By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
12 June 2019
Madrasa are in spotlight again. Not because there are wild allegations of these institutions harbouring terrorists but through a PIL filed in Delhi High Court to regulate the contents of madrasas and Maktabs. One must also add that the same PIL also asks for similar regulation in Gurukuls but given the fact that there are very few of them, the potential impact of the outcome of this PIL is to be felt by madrasas. The important point for us therefore is how Muslims should respond to such a PIL. There are already murmurs that this is influenced by the BJP government in power and that they, being “enemies of Islam,” will try to alter the teaching within these madrasas which have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
Before jumping to such conclusions, we must understand that the effort to regulate madrasas did not start with BJP. All governments have tried to do so from time to time. Thus during the Congress led UPA II, there were serious attempts to bring all madrasas under one single platform called All India Madrasa Board. The attempt backfired because the Barelwis and the Deobandis did not want to be governed by a single Board. There were fundamental problems within their pedagogy. After all, if the Barelwis teach their students that Deobandis are nearly Kafirs, then how could they agree to a joint curriculum? Similar was the problem with the Deobandis who have historically regarded the Barelwis as lesser Muslims and more Hindus. However, the problem was not just limited to fundamentally different approaches to Islam but also about the perception that the government was interfering in the personal institutions of Muslims and that was equally unacceptable to all the Muslim Maslaks. Thus there is nothing new in what the BJP government is trying to do (if we accept that the PIL is somehow related to or influenced by the government). Rather, we should understand that earlier governments have also tried to do the same. Perhaps it is in the nature of governments to regulate institutions and if the present government is trying to do it, then why should we have such a huge problem? After all, Muslims also accept the suzerainty of the government, so what is the need for such exceptionalism?
Let us now come to the PIL itself and what it is demanding from the courts. The litigation argues that madrasas need to be modernised and brought on par with government schools. Thus essentially it is saying that the curriculum should reflect the educational requirements of the modern world. It states that madrasas ‘teach only Quran, Hadith and religious matters’ which ‘severely impacts the job prospects of students studying in these madrasas’. It is difficult not to agree with such a description of contemporary madrasas. They are still stuck in the 19th century syllabus drawn up by Mulla Nizamuddin which later on came to be known as the Dars e Nizami. Before the PIL, scores of reformist Muslims themselves have argued for overhauling the system of education within these madrasas. A committee to propose changes within madrasas, constituted by the NCMEI (National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions), drew up a plan to implement reforms but was quickly shelved due to the opposition of the mullahs. So there is nothing new in what the current PIL is demanding. This demand is old and has even been raised by many Muslims from time to time. However, no sooner such a demand for reforming madrasas is made, mullahs start crying that Islam is in danger. This time additionally they are saying that it is the BJP government which wants to destroy their age old tradition.
It must be underlined that Islam has always been in danger for these mullahs whenever things are not to their liking. Islam was in danger when Supreme Court delivered the Shah Bano judgment; it was in danger when the Babri mosque was demolished and it is in danger now when one is talking of reforming madrasas. Muslims should call their bluff now. It is not Islam which is in danger rather it is the perks and the privileges of the mullahs which come in danger every time someone calls for reforms in their institutions.
The problem also is that they have a ready audience with those Muslims who think that mullahs are the representatives of Muslims and that they have been mandated to guide and lead us by the Prophet himself. This is sheer nonsense and has been concocted by the mullahs themselves. It is unfathomable how a semi-literate madrasa graduate having no knowledge of how the present world works, can lead a community in the 21st century. It is equally unfathomable how modern educated Muslims can think that mullahs are their true representatives and that they are duty bound to follow their command.
What is equally problematic is that the cry of Islam in danger gets a sympathetic ear from the fellow secularists who in their blind adherence to minority rights legitimise whatever these mullahs say about Muslims. One of the arguments often heard within the mullah-secular complex is that madrasas are age old institutions of Muslims within which no change is possible. They link madrasas with Muslim culture and argue that protection of this culture is alienable part of minority rights.
The problem is that secularists are downright ignorant about Muslim culture and religious traditions as a result of which they believe whatever they are fed by the mullahs. The truth remains that madrasas have changed throughout history and the present arrangement of knowledge within the madrasa system is a product of colonial period. Pre-colonial madrasas taught everything: from religious studies to the available sciences of the day. It is only with the establishment of Deoband in 1867 that the teaching of science and philosophy was discontinued from madrasas. In doing so, Deoband was not following the traditions of Muslims scholarship but rather inventing a new one. Questions must be asked from this institution as to why it did this but those asking the question must first know these facts.
Madrasas have always insisted that they do not stop anyone from acquiring modern education. Muslims can certainly do so by going to schools if they desire. However, they are resolutely opposed to introducing these modern subjects in their own institutions.
One might say this is a very modern and valid argument. However, it might be a modern argument to make but it is definitely not a valid argument. One needs to ask the question what right do they have to jeopardise the future of Lakhs of Muslim children by teaching them things which do not equip them to negotiate the structures of modern life? Just because these students are poor and low caste, is it alright to consign their educational futures to an outmoded and ridiculous syllabus?
All those Muslims who fund these madrasas must ask themselves this question: are they willing to send their own children in these institutions? If not, then is it the responsibility of poor Muslims alone to bear the burden of Islamic piety on their already tired shoulders?
Time and again we hear that the most important asset which the Muslim community needs to develop is education. And yet we have developed an educational system which is producing misfits by the horde. The Prophet wanted us to even go as far as China to acquire knowledge. Today, we have developed an educational system whose students struggle to locate China on a world map.
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist
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