University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Ebrahim Moosa

Madrasas have been much in the news in the past six months in both Pakistan and India. While hardly any credible madrasas engage in training suicide bombers, reports indicate that both the Jaish-e Mohammad and the Lashkar-e Tayyiba, two terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan, have now established their own network of madrasas, a number totaling between 30-40 such units. It is unclear why they are allowed to operate in Pakistan and use students in these schools as cannon fodder for their nefarious purposes. There has been a deafening silence on the part of representatives of the mainstream madrasa community in Pakistan to condemn these “bad” madrasas which pollute the reputation and image of all madrasas whose sole purpose is theological education.

Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, in a long interview with the New York Times published on April 9, 2019, spoke about the need to deradicalize certain groups. Promising to be more than cosmetic in his reforms, he said his government planned to send 200,000 teachers to religious schools across the country to teach secular subjects like English and math. The intention, Mr. Khan’s aides said, was to deradicalize students.

In India, Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi announced in July 2019 that the ruling Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) government was seeking ways to create pathways for bringing the madrasas into the larger educational system. A series of initiatives with Indian universities are currently under exploration to see how they could become stakeholders in such initiatives.

On the surface, the moves afoot in Pakistan and India with respect to madrasas appear to be positive steps, but these are superficial and perhaps ineffective ways of helping these institutions that are crucial to Muslim religious life in both countries.

Indian and Pakistani government policymakers believe that turning madrasas into high schools is an effective solution. They believe a smattering of math, science, and English, together with good doses of religious education, will solve the phantom “security’ problems that madrasas pose. Informed and serious-minded madrasa leaders understand that the question is not about the lack of math and science, which they admit are needed. The more important challenge is to provide an effective theological education that will equip graduates to address the larger social and moral problems of Muslim communities in both countries. Most informed actors admit that the current madrasa leadership and educational models are unable to offer an effective theological education and often their teachings are out of step with the complex social realities facing both countries.

Even if a large swath of madrasas were to be absorbed and transformed into high schools that equip students with adequate levels of modern literacy, the problem remains: who is going to train the next generation of Muslim theologians? At the moment neither Pakistan nor India’s universities are equipped to provide advanced levels of theological training for people interested in focusing on theology and religious service as a vocation. Some universities do provide opportunities for graduate studies in theology, but these are not professional schools of theology. In the absence of serious resources dedicated to educating future generations of theologians, less qualified actors will fill that vacuum and become spokespersons for religion and theology in societies that are highly volatile when it comes to religious and theological debates.

Advocates for curricular improvement in madrasa education have been toying with the idea for the past century, but no one has been successful in belling the cat, so to speak. Our modest contribution in the Madrasa Discourses (MD) project is to develop a robust and comprehensive curriculum drawing on Islamic philosophy, theology, the humanities, and access to skills in modern languages such as English. Participants are equipped to deepen their knowledge and skills in complex doctrines of theology, allowing them to study and compare different traditions and Muslim sects, as well as a multitude of philosophical, religious and cultural orientations in the modern world.

Our logic is the following: an understanding of science provides us with a complex picture of the world, nature, human nature, cosmology, and how our knowledge of the world changes over time. The challenge to MD participants is to find the resources to make sense of this emerging world in terms of their own theology. A historical approach enables participants to make their truth claims relevant to the world they experience and deepens their commitments in a sophisticated and humanizing manner. This approach has been much lauded in the transformative experiences narrated by participants themselves.

Our approach differs from other programs in two specific features. First, we address the needs of madrasa communities; we do not prescribe to them what they ought to study as many government initiatives and international projects attempt to do. Our programmatic option stems from an invitation from people associated with the madrasa communities who are linked to clerical (ʿulama) bodies.

Second, we draw upon resources that are intimately connected to a community’s traditions. Many of the materials participants study in our project, including traditional and modern Arabic, Persian, and Urdu works in philosophy, law, theology, and literature, are sources of genuine intellectual capital for understanding how Muslims understood themselves and others in the past and for learning potential lessons for today.

Ebrahim Moosa is Professor of Islamic Studies and the Primary Investigator for the Madrasa Discourses project at the University of Notre Dame.