Islamic Religious Schools, Madrasas: Background
Islamic Religious Schools, Madrasas:
Christopher M. Blanchard
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Islamic religious schools
known as madrasas (or madrassahs) in the Middle East, Central, and Southeast Asia
have been of increasing interest to U.S. policy makers. Some allege ties between
madrasas and terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, and assert that these religious
schools promote Islamic extremism and militancy. Others maintain that most madrasas
have been blamed unfairly for fostering anti-Americanism and for producing terrorists.
This report provides an overview of madrasas, their role in the Muslim world, and issues
related to their alleged links to terrorism. The report also addresses the findings of the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the “9/11
Commission”) and issues relevant to the second session of the 110th Congress. Related
products include CRS Report RS22009, CRS Report RL33533, CRS Report RL32499,
CRS Report RS21695, CRS Report RS21457, CRS Report RL32259, and CRS Report
RS21432. This report will be updated periodically.
Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Islamic schools known as
madrasas have been of increasing interest to analysts and to officials involved in
formulating U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Madrasas drew added attention when it became known that several Taliban leaders and
Al Qaeda members had developed radical political views at madrasas in Pakistan, some
of which allegedly were built and partially financed by donors in the Persian Gulf states.
These revelations have led to accusations that madrasas promote Islamic extremism and
militancy, and are a recruiting ground for terrorism. Others maintain that most of these
religious schools have been blamed unfairly for fostering anti-U.S. sentiments and argue
that madrasas play an important role in countries where millions of Muslims live in
poverty and state educational infrastructure is in decay.
Definition. The Arabic word madrasa (plural: madaris) generally has two
meanings: (1) in its more common literal and colloquial usage, it simply means “school”;
(2) in its secondary meaning, a madrasa is an educational institution offering instruction
in Islamic subjects including, but not limited to, the Quran, the sayings (hadith) of the
Prophet Muhammad, jurisprudence (fiqh), and law. Historically, madrasas were
distinguished as institutions of higher studies and existed in contrast to more rudimentary
schools called kuttab that taught only the Quran.1 Recently, “madrasa” has been used as
a catchall by many Western observers to denote any school — primary, secondary, or
advanced — that promotes an Islamic-based curriculum. In many countries, including
Egypt and Lebanon, madrasa refers to any educational institution (state-sponsored,
private, secular, or religious). In Pakistan and Bangladesh, madrasa commonly refers to
Islamic religious schools. This can be a significant semantic marker, because an analysis
of “madrasa reform” could have different implications within various cultural, political,
and geographic contexts. Unless otherwise noted in this paper, the term madrasa refers
to Islamic religious schools at the primary and secondary levels.
History. As an institution of learning, the madrasa is centuries old. One of the first
established madrasas, called the Nizamiyah, was built in Baghdad during the eleventh
century A.D. Offering food, lodging, and a free education, madrasas spread rapidly
throughout the Muslim world, and although their curricula varied from place to place, it
was always religious in character because these schools ultimately were intended to
prepare future Islamic religious scholars (ulama) for their work. In emphasizing classical
traditions in Arabic linguistics, teachers lectured and students learned through rote
memorization. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the era of Western
colonial rule, secular institutions came to supersede religious schools in importance
throughout the Islamic world. However, madrasas were revitalized in the 1970s with the
rising interest in religious studies and Islamist politics in countries such as Iran and
Pakistan. In the 1980s, madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan were allegedly boosted by
an increase in financial support from the United States,2 European governments, Saudi
Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states all of whom reportedly viewed these schools as
recruiting grounds for anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters.3 In the early 1990s, the Taliban
movement was formed by Afghan Islamic clerics and students (talib means “student” in
Arabic), many of whom were former mujahedin who had studied and trained in madrasas
and who advocated a strict form of Islam similar to the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi
Arabia and other Gulf countries.4
Relationship between Madrasas and other Educational Institutions.
