Ebrahim Moosa’s book “What is a Madrasa?”
he talks extensively about his journey with religion, politics and law.

Starting in his early years of life alongside his family in Cape Town, South
Africa and his journey to Mumbai, India in search of religious teachings, to
his older years showing how the Qur’an, and
classical theological, and legal texts are taught. He also clarifies the
history and politics in the madrasa system. He compares different political
scenes in a more contemporary manor and addresses how madrasas embody the
greatest desires and needs of traditional Muslims still to this day. He touches
on a few important topics in this book. Such as, the main challenges that
madrasas face in a 21st century society. For example, whether or not
the changing in curriculum of orthodox studies in an ever growing, greatly changing,
and technologically advancing world is needed to properly equip students of certain madrasa education for the challenges of
modern life. Additionally, he talks about what the major franchises of madrasas
in South Asia are as well as what they teach.

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When on the topic of
religion in society today, it is crucial to reflect on how to resolve the
trends in society’s development with religious beliefs. The importance of education in society cannot be
denied, as an educational structure is an essential component in a socialized
society. But can
religious institutions still play a role in instilling education and morals in
society in the 21st century?
This is a challenge for madrasas that has led to disagreements and debates for decades. Arguments over whether the old madrasa courses
should be retained, improved or blended with a curriculum that consists of
modern specialties. The traditionalist thinker Shibli Nu?mani believed
that the best way to an efficient educational system is by combining the old and
the new. He thought that by reforming both the traditional and modern
educational systems, it would preserve Islamic values and enable Muslims to be
self-sufficient and allow them to flourish in the modern world. Uniting the two
different systems in order to be more effective and allow Muslims to experience
both modern secular and religious education is imperative.1
As long as the five cardinal pillars of Islam are unchanged and enforced, there
could possibly be room for further expansion of learning.

Although some madrasas embrace aspects of modern technology while
others resist cultural modernity in order to follow their own way of life,
Ebrahim Moosa suggested that a progressive, cosmopolitan, and
knowledge-friendly movement within the madrasa-sphere is the best hope in order
to effectively transform and rejuvenate Islamic thought. Whether or not Islamic
orthodoxy can provide substantive religious advocacy in terms of the place of
faith in a world driven by scientific prowess, democratic politics, and runaway
capitalist economics remains to be seen.2

Another challenge that madrasas
face in the 21st century is Western imagery. This is the interpretation
and understanding of madrasas and of Islam in general from western countries. These
sentiments have sparked political and governmental actions from countries all
over the world. Since September 11th, 2001, The United States of
America and many countries in Europe have associated madrasas with words such
as “terrorism,” and “Islamic fundamentalism”.3
This is due to a lack of understanding and a vast misinterpretation of what
Islam really is. While
madrasas such as al-Mukmin,
Lukman al-Hakiem and al-Islam have been vitally important in furthering the
mission of some of the most volatile terrorist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah
in Indonesia and Malaysia, in efforts to attack Americans; most madrasas are peaceful and serve
a constructive role in societies where education is often a privilege rather
than a right. As in Pakistan, where the state has increasingly released mass
education and student welfare to madrasas.4
Due to anti-Muslim propaganda, the word “Madrasa” has
become synonymous with the “Taliban” and “Bin laden”. In 2005 the New York
Times published an op-ed stating,  “While madrassas are an important issue in
education and development in the Muslim world, they are not and should not be
considered a threat to the United States. The tens of millions of dollars spent
every year by the United States through the State Department, the Middle East
Partnership Initiative, and the Agency for International Development to improve
education and literacy in the Middle East and South Asia should be applauded as
the development aid it is and not as the counterterrorism effort it cannot be.”5

The word madrasa is Arabic for any type of
educational institution whether secular or religious. The word derives from the
Semitic root ‘to learn, study’, through the wazn, meaning
“a place where something is done”.6
Therefore it literally means “a place where learning and studying take
place”. Madrasas are a substantially important tool in teaching young people both the knowledge and the practice
of a moral life is the fundamental purpose of the madrasas of South Asia. Just
like any western schooling, the Madrasa has an established curriculum for all
of its students. Although there are a few different groups of madrasas, they
are more or less structured the same. Starting in primary education from the
time they’re around 6 years of age, the students are taught about the Qur’an,
how to speak and write in Arabic, as well as a variety of practical skills. They
then move on to secondary education at the age of 14, where they read literature, practice preaching,
learn about medicine, geometry and any other subject or profession they would be interested in
pursuing for a future career. They also spend this time preparing for
higher education; predominantly law school.

After all the schooling is complete, the hard part is finding a
career. This is because all the years of training have taught them that
knowledge of faith is sacred and taking reimbursement for anything related to
knowledge or faith is not admissible. To serve the faith-tradition in the
sphere of knowledge therefore requires sacrifice. Poverty is the ideal. One
should adopt a lifestyle of frugality, self-effacing modesty, and reliance on
God and shun materialism if one is to become a devout servant of the faith.7
So in that lies the dilemma for virtually every student trying to survive in
life post-madrasa. Many inquire about possibilities to serve Muslim communities
in the West or they prepare for the
possibility of becoming a Faquih (jurists) or a mufti (Muslim legal expert).

Nevertheless, finding a career deems difficult due to the fact that many madrasas decline the opportunity to have their degrees
recognized in the national education system. Even with a higher education, this
makes their graduates unable to pursue advanced studies at secular universities.

1Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa?.

The University of North Carolina Press, 04/2015. Chegg.

2 Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa?.

The University of North Carolina Press, 04/2015. Chegg.

3 Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa?.

The University of North Carolina Press, 04/2015. Chegg.

4 Combating Terrorism Center at
West Point. (2017, November 15). Retrieved January 31, 2018, from

5 Pandey, Peter Bergen and Swati. “The
Madrassa Myth.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 June


(2018). Madrasa. online Available at: Accessed 31 Jan. 2018.

7 Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa?.

The University of North Carolina Press, 04/2015. Chegg.

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