By Khalid Baig
05 August 2017
ALTHOUGH the Muslim world is facing many crises today, probably none has more far reaching consequences than the crisis of education. If in every area we find that our affairs are not being run properly, the problem ultimately lies with the system that produced the people responsible for running those affairs. For the same reason its solution offers the greatest promise for the future.
The problem has become intractable because not only our system of education has been corrupted; our very ideas about education have also been corrupted. That is why despite the presence of educational institutions of every type everywhere, the problem defies solution. We are producing literacy but not education. We are disseminating information but not knowledge. We are producing certificates, diplomas, and degrees of every conceivable type but we are not producing men of learning and understanding needed to run the affairs of the Ummah and help it carry out its task of being a guide for the humanity.
The Muslim world throughout is plagued with the presence of two parallel education systems Schools, colleges and universities on the one hand and Madaris or Darul Ulooms on the other. They are parallel in a textbook definition of parallel lines; two lines that never meet. Together they are tearing the fabric of the Muslim community by pulling it in opposite directions. In order to understand where we stand and where we are headed with what we have, it is important to look at how we ended up where we are now.
The paramount system of education throughout the Muslim world is the system of western education introduced by the imperial powers: The British in the subcontinent, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere; the French in Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Tunis and Morocco; the Italians in Libya; and so on. These imperial powers methodically worked to destroy the system of education they found in the conquered territories and confer all the power and prestige on the implanted system. Their main purpose was to control the minds of their subject people. It is instructive to note that the first three universities established in India (Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras) did not do any teaching at all when established or for decades after that. They were established in 1857 and their task was to conduct examinations for the students in their vast areas of jurisdiction, thereby controlling education throughout India. In other words their prestige was not due to their excellent teaching—as there was none— but due to their monopoly over the granting of certificates and degrees which could be cashed through government employment?
The immediate purpose of the schools and colleges established by the imperial government was the production of junior functionaries for running its affairs. Their products were required to be cogs in the wheels of the exploitative and repressive imperial machinery. For this they had to be convinced of the superiority of their masters, their language, their manners, their knowledge, their system of government, their culture and their history while disdaining their own history and civilisation and questioning their religion.
Today most people have no idea of what a madrasa looked like. Madaris existed in a Masjid, in the living room of an affluent person in the neighbourhood or in the home of the teacher, or under a tree. There were no fees and no fixed grades. Students joined a teacher to study a particular book with him. Classes were heavily interactive so the examination took place every day, there being no idea of an annual exam. The students that had read a book with a teacher could and did immediately start teaching it to others. Teachers either had support from a ruler or an affluent person or had Waqf lands that sustained them. Not only that there were no fees, but frequently students were given a stipend or financial aid by the teachers. At the time of British arrival in the subcontinent, this system of education was producing men for all walks of life. A large country with millions of people needed all kinds of goods and services and people who could produce them.
The country needed religious leaders, scholars, administrators, judges, craftsmen for all sorts of products from textiles to pottery to weapons, builders, workers, soldiers, generals, physicians, writers, copyists (in a thriving publishing business), teachers, and traders. And the pre-colonial Madaris did produce them all. Ustad Ahmad Lahori the chief architect of Taj Mahal and Jamia Masjid Delhi was a graduate of a madrasa, so was Ali Mardan Khan who was the builder of Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. Khairullah Khan Dehlvi who built the Observatory in Delhi and so was Ustad Rumi Khan who built cannons for the Mughal King Babar. So were other architects and engineers who built hundreds of other civil engineering marvels throughout the vast land. Madrasa taught them reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, Tib (medicine), Farsi, Arabic, Quran, Hadith, Logic, and Fiqh in an environment which valued Adab (manners and morals) over book learning. Then they learned the crafts through apprenticeship and on the job training with a master.