By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
In the early period of Islam, wherever Muslims spread through vast parts of the world, they set up large centres of learning in the form of madrasas. This opened up a new chapter in the history of humankind, inspired by Islamic teachings, for the Quran stresses education for all. If the Quran is studied with an open mind, it will be evident that it places great emphasis on knowledge and education. It can be claimed, without any exaggeration, that the Quran was the first book to remove restrictions on the acquisition of knowledge beyond a narrow class of priests and to make knowledge available to all. It was thus the first to present the concept of ‘mass education’.
The first revelation to the Prophet (s.a.w.), in the year 610 C.E., was the instruction to ‘read’. It is said that the Angel Gabriel asked him to ‘read’ (iqra), but he replied that he did not know how to do so. The Angel asked him to read a second time and he gave the same reply. When the Angel instructed him the third time, he recited the Quranic verse that the Angel had delivered as the first divine revelation given to him.
Ponder carefully on this event. The Prophet was unlettered, but, yet, why did the Angel sent by God keep insisting that he should read? This means that if one does not know how to read, one should still do so. If one does not know how to write, still, one should write. In this respect, Islamic culture can be termed as a ‘reading culture’ or ‘Iqra culture’. This made education and learning an integral and central part of Islamic culture and of the lives the Prophet’s followers. When the early Muslims came out of Arabia and spread to various parts of the world, they made learning and instruction a central part of their mission, so much so that every major city of the then Muslim world emerged as a centre of knowledge. This happened in India as well, after Muslims came here and Islam spread in the country.
The Madrasa Movement in Nineteenth Century Colonial India
By the mid-nineteenth century, when the British control spread over most of India, Muslim educational centres in India began to decline. The reason for this was that political movements and protests against the British at this time were mostly led by the Ulema. This led the British to believe that the Islamic madrasas were centres for promoting an anti-British movement. Consequently, they stiffly opposed the madrasas, devising various means to undermine them. They confiscated their lands and the properties they had been endowed with in a bid to dry up their sources of funding. They also imprisoned many Ulema. After this, many madrasas across the country were closed.
After the British conquered India, for a while Muslim leaders believed that first the British must be ousted from the country and that only after that would they have the opportunity of engaging in any religious activity. The Revolt of 1857 was a product of this thinking, but it failed in its aims. This led the Ulema to realize that it was useless to seek to counter the British through military means. The only practical way out, they believed, was to avoid conflict and confrontation, and, instead, to engage, using peaceful means, in constructive activity, focussing particularly on the education of the community. Consequently, numerous madrasas were established across India in the second half of the nineteenth century. This soon assumed the form of a mass movement for Muslim educational awakening.
In 1823, faced with the growing might of the British, Shah Abdul Aziz issued his well-known fatwa declaring India to be Dar ul-Harb or ‘abode of war’. Accordingly, a section of the Indian Ulema and other Muslim leaders began an armed struggle against the British. They again rose in armed revolt in 1857, but this movement completely failed. The bitter events that followed thereafter proved this approach to be counter-productive. This forced the Ulema to change their strategy, because they realized that their earlier approach had failed.
One of the most difficult things for someone to do is to completely change a closely-held position. But if a method or strategy has been tried and fails to produce the desired results, it ought to be changed. That is what reason, and the Shariah, too, would demand. For instance, the Quraish and the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his followers fought a battle at Badr, but some years after that the Prophet entered into a treaty with the Quraish at Hudaibiyah.
This teaches us that just as taking steps for a noble purpose is a Prophetic practice, so, too, is the changing of methods of defence if the need so arises. In the aftermath of the failed 1857 Revolt, the Indian Ulema acted on this example of the Prophet (s.a.w.), for, after realizing that armed struggle was pointless, they changed their focus, diverting their attention to the field of education by setting up scores of madrasas. So, one could say that they shifted the struggle of the community from violent conflict to peaceful educational activism. This represented the choice of a peaceful option over a violent one. The Ulema reviewed their position and, without terming it as such, issued what can, in some sense, be called a ‘fatwa’: that India had now become Dar ut-Taleem or ‘abode of knowledge/learning’, and that all Muslims must now get involved in the field of education. This was an extremely important decision.
After considering India as Dar ut-Taleem, a vast number of madrasas and other educational institutions were set up across the country, the result of the efforts of literally thousands of dedicated Ulema. These men sacrificed themselves so as to keep the community alive and to maintain the tradition of religious knowledge, surviving on meagre incomes and leading simple lives, without expecting worldly rewards. The madrasas that they established provided free education, which helped the poor in particular. The Ulema decided that they would depend on community donations and not on government funding so that they could thereby retain their autonomy. They faced numerous hurdles, including financial, but yet they carried on with their work with dedication and missionary zeal.
