Book Review: Noor, Sikand & Bruinessen 2007 The Madrasa in Asia

werner [at]


This book is an essay collection of 9 papers on the Islamic theological education system in Asia and its reform movements. Noor is a teacher/lecturer at the School of International Studies in Singapore, Sikand is a professional writer from India, and van Bruinessen is a sociologist and was professor emeritus at Utrecht University. All three are or have been active in teaching in the Islamic world as well.

This book describes from an anthropological and sociological perspective the importance of the medresse (Arab. derived from darasa “to study,” school, p. 9) in the Islamic region, focusing on Asia. Individual madrasas, as well as entire networks from India (e.g., Deo-band), Pakistan, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia are described and examined here. The designated madrasas are private and non-university educational institutions offering secular and theological subjects. The secular subjects are taught on the foundation of an Islamic understanding so that the student can develop and move within the framework of an Islamic environment.

The book provides a good historical insight into the motivations that led to the formation of madrasas in individual situations and how they developed over long periods of time. Unanimously, the authors and the schools they examine argue for renewal and reorientation in the conception of Islamic education in these institutions. This is especially true in the secular education sector, which is usually too narrowly and one-sidedly limited to the Islamic sphere. The demand is to open up international, intercultural and interreligious contexts to a non-Islamic audience as well. These reform approaches are already underway or are being vigorously called for.

The overarching theme of the essays is the internal and external renewal of the madrasas and the internal and external resistance to it. Thus, the madrassa itself becomes a political institution in which the mutual oppositional forces of Islam are revealed (reformers vs. conservatives).

The work excels in its detailed portrayal of these two forces in Islam. However, in my opinion, it loses objectivity due to an overvaluation of the reform movement, which could just as easily be seen as a normal process of adaptation. In part, this paints a picture of the threat to the madrasas that is not necessarily realistic. This assessment is somewhat qualified by the fact that the activities that develop out of the madrasas are clearly anti-reformist. As a result, a clearly described tension emerges between reformers and counterforces in these educational institutions. Some personal biographical fates of students enrich the sketched picture.

It is a clear contemporary perspective on “modern” Islam. Anyone who studies this topic will get an impression of the politically active forces in this space, where they come from, how they operate, and how they are generated. Since madrasas provide a path to education primarily for poor citizens, these Islamic educational institutions represent elementary opinion makers. This work is also important for those who want to learn about the various networks and linkages currently active in the Asian-Islamic education sector.