Madrasas, in most Muslim countries today, exist as part of a broader educational
infrastructure. The private educational sector provides what is considered to be a quality
Western-style education for those students who can afford high tuition costs. Because of
1 See “Madrasa” in the Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965-); “Madrasah,”
in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).
2 Mary Ann Weaver, “Children of the Jihad,” New Yorker, June 12, 1995.
3 The term mujahedin refers to Islamic guerrillas, literally “one who fights in the cause of Islam.”
4 See CRS Report RS21695, The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyyah.
their relatively lower costs, many people turn to state schools, where they exist. However,
in recent years and in more impoverished nations, the rising costs and shortages of public
educational institutions have encouraged parents to send their children to madrasas.5
Supporters of a state educational system have argued that the improvement of existing
schools or the building of new ones could offer a viable alternative to religious-based
madrasas. Others maintain that reforms should be institutionalized primarily within
Islamic madrasas in order to ensure a well-rounded curriculum at these popular
institutions. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) 2003 strategy
paper Strengthening Education in the Muslim World advocates both of these viewpoints.6
Curriculum. Although some madrasas teach secular subjects, in general madrasas
offer a religious-based curriculum, focusing on the Quran and Islamic texts. Beyond
instruction in basic religious tenets, some argue that a small group of radicalized
madrasas, specifically located near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, promote a militant
form of Islam and teach their Muslim students to fight nonbelievers and stand against
what they see as the moral depravity of the West.7 Other observers suggest that these
schools are wholly unconcerned with religious scholarship and focused solely on teaching
violence.8 The 2003 USAID strategy paper described links between madrasas and
extremist Islamic groups as “rare but worrisome,” but also added that “access to quality
education alone cannot dissuade all vulnerable youth from joining terrorist groups.”9
Other concerns surround more moderate (“quietist”) schools, in which students may10
be instructed to reject “immoral” and “materialistic” Western culture. The static
curricula and dated pedagogical techniques, such as rote memorization, used in many
quietist schools may also produce individuals who are neither skilled nor prepared for the
modern workforce. Defenders of the madrasa system view its traditional pedagogical
approach as a way to preserve an authentic Islamic heritage. Because most madrasa
graduates have access only to a limited type of education, they commonly are employed
in the religious sector as prayer leaders and Islamic scholars. Authorities in various
countries are considering proposals for introducing improved science and math content
into madrasas’ curricula, while preserving the religious character of madrasa education.
Socio-Economic Factors. Madrasas offer a free education, room, and board to
their students, and thus they appeal to impoverished families and individuals. On the
whole, these religious schools are supported by private donations from Muslim believers
through a process of alms-giving known in Arabic as zakat. The practice of zakat — one
5 Supplemental costs associated with school uniforms, supplies, and textbooks make student
participation in Pakistan’s state-run education system unaffordable in some areas.
6 Strengthening Education in the Muslim World, USAID Issue Paper No. 2, June 2003.
7 Husain Haqqani, “Islam’s Medieval Outposts,” Foreign Policy no. 133, Nov./Dec. 2002; Anna
Kuchment et al., “School by the Book,”Newsweek, Mar. 11, 2002.
8 Some writers have implied that all madrasas are harbors of militancy. See, for example, Jessica
Stern, “Preparing for a War on Terrorism,” Current History 100, no. 649 (2001): 355-357; and
Alan Richards “At War with Utopian Fanatics,” Middle East Policy 8, no. 4 (2001).
9 Strengthening Education in the Muslim World, op. cit.
10 Haqqani, “Islam’s Medieval Outposts,” op. cit.
of the five pillars of the Islamic faith — prescribes that a fixed proportion of one’s income
be given to specified charitable causes, and traditionally a portion of zakat has endowed
religious education. Almost all madrasas are intended for educating boys, although there
are a small number of madrasas for girls.
