International Workshop “The Asian madrasa:

transnational linkages and real or alleged political roles”

Organized by ISIM (Leiden) in co-operation with ZMO (Berlin), Leiden, 24-25 May 2004


Abstracts of papers

Adil Mehdi   (The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK):
The Imaginary Taliban: Indian Madrasas and the Spectre of Terrorism

The madrasa education system in India, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, came under the spotlight following the rapid rise and fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, 9/11 attacks, and the ongoing so-called ‘war against terror’. In India, the rise of Hindu rightwing parties, insurgency in Muslim majority Kashmir, deteriorating relations with Pakistan and increasingly sectarian politics are the other reasons for growing suspicion against madrasas. Madrasas are regarded as ideological factories for producing fundamentalist Muslims, even terrorists, by the rightwing Hindu organisations like RSS, VHP and BJP, a large section of media and even the government. The newspapers and magazines have been full of reports hinting at or directly accusing madrasas of being a part of the global Islamic terrorism network and organisations like Al Qaeda, ISI, militant Kashmiri groups and Talibans. In this sense, madrasas in India have come a long way from being hailed as having played a crucial role in the freedom movement to being branded as anti-national. This dramatic change in the fortunes of madrasa has more to do with post-Ayodhya polarisation of Hindu right and an increasingly hostile global environment against the Muslims in the recent years, which culminated in anti Muslim riots in Gujarat, than any basic shift in the political role of madrasas. Generally, madrasas and other muslim institutions in India are judged by the same yardstick as those in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Here it must be pointed out that the comparisons of Indian Muslims, who are a minority with a strong sense of minority mindset, with either the Pakistani Muslims or the Muslims in other countries where they in the majority is entirely fallacious.

However, the accusations of collaboration of madrasas with terrorist network are made with alarming regularity by various Hindu parties and appear prominently in media, often without any evidence. In my extensive fieldwork in madrasas in border districts of North and North East Indian states, namely, Assam, West Bengal, Kashmir and UP, I investigated this charge and found it to be without any substance. For the last two years or so, madrasas have been closely monitored and investigated by different intelligence and security agencies but they also have failed come up with any hard evidence. Still, as a result of these reports, Madrasas in India have come under tremendous pressure to prove their patriotism, reveal sources of funding, and modernise their curricula. The central and state governments have been setting up government bodies to reform the curriculum and to bring the madrasa system under their control. At present, there are only a handful of madrasas (under 2%) which receive financial assistance from the government and teach a mixed curriculum of classical Islamic studies and modern secular subjects. In order to enforce a more radically revised curriculum the government has to offer considerable financial assistance to about 10,000 large madrasas which at present is beyond its limited resources for education as the pitiable state of mainstream government schools show. Madrasas, on their part, strongly resist the suggestion of receiving any aid from the government, as it would mean teaching the government approved syllabi and a radical departure from outdated standard religious curriculum of Dars-i-Nizami. The ulema do not see madrasas as a place for preparing young men to compete in the modern world, for them madrasas are crucial for the survival of Islam in India, just as they were in the 19th century when madrasas in modern sense were established to safeguard Islam from the threat of British culture. They strongly feel that the government is trying to find pretext to interfere in and to undermine their constitutional and legal freedom to run their madrasas as minority institutions.  

In these circumstances, it has become very difficult, as both sides suspect each other’s intentions, to start a meaningful process to introduce much needed reform in madrasa education. The government’s insistence that madrasas have become sanctuaries for terrorist and thus needed to be closely controlled is a counter productive strategy and would lead to further intransigence on the part of madrasas. While in the case of revising national curriculum for schools, the government had a much-rehearsed pro Hindu nationalist agenda, in case of madrasas they do not yet have an alternative plan. However, various government institutions are working on a ‘modern’ curriculum to be implemented by law in all madrasa. What would this modern curriculum be and how the government plans to implement it, since madrasas neither have trained teachers nor infra-structure to teach modern subjects, remains to be seen.

