New Age Islam
Fri Sep 24 2021, 06:06 PM

Islamic Ideology ( 19 Oct 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Reforming Indian Madrasas: it can no longer be postponed

By Prof. Akhtarul Wasey (Professor & Head, Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand,

The question of reform in the syllabus and system of madrasa education has been a subject of considerable discussion and debate for a long time now. One can identify a range of opinions on the subject. Some people insist that there is no need at all for any such reform, and regard those who call for reform as motivated by ulterior motives, sometimes even alleging that they are engaged in a conspiracy against Islam. Others think quite differently. They argue that madrasas as they presently exist are a major cause for the overall backwardness of the Muslims and for their intellectual decline. They go so far as to demand that madrasas be closed down. A third section are in favour of limited reform in the madrasa curriculum while advocating that the present system of madrasa education be preserved. They believe that madrasas should continue to teach the subjects that they have been all along, but that to make the education they impart more effective they should introduce some new books and new methods of instruction. A fourth section, while accepting the central place in the madrasa curriculum of ‘religious sciences’, advocate such basic changes as would enable madrasa students to be able to relate to and deal properly with contemporary religious and social demands and challenges.

The first of these four sections consist largely of those ulema of madrasas whose lives are restricted almost wholly within the four walls of their seminaries. The second category are secular, liberal intellectuals for whom religion, by and large, is only of secondary concern. The third group consists of those ulema who, through their own experiences, have been made aware of the limitations of the existing madrasa syllabus, but who,  not wanting to be accused of being ‘modernists’ and iconoclasts, wish to reform the system from within. This is why they speak with great circumspection. The fourth class does not regard the syllabus as important in itself. What for them is important are the aims and the direction that the syllabus signifies.

Those who continue to oppose any reforms in the madrasa syllabus argue that madrasas are successful in fulfilling their basic aims and purposes. How valid is this claim? To answer this question, one must first properly understand what the basic aims and objectives of madrasas really are, this being a subject of much confusion.

The Aims and Objectives of Madrasa Education

Madrasas have for centuries served as centres of Islamic education. They have played a key role in the development of Islamic thought and in the formation and progress of Muslim communities. It would not be wrong to say that there is no aspect of Muslim life and society that has remained outside their purview. For centuries, madrasas were the centre of thought and intellectualism in Muslim communities, and influenced all sections of society. Madrasas produced both religious scholars and guides as well as leaders in various ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ fields, including traders, administrators, judges, and so on.

The question here arises as to why it is now assumed that madrasas can no longer produce such people who combine in themselves the good of the deen and the good of this world, in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. Modern developments in the field of education and the startling increase in educational resources have greatly eased the hurdles that we once faced in this regard. Moreover, one can cite dozens of examples of graduates of the madrasas who have gone on to excel in various branches of what are conventionally thought of as ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’ subjects. This suggests that the basic problem we face here is that of not seeing things properly and not acting courageously with regard to the aims of madrasa education. In the face of the rapid social and civilisational changes of the modern world, it is essential that the aims and objectives of the madrasas be broadened, rather than further narrowed down.

The Division Between ‘Religious’ and ‘Worldly’ Knowledge

Lamentably, the intellectual downfall and crisis that Muslims have faced have given rise to a number of very misleading misconceptions and beliefs, including the notion that there is a rigid separation in Islam between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge. No evidence for this alleged separation or division can be cited from the Quran and the Sunnah. Knowledge is a comprehensive whole, and it makes no sense to divide it in this fashion. In Islam, knowledge is divided on the basis of what is beneficial (nafe) and what is not beneficial (ghair nafe). According to a well-known hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have begged God for safety from knowledge that was not beneficial. Likewise, the very first Quranic revelation tells us: ‘Read in the name of thy Lord’. Keeping these two references in mind, it becomes clear that whatever knowledge is received from the name of God and that which is beneficial is in accordance with Islam and can be considered ‘religious knowledge’, even if it is about mathematics, geography or science. Conversely, knowledge that is acquired only for the sake of worldly pleasure or desire is definitely irreligious, even if this be knowledge of Hadith, tafsir (Quranic commentary) and fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence). There have been numerous instances of people seeking to acquire religious knowledge simply for worldly purposes. In his Ihya ul-Uloom ud-Din, the noted scholar Abu Muhammad al-Ghazali castigated numerous students of fiqh of his own times for studying the subject simply to promote their worldly interests as guardians of the wealth of orphans and custodians of waqf properties.

