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Ijtihad, Rethinking Islam ( 15 Dec 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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RESTRUCTURING MADRASA EDUCATION: Muslim Opponents of India’s 'Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act' are Enemies of Indian Muslims


By Muhammad Yunus,

[Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.

 “They are no better than the oxen of the Oil Mills – They tread all their life, but stay where they are.” Altaf Hussain Hali, madd-u-jazare Islam - 235th stanza

A follow up on the article captioned: An Open Reminder to the Ulema: Rejecting Universal Knowledge as Un-Islamic is Brazenly Un-Islamic and Kufr (denial of truth)

December 15, 2011

The caption is as harsh as the truth bitter. Here is a brief glance on historical facts that reveal the bitter truth and support the harsh caption.

As any educated Muslim should know, the first four centuries of Islam saw an effervescence of intellectual activity. This was marked by rationalism, universalism, and a spirit of enterprise that knew no geographical or religious boundary. The orthodox theologians had remained suspect of the rationalist school who advocated use of reason, universalism and material progress of civilization based on the liberating and dynamic paradigms of the Qur’an.

Following a protracted doctrinal battle with the rationalist school, the orthodoxy emerged the sole custodians of faith. This happened by the close of the fourth century of Islam (10th/11th century CE). They abolished rationalism and critical thinking (Ijtihad) and use of reason (‘aql), canonized the Hadith as a form of divine revelation (wahi), reduced the juristic notion of taqlid (Precedence) to blind conformity with whatever had already been learnt during the Prophet’s time and in the first three generations of Muslims (salaf), and declared the consensus of the ‘ulama (ijma) infallible. This brought intellectual activity in Islam to a virtual halt, and, with time, resulted in stagnancy of knowledge, abhorrence against any scientific advancement, and division of universal knowledge into Islamic and European categories. Thus, in the post Renaissance era, the Muslims, at the behest of the orthodoxy, persistently refused to acquire the so-called ‘European’ knowledge, and watched the phenomenal advancement of science and technology in Europe with silent skepticism.

In fact, the hostility of the orthodox ‘Ulama against the so-called European knowledge led them to, among other things, burn down an observatory in Turkey in 1580 - just a year after its erection, and close down the first printing press in the Islamic world in the same city in 1745 [1]. Shunning intellectual dynamism, the orthodoxy reduced the horizon of Islamic scholarship to static and speculative fields, notably, theology, literature, poetry, dialectics, historiography, eschatology, mysticism, philosophy and mannerism, and also traced detailed biographies of pious people in the transmission chain of the Hadith corpus. This took Islamic scholarship in each era to its preceding era stretching back to the ‘ideal’ era of the Prophet and the early Caliphs (salaf), thus exerting a throwback influence which did not admit of any forward march. 

The 19th century ground realities in the Muslim lands forced the Islamic scholarship to break out of its closed and retrogressive domains. Shaykh al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) set aside the doctrine of taqlid (going backwards in knowledge by repeating what was already learnt) by translating French historical, philosophical and scientific works into Arabic, thus renewing a trend of intellectual enlightenment (Ijtihad) [2]. Syed al-Afghani (1838-1897) was highly critical of the intellectual myopia of the Ulama, and compared them with the dwindling flame at the fag end of a narrow wick, “that neither lights its surroundings nor gives light to others.” [3]. Syed Ahmed (1817-1898) insisted on teaching English language and universal sciences to the Muslims in British India and advocated reinterpretation of the Qur’anic message to remove misconceptions and distortions.

Muhammad Abduh, (1849-1905), one time Mufti of Egypt and a disciple of Afghani was more vocal and incisive. He said: “Most of what goes in the name of (orthodox) Islam is not Islam at all. It may only have retained the outer shell of the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, as well as some sayings, which have been perverted by allegorical interpretations” [4]. These statements from the pens of some of the most distinguished scholars of their era, who saw the history unfolding before their eyes, clearly point to a singularly detrimental role of the orthodoxy, both in the decline of Islamic civilization and the perversion of Islamic faith.      

The orthodoxy, however, adamantly clung to their retrogressive scholarship and hackneyed traditions. As their sermons and preaching informed the thoughts and perceptions of common Muslim masses, the warnings and exhortations of the great thinkers of Islam of their era fell on deaf ears. As Muhammad Iqbal noted almost a hundred years ago, the Muslims were so enamored by rhetoric (of their imams and preachers) that even counseling words sounded like fables to them [5]. Besides, the orthodoxy continued to resist all attempts to set Islam and the Muslims on a forward track. Thus, for example, they strongly, though unsuccessfully opposed Syed Ahmed’s efforts to establishing a modern university in British India in the late 19th century, and persistently forbade (declared Haram) the teaching of European languages and universal sciences in practically all colonized Muslim lands.     

In historical perspective, by resisting the teaching of all forms of universal knowledge and sciences post Renaissance the orthodoxy aided and abetted the Western powers to colonize their own lands, and thus spearheaded the protracted destruction of Islamic civilization.

Applying this synergy to the 21st century India, the orthodoxy/Muslim leadership opposing the extension of India’s "Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act" [RTE] curriculum to madrasas are only aiding and abetting in keeping the Indian Muslim masses ignorant and marginalized forever. It is the same old prescription and conspiracy.

The clergy transforms the simple faith of Islam into a complex and regimented religion requiring strict compliance with customs, traditions and rituals resplendent with the fear of hellfire for which the ignorant must rely on them and thus sustain them as their all purpose religious guide/mufti.

The Muslim leadership will weaken its hold on masses and find it hard to get full time maids and servants for their homes and lowly paid / under-aged children for their workplaces once the masses acquire universal education and gain full access to the mainstream employment avenues. They also stand to lose many patriarchal privileges and social status in their circles once the community wriggles out of the morass of deprivation that their ignorance has brought upon them. The enlightened Muslims of India must therefore take the matter to the highest court of justice to defend the rights of their miserable and largely ignorant masses.      

Conclusion: Given the social, cultural and economic decline of Muslims in India that hardly needs any elaboration and the fragmentation, divergence and academic stagnancy of Islamic theologically oriented institutions including the madrasas and their self-imposed and ungodly restriction on the promotion of universal education, all these institutions must be brought under the ambit of RTI as far as school level curriculum is concerned. There can be one subject on religion focusing on the inter-faith and universal dimensions of Islamic message, given that each Muslim household teaches the basics of religion to its children.

At this critical juncture in Indian history, those who oppose the proposed scheme can only be the enemies of the Muslims in India – not their friends or well wishers. In historical perspective they fit the opening imagery of the famous Indian poet as they are bent on remaining glued to their medieval moorings oblivion to the changing realities of life.    


Murad Hofmann, Islam the Alternative, UK 1993, p. 37.

Richard C. Martin and colleagues, Defender of Reason in Islam, One World, Oxford 1997, p. 129

John L. Esposito, Islam in Transition, Oxford University Press, New York 1982, p. 18

Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 584.

Muhammad Iqbal, bang-e-dara, taswir-e-dard, - the rendition of the verse quoted at the opening of this discourse. 

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.