Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied


The Book: Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India by Yoginder Sikand (Penguin, New Delhi, 400 pp., Rs. 495, ISBN 9780144000203)



There is no denying that the devastating attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September, 2001 have accentuated the demonization of Islamic beliefs, adherents, and most importantly, institutions. Madrasahs, as renowned pundits, journalists, scholars, and terrorist experts continuously allege, are the sites where militant and fanatical ideologies are imbibed.


It is such a rapidly evolving and tumultuous context that prompted Yoginder Sikand to embark on the writing of a data-laden, well-argued, and yet readable book; a book that is situated at the intersections of history, sociology, political science, and Islamic studies. As Yoginder has duly professed in his preface, “the polemics of the enemies of Islam have gone beyond the orientalist mould and pretensions of detachment and objectivity” (p. xvii). Bastions of the Believers is thus a noble attempt by an Indian scholar-activist to dispel the negative images of madrasahs as “dens of terror”. By utilizing sources gathered from in-depth archival and field research, Yoginder presents us with a nuanced and non-homogenizing portrayal of the madrasahs.



The book begins with a discussion on the importance of knowledge (ilm) in Islam and the sacred role of the scholars (ulama) as the preservers of knowledge. Yoginder convincingly argues that the idea of a differentiation between secular and sacred knowledge was nonexistent in the early years of Islam. Rather, to Prophet Muhammad and his companions, knowledge of the religious (dini) and secular (duniavi) were of equal importance towards the achievement of success in the world and the Hereafter. Established several centuries after the Prophet’s demise, madrasahs manifested the prophetic approach to knowledge, retaining a high degree of dynamism by training students in both religious and rational sciences. Consequently, career options were fairly wide and graduates of madrasahs took on important roles in state-based institutions.


It was different for the case of madrasahs in India. In Chapter 2, Yoginder delves into the genesis and evolution of a shift from the original model of madrasahs in the Arabian Peninsula to that of educational dualism. This had led to a dini–duniavi divide in the minds of Muslims in India as the Mughal Empire entered the modern phase of world history. Such a condition was made worse by the onslaught of British colonialism which saw the suppression of Muslim revolts and rebellions. Suspicions towards secular knowledge amongst the ulamas heightened and, in consequence, diminished the unending attempts by Muslim reformers to harmonize modernity and Islam.


Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the book narrate the challenges faced, resistances to change, and further attempts at reforming the madrasahs in post-partitioned India.


It is pertinent to note that a considerable amount of established information and arguments in these three chapters is often repeated, which is revealing of Yoginder’s endeavour to bring home the point that madrasahs are essentially heterogeneous. Indeed, these institutions had been and are still differentiated along ideological lines between different Sunni schools of thought (maslaks) such as the Barelwis, Deobandis, Jama’ati Islami, and Ahlul Hadith and sects, as seen from examples of the Shiites and Ahmadiyyas. The madrasahs are also sharply divided on the issue of receiving aid from the state and on the establishment of networks with non-Muslim organizations. Whilst the author documents the dismal state of infrastructure, salary scales, syllabuses, and pedagogical methods of many madrasahs in post-independent India, he seeks to provide a balanced depiction by highlighting successful examples of reform and adaptation. Cases in point are madrasahs in Kerala, the Jama’atul Falah in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Dar ul-‘Umoor in Karnataka. Graduates of these educational institutions are said to be contributing to various sectors of the Indian economy and society. To be sure, these three chapters vividly demonstrate that widespread transformations are indeed occurring within the madrasahs. Such efforts to reform are, nonetheless, dampened by a concerted campaign to discredit Islam and its institutions.


 This brings us to the last and perhaps most important chapter of the Bastions of Believers. Yoginder is at his best as he deconstructs the spurious correlation between madrasahs, radical politics, and militancy. On the claim that madrasahs are centres of political radicalisation, Yoginder argues that the curriculum is “overwhelmingly conservative, literalist and legalist, but definitely not politically radical” (p. 225). In point

of fact, promoters of radical ideologies such as Osama bin Laden are known to have received education in regular universities in the West rather than madrasahs. Contrary to the notion that the ulama were unpatriotic to India, Yoginder cites numerous examples of known personalities who insisted that India, rather than Pakistan, is the place where their loyalty lies. The ulama, Yoginder maintains, has devised various ways to come to terms with the idea of a nation-state by arguing that they are residing in a “land of peace”(dar ul-aman) or a “land of agreement”(dar ul-ahad) rather than “the abode of war”(dar ul-harb) (p. 238). Although there are remnants of Pan-Islamic tendencies within the madrasahs, Yoginder contends that that “does not necessarily lead to militancy, although it does make for certain rigid insularity and cultural separatism” (p. 242). Going further, Yoginder illuminates on how the madrasahs had in fact incorporated studies of other religions in their curriculum so as to promote inter-faith dialogue and provide training of skills for their students for missionary work.


Militant madrasahs, as the author forcefully posits, are not to be found in India but in war-ravaged parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir. With the ever-increasing incidences of clashes between these radical groupings and state authorities, coupled by virulent propaganda of Hindu right-wing movements, the stage was set for madrasahs in India to be reductively labeled as “militant”.


It is certain that even if one were to disagree with many of its conclusions, this book will be an important and indispensable text for both students and scholars of Islam in the many years to come. (Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London: Email:

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