Peaceful Methods of Educational Activism
This world runs on the basis of certain fixed laws. One of these laws is that non-violence is more powerful than violence. This is illustrated in a tradition attributed to the Prophet (s.a.w.), according to which he is said to have declared that God blesses gentleness with that which he does not give to harshness. This is true with regard to everything in life, including the sphere of social relations and collective action.
Any serious action needs careful thought and consideration, for it is bound to be lead to numerous hurdles that need to be crossed. In this situation, what should one do? If one chooses to first remove all the hurdles that one encounters so that one’s journey is smooth one will never even set out on a journey. This sort of approach will produce never-ending conflict. In life, one is always confronted with difficult situations. This will never cease, for God, as the Quran says, has created human beings with different types of hurdles and challenges to face. God Himself does not want this world to be free from these challenges. These challenges are a means to test us. Consequently, constantly fighting with the obstacles we face is counter-productive and cannot produce positive results.
The Quran says that problems always come along with opportunities. The correct approach is to ignore, or not be intimidated by, the hurdles one encounters, and, instead, to make use of the opportunities that are available, using peaceful means.
This wise strategy was adopted by the madrasa movement in India. The late nineteenth century Indian Ulema who led this movement could have thought of first removing the major hurdle that they faced—British rule—by seeking to militarily destroy it and to uproot the British system of education, in the belief that only after this could they establish a system of education of their choice. Had our Ulema thought in this way, the movement that they launched would have died out shortly after it was spawned, and it would have produced no positive results for the community, just as had happened with the numerous violent anti-British movements earlier. However, God provided the Ulema with the vision to adopt the right course. They avoided the useless path of destruction, and, instead, focused all their energies on constructive activities, using entirely peaceful means, mainly by setting up madrasas and other related institutions. These institutions were able to sustain themselves in the long-run and to expand vastly in number. They had a positive impact on society, which could not have been produced by short-lived violent movements.
The Missionary Role of the Madrasas
Ideally, Islamic madrasas should prepare scholars who, once they graduate, should communicate the message of God to others, besides providing religious guidance to Muslims. This is what madrasas used to do in the past. However, over time this missionary approach of the madrasas was overtaken by an approach that is based on heated polemics. Because of this, madrasas have become ineffective in doing any practical work with regard to Islamic mission. Every year our madrasas produce thousands of graduates but they are not in a position to fulfill our missionary needs. Madrasa students are trained to engage in some sort of missionary work, but this training is entirely on polemical lines, and not on the lines of Dawah or ‘invitation to the faith’ as correctly understood. Consequently, madrasa students may become good polemicists but not good missionaries.
The past was an age of polemics, a product of the ‘age of the sword’, which was based on the principle of victory and defeat. He who won on the battlefield was regarded as successful, while the vanquished was regarded as having failed. It was in that particular milieu that religious polemics emerged. Such fiery polemics were a common phenomenon in the past, but they are no longer so today. This is the age of scientific exploration and investigation, not of the war of words. Hence, the place of polemics has been taken by serious dialogue. This shift demands that madrasas also suitably modify their approach and system of education. They must prepare their students for scientific discussion, instead of heated polemics.
The crucial difference between polemics and dialogue is that in the former, the opposite party is regarded as an enemy. There is no concern for the welfare of contender in the polemicist’s heart. He seeks to defeat him more than to improve or reform him. And this is why polemics are a sort of battle, characterised by hard-hitting arguments, bereft of softness and gentleness. Indeed, often the polemicist is not at all concerned with what is right and what is wrong: his only concern, like that of a skilled lawyer, is to defeat his opponent.
This, however, is not in accordance with the practice of the prophets. In contrast to the polemicist, the aim of the ideal Muslim Dai, one who engages in inviting others to the path of God, is to appeal to the heart of the people he addresses. Hence, it is very necessary to institute necessary changes in the madrasas so that their approach is based on the Quranic principle of Dawah instead of polemics.
Madrasas and the Transmission of Islamic Learning
Through the medium of madrasas, the tradition of Islamic learning is carried on and transmitted to future generations. This is one of the major contributions of the madrasa system, and it is indispensable for the community to stay alive.
