Field Notes article

Contending Modernities Goes to the Madrasa

A high ranking orthodox Muslim scholar in India recently cautioned against the taking of photographs. He deemed such practices to be un-Islamic based on a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad forbidding the making of images. And, a few decades ago, one of the highest religious authorities in Saudi Arabia caused consternation and controversy by challenging modern cosmology on the basis of the Quranic verses, insisting that the Sun revolves around a stationary Earth. The shaykh, who was blind, imagined the world through the classical texts he read. A Saudi prince and astronaut who returned from a voyage on the Space Shuttle Discovery eventually corrected the venerable scholar. These attitudes represent a tension within some orthodox Muslim scholarly circles: the contestation between fidelity to the teachings of the past and flight towards the changes of the future.

Muslim tradition has always experienced this tension. In the classical period of Islam, the liberal arts and the humanities successfully mediated such tensions between science and theology. They reconciled the letter of scripture with the rigor of Greek philosophy to produce a robust theology in defense of religion.

The irony today is that Muslim educational institutions, known as madrasas, are negligent of history while obsessed with tradition. They dwell in the past but suffer from amnesia. Ebrahim Moosa in his recent book, What Is a Madrasa?, writes, “With the rise of scripture-based religiosity in the twentieth century, much of the cultural assets of Islamic theological discourses have suffered.” He argues in favor of a reform of the madrasa curriculum in light of new knowledge, drawing on the forgotten intellectual resources of the Islamic tradition that lie dormant like a seed, waiting to be planted in rich soil, with ample sunlight and just the right amount of rain.

To pursue some of this retrieval of the Muslim tradition of humanities Professor Moosa—expanding significantly the outreach promise of Contending Modernities—has received a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation to launch a three-year project to advance scientific and theological literacy in madrasa discourses in India. The seed is the tradition. The soil is the madrasa graduates. The rain is the instructors. And the sunlight is the curriculum.

How does a tradition with such a strong emphasis on knowledge transmission engage and respond to new patterns of thought? How does it survive as times change, not simply in new geographic or cultural contexts, but also in new conceptual universes? The answer is to look inward. There the seeker will find windows and doors to the outside.

One of the bugbears of contemporary Muslim intellectual life is rhetoric that warns of bid’a, roughly translated as innovation. “Every innovation leads astray, and all that strays is in hellfire,” proclaimed the Messenger of God. Although the Prophet Muhammad was warning specifically against heretical teachings in matters of creed and worship, this caution has been de-contextualized and has gone viral.  As a result, many pious folk are wary of innovation in almost every sphere of life: from photographs to new cosmological paradigms based on empirical evidence.

However, if “innovation” is a bad word then “renewal” is a good word. It is the seeker’s window to the present. The Prophet Muhammad reportedly said that every century, someone will appear on the stage of history to renew the teachings of Islam. Although there has rarely been unanimous consensus on who these “renewers” have been over the ages, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali is considered by many to be among them. In that respect, Ghazali is a model for our project: he used philosophy to critique philosophy, infused religious thought with logic, and chided the ignoramus who defended religion through zeal rather than reason: “Great indeed is the crime against religion committed by anyone who supposes that Islam is to be championed by a denial of these mathematical sciences” (Deliverance from Error, 64).

In the past Muslim tradition quickly learned that though believers perceive the island of true religion as terra firma, it is surrounded by the turbulent waters of reason and passion, where philosophic demonstration and scientific proof reside alongside whims and opinions. This realization presented a formidable challenge: in an ocean with many islands, how does an individual decide which island to inhabit? In an answer to this question, some pious predecessors took the plunge as risk-takers to chart the murky waters of philosophy.

There is no way of avoiding risks: one must learn to sail. Traditionalists learned the rules of reason well, and thus found ways to guide many a wayward soul to safety. However, the winds and currents have changed. Old arts are no match for new technology. Where there were once glittering stars there are now wandering satellites. Hierarchies have yielded to demands of equality. Personhood and relationships have been given new definition. Science has unleashed its splendor.

“Advancing Scientific and Theological Literacy in Madrasa Discourses in India” hopes to empower and educate young graduates of Muslim seminaries or madrasas in India to systematically engage these challenges. A robust curriculum will provide students with the critical reasoning tools and concepts to engage contemporary intellectual currents. An online discussion forum in Urdu—the local language—will be available to provoke and foster dialogue among participants and the wider scholarly community. We hope the learning experience will be transformative to the students, shaping pioneers who may lead the “renewal” of tradition as it was accomplished in the past.

Fortunately, critical thinking is much like riding a bike. If you’ve learned to do it once, you can do it again. By bringing young graduates into contact with western science and philosophy, while working from within the concepts, terms, texts, and traditions of Islam, the encounter will be both new and familiar. As Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned twentieth century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted, quoted by Moosa: “For us Muslims, mere English [modern] education is not sufficient, nor does the old Arabic madrasa education suffice. Our ailment requires a ‘compound panacea’ (maʿjun-i murakkab)—one portion eastern and the other western” (221).

Although we will be working with a relatively small group of students—between 100 to 200 over three years—we will provide a platform for engagement that may have a ripple effect in madrasa discourses in India and beyond. We anticipate that the study of theology and science will have multiple beneficial outcomes. Not only will this new mode of learning help us better understand the fault lines between secular knowledge and the Islamic theological tradition, it will also generate trust and new knowledge in the process. These outcomes are the foundation for intercultural understanding, sustainable peacebuilding, and the common good.


Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano,

Mahan Mirza
Mahan Mirza was appointed teaching professor and executive director for the Keough School's Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion on July 1, 2019.

An Islamic studies scholar and expert on religious literacy, Mirza brings extensive pedagogical and administrative experience to his roles at Notre Dame, including serving as dean of faculty at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college. Prior to his appointment as Executive Director of the Ansari Institute, Mirza served as the lead faculty member for Notre Dame's  Madrasa Discourses project, which equips Islamic religious leaders in India and Pakistan with the tools to confidently engage with pluralism, modern science, and new philosophies. 

Mirza holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Hartford Seminary, and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University. He has taught courses and lectured on Arabic-Islamic studies, western religions, and the history of science, along with foundational subjects in the liberal arts, including logic, rhetoric, astronomy, ethics, and politics. He has edited two special issues of 
The Muslim World
and served as assistant editor for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2018).

He is a fellow with the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the Keough School and continues to serve as an advisor for Madrasa Discourses.

2 thoughts on “Contending Modernities Goes to the Madrasa

  1. Dear MAHAN MIRZA,
    sorry to say that the entire madrassa system in India is not like as you mentioned. Madrassa system in kerala is not negligent of post modern currents, while obsessed with the tradition. The key feature of kerala model centralised madrassa system is the reformed curriculum of both western science and philosophy along with the classic texts of Islamic teaching and learning. I am really proud of being a graduate of the madrassa.

  2. Dear MAHAN MIRZA,
    I am Noorudeen Pattasseri from Kerala/India. A Madrasa graduate and currently staying in New Delhi for an intensive research project in contemporary social theory at Center for the study of the developing societies (CSDS). I would like to join with this project which is a promising project in Islamic intellectual renewal.

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