Knowledge is not a fragile glass lamp wherein its flame can be snuffed out in a single breath. Centuries of the interweaving of various insights and scholarships in the case of the Islamic tradition simultaneously demonstrate the durability and malleability of the production, transmission and reception of knowledge. The challenge of reform, variously associated with islah, tajdid, ihya and nahda in the Arabo-Islamic milieu, is thus not an existential threat to the body of beliefs, rituals, acts, norms, practices and institutions under the umbrella of Islam in the age of (post)modernity. In his tersely titled book What is a Madrasa? Ebrahim Moosa has intervened in a stormy debate about the very institutions which transmitted to him the multifaceted corpus of the Islamic tradition. Reform punctuates the pages of a critical and calm meditation on the relatively recent emergence of the madrasa system on the Indian subcontinent.
The title of Moosa’s book is taken verbatim from the opening line of Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s book about Dar ul-Uloom Nadwatul Ulema (Nadwa, for short), published and translated in English in 2007 (Turath, London). A question which Akram Nadwi, a protégé of Nadwa’s late well-known rector Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, answers in a string of comments and reflections documenting a typical day of his student life in the Indian city of Lucknow. Although eight years separate the publication of the two books, both authors graduates of Nadwa, a forthright dialogue about reform within the madrasa is clearly in the offing. Intimate snapshots of the inner workings of the world of the madrasa on the subcontinent do not reveal sword-brandishing or gun-toting hordes of fanatics, so-called ‘jihadis’ seeking to overwhelm Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War) or Dar al-Kufr (the Abode of Disbelief). A vast repertoire of acts beginning prior to the break of dawn to after midnight inspired by a meticulously cultivated piety instead comes to the foreground.