In 1994, I travelled to Spain. It is often thought that in 1492 C.E., when 800 years of Muslim political rule in Spain came to an end, the Muslims of the country were also wiped out—that they were all killed or forced to flee. But, during my visit to Spain, I realized that this was not quite the case. In actual fact, even after Muslim rule came to an end in Spain, several thousand Muslims remained in the country. What happened was not that Muslims suddenly disappeared from Spain, but, rather, that the tradition of Islamic learning and its transmission to the future generations was destroyed. It is a matter of common knowledge that education was actively promoted in Muslim Spain, but this was done under the patronage of the Muslim rulers. Hence, when Muslim rule came to an end, so, too, did the educational system that the Muslim rulers had supported. Because of this, the future generations of Muslims were cut off from the tradition of Islamic education. And so, over the years, they gradually lost their identity, so much so that they even forgot that their ancestors had once been Muslim.
In the nineteenth century, when Muslim political power in India collapsed, the Indian Muslims were faced with the same danger. Here, too, the educational system had been under the direction and patronage of the rulers. Fortunately, at this delicate juncture, the Ulema stood up and decided to establish a system of religious education for Muslims that would not depend on government assistance, but, instead, would be funded by the community. With the grace of God, this project was successful, so much so that in a few years a large number of madrasas were set up across the country. It was because of this that the Indian Muslims was saved from meeting the same fate as Muslims in Spain. It was due to the creation and expansion of madrasas that today Muslims in India can be said to have a vast and strong non-political religious and communitarian foundation, which is more important, useful and meaningful than political power was in the past. The madrasas that these Ulema set up and those that later came into being served as 'supply houses' for the community for producing trained specialists to meet various needs of the Muslim community, such as imams in mosques, teachers for schools and madrasas, scholars, journalists and activists and leaders of various community organizations.
All this happened through the use of peaceful and constructive means and through efforts that focused on institution-building. Modernity made this possible, because modern developments have relegated political power to a secondary status. Today, the real concentration of power is in institutions. Through institutions, much more can be done than was possible in the past through political power. Political empires are formed on the basis of military power, while non-political empires are based on institutions and organizations. While political empires serve the interests of individuals or small groups, non-political empires can serve the entire community. Political empires are based on the subjugation of others, while non-political empires can, through community-based institutions, work for the welfare of the whole of humankind.
Madrasas and Ethical Education
An important aspect of the madrasa education is that they produce good citizens of the country and good human beings—people who live according to moral principles and human values. This is one of the major purposes of the madrasas, in accordance with a Hadith report wherein the Prophet is said to have declared that he had been sent in order to perfect morality. In contrast to madrasas, non-religious schools, colleges and universities aim basically at producing people whose primary purpose is material accumulation. These non-religious or secular institutions train their students to acquire ‘good’ jobs, as if human beings are simply 'earning animals' or 'pleasure-seeking animals'. They reflect the belief that the real and final aim of life is material acquisition, and that there are, or can be, no limitations to human freedom. Their educational philosophy is based on materialism and the belief that this world is all that exists. From this follows the belief that material acquisition and pleasure are the basic aim and purpose of life. This leads to moral relativism, and, ultimately, to crass materialism, unstoppable greed, sheer utilitarianism and moral chaos. It also leads to a complete loss of awareness of the real purpose in life.
In contrast to this job-oriented education, madrasas provide 'God-oriented education', aiming to lift students from the material plane to the ethical and spiritual plane. Madrasa education is based on the understanding that material things are simply a need, and not the aim of life. Madrasas are based on a spiritual, rather than materialist, philosophy. In addition to providing knowledge, they also focus on the spiritual uplift of their students, encouraging them to obey God and to rely on Him. This is in contrast to secular schools, where the spiritual dimension is missing. Madrasas recognize human freedom, but they also know its limits, for after a point it can turn into a curse. They also encourage respect for 'eternal' or God-given ethics, which forms the framework for an ideal society.
Madrasa students are made aware of the real purpose of life, of where they have to start their life and what their final stage is. This creates a firm faith, based on the awareness that this world is merely a path, a road to the life after death in the Hereafter. This promotes the realization that this world is a testing ground for the Hereafter, not something to be indulged in, and that, hence, the aim of life should be success in the Hereafter, instead of in this world. Consequently, madrasa students are taught to restrict themselves to their bare needs, rather than hanker after luxuries, to remain content with what they have, rather than to constantly think of acquiring more material comforts.
Of course, what I have written here pertains to the level of theory or principles. As far as the empirical reality of the madrasas is concerned, there are many faults and drawbacks that one can mention.