Examples of the Current State of Madrasas
Role of Persian Gulf States.11 In recent years, worldwide attention has focused
on the dissemination of donations to Islamic charities and the export of conservative
religious educational curricula by governments and citizens in the Persian Gulf. Concern
has been expressed over the spread of radical Islam through schools, universities, and
mosques that have received donations and curricular material from Persian Gulf
governments, organizations, and citizens. These institutions exist around the world,
including South, Central, and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, sub-
Saharan Africa, western Europe, and the United States. Some view the teaching of
religious curricula informed by Islamic traditions common in the Gulf as threatening the
existence of more moderate beliefs and practices in other parts of the Muslim world.
However, some argue that a differentiation should be made between funding to support
charitable projects, such as madrasa-building, and funding that has been channeled,
overtly or implicitly, to support extremist teachings in these madrasas. Critics of Gulf
states’ policies have alleged that Persian Gulf governments long permitted or encouraged12
fund raising by charitable Islamic groups and foundations linked to Al Qaeda. Several
Gulf states have strengthened controls on the activities of charities engaged in overseas
activities, including madrasa building and administration. Several Islamic charitable
organizations based in Gulf states continue to provide assistance to educational projects
across the Muslim world, and channels of responsibility between donors and recipients
for curricular development and educational control are often unresolved or unclear.
Pakistan.13 Hosting over 12,000 madrasas,14 Pakistan’s religious and public
educational infrastructure are of ongoing concern in the United States. In an economy
that is marked by extreme poverty and underdevelopment, costs associated with
Pakistan’s cash-strapped public education system have led some Pakistanis to turn to
madrasas for free education, room, and board.15 Others favor religious education for some
of their children, whose siblings may be encouraged to pursue other professions. Links
between Pakistani madrasas and the ousted Afghan Taliban regime, as well as alleged
connections between some madrasas and Al Qaeda, have led some observers to consider
the reform of Pakistan’s madrasa system as an important counterterrorism tool and a
11 For more on Saudi Arabia, see CRS Report RL33533, Saudi Arabia: Current Issues and U.S.
Relations, and CRS Report RL32499, Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues.
12 Glenn R. Simpson, “Unraveling Terror’s Finances,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 24, 2003.
13 For more on education in Pakistan, see CRS Report RS22009, Education Reform in Pakistan.
14 Pakistan’s National Education Census (NEC) reported in October 2006 that 12,153 out of
12,979 madrasas had provided necessary information to the government. Registration procedures
continue. The News (Islamabad), Oct. 12, 2006.
15 Chris Kraul, “The World Dollars to Help Pupils in Pakistan,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 14, 2003.
means of helping to stabilize the Afghan government.16 In recommending increased U.S.
attention to “actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries,” the 9/11 Commission’s final report
singled out “poor education” in Pakistan as “a particular concern,” citing reports that
some madrasas “have been used as incubators for violent extremism.”17 In September
2006, Afghan president Hamid Karzai called on Pakistan to do more to prevent the use
of madrasas by extremists and terrorists.
These reports received new and more urgent attention following reports that one of
the four suicide bombers that carried out the July 2005 terrorist attacks on the London
transportation system had spent time at a Pakistani madrasa with alleged links to
extremists. In response, Pakistani authorities renewed plans to require all madrasas to
register with the government and provide an account of their financing sources. The
government had previously offered incentives to madrasas that agreed to comply with
registration procedures, including better training, salaries, and supplies. Madrasa leaders
reportedly agreed to the registration and financial accounting requirements in September
As of January 2007, over 12,000 of Pakistan’s estimated 13,000 madrasas had
registered with authorities. In a more controversial step, the Pakistani government also
demanded that madrasas expel all of their foreign students by December 31, 2005. Of an
estimated 1,700 foreign madrasa students, 1,000 had reportedly left Pakistan by January
1, 2006. In August 2006, Pakistani authorities announced their intent to deport some of
the remaining 700 foreign students if they did not obtain permission to remain in Pakistan
from their home governments: the visas of those with permission reportedly were
Some nationalist and Islamist groups have resisted the government’s enforcement
efforts, and authorities have made statements indicating that they do not plan to use force
or shut down noncompliant madrasas in order to enforce the directives.18 An air-strike
on a madrasa near the border with Afghanistan in the Bajaur tribal region killed 80
reported militants on October 30, 2006, and sparked massive protests across Pakistan.19
In July 2007, Pakistani security forces raided a girls madrasa related to the conservative
Red Mosque after individuals affiliated with the facilities refused government orders to
stop vigilante enforcement of religious social codes. Over 100 people were reportedly
killed in related clashes.
