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What is a Madrasa?

Ebrahim Moosa

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Explains the role of the madrasa in the cultural, intellectual and religious experience of Muslims

The prospects for peace in Afghanistan, dialogue between Washington and Tehran, the UN’s bid to stabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan, understanding the largest Muslim minority in the world’s largest democracy in India, or the largest Muslim population in the world in Indonesia – all require some knowledge of the traditional religious sectors in these countries and of what connection traditional religious schooling has (or not) to their geopolitical situations.

Moosa delves into the world of madrasa classrooms, scholars and texts, recounting the daily life and discipline of the inhabitants. He shows that madrasa are a living, changing entity, and the site of contestation between groups with varying agendas, goals and notions of modernity.

Reading this unique and engaging introduction will provide readers with a clear grasp of the history, place and function of the madrasa in today’s Muslim world (religious, cultural and political). It will also investigate the ambiguity underlying the charge that the madrasa is at heart a geopolitical institution.

Key Features:

  • Structured clearly around the role and function of the madrasa in the past and the present
  • Infuses history, tradition and everyday practice with concrete examples of how the institutions function
  • Provides a view of the madrasa from within – the author studied in leading Indian madrasas for 6 years
  • Treats madrasas worldwide, with a special focus on those in South Asia
  • Includes a glossary of key non-English terms used in the book


Note on Transliteration
PROLOGUE Inside Madrasas
1. A Novice
2. Wake, Wash, Pray
3. Becoming Scholars
4. Birth of the Contemporary Madrasa
5. Texts and Authors
6. From a Republic of Letters to a Republic of Piety
7. Preserving the Prophet’s Legacy
8. Believe, Learn, Know
9. Talking about Madrasas
10. The Future of Madrasas
11. Letter to Policy Makers
12. Letters to My Teachers

About the Author

Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, with appointments in the department of history and the Kroc Institute for International Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs. The author of the prize-winning Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination (2005), he was named a 2005 Carnegie Scholar.


‘A work of great effort and detailed scholarship, this book is a fine introduction to contemporary madrasa education.’

- Roshan Shah ,
'A useful introduction to madrasas in India and Pakistan and contributes a South Asian perspective to the rich scholarship on Islamic education.'
- Maryam Kashani, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
'A moving and complex portrait of Muslim schools. . . Wide ranging and eminently readable.'
- Choice
'Riveting...A nuanced and richly textured account of the place and importance of Madrasas in Islam both historically and in the contemporary moment.'
- New Books in Islamic Studies

'Consistent with Moosa’s other writings, this book effortlessly combines a deep knowledge of the Islamic tradition and the secular Western tradition to skilfully navigate the topics discussed. It also contains helpful summaries of major historical ideas, religious doctrines and teachings of Islam and so can be used in introductory courses on Islam, especially those that focus on Islamic education. I highly recommend this book to both lay readers interested in the role of Islam in contemporary world affairs and students of contemporary Islam at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.'

- Adis Duderija, University of Malaya, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
'A captivating journey…Brilliantly elucidates the madrasa curriculum.'
- Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World
'The author offers and engaging analysis and assessment of one of the most important Islamic institutions: the madrasa in the sub-continent. His book is an excellent, timely and important tool, especially for the West, for understanding what a madrasa is. It will definitely help to remove misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims.'
- Muhammad Yaseen Gada, Aligarh Muslim University, The Muslim World Book Review, 37.4, 2017