The word madrassa in the Arabic language (and other languages of the Islamic nations such as Persian, Turkish, Indonesian etc.) means "school." The word can also appear transliterated as madrasa, as madrash, or as madressa. The word is used in Arabic(مدرسه) in all the contexts that the word school is in English: for private, public and parochial schools, and for any elementary or secondary schools, whether Muslim, of other religions, or secular. Like the English word school, madrassa is not used to refer to a university.
In traditional contexts in which governments do not supply education, religious establishments have taken the role of running educational systems. In this context, madrasa refers to an Islamic school for Muslims, just as parochial schools for Catholics or yeshivas for Jews. All of these institutions are responsible for general education, but also have the purpose of teaching children about religion. In the case of madrasas, Islam.
Both males and females attend traditional madrassas: they sit in separate classes to learn in an Islamic context. A madrassa typically offers two courses of study, a "hifz" course to memorize the Qur'an and become a hafiz, and an Alim course to become a scholar or mullah. A regular curriculum includes learning Arabic, Qur'an memorization and interpretation, Islamic law, hadith, and the history of Islam. Depending on the individual madrassa, it may teach additional courses like Arabic literature, English, science and history.
People of a variety of ages attend, and many often move on to becoming imams and sheikhs. A mullah typically requires more than 12 years of study. Many huffaz, or people who memorize the entire Qur'an, come from madrassas. Some madrassas resemble colleges, where people take afternoon classes and some reside in dormitories.
An estimated 10,000 madrassas operate in Pakistan. A number also exist in North America and in Europe. The oldest madrassas still exist today in the Middle East. They take in orphans and poor children, and provide them with an education.
Recently, some people have come to see madrassas in a negative light, amid accusations that many of them indoctrinate students with extremist views. Some have accused extremist madrassas and "Deobandi seminaries" of fostering the Taliban's reactionary policies during its rule in Afghanistan.
See also: Islamic architecture