What is a madrasa today? The volume edited by Hefner and Zaman answers this question through a wide-ranging recognition in the contemporary world, preceded by a brief historical sketch of the school, which takes root in the middle period of the Islamic civilisation (around 1000-1500). From the comparison with the past appear above all elements of discontinuity. ‘The new madrasas are indeed less the preservers of a living but established culture [...] and more a locus of jihâd, of the “struggle” to work out an acceptable and indigenous form of Muslim modernity’ (p. 55).
A series of chapters, entrusted to some of the most renown specialists in the sector, examine the most significant models of Islamic education with great clarity, lucidity and scientific precision. Emblematic of the huge variety of solutions adopted is the Indian sub-continent, which has seen the appearance of two completely different types of madrasas: inspired by the reformist Deobandi movement and basically fundamentalist in Pakistan, pluralist in India and devoted to the preservation of an endangered identity. Modernity has also meant two new actors coming onto the scene: the state, which has often been in rivalry with the ulema, and the West which has brought with it unprecedented education models. In many cases the traditional Islamic schools have successfully taken up the challenge. The al-Azhar incident in Egypt continues to be paradigmatic for the relations with the state, but also in Turkey laicity today means the control of religious expression and no longer its exclusion from the public sphere. However, the most significant aspect of Islamic education in Turkey is undoubtedly represented by the Gülen movement, now widespread also in the West and inspired by the principles and above all the practice of tolerance.
At the other extreme of the Muslim world Indonesia is also on its way to overcoming the dualism between traditional religious education given by the madrasas (locally called pesantren) and modern state education, integrating the former in a high level academic system. Morocco’s case, characterised by the decline of traditional education following the introduction of the French system, in many ways remains isolated: in other countries, like Mali, the madrasas have managed to embrace some demands of modernity without giving up their specific nature. Equally interesting is the chapter on the Islamic schools in Great Britain, which in some cases reproduce the Deobandi models of the Indian sub-continent, while in others there are attempts to create the bases for a European Islam. It must not be forgotten moreover that only 3% of the young Muslims resident in Great Britain receive any type of Islamic education. The epilogue, written by Zaman, on the one hand looks at the complex situation of the Shiite schools in Iran and Iraq and on the other that of the Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia.
What conclusions can be drawn from this detailed study? Hefner remarks: ‘If there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims going on around the world, which there certainly is, madrasas and religious education are on its front line’ (p. 2). ‘For a Western public shocked by images of terrorist violence and convinced that madrasas may be a big part of the problem, the suggestion that the fault line in Islamic education lies astride this question of scholastic unitarianism versus epistemological pluralism may appear ludicrous. In Muslim educational practice, however, there is no more decisive a contest’ (p. 35).