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Curriculum of the Indian Madrasas and Islamic Seminaries, Dars-e-Nizami: Full of Polemics and Shorn of Spiritual Beauty of Islam



By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

09 January, 2015

There is no denying the fact that madrasas have always been harbingers of Prophetic teachings and there are still some madrasas that are making a mark. But majority of madrasas today are unable to prepare their graduates to face the challenges that the modern era places upon them. A mere glance at the state of affairs in the present-day madrasas reveals that they have been led far away from their ultimate purpose that our visionary Ulema and Islamic intellectuals had designed at the beginning. The rapacious and self-centred administrators who have not the faintest idea about the aim and objectives of religious institutions, have now established their monopoly on the majority of Indian madrasas. Hence, Muslim children in many madrasas are deprived of essential Islamic education, not to speak of preparing them for the imminent struggle in the world that educational institutions should be meant for.

Types of Madrasas in India

Indian madrasas are mainly of two types: the ones run merely on contributions from the community and those which are affiliated to state governments particularly in U.P, Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam. These madrasas rely on government largesse and collect huge grants from their respective state governments. The first kind of madrasas can be categorised into three types: (1) Maktab (2) Madrasa (3) Darul Uloom. Although they have considerable differences, common Muslims in India don’t differentiate among them and call all these types of Islamic seminaries ‘madrasas’. However, the education systems and curricula of these madrasas differ in accordance with the schools of thought they subscribe to. So, the Madrasa curriculums represent myriad interpretations of Islamic ideologies and doctrines. For instance, the spiritual doctrine of Wahdatul Wajud (unity of existence) is taught and professed in Sufi-oriented Madrasas, while it is a taboo in the hardcore Wahhabi curriculums.

Madrasa Educational Curriculum

In the early eighteenth century, Islamic seminaries in India (madrasas) had a comprehensive syllabus full of theological and philosophical sciences. This Islamic educational curriculum offered a very holistic and comprehensive view of education including mainstream subjects like Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine, Philosophy, Logic, Geography, Literature, Chemistry and so on, as well as the Quranic exegesis, the Prophetic traditions, Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Sufism.

In fact, this Madrasa curriculum was initially framed and institutionalised by Meer Fathullah Serazi in Akbar’s age. Later on, Indian Ulema incorporated a few changes and modifications in this traditional Islamic curriculum. The noted Islamic scholars of undivided India who worked upon the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum after Meer Fathullah Serazi were:  Mufti Abdus Salam Lahuari, Maulana Daniyal Chaurasi, Mulla Qutbuddin Sahalvi, Hafiz Amanullah Banarasi, Maulana Qutubuddin Shamsabadi and Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi. They belonged to different eras and introduced to the Islamic curriculum different dimensions. It was Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi, a contemporary of Shah Waliullah Muhaddith Dehlvi, who reshaped the educational curriculum in the mainstream Indian Madrasas. Thus, the curriculum was named after him as “Dars-e-Nizami”.

As Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi hailed from the family of teachers and clerics appointed at the leading Madrasas of Firangi Mahal, the citadel of Islamic learning in India then, there was no stiff opposition to his curriculum. Consequently, the Dars-e-Nizami syllabus took deep roots in the mainstream Indian madrasas running particularly in Delhi, Firangi Mahal, Lucknow and Khairabad. Even the leading Islamic scholars of Lucknow and Delhi endorsed and accepted it due to the paramount importance attached to the Firangi Mahal clerics and scholars.

There was variety of reasons for the Madrasas to embrace the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum. Mufti Taqi Usmani figures out one:  “After the Moguls took control over India, the Dars-e- Nizami system became wide spread in south Asia. India came to be known worldwide for its educational institutions imparting religious sciences. It was this very system that pushed the Asian society towards great success”. He further says: “It was essential that we would adopt the Dars-e-Nizami system, as it produced thousands of men well-versed in the fields of knowledge’’ (Usmani .M.T. (2000) page: 6).

