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Inside the Madrasas

It is now becoming very clear, however, that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center, and the London Underground. Indeed, a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between ma-drasa graduates—who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication—and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds. Neither bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrasa or was a qualified alim, or cleric.

The men who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks have often been depicted in the press as being “medieval fanatics.” In fact it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle-class professionals. Mohamed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s chief of staff, was a pediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel puts it, the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as “the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley, which al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization.”3

This is also the conclusion drawn by the most sophisticated analysis of global jihadis yet published: Understanding Terror Networks by a former CIA official, Marc Sageman. Sageman examined the records of 172 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and his conclusions have demolished much of the conventional wisdom about who joins jihadi groups: two thirds of his sample were middle-class and university-educated; they are generally technically minded professionals and several have a Ph.D. Nor are they young hotheads: their average age is twenty-six, most of them are married, and many have children. Only two appear to be psychotic. Even the ideologues that influence them are not trained clerics: Sayyid Qutb, for example, was a journalist. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise.

Peter Bergen of John Hopkins recently came to similar conclusions when he published his study of seventy-five Islamist terrorists involved in anti-Western attacks. According to Bergen, 53 percent of the terrorists had a university degree, while “only 52 percent of Americans have been to college.”4 Against this background, it should not have come as a surprise that the British Muslim bombers attended universities and that one drove a Mercedes.

It is true that there are several examples of radical madrasa graduates who have become involved with al-Qaeda: Maulana Masood Azhar, for example, leader of the jihadi group called Jaish-e-Muhammad and an associate of bin Laden, originally studied in the ultra-militant Binori Town madrasa in Karachi. A madrasa dropout took part in last year’s bombing of Musharraf’s convoy. In Indonesia, the Bali bombings were the work of the Lashkar-i-Jihad group, which partially emerged from a group of Salafi madrasas in Indonesia.

By and large, however, madrasa students simply do not have the technical expertise necessary to carry out the kind of sophisticated attacks we have recently seen led by al-Qaeda. Instead the concerns of most madrasa graduates remain more traditional: the correct fulfillment of rituals, how to wash correctly before prayers, and the proper length to grow a beard. All these matters are part of the curriculum of Koranic studies in the madrasas. The graduates are also interested in opposing what they see as un-Islamic practices such as worshiping at saints’ graves or attending the Shia laments called marsiyas, for the death of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali at the battle of Kerbala.5

Their focus, in other words, is not on opposing non-Muslims or the West—the central concern of the global jihadis—so much as fostering what they see as proper Islamic behavior at home, the personal law governing which is a central subject of madrasa teachings. In contrast, few al-Qaeda agents seem to have more than the most perfunctory grasp of Islamic law or learning. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that bin Laden himself actually despises what he sees as the nit-picking juridical approach of the madrasa-educated ulema (clerics), regarding his own brand of violent Islamism as a wholly more appropriate answer to the problems of the Muslim world.

This was graphically illustrated when, shortly after September 11, bin Laden told a group of visiting Saudis that the “youths who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh [school of Islamic law] in the popular term, but they accepted the fiqh that the Prophet Muhammad brought.” It is a telling quote: bin Laden showing his impatience with legal training and the inherited structures of Islamic authority. The hijackers, he implied, were taking effective practical action rather than sitting around discussing legal texts. As such he set himself up as a challenge to the madrasas and the ulema, bypassing traditional modes of religious study and looking directly to the Koran for guidance.

A brilliant discussion of bin Laden’s usurpation of the role of the madrasa-based ulema can be found in the illuminating essay Landscapes of the Jihad, by Faisal Devji, who teaches at the New School. Devji points out just how deeply unorthodox bin Laden is, with his cult of martyrs and frequent talk of dream and visions, all of which derive from popular, mystical, and Shia Islamic traditions, against which the orthodox Sunni ulema have long struggled. Moreover, bin Laden and his followers “routinely attack the most venerable clerics and seminaries, accusing them of being slaves of apostate regimes…. They also issue their own legal opinions or fatwas without possessing the learning or clerical authority to do so.”

All this highlights how lacking in intellectual sophistication the debate about al-Qaeda still is. Again and again, we are told that terrorism is associated with poverty and the basic, Koranic education provided by madrasas. We are told that the people who carry out this work are evil madmen who hate our wealth and our freedoms, and that no debate is possible as they “aim to wipe us out” (as one British cabinet minister told the BBC after the attacks on London). That the hostility of the Islamists may have links with US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the Anglo-American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is consistently denied, despite the explicit video testimony to the contrary by both al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers.6

In reality al-Qaeda operatives tend to be highly educated and their aims explicitly political. Bin Laden, in his numerous communiqués, has always been unambiguous about this. As he laconically remarked in his broadcast timed to coincide with the last US election, if it was freedom they were against, al-Qaeda would have attacked Sweden. The men who planned the September 11 attacks were not products of the traditional Islamic educational system, even in its most radical form. Instead they are graduates of Western-style institutions. They are not at all the protégés of the mullahs.