The basic point is that the drawbacks with regard to secular or non-religious educational institutions indicated above are a result of their aims and their educational philosophy. Accordingly, they are an integral part of that system. In contrast, the drawbacks that exist in the madrasas are a result of their practical flaws, and not because of shortcomings in their philosophy of education. While these practical flaws and errors can be corrected, the ideological flaws in the educational philosophy of non-religious educational institutions cannot be done away with unless this philosophy is itself accepted as fundamentally flawed.
Yet, madrasas, like everything else in this world, are capable of further improvement. So as to help them serve their purpose better, I have some suggestions to make. In order that the Ulema can provide appropriate leadership and guidance, they must give particular stress to the learning of the English language. It is not necessary that English be made a compulsory subject in the madrasa curriculum. However, along with various modern subjects it should be made an optional subject in every large madrasa, and students who wish to study English and these other subjects should be free to do so. I have participated in numerous international conferences and have been repeatedly struck by the fact that there are many people in other religious communities who can represent their faiths in such forums in English and in a modern idiom. In contrast, there are very few such Muslim Ulema who can do so. It is very necessary for the madrasas to address this major problem by taking appropriate measures. For this, madrasas could consider organizing extension lectures on matters of contemporary import, adding certain books on these subjects in the existing madrasa curriculum, providing opportunities to their students to participate in inter-faith meetings, conducting training camps for their students during vacations, encouraging students' unions to arrange for talks and discussions on contemporary issues, and so on.
I would also suggest the setting up of a nodal Madrasa Centre to galvanise the efforts that are being currently made by individual madrasas so that this becomes a collective effort, and, hence, more effective. The proposed Madrasa Centre would seek to promote unity between the madrasas, serve as their collective voice, and work for their common objectives. It would relay information directly or otherwise related to the madrasas to them and would enable them to be aware of global and other such contemporary developments.
Another major task of this Madrasa Centre would be to help encourage an atmosphere that would make it possible for the madrasa curriculum to be re-looked at. There has been much discussion about this for a long time, but, yet, very little practical work has been done in this regard. As is well known, the present system of madrasa education is based on two sorts of disciplines. The first are the 'revealed sciences', whose inerrancy and sanctity is not in doubt. Yet, it must be remembered that this sanctity pertains to the text [of the Quran and Hadith] and not to their human interpretation and commentaries thereon. Hence, while preserving these same sacred texts, changes can be allowed in the books that are used to interpret and to comment on them in accordance with the changing times.
The second type of subjects is the ancillary 'rational sciences' [such as logic, astronomy, philosophy, etc.]. These are not sacred in themselves, and depend on spatial and temporal conditions. Hence, they can be suitably changed if the need so arises. In place of the old 'rational sciences' that have lost their usefulness, new 'rational sciences' should be taught in the madrasas so that students can appropriately present Islam to the modern mind.
Presently, inadequate focus is paid in the madrasa curriculum on the Quran and Islamic History, and Hadith is often taught from a jurisprudential angle. These issues must be suitably addressed. The present curriculum contains a lot of material on 'false sects', but most of these sects no longer exist today. Stress should be paid to such sects that remain today. Another issue in need of reform concerns the teaching of polemics as a subject. Madrasas continue with the past tradition of training their students in polemics in order to refute others. This approach needs to be abandoned and replaced by scientific dialogue. Unfortunately, our madrasa graduates are not at all trained for this, and nor are they made aware of scientific logic.
Very little introductory literature about the madrasas exists in English, Hindi and several other languages. This is a great problem. It is necessary for such literature to be produced so that non-Muslims can gain a proper understanding and appreciation of the madrasas. This could be arranged for by the proposed Madrasa Centre. Through this and other means, the Madrasa Centre can play a crucial role in dispelling the prevailing misunderstandings about madrasas. These misunderstandings have promoted calls for steps to be taken against madrasas. Some have called for a law to regulate madrasas, and others insist on what they call their 'Indianisation'. Yet others claim that madrasas severely impede national integration and hamper the progress of the country because they allegedly prevent Muslims from joining the country's mainstream.
It is true that these misunderstandings are baseless, but they have become so widespread that it is wrong to ignore them. The proposed Madrasa Centre can counter these misunderstandings simply by putting forward the true picture of the madrasas before the public.
Extracted from the chapter titled 'Islami Ta‘leem' ['Islamic Education'] in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan's Urdu book 'Deen-o-Shari‘at: Deen-e Islam Ka Ek Fikri Mut‘ala' ('Religion and Divine Law: An Intellectual Study of Islam') [Al-Risala, New Delhi, 2002], pp.74-160.