Madrasas have also been charged with receiving illegal funds from abroad in return for preaching extremist ideology. Media and even government agencies have pointed out that the annual budget of several large madrasas run into several million. Madrasas, on their part, take pride in being self-sufficient and in their ability to raise funds mainly through public donations in order to provide free education, boarding and lodging for students. Some madrasas, like Darul Uloom at Deoband, have more than a thousand student who live in the madrasa accomodation and given free food and even washing allowance. The madrasa authorities claim that they raise funds in the form of small donations of obligatory zakat, sadqa, skins of animal sacrified on Eidand donation of a certain percentage of grain or other agricultural produce from the Muslims. However, there is no denying that madrasas in India have also received substantial donations from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, and from the Indian immigrant community in America, Europe and Africa. It is hard to find evidence if this money has any strings attached, a charge which madrasa administrators strongly deny. Some insist that the money is transferred legally with prior government sanction. Though the government discourages and sometimes raises objections to foreign donations, it cannot legally put a stop to it since Hindu organisations like the VHP and RSS receive much larger donations from abroad. According to the ulema, the madrasas are purely charity organisation involved in teaching young men who, coming from very poor background, would otherwise get no education whatsoever. The ulema, however, refute the charge that the madrasas are churning out unemployed zealots who fall prey to terrorist organisations.

In order to ward off the criticism that madrasas are hostile to the idea of modern education, quite a few madrasa have started teaching English or installed a few computers which they proudly show to visitors. But these attempts remain at best token gestures and are not integrated with the overall education. For example, in Darul Uloom at Deoband only 30 students out of nearly 4000 are taught English. The reluctance of madrasas to modernise and reform their curriculum is sometimes seen as a sign of adherence to fundamentalist ideology, even anti-national activities. These are two distinctly separate issues and should not be confused with one another. Unfortunately, the urgency and the pressure from the government to reform come from this confusion and to a great extent anti-Muslim bias. The madrasa system in India is well developed can be modernised to render a great service to educationally backward Muslim population. But it appears that in the present political environment in India it would be difficult to find a common ground to agree on reform and massive resources and infrastructure of madrasa system would remain severely under-utilised.


Farish Noor (Zentrum Moderne und Orient, Berlin)
Victims of Superpower Politics? The Uncertain Fate of ASEAN students in the Madrasahs of Pakistan in the Age of the ‘War Against Terror’

This paper sets out to examine the historical and political backdrop to the transnational linkages between ASEAN and Pakistan, and the process of educational transfer between Southeast Asia and South Asia. It focuses on the developments of the present, where Pakistan has been designated a major ‘non-NATO ally’ by the Bush administration that is bent on pursuing its ‘war against terror’ abroad.

In September 2003 two dozen students from Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar/Burma were arrested from two madrasahs in the Pakistani port-city of Karachi. Thus far there has been muted international condemnation of these arrests, as both Washington and Islamabad have reiterated their claim that the arrests were part of the campaign to wage a ‘war against terrorism’ and its international operational networks. But the arrests of these students have merely distracted the international media and political community from the realities of madrasah life in Pakistan and the long historical antecedents that have been laid in the process of transnational educational transfer.

Our paper is divided into three parts: The first looks at the developments in Pakistan in the wake of 11 September and the war against Afghanistan, leading up to the arrests of the students in late 2003; the second part looks at life in one of the more established and better known religious educational institutions in Pakistan – the Syed Maudoodi International Islamic Educational Institute (SMII), and the final part raises some questions about the conduct of the so-called ‘war against terror’ and the role played by the governments of the USA, Pakistan and ASEAN in complicating what is already a difficult situation in the respective countries.


Dietrich Reetz (Zentrum Moderne und Orient, Berlin)
Facing the challenges: old and new trends in the Darul-Ulum Deoband after the split in 1982.

The prominent and traditional Islamic school of Deoband faced its most difficult, even existential crisis in recent years when in 1982, due to family feuds, the control of the madrasa was taken over by one section while the other was forced out, opening another very similar school on new premises. As the new administration was facing the fallout of these cataclysmic events, it also had to respond to growing political pressures from Hindu-nationalist forces in India as well as from the west that were targeting the school. It had to position itself on issues of Islamic militancy and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which referred to its Deobandi antecedents, but also on the reform of its century-old teaching curriculum, on the integration of secular knowledge and computer technology, on the coherence of its own education movement across India and beyond. The result is a mixed picture of sometimes dramatic evolution where influences of change are battling with inertia, stagnation and conservatism.


Yoginder Sikand (ISIM, Leiden)
Voices for Reform in Indian Madrasas

No reliable figures exist for the number of madrasas in contemporary India. Rough estimates put the figure at around 30,000. All the various maslaks or schools of Islamic thought in India have their own separate madrasas, and madrasas are found in almost every town or village with a substantial Muslim population.   The madrasa system of education in India is several centuries' old, tracing its origins to the appearance of Islam in the subcontinent not long after the death  of the Prophet. The vast majority of the Indian madrasas follow modified versions of the dars-i nizami, a curriculum developed by the 'ulama of the Firangi Mahal family of Lucknow in the early eightenth century. Few madrasas have made any significant changes in their curriculum to include various 'modern'subjects.

