New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 7 Feb 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Madrasa Education in Modern India—A Study

Book Review

Name of the Book: Madrasa Education in Modern India—A Study

Author: Saral Jhingran

Publisher: Manohar, New Delhi

Year: 2010

Pages: 424

ISBN: 978-81-7304-856-2

Price: Rs. 1050


Reviewed by:

Yoginder Sikand,

Recent years have witnessed a flood of writings, including ponderous tomes, on madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, particularly in South Asia. Many of these have been written from a distinctly ‘security’ point of view, in light of allegations about madrasas (or, to be more correct, some madrasas, in certain countries, and in particular contexts) having links with terrorism. In the contemporary Indian context, the charge of madrasas being linked with terror are unfair and unfounded, although this does not mean, as this incisive (though, in some parts, deeply problematic) book brilliantly illustrates, that all is well with the system of madrasa education in the country.

The scope of Jhingran’s study is strictly limited. Based almost entirely on existing secondary literature, supplemented with references to the syllabi used in a range of madrasas, to which are added the author’s own reflections, the book is more in the nature of a general overview of the internally highly diverse Indian madrasa system as such, rather than a detailed empirical survey. The author does not seem to have visited more than a few madrasas, although this does not necessarily mean that her comments, based on these few visits, about the system of madrasa education as a whole are, therefore, necessarily invalid.

Jhingran begins by asking probing questions as to why many Indian Muslims think madrasas are particularly important, even if, as is the case of many middle-class Muslims, they may not send their own children to study therein to train to become religious specialists. She examines several factors that are often adduced to account for this predicament, such as poverty, lack of access to affordable, good-quality modern schools, and the perceived Hindu or anti-Muslim nature of the curriculum and overall ethos of government schools. While not discounting these factors entirely, she argues that the appeal of madrasas lies particularly in their perceived role in preserving and transmitting, from one generation to the next, the tradition of what is regarded as Islamic learning and a certain sense of Muslim identity that it encapsulates. For a community that is in a clear numerical minority, and one that feels culturally and otherwise alienated and different from the rest of society, madrasas play a crucial role in perpetuating a distinct sense of Muslim community identity, which they strive to preserve.

Jhingran acknowledges that all cultural groups, including minorities, do strongly feel the need to preserve their identities, but finds that this can sometimes be deeply problematic. She privileges a certain notion of Indian national identity as being of paramount importance, and, from this perspective, finds the inordinate stress placed on a separate communitarian identity based on religion, in which madrasas, in the Muslim case, and schools run by right-wing Hindutva groups, in the Hindu case, play a central role, to be greatly troubling. She considers this as a major hurdle in the path of developing a common national identity, and as perpetuating divisions based on narrow understandings of religion. Moreover, madrasas are divided on the basis of sect, and one of their principal functions is to promote a strong sense of sectarian Muslim identity, which is constructed against rival Muslim sects.

There is merit, of course, in Jhingran’s argument, but as to the perils of nationalism, which, at the global level, is as divisive and problematic an ideology as communalism based on religion, she remains blissfully and troublingly silent. Nor does she interrogate dominant forms of Indian nationalism that are a guise for perpetuating the interests and related worldviews of the dominant elites, and, from the point of view of the marginalized (irrespective of religion), a means for preserving an iniquitous status quo. How nationalism and ‘national interests’ are often deployed as a tool to quash demands for social justice on the part of the oppressed is something that she quite completely ignores even as she privileges them as the master-narrative and key lens through which she examines the madrasas.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a critique of the syllabi employed in many madrasas across India. Jhingran does not engage in a detailed content analysis of key Urdu and Arabic texts used in the madrasas, which is an important task that still awaits to be undertaken. Not knowing these languages, she limits herself simply to the course outlines prescribed by various madrasas that are associated with different sectarian groups, as detailed in their published brochures. She notes that the bulk of the prescribed texts deal with fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, with relatively less stress given to kalam or theology, and even less to ‘modern’ subjects, such as the natural and social sciences and English and Hindi.

Although she does not go into the details of the fiqh texts, that form the core of the madrasa curriculum, she argues that many aspects of these texts are of little or no relevance in today’s age. They were written centuries ago, in the light of conditions prevailing in an entirely different spatio-temporal context, and they deal with a host of issues that no longer have any applicability and relevance. Further, many of their prescriptions, including and particularly with respect to relations with non-Muslims and the status of women, are definitely not in line with modern sensibilities of justice and human rights. Furthermore, Jhingran argues, and here she echoes what numerous progressive Muslim scholars themselves admit, they do not conduce to living harmoniously with people of other faiths. That they do precious little to empower the Muslims and promote enlightened understandings of religion, and that, in fact, they only further reinforce the overall backwardness of Muslims is obvious. Yet, Jhingran laments (and here, too, she echoes the views of progressive Islamic scholars), the traditionalist ulema continue to regard these outdated medieval fiqh prescriptions as normative and binding, erroneously declaring these, obviously human constructs, as synonymous with the shariah or divine path. This, Jhingran persuasively insists, is a major hurdle to Muslim development, to the ability of the Muslims to come to terms with modernity and a context characterized by religious diversity, as well as to the project of a modern, secular, democratic nation-state.