In September 2007, the U.S. Department of State reported in its annual religious
freedom report that “in recent years many [Pakistani] madrasas have taught extremist
doctrine in support of terrorism.” The report identified “unregistered and
Deobandi-controlled madrasas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and
16 “Afghan Leader Condemns Pakistani Clerics,” BBC Monitoring South Asia, Sept. 15, 2003.
17 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Final Report, p. 367.
18 Salman Masood, “Pakistanis Back Off Vow To Control Seminaries,”New York Times, Jan. 2,
19 Anwarullah Khan, “Al Zawahri Visited Attacked Pakistani Madrasa in Past,” Reuters, Oct. 31,
northern Balochistan” and “Dawa schools run by Jamat-ud-Dawa” as being involved with
teaching extremism or supporting terrorist organizations.20
Other Countries of Interest. Currently, the popularity of madrasas is rising in
parts of Southeast Asia. For example in Indonesia, home to the largest number of
Muslims in the world, almost 20%-25% of primary and secondary school children attend21
pesantrens (Islamic religious schools). Indonesian pesantrens have been noted for
teaching a moderate form of Islam, one that encompasses Islamic mysticism or Sufism.
Authorities in Bangladesh have expressed concern about the use of madrasas by a network
of Islamist activists being investigated in connection with a number of attempted and
successful bombing attacks across the country. A number of madrasa students were
detained in connection with the investigations.
Current U.S. Policy and Legislation
Executive agencies and Congress have shown increasing interest in improving U.S.
outreach and addressing educational challenges in the Muslim world in the aftermath of
the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Final Report of the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission”) addressed education
issues in the Islamic world in the context of its recommendations to identify and prioritize
actual or possible terrorist sanctuaries and prevent the continued growth of Islamist
terrorism. Relevant sections of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act
(P.L. 108-458, December 17, 2004) address many of the concerns reflected in the 9/11
Commission’s final report regarding the improvement of educational opportunity in the
Islamic world. Section 7114 of the act authorizes the President to establish an
International Youth Opportunity Fund to improve public education in the Middle East.
Examples of action taken to effect educational changes in Islamic countries include
USAID’s September 2002 commitment of $100 million over five years for general
education reform in Pakistan. The Administration requested $259.664 million in FY2008
foreign operations funding to support ongoing education assistance programs in a number
of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and
Morocco. The Administration requested $118.670 million for similar programs in South
and Central Asia, including programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
In the 110th Congress, Title XX of P.L.110-53, the Implementing the 9/11
Commission Recommendations Act of 2007 (signed August 3, 2007), amends and re-
authorizes appropriations for an International Muslim Youth Opportunity Fund originally
authorized by Section 7114 of P.L. 108-458. The law also requires the Administration to
submit an annual report to Congress on the efforts of Arab and predominantly Muslim
countries to increase the availability of modern basic education and to close educational
institutions that promote religious extremism and terrorism. A separate report is required
on U.S. education assistance and the status of efforts to create the authorized Fund.
20 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, International
Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Pakistan , September 14, 2007.
21 Ronald A Luckens-Bull, “Two Sides of the Same Coin: Modernity and Tradition in Islamic
Education in Indonesia,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 32, no.3 (2001):353.