The perceived stagnation of the madrasas has, in recent years, given rise to demands from 'modern'-educated Muslims, as well as sections of the 'ulama associated with key madrasas, that the madrasa system be reformed in order to retain its relevance. This paper looks at the critiques of the madrasa curriculum that these Muslim intellectuals offer, the alternatives that they suggest as well as the rationale for reform that they put forward.


Mareike Winkelmann (ISIM, Leiden)
Everyday Life in a Girls’ Madrasa in New Delhi, India

Recent reports claimed there to be approximately 35,000 madrasas in India, often forming networks along lines of affiliation with various schools of thought, such as the Deobandis, the Jamaat-e-islami-e-Hind, the Ahl-e-hadith, the Barelwis, and the Nadwatul Ulama – all of which represent large Muslim ‘organizations’ that emerged roughly between the late 19th and the mid-20th centuries.

To date there is no central administrative institution or Madrasa Board, which makes for an initial impression of relative opacity with regard to the madrasas’ organization. Second, the opacity toward the outside goes hand in hand with the estrangement between Islamic and mainstream education in India, as for over fifty years the madrasas have largely remained outside the scope of state intervention. However, especially following the events of 11 September 2001, the madrasas have increasingly received attention in the Indian media, and the need to establish a central Madrasa Board has been voiced frequently. But the proposal has been perceived as controversial, as many Muslims feel that such a central Madrasa Board would jeopardize the independent status of the madrasas and allow for too much state control.

Girls’ Madrasas: In my presentation I would like to show a number of aspects of everyday life in a girls’ madrasa, giving an insight into what is going on ‘behind the curtain’, i.e. in the distinctly female space of a girls’ madrasa in India’s capital New Delhi

The paper focuses on three issues, namely (1) the transmission of Islamic knowledge in the girls’ madrasa, as well as (2) the ‘informal’ curriculum through which the broader aim of molding the person as a whole is achieved, and finally (3) the role of the lay preachers’ movement known as the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) for the everyday running of the madrasa.


Jackie Armijo (Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE)
The Recent Revival of Islamic Education in China and its Linkages with International  Centers of Islamic Learning

Over the past ten years a rapidly growing number of Chinese Muslims have been allowed to travel overseas to further their Islamic studies. Al-Azhar University is the most popular destination, but there are also significant numbers of Chinese Muslim students in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Iran. This phenomenon is both a continuation of practices that have existed for centuries, but also a result of the recent resurgence of Islamic education in China after decades of government control and restriction of religious practices. More importantly, this new wave of Chinese Muslim students is arriving at centers of Islamic learning during a period of intensive reflection on what it means to be a Muslim today. At these universities they meet local Muslim students, but also students like themselves: Muslims who are minorities in their homeland, and Muslims from countries in the midst of economic reform and the social unrest created by rapid economic development. 

I am presently in the midst of an on-going interdisciplinary research project on the impact of the revival of international Islamic education networks among Chinese Muslims. My initial findings on the resurgence of Islamic education among Chinese Muslims are based on interviews with Muslim students and teachers in different regions of China, and also Chinese Muslim students presently studying overseas.  This research seeks to understand the impact of these networks of international Islamic education on Islam in China, changing concepts of identity among Chinese students who have studied abroad, and their potential influence on their communities upon their return home. 


Christine Hunner (Universität Bochum)
Forms of religiosity among students and teachers in Islamic training centres in Azerbaijan

[no abstract available]


Noorhaidi Hasan (Int. Inst. For Asian Studies, Leiden)
The Salafi madrasas in Indonesia: history, profile, and network

The rise of Muslim paramilitary groups with the names like the Laskar Jihad, the Laskar Pembela Islam, and the Laskar Mujahidin marked the widespread manifestations of Islamic radicalism in the aftermath of the collapse of the New Order regime in Indonesia. These paramilitary groups were active in making the headlines by taking to the streets to demand the implementation of the Islamic shari_a, conducting razzias to cafes, discotheques, brothels, and other venues of amusement, and most importantly, calling for jihad to the Moluccas and other trouble spots in the country. Of these three groups, the Laskar Jihad appeared to be the most phenomenal one as it could mobilize thousands of fighters to fight jihad in the Moluccas.