The Dars-e-Nizami curriculum mainly consisted of books on the classical Islamic sciences: Qur’anic exegesis, Hadith narrations, Jurisprudence (Fiqh), Rhetoric, Arabic grammar, Morphology etc. However, it did not give importance to the Islamic history or even study of the early Islamic movements. In order to better understand its peculiarities, let us have a look at the main subjects and books that were employed in the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum and are still taught in the majority of contemporary Indian Madrasas:

Arabic Conjugation and Grammar (Ilm al-Sarf):  Arabic Primer; Mizanus-Sarf and Munsha'ib,  Panj Ganj, Ilmus Segha and Fusool-e-Akbari

Arabic Syntax (ilm al-Nahv): Memorizing of Nahv-e-Mir,  Sharh-e- Mi'ata A'mil, Hidayatun Nahv, Kafiya, Sharah Shuzuruz Zahab, Sharah Jami 

Rhetoric (ilm al-Bayan wal Ma’ani): Mukhtasarul Ma’ani, Mutawwal

Logic (Mantiq): Sharh Shamsah, Sullam, Risalah Meer Zahid, Mulla Jalal, Sughrah, Kubra, Esaghoji Tahzeeb, Qutbi, Sharah Tahzeeb, Meer Qutbi

Philosophy: Mebzi, Shams Bazigha, Sadra

Mathematics: Qaushjah, Sharh Chaghmni

Reasoning (ilmul kalam): Sharh-e-Mawaqif, Sharh-e- Aqaid Nasafi

Jurisprudence (Fiqh): Noorul Izah, Qudoori, Sharah Wiqayah, Hidayah

Principles of Jurisprudence (Usool al-Fiqh): Usoolus Shasi, Noor ul Anwar, Tauzeeh wa Talweeh, Musallam al-Suboot

Quranic Exegesis (Tafseer): Jalalain Shareef, Baidawi Shareef

Prophetic Traditions (Hadith): Mishkat ul Masabeeh, Bukhari and Muslim, Tirmizi, Tahavi, Ibn-e-Maja, Shama'il Tirmizi, Mu'atta Imam Mohammad 

Nearly all the Islamic seminaries and Madrasas in India, except the Salafi/Ahle-Hadisi and Jamat-e-Islami-affiliated Madrasas, commonly share the same curriculum with veritable difference in their external study materials recommended for their students, as their theological points of view regarding particular beliefs and doctrines are somewhat different. Thus, Indian madrasas represent a diverse array of ideological orientations which is mostly opposed to each other's interpretation of Islam.

Present State of Affairs

Since its formation, the very age-old Dars-e-Nizami is taught in the Indian Madrasas as a universal Islamic curriculum with no paradigm shift, radical reforms or any tangible development in it. Rather, it debars students from choosing any other subjects or books suitable to their literary flair. The present-day Madrasa curriculum in India is full of philosophical, theological and polemical literature and quite shorn of spiritual beauty of Islamic faith. The beautiful Islamic discourses compiled by the Sufis and mystics of India that were taught in madrasas in the distant past, are no more in their study materials. Not even Sufi-oriented madrasas of today teach the books like Kashful Mahjub, Fawaidul Fuwad, Awarif ul Ma’arif; historical documents of Islamic mysticism that preach universal values, communal harmony, love for all and hatred for none. Gone are the days when books on reason, wisdom, ethics and morality such as Gulsitan and Bostan of Shaikh Sa’di were the part of Madrasa curriculum in India. Far from presenting the broader Islamic notion of Deen and Ummah, present-day madrasa curricula concern the students with the ideological reproduction of their own sect (Maslak) and school of law (Fiqhi Mazhab).

Let alone modern education, even theological issues are not addressed in synergy with the modern advancements. The traditionalist clerics and obscurantist rectors of the madrasas loudly claim that the Dars-e Nizami curriculum has a universal application and hence does not require any change at all. They argue that since it churned out well-versed Islamic scholars in the past, it will continue to do so in the present and future too. In their view, anyone who calls for change in the Dars-e Nizami is either a badmazhab (misguided in thought) or conspirator against the religious institution of the madrasas.

On the contrary, a critical analysis of the Dars-e Nizami curriculum reveals that it is not only dominated by the obsolete, polemical and outdated branches of learning, but also detrimental to the mental advancements of the students. There seems to be no scope for "renewal", “research” or “rethinking” which are essential values of Islamic education. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet (pbuh): "Every 100 years, Allah will send someone to renew faith for the Ummah." While the Madrasas keep refreshing their students with this Prophetic exhortation, they miserably fail to produce one who can stand up to this position and address the changes and challenges of the modern era. As a result, students come out of madrasas with stagnant minds and constrained world-view antithetical to critical analysis of the socio-religious issues.

Religion needs not to be changed, reformed or perfected. God has already completed his glorious religion with the Prophet Muhammad's message, as he said: "This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion." We, actually, need reformers and change agents in our Madrasas who can renew and revive the present-day Muslims' attitude towards their religion. As long as this deep understanding of Tajdeed-e-Deen (renewal of faith) is missing from the madrasa curriculum, we cannot hope an enlightened vision for their future.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.