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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What is a madrasa?

The term madrasa means “a place where learning or studying occurs.” Historically, madrasas were institutions of higher learning, similar to the universities that began as institutions of the Church in the Western world. While in some countries madrasa refers to both religious and secular schools, today the term is most often used to describe Islamic schools, including major Islamic universities and seminaries as well as primary and secondary Islamic schools such as Indonesia's pesantrens, residential schools long noted for their espousal of “moderate Islam,” which make up 20 to 25 percent of Indonesia's educational system.

Defining madrasas became a contentious issue after 9/11 and during the 2008 presidential campaigns. In the Western media some political leaders and commentators have equated madrasas with terrorist training grounds indoctrinating young militants with a “jihadist” and anti-American worldview. Barack Obama's opponents made use of this association with radicalism when they repeatedly referred to an Indonesian primary school that Obama had attended as a “madrasa.”

Despite the radicalization of some madrasas in recent years, they have a long history in the Muslim world as mainstream educational institutions. The New York Times published a correction after equating the word madrasa with a radical Islamic school: “An article … that said Senator Barack Obama had attended an Islamic school or madrassa in Indonesia as a child referred imprecisely to madrassas. While some teach a radical version of Islam, most historically have not.”

Historically, the core curriculum of madrasas included the study of Arabic language and syntax, the Quran, Quranic interpretation (tafsir), hadith (tradition), and Muslim history. With the advent of European colonialism and the introduction of Western curricula, many madrasas across the Muslim world began to change, often combining religious and secular education. This trend continued post-independence (after World War II), when the introduction of modern Western-influenced educational reforms resulted in a split between secular and religious schools. These networks of more secular schools and universities eroded the traditional authority of the ulama (religious scholars) and their dominant role in education and law. In most Muslim countries, modern secular educational systems were privileged over traditional religious schools, whose diplomas came to have a more limited value in society. State-controlled education further reduced the ulama-madrasa system as ministries of religious affairs took control of many religious institutions and social welfare programs (influencing appointments, salaries of teachers and preachers, and in some countries the content of sermons).

Madrasas came to be associated with religious extremism and terrorism after the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1990s and especially after the 9/11 attacks and the rise of the Taliban, who were students or graduates of madrasas. The role of certain madrasas in producing the Taliban and the growth of militant madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, often supported by wealthy businessmen and Saudi- or Gulf-sponsored organizations, sparked deep concerns about so-called jihadi madrasas with their extremist brand of Islam and its “jihadi” culture. As a result, all madrasas rather than a radical minority, especially in Pakistan, were indiscriminately associated with militancy. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization reported this bias in American newspaper coverage of Pakistan: “When articles mentioned ‘madrassas,’ readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination.”

Madrasas remain an important educational institution in many, though not all, Muslim countries. Most are not radicalized. While in some countries they provide an excellent education in both religious and nonreligious subjects, in many more they are in need of substantial reform in their Islamic and non-Islamic curriculum.

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