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A New Face for Madrasas: Islam Is Not a Monolith and Madrasas Owe Allegiance to Diverse Schools Of Thought, Which Are Hybridising Into Further New Strains

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

13 May 2022

Indeed The Very Idea Of A University In The Modern Sense A Place Where Students Congregate To Study A Variety Of Subjects Under Eminent Scholars, Is Generally Regarded As An Innovation First Developed At Al-Azhar

 

Children studying in a Madrasa (representational image) | PTI

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The Lodestar

The silhouette of the large mosque, brick-like but for a bulbous dome, looks blurry in the downpour past the minarets as the imposing wide red brick gates herald you into the hallowed precincts of one of the most influential Islamic institutions in the world that frames Islamic discourse in the subcontinent. 

This is Darul Uloom, the hallowed seminary. It is the spiritual lodestar for South Asia’s 500 million Muslims and is considered a “citadel of Islam” amid the westernisation of the sub-continent.

Inside, room after room is filled with students wrapped in shawls against the winter chill and wearing crocheted skullcaps. They squat cross-legged on mats, reading from Qur’ans that lie open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. They are supervised by teachers, most of them respected elders, with shaved upper lips and faces framed by scraggly beards, many of them dyed with henna. A Muslim who has memorized all 6,236 verses of the Qur’an earns the right to be called a hafiz.

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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

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Religious schools are a common feature of Muslim life. The most common of these schools are known as a madrasa. In general, madrasas focus on teaching the Qur’an, the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sacred law and other Islamic subjects.

Madrasas have a long and rich history. These schools were distinct from madrasas today. In addition to teaching the Qur’an and hadith, they also taught mathematics, science, and literature. The curriculum in these madrasas was taught invariably in Arabic, comprised usually Tafsir (Qur’anic interpretation), Shariah (Islamic law), hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), Mantiq (logic) and Islamic history.

The madrasa system is a thousand years old. The first major academic institution in the Muslim world, however, was founded by Nizam al-Mulk Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi (1018-1092), the celebrated Persian scholar and vizier of the Seljuk Empire. Later, Nizam al-Mulk established numerous madrasas all over the empire that, in addition to providing Islamic knowledge, imparted secular education in the fields of science, philosophy, public administration, and governance. The earliest recorded South Asian madrasa was established in Ajmer, India in 1191 A.D.

The Golden Age

Madrasas have played an important role in the history of Islamic civilisation. They have been powerful nodes in the learning system and have been harbingers of several revolutionary achievements in fields as diverse as jurisprudence, philosophy, astronomy, science, religion, literature and medicine. It was only when the Golden Age of Islam began to decline that the madrasas lost their academic and intellectual purity, and ceded prime space to western-oriented education.

The spread of madrasas played a key role in the consolidation of doctrinal positions and legal thinking, which now form the dominant position among Sunnis. In time, the Shias developed their religious seminaries, called Hawzas, which play a similar role. Some of the most famous madrasas are the Deoband in India, al-Azhar in Egypt, Hawzas of Qum in Iran and the Zaytunia in Tunisia.

Negative Profiling

Madrasas across the world have suffered a great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They have been continually targeted with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques. In secular countries, the state has not only castigated madrasas but has attempted to wrest exclusive control over them. Some madrasas are indeed guilty of fostering extremism, but most aren’t.

However, the negative stereotypes presented in some sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of madrasas present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village children, these schools may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrasas provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labour, sex trafficking, or other abuses.

Rather than undermining the madrasa system, policymakers should engage it because the negative stereotyping has distracted us from the vast potential they possess to nurture the children and instill the right moral and civic values;   Beards and bombast may make for good newspaper copy, but the reality of the madrasa system is far different: it is characterized by both orthodoxy and diversity and once we modernized them through meaningful convergence of all stakeholders, they would be an ally for India’s unmanageable educational infrastructure.

Madrasa Curriculum

It was the eighteenth-century scholar Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi who designed the educational curriculum for the mainstream Indian madrasas. Thus, the curriculum was named after him as “Dars-e-Nizami”.

Madrasas generally taught calculation, grammar, poetry, history, and above all the Qur’an and sacred law. At a higher level, they taught literary subjects and arithmetic. While memorization of texts was emphasized, personal instruction, lectures, and imitation of the teacher by students were also held to be crucial to minimize errors in religious understanding.

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

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When the East India Company purchased the right to collect revenue in the Mughal provinces of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar from Emperor Shah Alam, one of the clauses in the purchase agreement was that the British company will not change the legal and administrative systems in those provinces.

Obliged by the need to train judges and administrators to run those systems mostly operating under Hanafi Muslim laws, the company needed to devise a curriculum for the schools that it wanted to set up for its prospective employees. The British schools also adopted this syllabus.

This syllabus was an adapted version of the original Dars-e-Nizami devised by Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi, known as Nizam al-Mulk, for the higher education institution. The most notable contribution of the school is the formulation of Dars-i Nizamiyya, the standard education pattern of curriculum it pioneered in the mid-eighteenth century. The scholar who shepherded the design of the course was Maulana Nizamuddin Sihalvi of Lucknow.

