Posted by: sean | January 24, 2007

Obama and his madrasa

The Moon and Murdoch media outlets have been in a frenzy about claims that Barack Obama went to a “madrasa” when he was a child in Indonesia. CNN investigated the claim and showed it to be another case of attempted character assassination. The latter says that Obama did not got to a madrasa, which is both true and false.

You see, in Arabic, the word madrasa (مدرسة) comes from the three-letter root “d-r-s” (درس) which means to study. In Arabic, most words are derived from adding prefixes, infixes and suffixes to an original three-letter root verb. For example, when you add the prefix “ma,” to a root verb, you get the place where that verb is done. In the case of “d-r-s,” this gets you the place where one studies, or madrasa.

In Arabic, any school from elementary to high school is called a madrasa. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, which means that it has a lot of Arabic loan words. Madrasa is one of them.

The confusion arises because of the media’s use of the word madrasa to describe a madrasat al-ulum, which is a religious seminary, the likes of which we’ve heard about so much in coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So did Obama go to a madrasa? If by that you mean elementary or high school, then yes, of course he did. If by that you mean a deobandi or wahhabi religious seminary, then no. And of course, the latter charge is patently absurd, seeing as how he was six when he lived in Indonesia.

This stems from the media’s ignorance of all things Arab or Muslim. So we get people throwing around words like shaheed, madrasa and jihad in order to give their writing a veneer of credibility, when in most cases, these words are used incorrectly. Likewise, I often laugh when I see American writers, “haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones,” throw in French phrases to make themselves seem more intellectual or better read.

All this makes me think of George Orwell’s little essay, Politics and the English Language. I think more people ought to follow his simple advice on this subject: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

UPDATE: According to Chad in comments, in Indonesia, only a religious school, like a Catholic school in the US, is called a madrasa in Indonesia. He says that some are normal public-funded schools, like the public school Obama went to, whereas others are private. I’ll double check this with an Indonesian colleague, in any case.



  1. Hello –

    I really appreciate your trying to unpack the meaning of the word madrasa in this context, but I’m afraid you’ve only got it partly right. Here in Indonesia, ‘madrasa’ has a very specific meaning. People do not refer to all schools as madrasa, and they do not use it to mean madrasat al-ulum. Madrassa here are religious schools which serve children from elementary to high school age. Some take public funding, and some are getting assistance from the U.S. and other international sources. They are a religious school in the sense that a Catholic school is a religious school – meaning that they often teach many subjects – science, math, literature, but also have a component of Koranic reading and study. There are a few infamous Islamic schools which have been identified as terrorist recruitment centers here – notably Abu Bakar Bashir’s boarding school (a pesantren, not a madrassa). But it is no more a typical example of a madrassa than Davis Koresh’s compound is a typical example of an American summer camp.

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