(RNS) — When Waqas Khan, a 29-year-old Pakistani, graduated from his madrasa in Karachi, he felt disillusioned.
Though he had earned top grades throughout his education, he felt confused about the role of religion and Islamic scholars in the 21st century. “I could not connect the learned knowledge with the world I am living in,” Khan told Religion News Service. “I needed to know what I am missing but I could not.”
Then he met Ebrahim Moosa, and the dots began to connect.
Moosa, a South African, had felt similarly disenchanted after graduating from the one of the most esteemed madrasas in the Muslim world, the famous Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama seminary in Lucknow, India. His curiosity pushed him to get a certificate in journalism, which led him to report on his native country’s struggles over apartheid.
He then pivoted toward academia, earning degrees at the University of Cape Town before moving to the United States to teach Islamic studies at Stanford, Duke and Notre Dame University in Indiana.
Those experiences, Moosa told RNS, helped fill in the critical gaps in his madrasa education and convinced him to help other highly but narrowly educated Muslims. In 2015, Moosa founded the Madrasa Discourses, a program of study based at Notre Dame that connects madrasa graduates — students like Waqas Khan —with the scientific and philosophical questions traditional madrasas often skip.
Madrasa is the Arabic word for a school of any kind but most often refers to Islamic seminaries, usually attached to mosques. They are invaluable, said Moosa, author of the 2015 book “What Is a Madrasa?” as “repositories of Islamic tradition.” But some orthodox Muslims, he says, “make an idol out of tradition, without recognizing that tradition is an active thing."
Studying with Moosa and his colleagues, Khan said, has allowed him to understand “difference of perspectives.”
Moosa’s initiative, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is now in its third year and has taught more than 80 students at Notre Dame and at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India, and GIFT University in Gujranwala, Pakistan.
The effort is meant to benefit the madrasas themselves as much as it is their students. The ulema, or the world’s body of Islamic scholars, were once intellectual and spiritual leaders within Muslim societies. Today, Moosa says, they are rapidly losing their moral authority as their madrasa educations have left them out of touch with the times.
The Madrasa Discourses aim to curb the “armchair theology tendencies,” in the words of coordinator Mahan Mirza, of today’s madrasa scholarship by bringing it into dialogue with modern intellectual currents.
Imparting basic scientific literacy is therefore critical.
Moosa, who considers himself primarily a theologian, leans on experts with scientific backgrounds to help participants understand scientific history and processes.
His colleague Mirza, a Notre Dame professor who leads the Contending Modernities program, helped design the curriculum and teaches online every week.
Mirza, with religious studies degrees from Hartford Seminary and Yale University, has studied mechanical engineering in Texas. Mirza has also served as the dean of faculty at Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college, where he taught Arabic-Islamic studies and the history of science.
Those who come to the program from traditional schools have little to no scientific literacy. “Some of them might perhaps know what the periodic table or an atom or an electron is,” Mirza said. “But we start with next to nothing.”
Their knowledge of classical Islam’s long engagement with philosophy, reasoning and science, he said, gives them a strong grounding on which to build. “Those kinds of things are already integrated into practical theology,” Mirza explained. “But students don't really recognize them as science anymore, because they consider them part of the Islamic intellectual tradition.”
The Madrasa Discourses team uses what it calls an "elicitive" approach. "We work from within the tradition and help them recognize the scientific reasoning already embedded within the tradition," Mirza said.
That, Moosa told RNS, is the key breakthrough: "Once our participants understand that Islamic history is not static, that this is a history of growth and development and alteration, it makes them very comfortable."
Learning about figures like Ibn Khaldun, an Arab historian who died in 1406 and is considered a founder of the social sciences, "rattles their cages."
In the second year of the three-year course, the students participate in roundtable discussions with local scientists and compare texts from Islamic and Western science and philosophy. They are given readings that depict how Islamic intellectual history is constructed and debated.
One important conceptual framework for the second-year course is the notion of “Big History," a recent academic trend that looks at the development of the universe and humankind in terms of large patterns instead of culture-by-culture, politically focused events.
For Waqas Khan, the biggest mental shift was understanding evolution. Before arriving at Notre Dame, he didn’t believe it was real. Now, he said, he sees it as a “significant scientific concept.”
Not everyone walks away from Madrasa Discourses having done a 180 on their beliefs. To the program’s organizers, that’s perfectly fine.
“You’re not going to get any answers in this program,” Mirza said. “But you will get a lot of questions. And we want to make sure that you understand these questions.”
The aim is not to prove, for example, that evolution is true. The point is to explain what a scientific theory is, so that madrasa graduates can no longer dismiss evolution as “just a theory.” Many madrasa-trained thinkers, said Mirza, regard scientists who traffic in theories as “incompetent goofballs” playing guessing games.
Once participants begin to appreciate that complexity, Mirza said, “they start asking, 'What does this mean for creation? How are we supposed to think about this theologically?'” Mirza said.
“But that’s where our work stops. Because they are the ulema, they are the scholars, and that’s why we invited them,” said Mirza.
At that point, Mirza tells his charges, “Hopefully now you can develop a culture where you begin to engage these questions — and perhaps come up with some answers.”
Some Muslim scholars and madrasa leaders have criticized the Madrasa Discourses, questioning why Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, should be so concerned with reforming madrasa education. “There's a concern that this is some kind of a neocolonial project,” Mirza said.
But Moosa and Mirza say they have no desire to impose any Orientalist Western reform on the madrasas. They point out that the project's local faculty in India and Pakistan are drawn from the prestigious Jamia Hamdard and Al-Sharia Academy, respectively, and that they have buy-in from community leaders.
“We're asking these questions and thinking about these concepts together” with Muslim communities, said Mirza. “We’re learning and struggling together rather than making a top-down attempt to unsettle everything.”
The proof, perhaps, is in the pride Waqas Khan now takes in his traditional education. Before working with Madrasa Discourses, Khan said, he had begun wishing he had studied at a typical university instead of Jamia Darul Uloom Karachi, the traditional madrasa he attended. But working with Moosa helped him realize the value of his Islamic education.
“Now I think that in a society like mine it is good to have both educations, traditional and conventional,” he told RNS. Working with scholars like Mirza and Moosa, he said, helped him “to connect them both and how to understand the religion in our time.”
Fellow participant Zaid Hassan, who lives in Gujranwala, agreed. While at Jamia Darul Uloom Karachi, where he completed his studies in 2015, he felt satisfied with all that he learned in madrassa, although he noted that his "heart was sometimes troubled with the seeming impracticality of these teachings in the real world."
He says he is therefore grateful to Madrasa Discourses for introducing him to a new way of thinking, one that is entrenched in the Islamic way of thought but is open to a multitude of perspectives.
But learning this way of thought, Hassan told RNS in Urdu, "has given birth to new burden, a feeling of a great weight on our shoulders." Because moving forward with the concern of "harmonizing religion to the new modern society" in conversation with the world around him is no easy task, he said.