Glossary: Madrassa or Madrasa

A Quick Glimpse Into Islamic Schools

Internally displaced children look on as they recite the Arabic alphabet at a Madrassa
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images News/Getty Images

 

Madrassas and Fundamentalism

The word "madrassa"--also spelled madrassah or madrasah--is Arabic for "school" and commonly used throughout the Arab and Islamic world to refer to any place of learning in the same sense that, in the United States, the word "school" refers to a primary school, high school or university. It can be a secular, vocational, religious or technical school. In general, however, madrassas offer religious-based instruction focusing on the Koran and Islamic texts at both the primary and secondary levels.

The negative connotation of the word "madrassa" as it's come to be understood in the English-speaking world--as referring to a place where fundamentalist, Islamic instruction is combined with anti-Western vocations, or in the extreme, as a place where terrorists are formed ideologically--is largely an American and British conceit. It is for the most part, but not entirely, inaccurate.

These centuries-old Islamic religious institutions came into closer focus after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, when experts suspected that madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan teaching Islamic extremism were tied to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, fomenting anti-Americanism and fostering hatred toward the West in general.

Rise of Religious Schools

One of the first madrassas--the Nizamiyah--was established in Baghdad in the 11th century A.D. It offered free lodging, education and food.

Unquestionably, there has been a rise in the number of religious schools in the Islamic world, and particularly of schools dominated by the more fundamentalist Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafi strains of Islam. Pakistan reported that between 1947 and 2001, the number of religiously based madrassas increased from 245 to 6,870.

The schools are often funded by Saudi Arabia or other private Muslim donors through a system known as zakat, which is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith and requires part of one's income to be given to charity. Some madrassas have produced militants, especially in Pakistan, where the government in the 1980s actively supported the formation of Islamic militias to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Madrassas focused on theology as dictated by the Koran until the 20th century, along with mathematics, logic and literature. Overwhelmingly, however, madrassas are apolitical and, due to their low costs, provide instruction and boarding to the poorer segments of society--segments generally neglected by the state. While the majority of madrassas are for boys, a handful is dedicated to the education of girls.

Madrassa Reform

Due to extreme poverty in some Muslim nations, such as Pakistan, experts believe education reform is but one key to preventing terrorism. In 2007, US Congress passed a law requiring annual reports on efforts of Muslim countries to modernize basic education in madrassas as well as close institutions that promoted Islamic fundamentalism and extremist ideology. 

Pronunciation: mad-rAsAH