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Madrasa Reform: Is the Creation of A Progressive Islamic Theology Possible with Ulema Steeped in Dars-e-Nizami Curriculum?

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

17 June 2017

Progressive Islamic Theology

A progressive Islamic theology based on the rationalist as well as traditionalist foundations has long been emphasised. It is conceived in order to enable the Islamic scholars to creatively rethink their positions on the issues of contemporary relevance. Those glorified as Ulema--the graduates of the traditional Islamic seminaries (madrasas)--are still looked up as thought leaders and instructors in the daily practical life of Muslims the world over. But regrettably, they are no longer intellectually capable to tackle the baffling issues and challenges posed to the Ummah or global Muslim community. As a matter of fact, today's Ulema are not well-equipped with the modern scholastic abilities to guide the global Muslim society in the rapidly changing and dynamically emerging issues of modern life.

Sorry State of Affairs

But deplorably, the present-day Ulema and muftis boast of their thoughts deeply steeped in an unreformed madrasa curriculum—Dars-e-Nizami. Often, they issue such irrelevant religious decrees or Fatwas that make a mockery of the daily affairs of Muslim life. This is precisely the reason behind the stereotyped image of Muslims in the wider world. Fatwas based on the misconstrued and 'out-of-context' texts put the Muslims to collective shame and cynicism. One wonders if they are stuck in the pre-historic age and are completely out of touch with the scientific truths.

As the world Muslims grapple with an increasing number of religious and geopolitical issues, the Ulema and Islamic thought leaders miserably fail to accomplish their duty. Rather, their regressive pronouncements only enhance the perception that Muslims are not open to progressive thoughts or fresh ideas.

This is actually an inevitable result of the clergy's failure in developing a canonical Islamic worldview incorporating the progressive Qura'nic traditions in full harmony with the established scientific trends. At a time when the world has ushered in an enlightened era of scientific ideas, Muslim theologians are in a dire need for a gradual logical progression in their socio-religious thoughts. This should be the urgent task of the Madrasas which enable their students to grasp the past Islamic tradition with efficiency but fail to help them understand modern humanities and sciences.

Madrasa Discourses

In view of this pressing necessity, an experimental project of Madrasa reformation is conducted by faculty at the US-based University of Notre Dame, as part of its "Contending Modernities" initiative. It was launched in January 2017 as a 3-year online program for the Madrasa students across the world to enhance their literacy, intellectual capacity and academic engagement. The university's website has plainly put the objective of this initiative as follows:

"The Ulema provide crucial religious guidance in values and everyday practice to Muslims around the world. They are the custodians of traditional learning in Muslim societies and particularly in South Asia, helping shape the social and cultural outlook of their communities. Upgrading the capacity of these theologians could have a multiplier effect on millions. A transformative impact on the Ulema, and by extension, on Muslim societies beyond South Asia, is a long-term goal of this project".

Entitled as "Madrasa Discourses", this extensive program is primarily focused on the conciliation of traditional Islamic theology with contemporary scientific notions. The three-year course primarily consists of four introductory parts: Ilmul Kalam (Islamic scholastic theology), Islamic jurisprudence (Ilm-ul-Fiqh), Muslim history (al-Tarikh al-Islami) and an objective study of different branches of the classical and modern Islamic theology. In addition, the English and Arabic language abilities are also imparted to the madrasa students enrolled in this course. They are recommended to hone their English language skills through the BBC English learning program.

A group of eminent Islamic scholars who are well-versed in classical Islamic sciences and well-trained in the modern universities—are the lead faculties of this long-term course. Most notable among them are: (1) Dr. Ebrahim Moosa, a Professor of Islamic Studies at the university of Notre Dame who is trained in both traditional (orthodox) Islamic institutions in India and in the modern academy specializing in the study of religion at the University of Cape Town. (2) Dr. Mahan Mirza, a Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, who has spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice. (3) Dr. Waris Mazhari, a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, who presently serves as a lecturer at the Department of Islamic Studies in Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia. (4) Maulana Ammar K. Nasr of the Shariah Academy at International Islamic University in Pakistan

An Innovative Islamic Curriculum

The Madrasa Discourse program has put forward an innovative Islamic curriculum with potentially transformative experience for the Ulema, imams and other madrasa graduates. It offers rich intellectual resources to reshape their thoughts in spirit with the intellectual Islamic traditions and in full synergy with the moral trajectories of peaceful coexistence in the modern interreligious and multicultural society.

Professor Ebrahim Moosa, the director of the Madrasa Discourse, expounds that this project is aimed to achieve the "conciliation between traditional Islamic thought and contemporary scientific and philosophical worldviews". Talking to this writer, Prof. Moosa said that Madrasa graduates need to understand contemporary humanities, science and social science, not as experts but as part of their basic literacy. That will enable them to become able and relevant interpreters of Islam today.