In the early period of the history of madrasas, the notion of a division between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge was absent. The establishment of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband in 1861 can be said to mark the origins of the notion of this division, at least among South Asian Muslims. However, it is salient to note that the founder of the Deoband madrasa regarded this as only a temporary necessity in the light of the particular historical juncture and the specific context in which this madrasa was established, and not as something permanent. This is indicated by his statement that:

‘These days, modern subjects (ulum-e jadida) are being taught in a big way in government schools. But the ancient subjects (ulum al-qadima) have experienced such a decline as has never been witnessed hitherto.’

This is why it can be said that the syllabus that the founders of the Deoband madrasa developed was a temporary and transitional one, suited to the particular context when the ‘ancient subjects’ were under decline and had to be salvaged. It was a product of, as well as a response to, non-Muslim colonial rule and the imperialist presence. The forces of imperialism promoted the belief that religion and the world were two different entities and that education was to be concerned solely with the latter. This belief soon came to be internalized by many Muslims as well. It also led to a heightened sense of defensiveness among Muslims so that Muslim leaders felt it best that the Muslims’ system of religious education be narrowed down, confined and carefully protected. But many ulema looked at this policy with askance. For instance, Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi writes:

‘The present system of educational sanviyat or dualism is a gift of the period of non-Islamic rule. Earlier, our system of education was based on unity and integrity. Our ancient system of education, represented by the Dars-e Nizami, was the principal system of education in the country in the period of Muslim rule. It was also the principal means for cultural and intellectual training and advancement. It prepared scholars of Hadith and  fiqh and teachers, as well as civil servants and administrators […] The same was true for other [Muslim] countries, where there were no separate curricula and systems of education for religious and worldly education. Everyone knows that the famous mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam and the Seljuq Prime Minister Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi studied in the same learning-circle and were products of the same educational system.’

A noted critic of the rigid dualism that emerged in Muslim educational thinking and practice was Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, himself a graduate of the Deoband madrasa and a traditional ‘alim. This is well brought out in his two-volume magnum opus, Hindustan Mai Musalmano Ka Nizam-e Talim wa Tarbiyat (‘The System of Education and Training of the Muslims in India’). In 1945 he penned an essay in the Ma’arif, a journal published from Azamgarh, under the title ‘My Proposed Educational Outline’. In another essay, titled ‘A Perspective on Holistic Education’, he made some bold proposals for a comprehensive system of education which, in his words, would end the difference between ‘mister’ and ‘mullah’, between the ‘alim’ and the ‘intellectual’.

It is true that there have been very few people like Maulana Gilani who have had a deep insight into the educational system and needs of the Muslims of South Asia. But what is surprising is that his voice in this regard should be like a remote cry in the desert. Maulana Gilani was a broad-minded and enlightened ‘alim who invited Muslims to reconsider their entire educational system and accept much-needed changes. What a contrast he was to those many today who, in their narrow-mindedness and stagnation, refuse even to consider the need to lighten the madrasa syllabus by removing what are obviously unnecessary subjects that are included in it!

A major damage caused by the stark dualism in Muslim education is that it has given birth to rival factions within the Muslim fold that are viscerally opposed to each other. One of these factions considers the other to be ignorant of Islam, or, sometimes, even as ‘enemies of Islam’. On the other hand, the second group considers the first to be ignorant of the world and the demands of the contemporary age—veritable ‘ignorant friends’ of the faith. It is crucial that these two groups should dialogue with each other and try to come closer. Only on that basis can a generation of educated Muslims come into being that upholds a correct Islamic vision and that can, in accordance with contemporary demands, properly serve the faith, the community and the country.