The debate about the alleged links between madrasas and terrorism has tended to obscure both the madrasas’ long histories and the differences among them. Throughout much of Islamic history, madrasas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, madrasas produced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina, and al-Khwarizmi. They also produced America’s bestselling poet throughout the 1990s, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as a Muslim jurist, and throughout his life taught Sharia law in a madrasa in Konya. It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic of the ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system.

None of this should be a surprise. In the entire Koran there are only about two hundred verses directly commanding believers to pray and three times that number commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyze God’s magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system. The oldest and greatest of all the madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense—a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas. It was in cities not far from Islamic Spain and Sicily—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, and Montpellier—that the first universities in Christendom were developed, while the very first college in Europe, that of Paris, was founded by Jocius de Londoniis, a pilgrim newly returned from the Middle East.7 Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian scholars such as Adelard of Bath would travel to the Islamic world to study the advanced learning available in the madrasas. Alvaro of Córdoba, a Mozarab, or Christian living under Muslim rule, wrote in the fourteenth century:

My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the work of Muslim theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads Latin commentaries on Holy scripture? At the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice.

When the Mongol invasions destroyed the institutions of learning in the Islamic heartlands, many learned refugees fled to Delhi, turning northern India for the first time into a major center of scholarship. By the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century, the curriculum in Indian madrasas blended the learning of the Islamic Middle East with that of the teachings of Hindu India, so that Hindu and Muslim students would together study the Koran (in Arabic), the Sufi poetry of Sa’adi (in Persian), and the philosophy of Vedanta (in Sanskrit), as well as ethics, astronomy, medicine, logic, history, and the natural sciences. Many of the most brilliant Hindu thinkers, including, for example, the great reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), were the products of madrasas.

However, following the collapse of Islamic self-confidence that accompanied the deposition of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in 1858, disillusioned scholars founded an influential but narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, a hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital in Delhi. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the madrasa’s founders reacted against what they saw as the degenerate ways of the old elite. The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.8

It was, unfortunately, these puritanical Deobandi madrasas that spread throughout North India and Pakistan in the twentieth century, and that particularly benefited from the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq and his Saudi allies in the 1980s. Ironically, the US also played an important part in this harnessing of madrasas for holy war as part of the Afghan jihad, with the CIA financing the production by the US Agency for International Development of some notably bloodthirsty madrasa textbooks “filled,” according to a Washington Post report, “with violent images and militant Islamic teachings.”

One page showed a picture of a jihadi carrying a gun, but with his head blown off, accompanied by a Koranic verse and a tribute to the Mujahideen who were “obedient to Allah…. Such men will sacrifice their wealth and their life to impose Islamic law.” When the Taliban came to power, these textbooks were distributed for use in schools.9 At the height of the Afghan jihad Ronald Reagan is said to have praised Mujahideen madrasa students as “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America].”

It is certainly true that many madrasas in Pakistan have an outdated curriculum: some still teach geometry from Euclid and medicine from Galen. Emphasis is put on the rote learning rather than the critical study of the Koran, and considerable prestige is still attached to becoming a hafiz—knowing the Koran by heart. Deobandi madrasas teach that the sun revolves around the earth and some even have special seating for the invisible Islamic spirits, the djinns.10 This is, however, by no means the case with all madrasas, some of which are surprisingly sophisticated.

In Karachi the largest madrasa is the Dar ul-Uloom. Its green lawns resemble a cross between a five-star hotel and a rather upmarket university campus. It is clean and prosperous-looking: well-watered gardens and palm trees give onto smart, well-kept classrooms and computer rooms; all around, embalmed in scaffolding, new libraries and dormitories were rising from the ground.

Inside, the atmosphere was earnest and scholarly. In room after room, students sat cross-legged on carpets, reading from Korans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. In others students were listening intently as elderly maulanas expounded to them commentaries on the meaning of verses in the Koran and the Hadiths, the traditions of the prophets. A computer room was filled with bearded men struggling with the mysteries of using Urdu and Arabic versions of Microsoft Word and Windows XP; in the senior years, I learned, all essays are expected to be typewritten on computers and handed in as printouts. Of course some other madrasas lack such equipment.

After the beheading of Daniel Pearl, I had taken the precaution of informing the British consulate about my movements; but there was nothing threatening about the Dar ul-Uloom. The students were almost all eager, friendly, and intelligent, if somewhat intense. When I asked one bearded student what music he listened to on his new cassette player, he looked at me with horror: the machine was only for listening to sermons. All music was banned.