But this cannot be accomplished without a reformed educational curriculum that could enable the Ulema to update their age-old intellectual tradition by deepening their theological and scientific literacy. Given this, the Madrasa Discourse program is could be seen as a step towards the Renaissance in the modern intellectual history of the Ulema tradition.

When asked about the nature of madrasa education reform that this project intends to bring out in the Indian subcontinent, Prof. Moosa replied: "Even the best reforms of madrasa education in India and Pakistan today hardly meet the minimal standards of what is required in terms of reform. In this experimental Madrasa Discourses project, we have witnessed the transformative experiences many recent madrasa graduates have gained.  They are challenged intellectually and they have shown to be most capable in acquiring the skills necessary for them to become thought leaders in their communities."

Prof. Moosa strongly advocates radical reform in the madrasa education. "It is required in order to create a dynamic Muslim religious leadership who can both preserve the best of tradition and construct a modern Muslim theology for the twenty first century", he believes. 

Unquestionably, today's Ulema and Islamic theologians find themselves incapable to provide incisive guidance in modern societies, because their medieval interpretations of the Islamic theology are patently out of date. Without understanding how history changes society and persons, how can the Ulema be the thought leaders in their community?

I raised this question to Professor Mahan Mirza too. He commented that if madrasa students are given a chance to engage with the contemporary intellectual currents, they will develop syntheses that will make both the tradition and its bearers--the Ulema--once again relevant, if not central, in the lifeblood of Muslim societies as guides and peacemakers. "I think Madrasa education system needs to expose students to different conceptual universes that science and philosophy have opened up for us today. This does not mean that Madrasa students are to be converted to ways of thinking that are alien to the classical scholarly tradition of Islam. Instead, renewal in Islamic thought will take place organically as a result of genuine encounters with new knowledge and modern experiences", Mirza said.

Onsite Intensive Madrasa Program

Recently, as part of the Madrasa Discourse, an onsite intensive program was held in the ongoing summer. In 4-hour sessions held every day jointly via Zoom and participated by both Indian and Pakistani Madrasa graduates, an array of interesting topics were lively discussed and independently rethought and debated between the madrasa students and their instructors. In New Delhi's Don Bosco Provincial School, while Dr. Waris Mazhari discussed theoretical conceptions of Ilm ul Kalam (Islamic philosophy) in light of Imam Ghazali's writings, Prof. Mahan Mirza analyzed the key readings from Sophie's World, an interesting novel which explores the myriad notions of the Western philosophical thought. On the other hand in Pakistan, Maulana Ammar K. Nasr, speaking via Zoom, dwelt on Ibn Khaldun and his principles of historiography with a critical appreciation.

On April 7, the Madrasa Discourse's onsite intensive program was organised in JNU's School Of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. Presiding over the session, Prof. Altaf Ahmad Azmi, former head of Centre for History of Medicine & Science (Faculty of Islamic Studies & Social Sciences, Hamdard University) discussed the key issues and debates in the Islamic philosophy (Ilm ul-Kalam). In this event, a considerable number of students from different departments of JNU also participated and interacted with the Madrasa Discourse faculty. Noted historian, Professor A.K. Ramakrishna of JNU addressed the students on the philosophy of history, particularly reflecting on the prominent Muslim thinkers.

At the end of this onsite intensive program of the Madrasa Discourse, a two-day field trip was arranged for the students to visit India's reputed Muslim educational institution, Aligarh Muslim University. They interacted with the noted Islamic historian, Prof. Yaseen Mazhar Siddiqui (formerly associated with AMU's Department of Islamic Sciences), among others.  Professor Siddiqui, who is esteemed as an authoritative Islamic historiographer, addressed questions ranging from the principles of Islamic historiography, texts and contexts of the Hadith and Sirah literature to modern critical subjects related to the Islamic jurisprudence or Fiqh.

Interestingly, Professor Siddiqui who is himself a Hanafi practitioner noted that the history of Sunni-Hanafi jurisprudence is replete with many instances of various practices which were strictly followed earlier by the Hanafi Muslims, but later on, were abolished by the Sunni-Hanafi imams and Ulema due to changes in the socio-political contexts. "Today's social conditions require the Hanafi clergy to incorporate the essential reforms in the Sharia laws including the Triple Talaq. Islamic jurisprudential framework has adequate scope for reform in the divorce laws, contrary to what some traditionalist and non-rationalist Muslims might think", he stated it in his response to a question raised by a female participant of the Madrasa Discourse.

Adding his reflection to this debate, Maulana Waris Mazhari opined that Hanafi scholars will do best to take the reformation initiative by themselves. Most Hanafi Muslims, he said, are in misconception that any reform originating from outside the Hanafi-Sunni jurisprudence is abhorrent and unlawful. "This is why they oppose the argument for the triple Talaqs in one sitting to be just one, not three. In fact, this concept has no authentic foundation in the Islamic jurisprudence", he added.


Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a regular columnist with , scholar of classical Arabic and Islamic Sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies at Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia.




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