Need for Reforms in the Madrasa Curriculum

The very minimum that can be done with regard to reforming the madrasas is to work towards combining the best of the modern and the past with regard to the curriculum. The basic aim of the madrasas is the protection and promotion of knowledge of the deen. Keeping this basic aim as the top priority, efforts should be made to mould the madrasa curriculum at the secondary level in accordance with the demands of the time and environment in order to make it more effective. We have to admit that a large portion of the existing madrasa syllabus is now defunct and has lost its importance and usefulness. Most of the books prescribed in the syllabus were written seven hundred or more years ago. In that intervening period of seven centuries humanity has witnessed immense leaps in knowledge and civilization. Old perspectives have withered away, and have been replaced with new ones that have produced revolutionary changes in human civilization. In particular, the significant transformations witnessed in the 19th and 20th centuries have created an entirely new world. It is important for our Islamic scholars to understand these new ideologies, the huge transformations that they have wrought, and the very significant religious, moral, social and intellectual challenges that they now pose.

In the third and fourth centuries after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, the translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic led to the spread of new ideas that were seen as undermining the Muslims’ commitment to Islam. But the Muslim religious intellectuals of that time took up the challenge, studied the Greek sciences, and sought to address the threat that they posed. Today, we need to do the same in the face of the ideologies that pose such a major challenge to religion and morality at the global level. One has to ask what intellectual as well as practical steps the madrasas and their personnel have taken in this regard. Have they done anything at all? Or is it that this very necessary task has been abandoned by our religious leadership?

The Features of Reform and Change

The details of the reforms in the madrasa syllabus that have today become so necessary can be formulated only by keeping in mind the larger aims of the madrasas. The present madrasa syllabus is based on two types of subjects and forms of knowledge, what are called ulum al-aqliya and ulum al-naqaliya, the ‘rational sciences’ and the ‘revealed sciences’ respectively. There is a need for changes in both of these. As far as the ulum al-naqaliya, that is the say the Quran, Hadith and fiqh and related subjects, are concerned, the majority of the ulema themselves feel that most of the new generation of madrasa graduates lack what is called tafaqquh fi al-din, expertise in understanding the deen, and even the basic capacity to engage in istinbat and istikhraj or deduction on various issues. In fact, they also believe that a large proportion of madrasa graduates do not have the capacity to directly study the Quran and the Sunnah. Their education has remained focused mainly on a sectarian understanding of different fiqh issues and such like and the proofs for these. They lack the capacity to understand and reflect deeply on another major aspect of the Quran and the Sunnah which relates to the problems of human civilization and social affairs. Nor are they able to offer answers or solutions to these issues. This is why in their intellectual debates, writings, lectures and speeches for public consumption they typically choose such topics and issues that only further promote sectarian rivalry and conflict. Another group among these madrasa graduates turns their backs to the world, to social affairs, and restrict themselves within the four walls of their madrasas.

Given this background, it is crucial that students studying in madrasas gain a proper expertise in the Islamic sciences so that they can fulfill their responsibility of properly understanding and appropriately communicating Islamic teachings to people in light of the changing social context. This task requires, among other things, suitable reforms in methods of teaching, as well as new and more easily understandable textbooks for learning the principles of Hadith (usul al-hadith), fiqh, the principles of fiqh (usul al-fiqh), theology (kalam) and so on that should be included in the syllabus. The syllabus must also make provision for teaching subjects such as the life of the Prophet, Islamic History, Comparative Religions, Islamic Mission and so on.

The other aspect of the reform of the madrasa syllabus relates to the ulum al-aqaliya or the ‘rational sciences’. The fact is that this aspect of the syllabus needs a total transformation. It is crucial that madrasa students have a good understanding of the various social sciences, particularly modern philosophy, economics, sociology and political science, because without this they will not be able to meet the challenges posed by today’s age. The modern social sciences are the basis of the new intellectual and civilisational trends that are now so dominant. One way to incorporate these sciences into the madrasa syllabus is to teach them alongside what are considered as ‘religious’ subjects, although I think the efficacy of this will be limited. A better way of incorporating them would be to teach these subjects to the students till the matriculation level before they begin the religious studies course. That is to say, the tenth grade of ‘modern’ education should be considered as the basis or the introductory programme for students to begin their religious studies programme. This would naturally increase the number of years students would need to spend in a madrasa, but it would help in promoting the basic aims of madrasa education. Many leading ulema and other Muslim intellectuals in India and Pakistan now support this position. This position is close to what, as I mentioned earlier, was advocated by Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani.

