Madrasahs, the religious schools that educate millions of students in the Muslim world, have been blamed for all sorts of ills since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Critics have denounced them as dens of terror, hatcheries for suicide bombers, and repositories of medievalism. As Samina Ahmed and Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group wrote in The Washington Post after last July's London bombings, "Jihadi extremism is still propagated at radical madrassas in Pakistan. ... And now, it seems, the hatred these madrassas breed is spilling blood in Western cities as well."

These criticisms have focused on the few dozen Pakistani madrasahs that served as de facto training grounds for jihadists fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of these jihadists went on to become foot soldiers in later campaigns, including those against Indian rule over Kashmir and against Shiite Muslims within Pakistan. They also helped forge the Taliban and gave succor and support to Osama bin Laden. From this record, critics have put together a seemingly convincing charge sheet against madrasahs across the Muslim world. They extrapolate from this relatively small number of problem madrasahs in Pakistan and conclude that all madrasahs breed fanatics.

But they are wrong. The majority of madrasahs actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, it may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrasahs provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labor, sex trafficking, or other abuse. And for U.S. and European policymakers, madrasahs offer an important arena for public diplomacy -- a chance to ensure that the Muslim leaders of tomorrow do not see the West as an enemy inherently hostile to all Muslim institutions.

Rather than undermining the madrasah system, then, Western policymakers should engage it. Beards and bombast may make for good newspaper copy, but the reality of the madrasah system is far different: it is characterized by both orthodoxy and diversity and is host to a quiet debate about reform. It is in the interest of the West to ensure that the outliers -- truly extremist madrasahs -- are contained and advocates or apologists for terrorism duly prosecuted. But it is equally important for policymakers to pursue this goal carefully, by encouraging internal debate rather than demanding changes from above. The best incentive for reform is competition rather than control.


The Western consensus on madrasahs assumes that some of them produce terrorists and many others contribute to radicalization in less direct ways. But the evidence of a direct link to terrorism remains weak. Indeed, according to Marc Sageman's recent study Understanding Terror Networks, two-thirds of contemporary al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists went to state or Western-style colleges. Like the terrorist Ahmed Sheikh (who was a contemporary of mine at the London School of Economics), terrorists today are more likely to have gone through the regular educational system. Many are newly religious rebels rather than regular ulama (clergy), created by modernity rather than by a madrasah.

In fact, despite the hype and the headlines, remarkably little serious work has been done on the subject of madrasahs. (This problem, fortunately, is slowly changing, with academics such as Saleem Ali, Tahir Andrabi, and Yoginder Sikand paving the way with detailed, evidence-based studies.) Few journalists bother to get to know more than a token institution, and most academics shy away from studying them; the leaders of madrasahs themselves prefer to get on with what they do rather than talk about it. There are tens of thousands of madrasahs, with millions of students, but the numerical data on them -- usually drawn from government statistics, media speculation, or the dubious assertions of madrasah defenders and denouncers -- are generally unreliable. In India, for example, estimates of the number of madrasahs range from 3,000 to 30,000, with up to 1.5 million students estimated to be enrolled. Some reports claim that Bangladesh has 64,000 madrasahs. Pakistan, meanwhile, is said to have anywhere from 400,000 to 1.7 million students enrolled.

Madrasahs serve parts of developing countries that governments never reach. Turn off any main highway in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or northern India, drive 15 miles down a poor-quality road, and more often than not you will find a small madrasah, funded by donations and occasionally fees, in the nearest village. Even in the cities, where there are many more government and other private schools, madrasahs survive as providers of social services for Muslim orphans (many of whom are taken in and brought up there for free). Meanwhile, many Muslim parents choose to send their sons (it is usually sons) to madrasahs because they consider the education they get there to be a respectable one.

The madrasah system is a thousand years old. It originated in eleventh-century Baghdad, and the earliest recorded South Asian madrasah was established in Ajmer (now a city in India) in 1191. In medieval times, madrasahs were instruments of the state -- funded by rulers and steadfastly loyal -- and focused on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Over time, with the advent of the Mughal empire in South Asia, this curriculum expanded, first to include philosophy, logic, and the rational disciplines (maqalat) and then to include the study of reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) as well. Madrasahs were also bastions of social exclusion. They served as prestigious training schools for imperial officials and religious scholars, catering to and funded by the Muslim elite.

The advent of British control over South Asia, however, undermined this elite and led to important changes in the madrasah system. English replaced Persian as the language of official correspondence in the 1830s (thanks to the East India Company), and missionaries began establishing English-language alternatives to religious schools. The biggest change came in the aftermath of the failed 1857 uprising against British rule in India. Muslim scholars, already sidelined, retreated into traditional education -- seeking to defend Islam against the onslaught of Christian influence, even as they watched the death of Mughal rule in India.

