Words with simple meanings sometimes conceal complicated and contested histories. Madrasa is just such a word. Literally, it means a place where teaching and learning takes place. Yet, even a cursory look at the history of the term reveals fascinating tales of contests over knowledge and religious authority as well as the variety of ways in which it is used.

In the UK it is once again a subject of debate, with the government currently consulting on new proposals that would see madrasas and other forms of supplementary education subject to inspection.

In a contemporary British context, the word often refers to some 2,000 supplementary Muslim educational settings where over 250,000 children learn the basics of their religion and, in many cases, about the languages and cultures of the countries of their families. Another word sometimes used for these places is maktab.

This education, which is now “supplementary” in Britain, historically was the mainstream of the Muslim traditions of teaching and learning. These traditions were practised in a diversity of institutions such as mosques, maktabs (places of elementary education), and madrasas (institutions of higher learning), as well as in libraries, palaces, and centres of translation.

These traditions were inspired by several factors including the religious quest to understand the will of God, the search for useful knowledge to run empires, and the attraction of the Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian intellectual heritages. They were a remarkable illustration of the movement of ideas across human cultures.

A millennium of madrasas

Madrasas emerged relatively late in Muslim societies, around the 10th century, but then expanded quickly, especially under political patronage of the Seljuq dynasty in areas of present day Iraq, Iran and Syria as part of what has been called the Sunni revival against the growing influence of the Shias. The Sunnis and the Shias are the two major doctrinal groups of Muslims, each with their own internal diversity.

Subjects taught in madrasas included Quranic recitation and interpretation, Arabic grammar, jurisprudence and theology. In some madrasas, arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, poetry and philosophy were also taught. Biographies of several well-known scholars indicate that on occasions, madrasas also served as vehicles of social mobility.

Their spread played a key role in the consolidation of doctrinal positions and legal thinking which now form the dominant position among Sunnis. In time, the Shias developed their own religious seminaries, called hawzas, which play a similar role. Some of the most famous madrasas are the Deoband in India, al-Azhar in Egypt, Hawzas of Qum in Iran and the Zaytunia in Tunisia.

From the 18th century, large parts of the Muslim world engaged with modernity, in its colonial form – an encounter that transformed almost all aspects of Muslim societies. Modern schools, higher education institutions, new official languages, and, above all, a new epistemology was introduced. Madrasas continued to provide religious instructions, though in the process they went through remarkable transformations in form, teaching and, to some extent, content.

One result of this social and economic transformation is what most Muslims today want for their children: both the material fruits of modernity through western secular education and the continuation of traditional moral and religious values. One educational arrangement that has prevailed in many Muslim contexts to cater to these two needs has the adoption of dual system of education whereby children attend mainstream schools as well as supplementary religious education classes. In contexts such as Britain, the word madrasa came to be associated with these supplementary education provisions.

More regulation on the cards

The word madrasa does not appear at all in the government’s recent consultation document on regulating “Out of-school education settings”. Still, the document’s context as well its references to the government’s Prevent strategy and to extremism leave no doubt that its primary concern is with Muslim supplementary education settings.

David Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference was more explicit in referring to madrasas. Understandably, the plans to regulate these settings have raised concerns among some Muslim organisations. These concerns must be seen against the backdrop of the fact that since the mid-1990s when the Taliban took control of parts of Afghanistan, madrasas around the world have received massive bad publicity.

There is no doubt that that some madrasas in the UK have practices that need improvement, both with regard to the content of teaching and physical provision. Many Muslims accept this. There are already projects that are helping reform madrasas, including in Bradford – but much more needs to be done.

But Muslim organisations also insist, rightly, that the huge majority of madrasas are not doing anything that is harmful to social cohesion.

A clear framework

The government’s consultative document recognises the good work done in the country’s supplementary education settings. This creates the potential that proposed regulation can become a source to build trust among those sections of Muslim citizens who feel they are being targeted by the government’s approach to extremism. For this potential to be realised, several steps should be taken and a framework generated for implementing the reforms.

First, it should be made clear that the state is not intending to interfere in religious instruction, which should be the business of private individuals and associations. Second, those who carry out the inspections should get induction into the traditions of learning in Muslim communities and the history and status of madrasas in particular. This is vital to ensure that the line between conservative religious instruction and extremist discourse is observed.

Third, the inspectors should learn about the madrasa reform initiatives already going on within Muslim communities. Fourth, where shortcomings are found, there should be a transparent process of corrective measures. And lastly, the fair and even-handed treatment of all out-of-school education provisions, not just madrasas, should be clearly visible.

If done well, the government’s aim to ensure that all children should have access to secure, safe and socially useful religious education can be a valuable exercise. It can create a background against which Muslim communities can carry out the much-needed theological and epistemological debates about the place of madrasas in today’s society.

Farid Panjwani, Senior Lecturer and Director, Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education, UCL Institute of Education

This article was originally published on The Conversation.