A photo from the conference "The Future of Islamic Thought," Kathmandu, Nepal (Photo by Tal Howard)

Islam isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Kathmandu. Seated in a predominantly Hindu and Buddhist country, the fabled city is ablaze with gods and piety, just not those of the Muslim or even Abrahamic sort. And yet late July of last year I found myself in Nagarkot, a village outside Kathmandu in the Himalayan foothills, to participate in a multi-day conference on “The Future of Islamic Thought: Engaging History, Tradition, and Science.” I was scheduled to deliver several lectures on Christianity, tradition, and modernity. My remit was to provide insight into aspects of Western religious history that might foster conversation about Islam’s own attitude toward, and struggles with, modernity. Though invited as an instructor, I gathered quickly that I had a lot to learn.

For starters, this was no typical academic conference. Its participants were not mainly disinterested academic experts, but young men—and several women—who had studied in one of the thousands of madrasas scattered across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Faith commitments were palpable, as were religious vocations. The conference represented one element of the Madrasa Discourses initiative, itself a component of the Contending Modernities project based at the University of Notre Dame and generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Ebrahim Moosa, a practicing Muslim with an impressive résumé spanning East and West, ably directs the project with the help of the scholar of religion Josh Lupo.

The Madrasa Discourses project, launched in 2015, operates with the working assumption that today’s South Asian madrasa education has become too static, indifferent to history and basic scientific literacy. The project’s organizers hope that this tendency can be corrected if madrasa graduates are exposed to a broader range of voices from their own Islamic intellectual tradition and brought into conversation with “modern knowledge,” the intellectual formations and debates of the Western or at least Western-shaped academy. The project web page describes its aims thus: “To bring the classical intellectual heritage of Islam into conversation with contemporary academic perspectives on science, history, and theology.”

A Muslim with South Asian parents who grew up in South Africa, Ebrahim Moosa decided after a crisis of faith in his teens to travel to India to pursue madrasa education himself. Overcoming parental objections, he eventually spent six years in madrasas, learning Urdu, Arabic, the Qur’an, and theology. He graduated from the prestigious Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow, India, but also spent two years at the famous Darul Uloom Deoband, also in India, normally viewed as the mother of all Sunni madrasas in South Asia. He then decamped first to journalism in the United Kingdom and South Africa and then to the Western academy, obtaining further degrees and teaching posts that took him to the University of Cape Town, Stanford, Duke, and now Notre Dame. Moosa is now what sociologists call an insider-outsider. He has written movingly about his experiences in What Is a Madrasa? (2015), a gem of a book that provides Western readers with a close-up look at “the most common type of school for religious instruction in the Islamic world.” Though critical of its contemporary limitations, Moosa still esteems madrasa education, recognizing it as a time-tested institution, a transmitter of Islamic culture, and often the only source of education for Muslims with limited means. “I remain a friendly critic of madrasa education,” as he puts it in the book. “Properly harnessed, [madrasas] are repositories of classical learning and seeds for intellectual sophistication that might challenge the shallow discourses of fundamentalism and revivalism that often pass for Islam today.” Moosa’s book is an excellent antidote to the post-9/11 caricature of madrasas as mass hatcheries of terrorists. So, for that matter, was the conference in Nepal. Most of the people I met there were warm, humble, fluent in multiple languages, and deeply curious about the world. Many had a good sense of humor.  

Still, there are serious lacunae in madrasa education. As Moosa puts it: “An unhealthy skepticism of modern knowledge produced in the minds of madrasa authorities the idea that a modern Muslim subject was at best questionable.” Moosa believes that, with greater exposure to both contemporary academic knowledge and classical Islamic works and schools of thought, it is possible to arrive at “an intelligible and enlightened orthodoxy for Muslims today.”

Toward this end, participants at our conference—or “intensive,” as they called it—heard presentations with titles such as “Muslims’ Opinions on Evolution,” “Post-Islamism in South Asia,” “The Role of Women in the Madrasa Today,” and “Hindu Nationalism and Minority Rights in India.” The conference also addressed the topics of religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and the nature of tradition. After each presentation, there were trenchant questions and lively, often heated conversation—in English and Urdu with a sprinkling of words in Arabic as well. (Translations were available for non-Urdu speakers.)

Postponed during the first years of the pandemic, in-person gatherings like the one in Kathmandu constitute only one aspect of the Madrasa Discourses project. There is also an online component of four semesters of weekly seminars, offering program syllabi and content to any Muslim graduate of a seminary who cares to participate. Admission to the “intensive” involves a competitive application process. Plans are afoot to expand the project so that it can reach more people.

How have participants reacted? The ones with whom I spoke indicated that Madrasa Discourses fills an important gap, permitting conversation on topics considered taboo in their home communities. And it does succeed in helping them engage with the modern academy, broadly understood. As one former participant explained,

As someone who...is from a madrasa background, I can attest to the need for closer engagement with sciences and the challenges that modernity brings to Islamic philosophy and theology. Madrasa Discourses both deepened and broadened my understanding of the complexities associated with the modern scientific worldview and modernity from a religious perspective. Most madrasa graduates have only a very siloed Islamic framework for interpreting these matters.

Others echoed these sentiments in my conversations with them. Only once—when a participant from Pakistan asked me, “What does this program actually want from us?”—did I detect any hint of resistance.

