُهُ مَا تُريدُ الكَفُّ وَالقَدَمُ

وَمُرْهَفٍ سرْتُ بينَ الجَحْفَلَينِ بهِ حتى ضرَبْتُ وَمَوْجُ المَوْتِ يَلْتَطِمُ

الخَيْلُ وَاللّيْلُ وَالبَيْداءُ تَعرِفُني وَالسّيفُ وَالرّمحُ والقرْطاسُ وَالقَلَمُ

“When the lion bares his teeth, do not / fancy that the lion shows to you a smile.
I have slain the man that sought my heart’s blood many a time. / Riding a noble mare whose back none else may climb,
Whose hind and fore-legs seem in galloping as one / Nor hand nor foot requireth she to urge her on.
And oh the days when I have swung my fine-edged glaive / Amidst a sea of death where wave was dashed on wave!
The desert knows me well, the night, the mounted men, / The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen”
(A YouTube rendition of this poem might appeal to some:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C68vc8plVI )

And from Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus: First Series

“Is he one of us? No,
his wide nature grew out of both realms.
Whoever’s known the roots of the willow
is better trained to bend to the willow’s limbs…..

…But under the mildness of the eyelid
let him, the magician, let him mingle

their look with all that can be seen;
and let the spell of earthsmoke and of rue
be as true to him as the clearest chord.

Nothing can ruin the genuine sign
for him; whether from graves or rooms,
let him praise the clasp, the ring, the gourd.”

Farewell, Shahab, farewell friend…

From your long-distance friend,

Obituaries to Shahab Ahmed can be found here:



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My Op Ed Piece in the Washington Post: My madrassa classmate hated politics. Then joined the Islamic State.

My madrassa classmate hated politics. Then joined the Islamic State.

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My interview with Diffused Congruence: The American Muslim Experience

Diffused Congruence: The American Muslim Experience.

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Review of What is a Madrasa? by Prof Aslam Fataar Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition), 24 May 2015.

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)
24 May 2015

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Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition), 23 May 2015. Page17

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)
23 May 2015

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Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition), 23 May 2015. Page17

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)
23 May 2015

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What is a Madrasa? is published…invitation to read and offer comments here…

My new book What is a Madrasa? is published.  I invite everyone to read it and I will be happy to pursue a conversation about my book with you on this blog space. Please feel free to comment. Books can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble stores.

What Is a Madrasa Cover Image

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