Traditional Islam is looked at with renewed interest and some European Muslims are seeking a religious education that follows ancestral methods

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:49

Having been eclipsed by various forms of reformism, traditional Islam is now meeting with a renewed interest. It is not uncommon for European Muslims, too, to make their way to a Muslim country in order to receive religious instruction following ancestral methods based on textual memorization and chains of knowledge-transmission that go all the way back to Muhammad.


In the early 2000s, certain currents in Islam began to compete for legitimacy and orthodoxy in Europe. In France, the young Muslims of the day often swung between Wahhabism, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Muslim Brotherhood. Traditional Islam was still widely ignored.


And yet, a few years later, that same traditionalist Islam that had once been eclipsed by the rise of Wahhabism (and, in tandem, by the social and religious consolidation of certain movements born of the reformist approach) has sparked a new interest amongst young Muslims in Europe. It was in this context that, after observing these facts, I undertook a series of journeys, travelling to various traditional Islamic teaching institutions, in Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania, in particular. This article seeks to present these different institutions in a reportage format, highlighting the points they have in common despite the geographical and cultural distances between these places of Islam’s transmission.


Traditionalist and Reformist Currents


First of all, it is necessary to define traditionalist Islam. As of the nineteenth century, the rise of reformist currents in Islam—fuelled, in particular, by thinkers such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838/9-1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935)—justifies the label “traditionalist” to designate the camps remaining faithful to a tradition enduring many centuries in terms of both doctrine and practice. At the same time, the growth of Wahhabism, which appeals to the same myth of a return to the sources that the above-mentioned reformist thinkers deployed (whilst developing drastically opposed perspectives, however), accentuated Islam’s split in various countries by proposing itself as a third way between the traditionalist currents and the reformist ones. For example, in Indonesia, the Nahdlatul Ulama movement (which supports a traditionalist approach) and its competitor, the Muhammadiyah (which represents the reformist current), are the two greatest religious camps in the country. In Mali and the Ivory Coast, on the other hand, the split sets the traditionalist and Sufi currents (legitimated by a centuries-old presence) against the more recently established Wahhabi current, which has important funding behind it.


The three institutions that I will present are all situated within Arab societies and constitute special places for this traditionalist Islam’s preservation and teaching. Characterised by an approach that goes back several centuries, they have in common their adoption of both a particular methodology and an ancestral religious vision that involves adherence to the traditional schools for all three levels of the Muslim religion: dogma or creed (al-imān), ritual and social practice (al-islām) and spirituality (al-ihsān). This according to a tri-partition found in a hadith that is widely cited (in imam al-Nawawī’s collections, above all). In contrast, the reformist currents support a return to the sources, thereby challenging the heritage of Islamic thought and stepping outside the framework of these great schools.


At the creedal level, traditionalist Islam recognises the Ash‘ari and the Maturidi schools. At a practical level and, therefore, as far as fiqh (jurisprudence) is concerned, it recommends that believers follow one of the four major schools of law (or madhhab): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i or Hanbali. Lastly, at the spiritual level, traditional Islam recognizes some forty-odd brotherhoods (turuq). In concrete terms, emphasis is put on the first two dimensions (creed and practice), given that belonging to a spiritual way is not considered a religious “duty”, unlike the creedal dimension (al-imān) and the practice of the five pillars (al-islām).


Building where the students of Matamoulana read their lessons [Baptiste Brodard]


The zāwiya in Inzegmir, Algeria


Situated in the little village of Inzegmir, between Adrar and Reggane, about 1,500 km south of Algiers, Sheikh al-Hassan’s zāwiya is both a place where traditional Islam is taught and a Sufi spiritual centre. Sufism remains particularly influential in the heart of the Algerian Sahara and in the region of Adrar, above all. Its transmission is effected in the zawāyā, emblematic places built around the aura of a sheikh, either living or deceased. These zawāyā are a place of prayer and education but also of shelter or refuge. Men of varying ages come to the zāwiya at Inzegmir either to be regenerated or to take refuge or flee some difficult social, family or psychological situation. Traditionally, visitors can stay at least three days and benefit from three free meals a day. The sheikh receives many visits throughout the year. These are sometimes motivated by faith and religious fervour and sometimes also by a need of moral (if not actual material) support.