Madrasa Discourses also gives Muslims from all across South Asia a rare opportunity to meet one another and exchange ideas. For political reasons tied to the Partition of India in 1947, it is practically impossible for Muslims from Pakistan to travel to India and vice-versa. Hence the decision to meet in Kathmandu, a neutral location where all travelers are welcome—though not without a visit from Nepali security forces, who were mildly alarmed at the sudden appearance of forty-plus Muslim men, many of them wearing religious skull caps and beards. 

Not surprisingly, Madrasa Discourses has received some criticism from some traditionalist voices in South Asia, where it has been the target of an aggressive media campaign, including a front-page denunciation in one of Pakistan’s leading Urdu dailies. The project has been accused of disrespecting traditional modes of learning and of serving as a conduit for dangerous Western ideas. The fact that a Catholic university in the United States sponsors the project and that it is funded by American philanthropy does not help matters. But Moosa gives as good as he gets. His knowledge of Islamic theology and history, as well as his familiarity with the curricula of madrasas, permits him to go toe to toe with the project’s critics.

Madrasa Discourses also gives Muslims from all across South Asia a rare opportunity to meet one another and exchange ideas.


As a one-time visitor to an event organized by Madrasa Discourses, I am in no position to pronounce on its success or failure. But I will hazard a few preliminary observations.

As I participated in discussions, I was often struck by the similarities between what Muslims face now and what Christian communities faced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and in some quarters still face). Questions about human origins, the permissibility of historical criticism of the Bible, and the role of women in church and society—all have their analogues in contemporary Muslim debates. Darwinian evolution appeared to raise considerable difficulties and sensitivities at the conference, despite a lucid presentation on it by Dr. Shoaib Malik, a professor at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and author of Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm (2012).

The project largely depends on its ability to defend tradition against traditionalism, to invoke Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous distinction. The problem with a lot of madrasa education today, Moosa and his allies claim, is that it mistakes the latter for the former.  Too often it seeks to ignore or shut down debate instead of subjecting contested ideas to criticism and debate informed by multiple perspectives. In short, it reduces tradition to hidebound preservation, enjoining obedience and rote memorization, discouraging creativity and thoughtful development in light of new information or new circumstances. But genuine “tradition,” as Mahan Mirza—who worked with Moosa on the project until 2019—argues, “is not the mere repetition of the creativity of past scholars. Tradition is active participation in ongoing creative syntheses, keeping in mind shifts in human understanding.” Doing precisely this was the goal of the Kathmandu gathering.

The success of the project hinges on what the Madrasa Discourses team refers to as an “elicitive” approach. Their aim is not simply to deliver an “information dump” on unsuspecting madrasa graduates, rupturing their intellectual worlds. Rather, it seeks to “meet them where they are,” showing participants how Islamic traditions of learning are better prepared to engage the intellectual challenges presented by modernity than many might assume. For example, participants regularly encounter the thought of the great Persian polymath Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) and the Arabic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1392–1406), among the greatest minds, East or West, of the Middle Ages. These two premodern figures still provide a model for how Muslim scholars can engage difficult challenges and make tradition a living, breathing reality, not a dead letter or a perfumed corpse. By exposing madrasa graduates to an international cast of speakers, Madrasa Discourses works against provincialism and knee-jerk anti-Western sentiment and encourages cross-culture conversation. “A progressive, cosmopolitan, knowledge-friendly movement within the madrasa-sphere is the best hope in order to effectively transform and rejuvenate Islamic thought,” Moosa writes.

Madrasa Discourses highlights the need for a robust comparative theology in our globalized, pluralistic world. Neither the kumbaya shallowness of so much that passes as interfaith dialogue nor the impossible neutrality of a comparative approach to religious studies, comparative theology calls for theologians to remain faithful to their own tradition while also drawing wisdom and insight from other religious traditions. Thomas Aquinas, who drew from Muslim, Jewish, and pagan sources of learning, might serve as a Christian exemplar. During my time in Kathmandu, it became apparent that not only do Muslims and Christians share common lines of inquiry and points of concern in wrestling with modernity, but the age-old theological issues—theodicy, free will, the nature of belief, God’s mercy—have drawn out the ablest minds in both traditions. One can enrich the other, sometimes by offering new resources, sometimes by providing a productive contrast.

Finally, I think the project would do well to encourage its participants not only to learn from the modern academy, but to submit it to thoughtful, faith-informed critique—a response quite different from reactionary dismissal. While it has much to offer religious traditions, few would deny that the modern academy has also served as the site of dogmatic scientism, anti-religious zealotry, progressivist groupthink, an overly instrumentalist conception of reason, blinkered specialization, and impenetrable jargon, to say nothing of the age-old sins of professional vanity, nepotism, and the like. The deep wells of Islamic thought and theology must have important things to say about these shortcomings—and others. One participant in Kathmandu confided to me that he had hoped for an academic career, but it soon became clear to him that this would mean checking his “thick” faith commitments at the door—something he was not prepared to do.  I don’t know the details of his story, but one wishes that he had pressed on, for the presence of such people might expand the boundaries of academic discourse even as it widens their own intellectual horizons. Yes, Athens can instruct Jerusalem, but Jerusalem can also fructify Athens, to steal a line from Tertullian.

Exactly what will grow from the seeds planted in Kathmandu I don’t know. Uncertainty with respect to results is a normal feature of intellectual exchange. But as for me, I’ll forever associate the city with newfound “Abrahamic” friends grappling with their future, openly and honestly. I wonder if the whole affair piqued the curiosity of the local Hindu and Buddhist deities. Maybe they’re still talking about it now.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and history and serves as the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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