Puritanical it may be, but it is clear that the Dar ul-Uloom, like many Pakistani madrasas, performs an important service—especially in a country 58 percent of whose population, and 72 percent of whose women, are illiterate—indeed half of the population never sees the inside of a school. Madrasas are often backward in their educational philosophy, but they provide the poor with a real hope of advancing themselves. In certain traditional subjects—such as rhetoric, logic, and jurisprudence—the teaching can be excellent. And although they tend to be ultra-conservative, only a small proportion of them are militant. To close them down, without first attempting to build up the state sector, would relegate much of the population to a state of ignorance. It would also be tantamount to instructing Muslims to stop educating themselves about their religion, hardly the best strategy for winning the war for Muslim minds.

You don’t have to look far from Pakistan to find a madrasa system that has effectively engaged with the problems of both militancy and educational backwardness. For although India was originally the home of the Deobandi madrasas, such colleges in India have no record of producing violent Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. Indeed several of modern India’s greatest scholars—such as the Mughal historian Muzaffar Alam of the University of Chicago—are madrasa graduates.

An important study of the madrasas of India by the Hindu scholar Yoginder Sikand, Bastions of the Believers, demonstrates how forward-looking and dynamic some madrasas can be. In the southwest Indian state of Kerala, for example, Sikand found a chain of educational institutions run by the Mujahid group of professionals and businessmen which aim to bridge the differences between modern forms of knowledge and the Islamic worldview. The Mujahid group has been at the forefront of Muslim women’s education in Kerala, and in many of their madrasas girls outnumber boys by a considerable margin. Mujahid intellectuals have written extensively about women’s rights from an Islamic perspective, and Sikand quotes the Zohra Bi, the principal of one of the group’s colleges: “Islam is wrongly thought of as a religion of women’s oppression,” she told him. “Through our work in the college we want to show that Islam actually empowers Muslim women.”

This would seem to confirm that it is not madrasas per se that are the problem so much as the militant atmosphere and indoctrination taking place in a handful of notorious centers of ultra-radicalism, such as the Binori Town madrasa in Karachi, whose students are taught that jihadism is legitimate and noble. Some graduates have allegedly been involved in the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. The question remains, however, whether General Musharraf’s government has the will to carry out the necessary reforms that would reproduce the success of madrasas in India.

So far attempts at reforming Pakistan’s more militant madrasas have proved at best halfhearted. Immediately after the London bombings there were around 250 arrests in Pakistani madrasas, and there have been some attempts at curbing the attendance of foreign students: an estimated 1,400 non-Pakistanis have been expelled since July. Some statements have also been made about standardizing the syllabus and encouraging madrasas to teach some modern subjects.

However, the more extreme madrasas have been able to resist the enforcement of even these mild measures; recently, fewer than half of Pakistan’s madrasas complied when asked to register as educational institutions with the authorities. To date, the Pakistani government, far from having found ways of curbing the excesses of the more radical madrasas, does not even possess exact statistics about the number of madrasas in the country. Moreover, the military government’s close alliance with the Islamist parties, which now control two of Pakistan’s provinces, prevents Musharraf from acting more strongly against the extremist madrasas. As a result not even one militant madrasa has yet been closed.

Such militant madrasas are, however, likely to create more problems for Pakistan’s internal security than for the safety of Western capitals. For that, as the July 7 London bombings showed, rather than blaming seminaries in Pakistan we would do better to examine the Islamic extremism blossoming on our own campuses, and the way that the excesses of American and British foreign policies can fatally alienate so many previously moderate Muslims and lead to violence at home as well as in Muslim lands.

—November 2, 2005

  1. 3

    Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, p. 112.

  2. 4

    Peter Bergen, “The Madrasa Myth,” The New York Times, June 14, 2005.

  3. 5

    See Olivier Roy, “Has Islamism a Future in Afghanistan?” in Fundamentalism Reborn: Afghanistan and the Taliban, edited by William Maley (New York University Press, 1998). See also Barbara Metcalfe’s excellent “Piety, Persuasion and Politics: Deoband’s Model of Social Activism,” in The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century, edited by Aftab Ahmad Malik (Amal, 2003), p. 157.

  4. 6

    On September 1, al-Jazeera aired a video recorded by Mohommad Sidique Khan before his suicide bombing. His statement included the following words: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war.”

  5. 7

    George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

  6. 8

    The Deobandis have received an excellent study in Barbara Daly Metcalf’s great magnum opus, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860– 1900 (Princeton University Press, 1982). See also Jamal Malik, Colonisation of Islam: Dissolution of Traditional Institutions in Pakistan (New Delhi: Manohar, 1988).

  7. 9

    There is a full report on these textbooks on the Washington Post Web site by Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, “From US, the ABC’s of Jihad,” March 23, 2002, at www.washingtonpost .com/ac2/wp-dyn/A5339-2002Mar22 ?language=printer.

  8. 10

    See the superb discussion in Yoginder Sikand’s recent Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India.

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