Ebrahim Moosa
Ebrahim Moosa

Recent years have witnessed a spate of journalistic and popular writings on the looming threat to civilization that lurks in traditional Islamic seminaries or madrasas that litter the physical and intellectual landscape of the Muslim world. In his riveting new book What is a Madrasa? (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of History and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, challenges such sensationalist stereotypical narratives by providing a nuanced and richly textured account of the place and importance of Madrasas in Islam both historically and in the contemporary moment.

519B98pnpSL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Rather than approaching madrasas from a policy studies viewpoint as institutions requiring reform and modernization, this book instead examines madrasas on their own terms with a view of highlighting their internal complexities and tensions. Focused primarily on the madrasas of South Asia, what makes this book particularly remarkable is the way it brings together the intellectual histories and traditions that define madrasa education and the everyday practices in madrasa life today.

The reader of this book travels through an arcade of the seminal texts, scholars, and sites that have shaped the madrasa as an institution and its curricula over the last several centuries. But moreover, this book also provides readers intimate portraits of daily life at madrasas through the eyes of students who study there, thus bringing into view the rhythms of everyday practices that punctuate the lives of madrasa students, and the hopes, anxieties, and aspirations that irrigate their religious and social imaginaries.

In our conversation, in addition to discussing these themes, we also talked about Professor Moosa’s own journey as a teenager in the madrasas of South Asia to the corridors of the American academy. Written in an exceptionally lucid fashion, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Muslim traditions of knowledge and education. It will also be particularly well suited for undergraduate and graduate seminars on Muslim intellectual thought, education, and Islam in South Asia.

LISTEN to interview with MOOSA

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One rarely uses the term booming in publishing these days, but it’s fair to say that academic publishing about Islam is doing just that. New books are diverse in subject matter and house of origin, as this major religion’s world-shaping influence is being more closely examined.

University of North Carolina Press has three installments in its Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks series. Sahar Amer’s What Is Veiling? (Sept.) will be joined in April 2015 by Ebrahim Moosa’s What Is Madrasa? and Bruce Lawrence’s Who Is Allah? Elaine Maisner, senior executive editor at the press, says more books are in the works to join this series. “Islamic studies is continuing to trend,” she notes. “We are interested in Islamic studies beyond the conventional link with fundamentalism, and we are finding some interesting work in the area of lived religion, and of progressive Islam.”

For publishers that can successfully hit the sweet spot in books on Islam in America—they need to be fresh enough to merit scholarly attention, but also mainstream enough for course adoption—the rewards can be great. At NYU, the 1998 title Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas has sold nearly 20,000 copies and was reissued in 2013 in a 15th-anniversary edition.

Oxford University Press has long had a deep list on the subject, and several key themes characterize its new titles in the field. Senior editor Theo Calderara says OUP’s newest releases investigate the history of Islam (In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire by Robert G. Hoyland, Oct.) and consider the complex relationships of Islam and politics (What Is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Feb.). In addition to producing its signature hefty handbooks on aspects of Islam, the press is adding to its Qur’anic studies program with such titles as Feminist Edges of the Qur’an by Aysha A. Hidayatullah (May).



Muhammed Haron (left) and Gil Merkx
Muhammed Haron (left) and Gil Merkx

Many Muslim institutions of higher learning have emerged on the African continent over the past few decades. These institutions have in one way or another made their contributions towards the societies and environments where they are situated. Despite the noble objectives of some that were set up, the objectives often have been unrealized as a result of a lack of financial and other resources. There have, however, been other institutions that have flourished and made invaluable inputs to their respective communities.

It is hard to find a text that adequately covers these institutions, even in places where one might expect it, including in Paul Scrijver’s authoritative Bibliography of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Leiden: E.J. Brill 2009),

So when Duke University’s Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC) announced a workshop to discuss and engage scholars on “Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning in Africa: Their History, Mission and Role in Regional Development,” there were eager responses to participate in what may be regarded as an oft-neglected area of Islamic studies research. The Duke Islamic Studies Center and its Carnegie Corporation of New York-supported Transcultural Islam Project (to be explained in-depth later in this paper) offered an interesting platform for this exploratory workshop.

AfricaIslamGraphicThe workshop organizers, under the co-directorship of Duke professors Mbaye Lo and Bruce Hall, hosted a group of scholars who came from different parts of the continent (and elsewhere from the US and Europe) — scholars who have been evaluating these types of institutions’ status in the transnational Muslim arena.

The organizers were interested to know, inter alia, to what extent these institutions were involved in pursuing research, perpetuating traditional Muslim scholarship, and creatively contributing towards the society’s economic development.

With these noble aims and objectives in mind, let us offer an overview in this report of our two-day workshop at Duke University. (Other sponsors included the International Institute of Islamic Thought  (headquartered in Virginia); The Africa Initiative (Duke); Asian & Middle Eastern Studies (Duke); African & Afro-American Studies (Duke); Duke History Department; Duke Religion Department; Center for Muslim Life (Duke); Franklin Humanities Institute (Duke), Duke Center for International Development; The Kenan Institute for Ethics; Duke Divinity School; and Duke University Center for International Studies.)

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by Ebrahim Moosa for CONTENDING MODERNITIES on APRIL 11, 2013

Pick up a work by Shah Waliyullah of Delhi (d. 1762), the great Indian polymath and sage-like figure, and he might commend your attention to sensory substitution, or synesthesia – what we can think of as cross talk among sensory areas in the brain.

Indeed, Waliyullah is but a premiere example among many Medieval and early modern Muslim theologians who offer startling insights about perception, ideas which sometimes even resemble trending topics like neuroplasticity. I say this mindful of the warning not to mold our “notion of antiquities after their resemblance to the present.”(Funkenstein, 120)

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Moosa, Ebrahim. 2012, “Translating Neuroethics: Reflections from Muslim Ethics.” Science and Engineering Ethics no. 18 (2):1-10. doi: 10.1007/s11948-012-9392-5   


Muslim ethics is cautiously engaging developments in neuroscience. In their encounters with developments in neuroscience such as brain death and functional magnetic resonance imaging procedures, Muslim ethicists might be on the cusp of spirited debates. Science and religion perform different kinds of work and ought not to be conflated. Cultural translation is central to negotiating the complex life worlds of religious communities, Muslims included.   Continue reading