The jihadist threat has refocused attention on the content of religious teaching. How and where Muslims are trained

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

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:44

It happened after 2001 and it happened again after 2014. With every wave of Islamist terrorism, Islamic educational institutions end up in the media spotlight, either pointed at as hotbeds of fundamentalism or identified as the most effective antidote to it. In the era of the Taleban and al-Qaeda, it was the turn of the Pakistani madrasas and the textbooks used in Saudi schools, above all. A few studies[i] subsequently suggested that, although the education imparted in the schoolroom certainly affects the mindset of the younger generations, the association between textbooks and radicalization risks being over hasty. This connection is all the more debatable in the era of ISIS, given the decisive role that internet networks, social media and on-line recruiters have played in its rise. Nevertheless, debates regarding the degree of responsibility attributable to the teaching centres have not been lacking recently either. The most significant one has been taking place in Egypt, where the al-Azhar mosque-university has been accused of spreading the germs of extremism through its institutions’ textbooks. The mosque’s most senior figures therefore launched an overhaul that expunged from the incriminated volumes those passages (such as the ones relating to slavery, jihad or the discriminatory status prescribed for non-Muslims) that were most problematic for modern sensitivities and, above all, most in keeping with the jihadist organizations’ ideology and actions.


If al-Azhar, with its millenary existence, is the incarnation of that Islamic tradition that jihadism has helped to put in the dock, Rabat’s Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt (male and female religious guides) was specifically created to counter the extremist readings of Islam, as Salim Hmimnat explains in his article. The project dates back to 2005 when, in response to the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, the Moroccan monarchy undertook a deep-reaching reform of the country’s religious structures. In 2015, however, it was transformed into a permanent institution that has become the jewel in the crown for a state desiring to present itself as a model of moderation and stability.


A reading of the Institute’s study plans and textbooks also shows the initiative’s limitations and, above all, its political dimension, however, since it seeks to integrate the imams within a religious bureaucracy that serves the state’s goals and uses Islam as a soft-power tool to increase Morocco’s international projection, particularly in Africa. And in the case of Egypt, too, one may legitimately wonder—as does Ahmad Wagih in his article—how far the controversy around al-Azhar is really justified by the mosque’s responsibility and how far it responds, on the other hand, to the desire of political power to put pressure on the religious institutions in order to limit their authority. This is no novelty: in political systems that have integrated Islam within their structures it is normal for religion to be used to pursue particular interests or to spread particular messages. The case of Jordan demonstrates this. Like Morocco, it is trying to find a balance between faithfulness to its roots and openness to modernity. Indeed, the textbooks used for religious education in the country’s schools demonstrate an unresolved tension between clear condemnation of the terrorist interpretations of Islam and insistence on methods fostering both an uncritical learning and ideas that risk proving highly insidious, as a study carried out by Ignazio de Francesco reveals.


The education question nevertheless cannot be reduced to the prevention of extremism and the measures adopted by states to this end. In a religion like Islam, for which “knowledge”[ii](‘ilm) is fundamental, the latter’s transmission has a very wide-ranging impact. Indeed, according to a saying falsely attributed to Muhammad but frequently cited by Muslims, knowledge must be sought throughout a person’s life, “from the cradle to the grave.” However, it should not be forgotten that if what is at stake today in Islamic education seems to have become young people’s immunization against the virus of jihadism, reforming educational institutions is a leitmotiv in the modern and contemporary history of Muslim countries. For example, the controversies over the teaching at al-Azhar were born not today but one hundred and fifty years ago.[iii] And the debates about the restructuring of the principal Moroccan religious teaching centre, the Qarawiyyin University at Fes (to which the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt has been annexed), date back to the era of the French protectorate.[iv] The subject is so important that, from the 1960s onwards, there developed a current of thought (to which the Classics section of this edition is dedicated) holding that the origin of the evils afflicting Muslim societies is the spread of Western secular educational systems within them. To remedy this, it is therefore necessary to Islamize knowledge: a project that seeks to radically transform the type of education to which Muslims are subjected, starting with the universities.


Despite this emphasis on reform, re-organizing the educational structures and overhauling the teaching programmes, traditional madrasas and the ancestral learning methods characterising them are surviving. Indeed, not only are they surviving but they also seem to be experiencing a renewed interest amongst many young Muslims, including European ones. These young people are ready to put up with difficult environmental and climatic conditions just to acquire a knowledge that has been confirmed by chains of transmission traceable all the way back to Islam’s Prophet. This is documented by Baptiste Brodard’s report, which is dedicated to three of these traditional Islamic teaching centres (one in Algeria, one in Mauritania and one in Yemen) where believers can devote themselves to memorising the great religious texts and, at the same time, live a particularly intense experience of community life.