Another aspect of the reform agenda is the introduction of teaching languages. The undeniable fact is that the present madrasa syllabus pays no attention at all to this. Because madrasas give such little stress to linguistic abilities, many madrasa graduates do not know how to write and speak even Arabic properly despite spending eight years in a madrasa. Further, madrasas have ignored the teaching of other important languages, such as English. English is now the language of the intellectuals, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, in many countries, the language of the global media, politics, science, technology and modern social philosophies. The biggest reason for the ulema being sidelined today is that they do not know English and have not given it the importance that it deserves. To answer the questions that are being raised in some influential circles about Islamic beliefs and Muslim culture, history and behavior, it is really important that madrasa graduates know how to speak, read and write English properly. Ignoring the importance of English is proving to be greatly damaging to the cause of Islam and Muslims in India.

It is also crucial for students of madrasas to learn various regional Indian languages—to help them engage in inviting others to the path of Islam, to seek to improve relations between Muslims and others, to try to understand people of other faiths, and to remove misconceptions on both sides. Madrasas can set up departments of languages where students can learn the languages of their choice and interest.

A subject of great importance is Comparative Religions. Presently, it is taught in only a few Indian madrasas, such as the Jamiat ul-Falah, Azamgarh, and the Jamiat ul-Islam, Oomerabad, although it is taught as a subject in most universities in Arab countries. It is necessary that students of our madrasas have an understanding of the various larger religions of the world and those that are followed in India. Is it not strange that we live in a country that has an 80% non-Muslim population and yet we know little about their religious beliefs, views, ways of life and philosophies? Most of the graduates of our madrasas will have to work within this religiously-plural society of ours and serve the cause of dawah, inviting others to the path of Islam, and so it is indispensible for them to have a good knowledge of the religious beliefs of our non-Muslim fellow Indians. In this regard, one might ask if from today’s madrasa circles one can cite even a single figure of the stature of Al-Biruni, who, centuries ago, penned the Kitab ul-Hind, where he described in very great detail, the religious beliefs of the non-Muslim peoples of India.

In addition to teaching madrasa students about other religions, madrasas also need to familiarize them with ideologies that have become like religions, quasi-religions such as Marxism, Capitalism, Modernism, Liberalism, Existentialism and so on. These have all sprouted from modern Western thought and civilization. The fact is that we Muslims have faced defeat on every intellectual and practical front at the hands of the West, and we regard the West as our biggest foe, but, at the same time, we are not prepared to properly and fully understand the West. Today, a huge number of scholars and writers are being produced in the West who are researching small Muslim populations and localities, spending years studying the finer aspects of Islamic beliefs and culture, because of which they know more about us Muslims than we ourselves. In contrast, all we know of the West is that it is another name for sexual license, gross materialism, women’s liberation and drunkenness. Our very low and limited understanding of Western thought and civilisation does not give us the opportunity to properly understand the causes for the development of the West and of our own decline. In this regard I strongly believe we need a group of religiously-inspired people to study the West in the same manner as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western Orientalists began studying the East with such passion.

In reconstructing the syllabus of madrasas in India it is necessary to keep in mind that India is a very plural society. A plural society has its own mentality, sensitivities, problems and demands, which need to be properly appreciated. That is why the syllabus used in madrasas in countries like India and the West cannot be identical to that used in madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Factors such as political ideologies, secularism, and democracy need to be taken into cognizance in this respect, but tremendous confusion continues to rage about these in madrasa circles. New questions are constantly being raised, and will continue to do so. There is the ongoing debate on the terms kafir and mushriq and who exactly these apply to. There is the debate on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of jihad in a plural society. There is the question of helping, working with and befriending non-Muslims. There are different legal questions about citizenship and citizen’s rights. Various Islamic circles are characterized by tremendous confusion about these various issues, and this is true with regard to our madrasa students, too. This is something that needs to be looked at.