A stone’s throw away from the zāwiya in Inzegmir, a madrasa (or Qur’anic school) accommodates more than one hundred children, teenagers and young adults who have come to study the Qur’an and Islamic law as taught by the Maliki school. Board, lodging and education are entirely free and a student who, for example, resides in the madrasa for two years will not have to fork out anything. In practical terms, the study programme begins with a comprehensive memorization of the Qur’an. The student begins by writing the last suras on a wooden board covered with sun-dried clay, using a wooden pen dipped in ink. Once the whole board is covered with Qur’anic texts, the student repeats the verses to himself a great number of times until he knows them by heart. He then hands the board in to his teacher, reciting the text by heart. If he succeeds, he is authorized to wash it with water and cover it with a fresh layer of clay that will be left to dry in the sun so that he may then write out the next verses. This process continues until the whole Qur’an has been memorized, starting with the last sura and working backwards to the beginning of the Book. The average time taken to memorize the entire Book is estimated to be two years, although this can vary significantly from individual to individual. This method of learning the Qur’an has been used for centuries in the countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and Western Africa (Mauritania, Senegal and Mali, above all).


After memorizing the entire Qur’an, the student approaches the classical texts in Maliki jurisprudence and the seminal work by Ibn ‘Āshir, in particular. In this school, the approach to religious learning is fundamentally based on memorization. It is only once a student has memorized numerous texts that he tackles other themes. Many of the students trained in this school go on to become imams and will officiate in various regions of Algeria.


In addition to the learning routine within the madrasa, the zāwiya regularly organizes conferences and the sheikh gives lectures on various religious issues ranging from law to spirituality. Furthermore, there are daily group recitations of the religious litanies (dhikhr and qasā’id), including the famous Burda composed by the imam al-Būsīrī in the thirteenth century.


The Village of Matamoulana in Mauritania


In traditional Islamic circles, Mauritania is one of the countries most famed for its religious teaching. Mainly celebrated for its study of Arabic, the Qur’an and the Maliki fiqh, this country has become popular in certain western Muslim communities thanks to Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. An American who became a Muslim at the end of his adolescence, Yusuf then studied Islam in Mauritania for several years, primarily with the great sheikh Murābit al-Hājj.


Thus Mauritania has become a special place to study Islam for foreign Muslims, especially western ones, even if the poverty and rudimentary living conditions limit the number of vocations. After reading various things about it, I made my way to the village of Matamoulana where, I had heard, many European Muslims had lived and studied. Some foreign students residing in the village had even launched an Internet site in 2006. When I arrived in Matamoulana in 2017, without any prior contact, I discovered to my surprise that I was the only European present in the place. There were many foreign students but they all came from nearby African countries (Mali and Senegal, in particular). The one exception was, curiously, a teenager of Saudi origin. Then they explained to me that it was fears over safety linked to the announced presence of al-Qaeda in the country that had discouraged western students and that the lack of resources and the difficult living conditions were aggravating factors.


I was given a great welcome and lodged in the sheikh’s house, like all the expected or spontaneous visitors who turn up at the village. The sheikh is a representative of Tarīqa Tjiāniyya, one of the largest Sufi brotherhoods. The teaching dispensed in the village is also traditionalist, in line with Ash‘ari creed and Maliki jurisprudence, and it follows the model of the madrasa in Inzegmir, Algeria. However, the syllabus for the adults is much freer. The teachers tell me that the student can choose the subjects and works that he desires to study. Here, too, the approach is based on reading and memorization. The sheikh offers an explanation of the texts and then questions the student, who must repeat the knowledge back correctly so that the master can make sure that it has been assimilated correctly.


The gap between the place’s physical structure and the quality of the intellectual approach is striking. A group of students is sitting around the teacher on the sand in front of a modest building. The teacher summarizes a paragraph from a work on creed and the divine attributes. His Arabic and his diction are both impeccable and his words worthy of a university course. The climate is hot, the environment is dirty and physically uncomfortable and it is difficult to keep paying attention. I am therefore all the more surprised by the quality of the teacher’s exposition in this context.


A vocation, devotion and a sense of service are de rigueur if one is to be able to teach in these conditions. In this perspective, the teaching of Islam is accompanied by an educational approach based on the transmission of values and a highly developed degree of morality. Solidarity, self-denial, respect, kindness and compassion are at the heart of relations and the behaviour of the teachers seems exemplary.


After the sunset prayer, the faithful usually unite in the mosque’s little courtyard and intone sacred texts during the night. Electricity is a rare commodity in this village, since it is provided only by a generator. It is therefore necessary to carry electric torches in order to move about, even in the mosque.