The success of the Laskar Jihad to conduct its jihad actions was significantly determined by the very existence of the Salafi madrasas, or pesantrens in Indonesian term, scattered in a dozen of provinces in Indonesia. These madrasas were controlled by Salafi ustazs, the majority of whom were graduates of the Salafi teaching centers in Yemen attached to Muqbil ibn Hadi al-Wadi_i. During the formative months of this group the madrasas served as the recruitment pools of the fighters coming from the countryside. In spite of their importance, the madrasas were almost completely overlooked in the analyses of researchers and observers concerned with the Laskar Jihad. 

The efflorescence of the Salafi madrasas is a relatively new phenomenon. It cannot be disassociated from the expansion of the contemporary Salafi communities adopting the most puritanical Saudi Arabian-style of Islam, the Wahhabism. Within the puritan tradition of the Wahhabism, the madrasas developed a distinguished system, which is distinctly different from existing schools, which include modern-style _secular_ schools, sekolah, modern-style _Islamic_ schools, madrasah, as well as traditional-style _Islamic_ schools, pesantren. The system adopted indicates a rejection against anything regarded as the influence of the corrupting Western culture and, at the same time, the traditional corpus of religious authority. Interestingly perhaps, the madrasas constructed their own system of authority directly connected to the Wahhabi authorities in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.

This paper will, first of all, examine how the Salafi madrasas developed in Indonesia and what factors contributed to their proliferation. In this respect, the developments that occurred both at the domestic and the transnational levels are to be taken into account. In addition to that, this paper will analyze the profile of the madrasas, which focuses on three aspects, including their appearances, backgrounds of teachers and students, and curriculum. These three aspects will shed light on the distinctiveness of the madrasas compared even with similar puritan madrasas. Finally, this paper will scrutinize the network of the madrasas with an emphasis on their transnational linkages with the Middle East.


Martin van Bruinessen (ISIM, Leiden)
‘Traditionalist’ and ‘Islamist’ pesantren in contemporary Indonesia

The vast majority of Indonesia’s pesantren (as madrasa are known there) offer a traditional curriculum in which Shafi`i fiqh has the central place and are staunch defenders of traditional forms of devotion against Islamic reformism and puritanism. In the early 20th century a number of modern associations representing the interests of the pesantren and the traditionalist kiai (ulama) were established, the most important of which was Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). In a recent nation-wide survey, over 40% of the Muslim respondents indicated that they identified to some extent with NU, which gives an indication of the significance of the traditionalist pesantren milieu. Leading politicians of all parties made high-profile visits to pesantren prior to the recent parliamentary elections, perceiving the kiai to control the votes of their followers.

Almost all of the major kiai are the scions of families that have produced ulama for several generations. A few years of study in the Middle East — with individual traditionalist ulama in Mecca, at al-Azhar, or more recently at universities in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the region — is still considered important to strengthen their legitimacy. The traditionalist pesantren had long constituted a closed and xenophobic environment but from the 1970s on they gradually opened up, and the generation that came of age then showed a greater interest in the problems of society as well as contemporary ‘liberal’ Islamic thought. Many recent returnees from the Middle East, however, bring back more conservative attitudes than are current in their Indonesian environment.

The number of pesantren associated with reformist Muslim currents is rather limited and that of ‘Islamist’ pesantren even more so. The educational efforts of reformist Muslims have been, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, mostly directed at establishing modern Muslim schools teaching a curriculum of general subjects. The ‘modern pesantren’ that were established by reformists had a curriculum and teaching methods that distinguished them from the ‘traditionalist’ pesantren. Most reformist pesantren were, like the traditionalist pesantren, careful to cultivate good relations with national and local authorities. A small number, however, is associated with oppositional movements.

The paper focuses on three influential and controversial reformist pesantren networks, linked with different factions of the underground Darul Islam movement that has been striving to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. The pesantren Al-Mukmin in Ngruki near Solo became notorious as the alleged centre of the Jamaah Islamiyah network, that has been dubbed the Indonesian branch of Al Qaedah and has been accused of a series of terrorist acts. The wealthy pesantren Al-Zaytun in Haurgeulis, Indramayu, is accused of being affiliated with and financed by the West Javanese Darul Islam, while at the same time cultivating close relations with various elite circles including the Suharto family and the head of the state intelligence organization. The pesantren Hidayatullah, in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, finally, is neither in opposition to the state nor co-opted by it; it has built a nation-wide network through its well-distributed journal.