Another form of traditional education is the one occurring in the Sufi training described in Alexandre Papas’ article. In Sufism, however, true knowledge is not acquired in the madrasa but is, rather, that hidden knowledge that may be accessed through a journey of initiation centred on one’s relationship with a master. Unconditional obedience towards the latter enables the disciple to subjugate his own ego and receive a formation that prescribes precise rules of conduct in every area of life: from food to control of one’s natural instincts and the etiquette to be observed during journeys.


The education received by members of the Moroccan movement al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsān is also heavily influenced by a Sufi matrix. Founded in the 1980s by Sheikh ‘Abd al-Salām Yāsīn (once a member of the Sufi Būdshīshiyya brotherhood), the movement has been dominated by him and his teachings. In his work The Prophetic Method, Yāsīn outlines a complex pedagogical programme designed to help disciples achieve spiritual perfection. But, as Youssef Mounsif explains, in the case of al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsān, the discipline to which activists are subjected has a double goal: not only access to divine reality (a goal that characterizes every Sufi path) but also the building of an integrally and authentically Islamic society and state.


Everything said so far—in all its multifacetedness—goes for the Sunni world. In the Shi‘ite world, transmission of religious knowledge assumes an even greater importance, if that is possible. Indeed, it involves a sacred science on which the hierarchy of the various levels of authority is founded. The place in which such transmission occurs is the hawza. The latter’s history, outlined by Alessandro Cancian, have been marked by a double development during the modern and contemporary eras: on the one hand, rivalry between different centres (particularly between the school of Qom in Iran, which became the “intellectual and religious capital” of the Islamic Republic after the Khomeinist revolution in 1979, and the Najaf school in Iraq, which remains the centre of reference for non-revolutionary Shi‘ism) and, on the other, a leaning towards internationalization and integration with the university world.


And Europe? Here, too, the question of Muslims’ training has become more pressing with the emergency related to jihadist terrorism but no truly satisfactory answers have been found to date. There has been no lack of initiatives but neither the various Islamic communities nor the different European states have acted in a concerted manner.[v] Where it has proved possible (as in Germany, for example), centres of Islamic theology have been created within state Theology Faculties; elsewhere, it has been the Islamic organizations that have founded private teaching institutes. More recently, in Belgium, the Muslim Islamicist Michaël Privot has announced the imminent arrival of a European Institute of Islamic Studies.[vi] However, it is generally the Muslim immigrants’ countries of origin or the teaching centres situated beyond Europe’s borders that still play a predominant role in the training of European Muslims.


We have not been able to cover all these aspects. The history of the Islamic Faculties in the Balkans (analysed by Enes Karić) may give some idea, however. That experience has been an interesting one for at least two reasons. In the first place, because the Muslims in this context have had to reckon with the existence of a secular state and it has been in the local Faculties of Islamic Studies that jurists and theologians have reflected on the issue. In the second place, because by demonstrating the nexus between Muslim communities and teaching institutions, it offers some useful indicators for Western Europe as well.


Felice Dassetto wrote in the leader of the previous edition of Oasis that what was urgently needed in Europe was “not mosque-building… but, rather, the forming of minds.” In order for that to happen, it is necessary, first and foremost, to shed light on the various types of Islamic religious education, their methods and their objectives. As Hmimnat has indicated with regard to Morocco, the practical preparation offered in a training course for imams is one thing but the theological knowledge of the ulama, acquired during a long period of studies, is quite another. In the second place, training cannot be reduced to a matter of public order. It is certainly of fundamental importance that those who occupy positions of responsibility in Islamic communities and organizations know how to interact appropriately with the context in which they find themselves and are able to offer guarantees as to security and reliability. However, knowledge is a source of authority in Islam and transforming imams and religious leaders into policemen or even simply into civics teachers (something that both European states and countries with a Muslim majority are often tempted to do) means compromising their credibility and leaving believers to seek elsewhere the figures of reference that they need. It is, conversely, in the interests of everyone that, in addition to preventing the spread of extremism, Muslim leaders of the future may be able to contribute to the spiritual and cultural well-being of the societies in which they live.


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

[i] See, in particular, Eleanor Abdella Doumato and Gregory Starrett (eds.), Teaching Islam. Textbooks and Religion in the Middle East. Boulder (CO)-London: Lynne Rienner, 2017 and Robert Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Schooling Islam. The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.
[ii] See the classic work by Franz Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant. The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2007.
[iii] Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism. Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
[iv] Pierre Vermeren, “Une si difficile réforme. La réforme de l’université Qarawiyyin de Fès sous le Protectorat français au Maroc, 1912-1956,” Cahiers de la Méditerranée, no. 75 (2007), pp. 119–132.
[v] Francis Messner and Moussa Abou Ramadan, L’enseignement universitaire de la théologie musulmane. Perspectives comparatives, Paris: Cerf, 2018.
[vi] See the interview with Privot conducted by Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner and published in La Croix on 1st July 2019,


To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Training Minds, not Policemen”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 7-11.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Training Minds, not Policemen”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019