The Dār al-Mustafā School in Yemen


The Dār al-Mustafā institute is situated in the historic city of Tarim, in the Hadhramaut region of South-eastern Yemen. Tarim has been famous for centuries as a theological centre. It is known for its Islamic sciences and also for its scholars, including the seventeenth-century imam al-Haddād. The city is home to a significant number of the prophet Muhammad’s descendants and is a place recognised for its teaching of Islam. Nowadays, the city’s best-known scholar is, without a shadow of a doubt, Sheikh Habīb ‘Umar Bin Hāfiz. His influence reaches beyond Yemen’s borders. He founded the Dār al-Mustafā school, which has become a prominent place for traditional Sunni teaching. Valued as a spiritual master and preacher, Sheikh Habīb al-Jifrī is another contemporary figure of traditionalist Islam whose life journey remains tied to Tarim and the Dār al-Mustafā institute even though he currently resides in the Arab Emirates.


With its name referring to the prophet Muhammad, the Dār al-Mustafā institute is far better known and much more frequented than the two previously described institutions, particularly when it comes to foreigners. It has an Internet site and enjoys wide coverage both online and in the media. The institute welcomes many Yemeni and foreign students into its boarding house all year round. The majority of them come from Malaysia and Indonesia. Others are Pakistani, Comorian, American or Swedish. These students live in spartan little dormitories. They participate in the daily prayers in the mosque and in the spiritual circles, whilst they follow courses in Arabic, Islamic law, creed and spirituality in little groups. The traditional teaching consists of sessions during which the students cluster around the teacher as he delivers a lecture. In this way, various little circles form every day within the mosque or in the nearby houses.


Study session in the Dār al-Mustafā school


During the course of a few years, these foreign students memorize the Qur’an and deepen their knowledge in the fields of creed, jurisprudence and spirituality. They benefit from a traditional teaching characterised by its connecting itself to a chain of transmission going all the way back to the prophet Muhammad. It is important to underline that the education offered at Dār al-Mustafā goes a long way beyond mere acquisition of theological knowledge. Indeed, the emphasis is placed, above all, on putting the learning into practice, the acquisition of values, personal growth and the spiritual journey, taking the figure of the Prophet as an example. After the courses have ended, quite a few students choose to remain in Tarim in order to be close to the sheikh and because of the city’s spiritual atmosphere.


Furthermore, during the summer, Dār al-Mustafā organizes a forty-day programme for foreigners, lodging them in some neighbouring houses for the occasion. The daily routine during this programme involves many worship-related practices such as prayer, dhikr and fasting. For the occasion, the longer-term students translate the courses from Arabic into English so as to allow the students coming especially for this programme to benefit from the teaching despite their linguistic shortcomings. The programme is also (and primarily) conceived in a fraternal, community spirit that favours exchanges and sharing between the different persons present. Several dozens of students coming especially from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, the United States and even South America join the permanent students and their teachers for this programme.


An Antidote to Sectarian Drift


The Islamic training institutions in Tarim in Yemen, the Adrar region in Algeria and the village of Matamoulana in Mauritania present an approach to religious teaching that falls within a tradition enduring several centuries. It is characterised, above all, by a legitimacy based on chains of transmission, thereby establishing a continuity between the teaching received today and the scholar’s teaching in previous centuries.


The practices at the zāwiya in Inzegmir, Algeria, and the Matamoulana madrasa in Mauritania are particularly similar. They belong to the Maliki current that remains highly present in Western Africa, especially in the Sahel and the desert parts of the Maghreb countries. For a few years now, this trend has been challenged by the rise of Wahhabism, which discredits the traditional forms of Islam by presenting a very different approach to the religion and benefitting from Saudi petrodollars.


These places of traditionalist learning continue to attract Muslims from numerous countries; Muslims who wish to find an authentic Islam and a form of teaching ratified by chains of transmission that can guarantee an idea of continuity and, therefore, orthodoxy, at the religious and spiritual level. However, accessibility problems and harsh living conditions drastically limit the number of western students. In fact, some institutions in Medina or Cairo attract a far higher number of young Muslims from Europe and America because of the environmental conditions and the methods they offer. These dispense a teaching rooted in Wahhabism, to the detriment of the traditional Sunni institutions that cannot afford the same material facilities. In addition to Wahhabism’s fierce competition, the legitimacy of the traditionalist Islam taught by the institutions presented in this reportage is being increasingly called into question by new reformist currents promoting a critical selection from the Muslim theological output and a freer reflection on the founding texts (Qur’an and hadīth). In this perspective, a teaching based on chains of transmission and the rote-learning of ancient texts so dear to the traditionalists is strongly contested. This being said, traditionalist Islam remains legitimate for millions of Muslims who continue to see it as the orthodox expression of Islam and the antidote to the sectarian, militant and terrorist drifts that they perceive in some branches of contemporary political Islam.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Baptiste Brodard, “A Journey in Search of the Madrasa”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 114-128.

Online version:
Baptiste Brodard, “A Journey in Search of the Madrasa”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/a-journey-in-search-of-the-madrasa