It is also very necessary for madrasas to include the teaching of the hard sciences, just as, as I had mentioned earlier, social sciences also need to be taught. It is not necessary, nor is it possible, that these sciences be taught to the same level as in schools, but it is essential that madrasa students have a basic and general idea of these sciences. For this purpose they can use available texts or else new texts, suited to madrasa students, can be prepared.

It is also possible to make some provision for technical education in the curriculum for madrasa students. The issue of the economic prospects of madrasa graduates is one that needs much attention. The Deoband madrasa had set up a department of crafts which, even today, trains students in book-binding, calligraphy and watch-repairing. In some madrasas students are taught computer applications, although this is still at a very basic stage. It is necessary for new crafts and vocational skills that are in accordance with contemporary demands and conditions be introduced in the madrasas while keeping in mind the tastes of the students and the general environment of the madrasas. In this regard, the Jamiat ul-Hidaya in Jaipur has made some innovative experiments, which other madrasas can learn from.

Another aspect of madrasa education that is in need of reform is the present focus on mastering particular books, which needs to shift to stressing mastering a subject or topic. This requires change in teaching methods, from rote-learning and a book-centric approach to practice and lectures, as is the case in modern universities. In fact, the latter was the general practice in many Islamic educational institutions in the past, and madrasas today can follow that practice again. A major problem with the present teaching system in madrasas is that it does not help students develop an understanding of the subject they are meant to be learning, their entire attention being focused on understanding particular books.

Mental Blocks

Generally speaking, people associated with madrasas have certain reservations and mental blocks with regard to the question of reforming the madrasa syllabus. Their first and major objection is that, so they claim, there is simply no way to include modern subjects in the present syllabus because the syllabus is already full, with over a dozen subjects being included in it. This argument might appear, on the face of it, compelling, but if the situation is properly comprehended the problem can very easily be solved. The truth is that the present madrasa syllabus is burdened with unnecessary and defunct subjects. For example, a major portion of the books for Arabic grammar are based on useless discussions and themes. Numerous serious-minded ulema have written on this problem, and have recommended that a number of books and topics be removed from the syllabus, which would make it possible for easier topics and books to be included. Madrasa students waste much time and effort in trying to understand the useless debates in these books. Also unnecessary are the books that continue to be taught about antiquated Greek philosophy and logic, which are of no use today, as even many traditionalist ulema admit. These subjects could continue to be taught at a very basic level, if need be, for instance to familiarize students with certain terms, for which new and easier books can be used.

Another objection that is raised by critics opposed to reforming the madrasa syllabus is that introducing modern subjects would, so they claim, negatively impact on the general environment of the madrasas, which is characterized by the Word of God and talk about the Prophet. They claim that it would lead to increased materialism and promote worldly desires among students, and that their commitment to the faith would decline while they would be led to focus simply on worldly attainment. This argument is itself a reflection of complete lack of knowledge of Islamic history, where, almost throughout, the syllabus used in the madrasas has combined both deen—religion—and duniya—the world. The graduates of these institutions were complete beings, combining both deen and duniya. This point can better be appreciated from the fact that the founders of the Deoband madrasa were educated not in a religious madrasa but, rather, at the Delhi College, an institution whose syllabus was not that of any madrasa of today.

Another problem regarding the reform of the madrasa curriculum is the difficulty of finding suitable teachers for modern subjects who are themselves pious Muslims and can intellectually fit into the general environment of the madrasas. The fact is that there are people among the Muslims who are quite appropriate for this task. What needs to be done is to indentify such people. It is possible that one will encounter some difficulties in this to begin with, but in a while it is likely that madrasas can start to employ their own graduates as teachers for these subjects.

Reforming, on appropriate lines, the syllabus and system of madrasa education in India, and bringing these in line with contemporary demands is essential for the overall religious and worldly progress of the Indian Muslims, for properly representing Islam, and for fulfilling the duty of dawah. The longer that this work of renewal is postponed the more damage it will cause.

[This is a translation of an article titled Dini Madaris Ka Nisab Wa Nizam Aur Asr-e Hazir Ke Taqaze which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Urdu journal Islam Aur Asr-e Jadid]

Prof. Wasey can be contacted on

Copyright 2010: New Age Islam Foundation