The recent siege at Islamabad's Red Mosque focused western attention, once again, on the institution of the madrasa. Once again, it came off badly. Jamia Hafsa, the seminary linked to the mosque, where thousands of girls studied the Quran and Islamic sciences, was left peppered with bullet holes and a number of its students are dead (government and Islamist body-counts differ). The Red Mosque disaster underscored the popular notion of Islamic seminaries as weird and scary places that foment fundamentalism, ignorance and violence. More than a week before the stand-off between government troops and militants, the institution's head, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was caught trying to flee disguised in a burqa. In the west, the news has reduced madrasas to the status of a bad joke.
How refreshing, then, to read Madrasah Life, a memoir by Oxford-based Islamic scholar Mohammed Akram an-Nadwi, who presents an altogether more benign portrait of an Islamic college. A portrait of his alma mater, Nadwat al-Ulama, a famous Islamic university in the north Indian city of Lucknow, presents the madrasa as a hub of civilisation rather than a would-be destroyer of it. Founded in the 19th century by reformist Muslims who wished to combine a classical Islamic education with courses in modern sciences, Nadwat bears as much resemblance to Jamia Hafsa as an Oxbridge college does to a violent sink school. Its students study psychology and aesthetics, pore over the Greek rationalists, play badminton and declaim poetry. Like many memoirs, Akram's is shot through with nostalgia - for the delectable taste of a classmate's home-made halva made with ghee, for the temporary dark and quiet imposed by power cuts, for school football games and debates on how to write a proper fatwa. Stronger - and sadder, given the current state of Islamic learning - is Akram's longing for Islam's heyday, when students enjoyed true scholastic freedom, he writes, and "their independent thinking and reasoning led to the creation of a healthy society". The author went on to become a prominent expert in Hadith, or sayings of the prophet. Although he has published more than 25 scholarly books in three continents, it is Madrasah Life, originally published in Urdu in India, that has won him the most enthusiastic response from ordinary readers. It is reported that photocopied versions circulate among students in Gulf madrasas.
With the intellectual life of its young hero as its central drama, the book has shades of a 19th-century Bildungsroman. Its strength lies in its structure: an ordinary day in 1983, when Akram, aged 20, was in the second year of a graduate course studying to be an alim, an Islamic scholar. Opening with Akram rising in his hostel room at 5 am for fajr prayer, and closing with him retiring - also with a prayer - after a late-night dorm debate over medieval scholars, Madrasah Life offers an intimate view of Islamic university life. We are with Akram as he and his friends take their pre-breakfast stroll, passionately debating the importance of Arabic grammar; as a classmate performs an impromptu poetry recitation before Hadith class; as they trade quips about academic prowess over lentils and rice. Akram's sketches of Nadwat faculty include the Arabic literary scholar whose coat is so threadbare that friends joke he should put it in a museum. He won't, such is his devotion to the Sunna, or the way of the Prophet, which holds that one should wear cloth until it's worn out. Readers unversed in Arabic grammar or medieval theology may want to skim Akram's more academic passages, lingering instead over his details of student life. They breathe life into the static images of the humourless mullah and the dull madrasa.
Lucky Jim, it isn't. There's no mention of a woman in its hundred pages, and the only hint of alcohol lies in a reference to the Urdu poet Josh, whose verses Akram admires, despite the poet's love of wine and whores - habits that Akram holds to transgress "every limit in debauchery".
The translation creaks, but not so loudly as to drown out the book's loveliest sections, on spirituality, an aspect of Islam that is too often ignored. News tends to home in on concrete elements of Islam: mosques and veils, oil and pilgrimage sites. Primers on the religion point up the practical demands of the faith, like prayers and charity. Indeed, Akram's book is mindful of the importance attached to properly following the Prophetic traditions: he and his fellow students debate whether or not one should eat bareheaded, or can skip some prayers if they're travelling. But it's his account of spirituality that provides a glimpse of the fulfilling possibilities of piety. His description of early-morning prayers stands as the book's most moving passage, majestic testimony to the joy of faith. After the recitation of the Quran, "every object appeared to be in submission, in communion with the Divine. The dawn itself seemed to pause, to halt and seek the Lord's leave, to ask for illumination from that Divine Light before proceeding. We were immersed in the Quran recitation as if nothing else existed, as if all the vanity of the outer world had vanished and only devout souls inhabited the earth."
Such sentiments make one want to take refuge from current events, if not in prayer, then in this book.