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Ideological Differences In Madrasas In The Indian Subcontinent: Ending The Divisiveness

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

29 December 2021

Liberty Of Choosing What To Teach Would Allow Richness And Diversity In Texts And Subjects In Madrasas

Main points:

1.    In this essay, I have discussed that madrasas are built on the basis of divisive ideologies of Deobandi, Barelvi, and Ahl-e-Hadith;

2.    That, they are not only the habitat of these ideologies, but they also propagate them into the society;

3.    And that the debate of making madrasas neutral to ideologies must be included in the debate of madrasa reforms.


The word madrasa comes from Arabic and literally means a place of study. The history of the word is very old, and it continues to be a part of our modern vocabulary. However, the connotation of the word has changed in our modern usage. In Muslim history before the colonial period, this word referred to a place where teaching—secular or religious—took place. In this sense, it did not refer to a building, an infrastructure, a mandatory curriculum, etc., rather it referred to a place where a Shaikh or teacher sat and delivered lectures on subjects in which he had expertise.


Also Read: Madrasa Education is a Clear Violation of the Human Rights of Children: Sultan Shahin asks UNHRC to make Muslim Countries Stick to their Pious Declarations


The liberty of choosing what to teach would allow richness and diversity in texts and subjects. With the permission of the Shaikh, anyone could join his lectures. And when the text or book was completed, he could move on to join other Shaikh to participate in his Dars/lecture if he wished to study more. Such a system of imparting and seeking knowledge was very diverse and liberating. Even though there were ideological differences among Ulama, the system that was functioning beneath the institution did not allow it to convert into a mouthpiece for a particular group or its ideology.

However, the old system of madrasa was disrupted by the British invasion of Mughal India. After 1857, some of the Indian Ulama established India’s first modern madrasa, the Darul Ulum of Deoband in 1867, which was modelled after Delhi College, which was established by the East India Company in 1924-25, and where these Ulama had studied. This madrasa acquired infrastructure, appointed teachers, and had a prescribed curriculum. It is not bad for madrasas to adapt to the modern world and have infrastructure and other necessary apparatus. But the new concept of madrasa envisioned by the founders of Deoband reduced the old meaning of madrasa limiting it to a place for religious education only. And when madrasas proliferated across the subcontinent on the pattern of the madrasa in Deoband, they adopted a very narrow understanding of religious education, which was not as diverse as it was in the past. Besides, one more thing happened that changed entirely the character of the institution: it became the mouthpiece for the reformist ideology of its founders and caretakers.

Reform movements in India began in the early nineteenth century. It can be assumed that Shah Waliullah could be considered as the first reformer who remained active in the middle of the eighteenth century. However, his campaign for reform was not as subversive and aggressive as was of his grandson, Shah Ismail, and his master (pīr), Sayyid Ahmad. Shah Ismail attacked the practice of Taqlid and the practices of visiting shrines and seeking intercessions of dead saints, etc., and regarded them as shirk, the gravest sin in Islam whose perpetrators are considered to be outside of the pale of Islam. The practices Shah Ismail condemned were deemed as authentic and Islamic by Ulama, Sufis, and the masses. It affected the Indian Muslims deeply.

After Shah Ismail, the mantle of reform was assumed by the founders of the Darul Ulum of Deoband, like Qasim Nanotavi, and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi. However, they were not as aggressive as Shah Ismail. The practice Shah Ismail declared as shirk, the founders of the Deoband madrasa considered them as Bidaah, meaning that their perpetrators would be committing punishable sins, but these sins would not result in their excommunication. But what were the causes, one can ask, that triggered these reform movements? There were multiple causes, and all were linked to the constant deterioration of Muslim political power in the subcontinent, which was translated as a sign of God’s wrath and anger. And this wrath could only be averted if Muslims would follow the true teachings of Islam.


Also Read: Evolution of Hadith Sciences and Need for Major Paradigm Shift in Role of Hadith Corpus and Scope of Madrasa Education


Muslim reformers adopted different approaches, but one thing was common among them: the supremacy of the idea of the Oneness of God (Tawhid). They believed that seeking help and intercession from dead saints, and Prophet and asking their help or observing rituals, such as conducting celebrations on the occasion of mawlid or the death anniversary of a dead saint for seeking Barkah, had corrupted the meaning of Tawhid. They imagined God as an absolute monarch whose powers (here, God’s attributes/sifāt) could not be shared with anyone, not even the Prophet Muhammad. Until or unless, Muslims do not submit completely to God’s command, they could not be regarded as believers in His Tawhid. The idea behind rejecting Taqlid was the same. The opponents of Taqlid argued that a Muqallid (a person who observes Taqlid), instead of following God’s commands, follows the commands of Muslim jurists. 

Gradually, the wholesale rejection of popular practices of Muslims became the main characteristic of the Muslim reformists’ ideology and activism. And when these ideologues and activists founded madrasas during the second half of the nineteenth century and afterwards, these madrasas became the mouthpieces for their ideology. These madrasas were so much embedded with their founder ideologue or the ideology they represented that it manifested in their curriculum and everyday life. The students that studied there were demanded ideological loyalty to their madrasas. After graduation, these students become vessels that carry the ideology of their madrasas to the society they work in and extend its network beyond the confines of madrasa to the non-madrasa people. These people in return fund the madrasas of whose ideology they profess. Thus, it creates an organic cycle that assists to sustain madrasa and its ideology and expands its network constantly. Madrasas associated with every ideology or school of thought are supported by this cycle. 

Till now, we have discussed how madrasa became a habitat of divisive ideology and sustain this character for so long. Here, I would also like to discuss, how these madrasas inculcate their ideologies to their students. Apparently, madrasas claim to be the institutions of Islamic learning and teach Islamic sciences, like the Quran, hadith, etc. However, the teaching of these texts in madrasas is not neutral. It is layered with their distinct ideological interpretations. In the classrooms while teaching, for example, hadith, teacher asserts the soundness of, say, Deobandi ideology and condemns Barelvi or Ahl-e-Hadith ideologies. This gives students the impression that the Deobandi ideology if students are studying in a Deobandi madrasa and so on, is the true interpretations of Islam, and interpretations other than that are false and required to be condemned. Outside the classroom, in religious gatherings, informal meetings with fellow students or teachers, the same thing is repeated until it is thoroughly ingrained in the minds of students.

Furthermore, students are supposed to behave properly with regard to their teachers, and their akābir, meaning the people who have come before them and are part of the ideological chain. In the parlance of the madrasa, this is called Adab. The word Adab has various connotations, but in madrasa circle, this word means proper behaviour, which includes that students should not criticize their teachers and their akābir. The bigger the personality the more it requires Adab. And at some point, they acquire sanctity and veneration. The layers of sacredness and veneration become so thick that no student can dare to breach them.


Also Read: RESTRUCTURING MADRASA EDUCATION: Muslim Opponents of India’s 'Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act' are Enemies of Indian Muslims


There are cases related to Jamia Ashrafia and Jamia Aleemia. Both seminaries are associated with the Barelvi school. They have gone as far as to revoke the degrees of their graduates who criticized the ideology of the madrasas or their teachers. In short, we can conclude after this short analysis that madrasas have evolved into a complex system that has preventive measures to sustain and promote the divisive ideologies that they are based on. When there is a discussion on madrasa reforms, the divisive nature of the Deobandi, Barelvi, and Ahl-e-Hadith ideologies must be included in the discussion and there is a need to devise a solution that can help eradicate this divisiveness.


Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses.


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