From this transition, the Darul Uloom madrasah emerged in Deoband, India. Established entirely with private support in 1865, it became the center for a newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam. The foundation of Darul Uloom also marked a closing of doors to modern knowledge, which was now seen as polluting because of its association with the British. Deobandis (as those associated with Darul Uloom became known) worked hard to spread their message across northern India, and the social composition of madrasahs began to change, becoming less affuent and more rural.

Darul Uloom, where 10,000 young men compete for 800 spots in any given year, remains the center of the Deobandi movement. The movement is still ultraconservative, and it helped define the Taliban's purist ideology.

In large part because of its role in shaping the Taliban's rule, the Deobandi movement is the prism through which most observers analyze the entire madrasah system. But there are other influential schools, and many of them are less conservative. The thousands of Barelvi madrasahs across South Asia, including Pakistan, take a broader view of heterodox Sufi traditions. Shiite madrasahs are primarily designed for elementary education and leave higher study to learning centers in the Middle East. Since the 1940s, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami -- an avowedly modern Muslim organization dedicated to combining a conservative, Islamist worldview with a commitment to education across the modern sciences -- has established many schools of its own, although formally it does not support madrasahs.

To be sure, madrasahs are naturally narrow-minded institutions. Non-Muslims, particularly Jews, are regularly portrayed in a negative or hostile light and described as najis (impure) or jahil (ignorant). But it is wrong to blame madrasahs alone for such views: the same prejudice is prevalent in bazaars, private homes, and even government-funded schools in the Muslim world.

Critics have also focused on the sources of funding for madrasahs -- which are not tax dollars but charity and, in some cases, tuition fees. Some of the charitable funding comes from overseas, especially from radical Islamists in the Gulf region (although these funds have decreased of late). The largest madrasahs receive over $1.5 million a year, but many smaller ones exist on a few hundred dollars a year, more of which comes from local funding than is usually assumed. In any case, funds from extremists have only a limited influence on individual madrasahs. Even after five decades of funding from radical Islamists in the Persian Gulf, many South Asian madrasahs are still run by teachers who reject Wahabbism and its various sisters. In fact, across South Asia, extremists -- as distinct from ultraconservatives -- actually control only a tiny portion of the madrasahs.

It is also wrong to assume, as most current commentary does, that madrasahs have stood still for the past several centuries. Although there could certainly be much more, there is plenty of innovation within the world of madrasahs. In my visits to dozens of institutions in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, I have found English classes, a journalism-training school, an electrician-training center, and computer labs. I have met stimulating and thoughtful principals who are determined to provide the best possible education. I have also sat down with dour and insipid madrasah directors suspicious of anything that might diminish their standing in their school or the wider community. And once or twice, I have bumped into seriously nasty radicals. (Unsurprisingly, a great deal depends on the individual running a madrasah.)

Even Darul Uloom is slowly evolving. Over the past five years, it has introduced English and computing. Some 40 pupils -- just over one percent of the student body -- learn English. Within the Deobandi movement, there is a growing debate about madrasah reform. So far, the conservatives have dominated. But senior ulama now welcome greater contact with the outside world. "We should not be shy of media people," one told me when I visited in July 2005. "We are not thieves."


For hundreds of years, madrasahs have changed as Muslim societies have changed. The change has always been a mixture of resisting, reacting, and innovating -- just as with educational systems anywhere.

The past decade has produced fresh incentives for reform -- and madrasahs are slowly responding. First, there has been a sharp rise in English-language private schools, since middle-class parents want their children to have the right skills to get good jobs. The most prestigious madrasahs, such as Darul Uloom, dismiss this trend as irrelevant because it has not led to a fall in applications. But in smaller towns, the rise of private schools has already limited the ability of fee-charging madrasahs to attract enough students. In some cases, this problem has stimulated broader thinking about including English-language instruction.

Innovation and reform also stem from a recognition that madrasah graduates are more likely to access decent tertiary education and a wider range of employment opportunities if the curriculum is widened. In India, some madrasah students are already breaking through -- becoming doctors, lawyers, and software engineers. They often find that the discipline of madrasah training helps them focus on further studies, even if the educational base they began with was narrower (but deeper) than that of many of their peers. And madrasah students themselves are keen to see reform, including the introduction of English or local languages such as Hindi or Bengali alongside the traditional Islamic subjects.

Cynics rightly point out that reform is also being stimulated by the emphasis on missionary activity (dawa). Leading ulama are recognizing that in order to reach non-Muslims (and many Muslims besides), English is an increasingly important medium. And in order to counter other religions, more than a basic (and polemical) grounding is needed in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These leaders are eager to ensure that the next generation of Muslim ulama can communicate in English. Generational change is also playing its part. Some of the younger innovators share a commitment to Islamic education but also want to attract bright and able students.

Given all the media attacks on madrasahs, a backlash would not be surprising. Instead, ulama within the madrasah system are increasingly open to communication with the outside world. In India, leading lights of the madrasah movement have since 1995 been regularly calling for greater interaction with the media, intellectuals, and government officials. And most important, no madrasah is an island. Deobandi ulama may have issued a fatwa against television, but cellular phones are ubiquitous in most madrasahs. Madrasah students do not live lives of seclusion, despite the intensity of the curriculum.


