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Madrasa Education: Not A Medieval Throwback


Barbara D. Metcalf

INSIDE A MADRASA: KNOWLEDGE, POWER AND ISLAMIC IDENTITY IN INDIA
By Arshad Alam
Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 249, Rs.695.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 3 March 2012

In recent days there has been newspaper coverage of allegations on the part of leaders of the Barelvi denomination (maslak) of Sunni Muslims that their rival Deobandis in India are jihadis and 'Wahhabis', even terrorists. There is not an iota of evidence to support this, and indeed it is Deobandis who have been most visible in their condemnation of such activities (convening for example a meeting of some 10,000 scholars in 2008 to condemn terrorism). Given the real problems faced by Muslims, such gratuitous slander seems nothing short of madness. Arshad Alam's book makes a remark-able contribution to understanding what turns out to be a major contri-bution of madrasa education: inculcating the con-viction that other Muslims-not the Hindu right, not secularism, not 'the West'-must be re-cognized as enemies of the Prophet and the grea-test threat to Islam today.From that it is perhaps logical to see Deobandis as a danger overall. Alam quickly dis-misses a range of conventional assumptions articulated by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike: that madrasa edu-cation represents a me-dieval throwback, that madrasas in India foment terrorism, that madrasas inculcate hatred of non-Muslims. He provides a perspective as well on the argument that parents turn to madrasa education for lack of alternative state institutions. Such institutions may indeed be lacking, but Alam makes clear that there are also what are perceived as positive advantages of a madrasa education. Alam's central case study is of one of India's largest Barelvi madrasas, the Ashrafiya Madrasa (or Jamia, as it now calls itself) in Mubarakpur. A useful initial chapter surveys the history, demography, and current situation of the town. A key indicator of its economic backwardness is a literacy rate of barely 50%. Tensions within the town were once class tensions that often mapped onto a religious divide: between Hindu zamindars, traders, and moneylenders on the one hand and Muslim labourers on the other. Now, as visually evident in the two biggest mosques, which compete in size, the tension is the intra-Sunni one. Alam's choice of the Ashrafiya Madrasa was partly motivated by the fact that it serves lower caste Muslims, in this case, Ansaris, who rarely make their way into scholarly studies. Mubarakpur citizens may take pride in the madrasa, but like Indian citizens everywhere, Alam makes clear, they also increasingly want 'school' education for their children, a goal made the more urgent in their case by the decline of their weaving business, ...


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