Jhingran also discusses what she regards as problematic issues related to the ways in which madrasas in general approach the normative Islamic textual tradition, including the Quran and the Hadith. She notes that the dominant approach is heavily disengaged from empirical reality and contemporary sensibilities, and is wielded to support the notion of Muslim communal supremacy, which she (and here she echoes the views of numerous progressive Muslim scholars) finds deeply troubling. The fact of the matter is that this approach (which can even be questioned from within a progressive Islamic paradigm, and not just from the secular, humanist perspective that Jhingran uses) provides the underlying basis of the ulema’s claim to authority and power, and this Jhingran does not forget to mention. In addition, Jhingran raises numerous issues about the way in which the normative model of the Prophet is often approached, and suggests that some aspects of this model need to be understood as contextual, rather than taking them, as many ulema do, as binding across space and time. Jhingran pleads for a contextual re-reading of the textual and normative religious traditions (not just Muslim, but Hindu and other, too) in order to make them relevant to today’s context and to the agenda of the modern Indian nation-state based on religious pluralism, which is her major concern.

The book devotes a lengthy chapter to girls’ madrasas, a relatively recent phenomenon. As in the case of her chapters on general or boys’ madrasas, this chapter completely lacks empirical depth, although this does not necessarily mean that most of her comments here are invalid. She argues that such madrasas, while providing girls scriptural literacy, aim to maintain structures of patriarchy in a slightly modified form. They are certainly not the harbingers of ‘Islamic feminism’, a phenomenon that is gaining increasing prominence abroad as well as in India. They do not provide enough ‘modern’ education to enable students to navigate in the world outside the private sphere of their homes and families, and certainly not enough to enable them to get jobs in the workplace outside their homes. That, in any case, is not their intention, for the ideal Muslim girl, in the minds of those who run most such institutions, is a good home-maker, whose sphere of activity is limited within the four walls of her home. How this vision of ideal Muslim girls’ education impacts on the overall marginalization of the Muslims as a whole, and, in fact, contributes to reinforcing it, is, however, not explored in detail in the chapter.

Jhingran also surveys the various efforts on the part of the state and Central Governments to ‘reform’ the madrasas. She acknowledges the objections to such government intervention in the madrasa system, which many ulema regard as unwarranted interference and as motivated by less than benign motives, to put it charitably, but she critiques these efforts from a different angle. She argues that the funds allocated for these projects have been dismally small, that these programmes have no proper method of supervision and monitoring (thus leaving the doors open to corruption), and that bureaucrats in-charge of these programmes are often not enthusiastic about them at all. Further, she argues that these interventions are hardly enough to broaden the system and curriculum of madrasa education to facilitate the sort of modernity that she wishes to promote. Most such interventions focus on promoting the teaching of natural sciences, but she suggests (as many others have) that social sciences need to get much more attention in order to broaden the vision of the students. Moreover, she indicates, these efforts are hardly enough to ensure that madrasa graduates are able to comfortably navigate the outside world once they leave, and are certainly insufficient for them to get any jobs other than as religious professionals or as founders of ever-increasing numbers of madrasas, which are often little more than money-raking ventures.

The concept of education in Islam is a deeply contested one, Jhingran argues in her conclusion, and a plurality of voices compete with each other, each claiming to represent Islamic authenticity. The traditionalist ulema, she shows, make a sharp distinction between what they regard as ‘religious’ or dini knowledge, on the one hand, and ‘worldly’, ‘secular’ or duniyavi knowledge, on the other, and they privilege the former over the latter. This notion, she indicates, is a relatively new one, which dates to colonial times, and does not apply to the pre-colonial period, when madrasas taught both sorts of knowledge, and produced not just religious specialists but also scientists and administrators. She highlights the arguments of Muslim reformists, who hark back to what they regard as the authentic Islamic notion of knowledge, one that is holistic and is, by definition, opposed to the rigid dualism that the colonial powers introduced, which, following in their footsteps, post-colonial states continue to advocate, and which the traditionalist ulema so fervently uphold in order to maintain their claims of representing Islam and the Muslims. In other words, according to these reformists, what is regarded by the ulema as ‘worldly’ knowledge is also Islamically- authentic and legitimate, and, therefore, is to be willingly embraced, even in the madrasas.

Jhingran suggests that the way out of this dilemma posed to Muslims who wish their children to have both religious and secular education is for them to arrange for part-time religious education for them while ensuring that they simultaneously study in regular schools, which is the pattern, she shows, among the Muslims of Kerala, for instance. Rather than intervening in the madrasa system directly, she indicates, the state should focus on provision of accessible and quality secular education for Muslim children instead. In this way, children who are sent to madrasas out of sheer economic compulsion would be able to access regular schools instead. Those Muslims who want to become religious specialists, out of interest and commitment, rather than out of economic compulsion, as is often the case, could, after finishing a basic course in secular studies, then enroll in full-time higher-level madrasas or in departments of Islamic Studies established in a few universities.

But it is not simple tinkering with the curriculum of the madrasas that is enough to promote the sort of reform that is so badly needed, Jhingran indicates. This process must also go hand-in-hand in re-reading the Islamic tradition itself, promoting more humane, progressive and socially-relevant understandings of Islam, for without this, no amount of curricular reform will make any difference. In other words, nothing less than a transformation in the mentality and worldview represented by the madrasas is required. That, of course, is an enormously difficult task, one that the men in the madrasas, wedded to a certain vision of the world and a particular understanding of their faith, would be loathe to undertaking, not least because it would directly undermine their own claims to leadership.

Despite its obvious limitations, including lack of empirical depth, a focus almost wholly on north Indian madrasas to the neglect of regional variations, and its exorbitant price, this book is a welcome addition to the expanding corpus of writings on the Indian madrasa system.

A regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.