Governments have adopted two basic approaches to madrasahs: regulation and reform. The first approach involves extending or introducing government regulations, ranging from compulsory madrasah-registration schemes to curriculum reform to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's July 2005 ruling that all foreign students must leave Pakistani madrasahs. Governments have also demanded that independent madrasahs adopt the country's regular core curriculum. Other steps have included registering students, creating an approved register of principals, imposing financial controls -- or shutting down particular problem madrasahs. Reform interventions, meanwhile, seek to undercut madrasahs by improving state capacity. This usually means spending large sums of money to extend government schools into areas they previously did not reach or making state education compulsory.

Both strategies can run into the sand. The trouble with regulatory interventions is they can easily prove excessive or even counterproductive. Registration is not unreasonable, but it has little effect other than to create lists of institutions, students, and principals. Enforced curriculum reform is likely to generate a backlash. Madrasahs as a whole are designed to transmit a religious tradition, and their independence is a core part of their identity. Many graduates from the better madrasahs resent any notion of enforced regulation, and these same graduates are often the best critics of the madrasah system, recognizing its shortfalls as they go on either to run madrasahs of their own or to enter mainstream employment.

Given the scale of the challenge, reform interventions are also bound to fail. Spending more money -- whether government or donor funds -- on education in general is not going to displace madrasahs anytime soon. Improving the reach and effectiveness of public education will take a long time, and parents often choose madrasahs for their children even when state-provided education is available -- often for the prestige of having a son study Islam and enter an Islamic profession.

When it comes to the choice between forcing change and fostering change, India, with a Muslim population of 138 million or more, illustrates one way forward. Historically, madrasahs there have had a lot of independence, and Article 30(1) of the Indian constitution guarantees minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians) the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions. But the Indian government still has recourse if any one madrasah becomes problematic: it can invoke laws against incitement to violence if a madrasah principal advocates terrorism.

Indian educational officials have occasionally considered a more hard-line approach, especially in the late 1990s, when concerns about radicalization were abnormally high. But after careful consideration, the same officials have come to the conclusion that the best change comes from within: let madrasah speak to madrasah, and principal to principal, so that the reformers can influence the others. One initiative that has come out of this approach is a scheme to pay for English, math, and science teachers in private madrasahs that choose to participate. If a madrasah principal decides to apply, he gets a fully funded teacher in one of these subjects. It makes good sense for the madrasah (since it gets a free resource) and good sense for the government, too, as it thereby demonstrates the benefits of having this subject in addition to the traditional curriculum. In 2001, 3,500 out of 6,000 madrasahs in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh received funds for teachers of modern subjects, reaching some 175,000 students. The Indian government has also provided teacher training for madrasah teachers in Delhi.

The Indian approach is predicated on consent. It is both sensitive and sensible. India's leaders are aware of the dangers of a backlash if they intervene forcefully. And unlike the thinking underlying much of the overblown press commentary, the basic assumption behind the government's approach is that madrasahs play a valuable role in society, even if the education they provide is more narrow than it should be.


Madrasahs do not need to be closed, contained, or cut down to size. Thousands play an important social role. And the leaders of most madrasahs are willing to consider changing the way they work, although they are bound to defend what they stand for.

To be sure, there are problem madrasahs, led by extremists who preach venom. These madrasahs, many of which are in Pakistan, tend to trigger provocative media coverage. But they do not dominate. Go to the largest neighboring madrasah of a "problem" madrasah, and you will usually find a group of tut-tutting ulama saying, gently but insistently, that their madrasah "isn't political like that one." Problem madrasahs need to be challenged, but as individual institutions, each with its own problems that do not necessarily reflect the reality of the entire system. The particular fault often lies with the principal, rather than with the madrasah as a whole. And most countries have the legislation in place to proceed against these principals if they incite violence or coach potential terrorists. Passing new rules or restrictions makes little sense if the existing laws are not being applied effectively.

Of course, the most effective challenge to these problem madrasahs will come from their peers, not state intervention. Al Qaeda is as much an idea as it is a movement or an organization, and ideas, good and bad, often work like infections. Distant regulators, disgusted officials, and worried Westerners can only do so much, but madrasah principals, graduates, and ulama wield enormous power. In short, the best debate on madrasah reform will come from within.

What is needed most is a thoughtful, evidence-based approach to madrasahs. Policymakers should visit them, research them, and understand them, all the while being sure to understand that their actions could have unintended consequences. They should encourage modernization but avoid insisting on secularization, which would be taken as a declaration of war on Muslim education. They should seek to stimulate conversation and competition among madrasahs while allowing them their freedom. Attempting to change madrasahs through compulsion and control is unlikely to deliver positive results. Reform of the madrasah system will ultimately be spurred by competition from within -- and the more competition, the better.

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  • ALEXANDER EVANS works for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the British government.
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