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

Definition: The word "madrassa" 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.

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.

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. A few schools 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.

Overwhelmingly, however, madrassas are apolitical and provide instruction and boarding to the poorer segments of society--segments generally neglected by the state.

Pronunciation: mad-rAsAH

Alternate Spellings: madrassa, madrassah, madrasah.