 It is important to underline the innovative features of the new syllabus. Islamic education was normally divided into two categories: Manqulat or the transmitted sciences such as exegesis (Tafsir), traditions (hadiths) and jurisprudence (fiqh); and maqulat or the rational sciences in which logic, philosophy, theology, rhetoric and mathematics were taught. Without undermining the importance of Manqulat, which had previously dominated the curriculum, the Firang Mahal shifted the emphasis to Maqulat. Grammar, logic and philosophy acquired greater weightage in the teaching.

Madrasa curricula, in most cases, offer courses like “Koran-i-Hafiz” (memorization of the Qur’an), Alim (allowing students to become scholars on Islamic matters), Tafsir (Qur’anic interpretation), Sharia (Islamic law), Hadith (injunctions of Prophet Muhammad), Mantic (logic), and Islamic history (mostly constructed and invariably avoiding any discussion on weak points of old Muslim leaders.

 

Education being on the concurrent list, madrasas are in the domain of the state governments, officials in the HRD Ministry say. (Source: PTI file photo)

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The Transformation Of Teaching Pedagogy

From the eighteenth century, large parts of the Muslim world engaged with modernity in its colonial form, an encounter that transformed almost all aspects of Muslim societies. Modern schools, higher education institutions, new official languages, and, above all, a new epistemology was introduced. Madrasas continued to provide religious instructions, though in the process they went through remarkable transformations in form, teaching, and to some extent, content.

The social composition of madrasas began to change, becoming less affluent and more rural, with the more inspirational Muslims joining western educational streams. The madrasas lost intellectual vitality and teaching became pedantic with hardly any scope for creative or intellectual development.

Madrasas no longer retained the cutting-edge educational philosophy. The most important change was the shift from imparting knowledge of Manqulat (the branches of knowledge relating to belief and religion) and Maaqulat (branches relating to reason and wisdom)

The First War of Indian independence of 1856 A.D. marked a division of the composite madrasa education into secular and religious spaces. This division can be seen in the Deoband and Aligarh traditions, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan emphasized the development of an educational system according to the need of the time while Deoband insisted on preserving religious values and tradition in the Indian subcontinent.    

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who founded the Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College in Aligarh in 1877 A.D., studied under the same teachers as the founders of Deoband. But he believed that the downfall of India's Muslims was due to their unwillingness to embrace modern ways. He decoupled religion from education and sought to emulate the culture and training of India's new colonial masters in his school. But Sir Syed’s intentions were vastly different from what others perceived. The purpose of this new school was not just to prepare students for jobs, Sir Syed’s key objective was that students should imbibe the new vision of knowledge-seeking which was changing civilizations elsewhere. Sadly it took us so many years to clear the misunderstandings about Sir Syed’s true mission. . The model received support from the British, although it was castigated by orthodox religious leaders who were hostile to any modern influences.

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

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Darul Uloom Deoband was founded in 1866A.D.to preserve Muslim identity and heritage in the face of British imperialism, which had replaced the rule of the Mughals.  The Deoband leaders went back to Qur’anic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. Deoband’s founders made it the centre for “newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam,” according to Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who has researched south Asian madrasas

The leaders of Deoband, therefore, went back to Qur’anic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. Deoband’s founders made it the centre of a “newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam”,

The ideological foundations of the seminary have been distilled into a set of seven cardinal principles that define the school’s charter (Maslak). 

These are (1) Conformity with Islamic law (shari’a). (2) Sufi-inspired self-purification and the search for spiritual perfection (Suluk-I Batin). (3) Conformity to the principles that guided the Prophet and his companions (Sunna). (4) Reliance on the Hanafi law school. (5) Certitude and stability in true beliefs concerning the Hanafi theologian al-Maturidi. (6) Removal of unlawful things (muskrat), and especially the refutation of polytheism, innovations, atheism, and materialism. (7) Adherence to the principles personally embodied by the founders of the school, Muhammad Qasim and Rashid Gangohi. 

Nadwatul Ulama was launched in 1898 A.D. by a broad spectrum of ulema, traditionalists to modernists, who all believed that the Deoband-type madrasa education did not equip students for the challenges of modern life. Placing a greater emphasis on the liberating message of the Qur’an, Nadwa favoured certain departures from the traditional curriculum and emphasized the study of history. Nadwa’s tolerance to intra-Sunni differences made it attractive. 

Firang Mahal (foreigner’s palace, which is located in Luck now) is closely identified with the evolution of the educational pattern of madrasas in the Indian sub-continent.   Firang Mihalis(scholars inhabiting Firang Mahil) trace their descent to the eleventh-century scholar and mystic Abd Allah Ansari of Herat, who in turn was a descendant of Ayyub Ansari, a close companion of Prophet Muhammad.  Its scion, Mullah Hafiz grew into prominence during Mughal rule. In 1559 A.D. Emperor Akbar endowed him with madam-I-ma’ash, or revenue-free grant. In 1692 A.D., His great-grandson, Qutb al-Din was murdered during a land dispute (1695 A.D.) and the family suffered a financial jolt.  Emperor Aurangzeb gifted them the present house which became known by the name Firangi Mahal. Scholars congregated here from all parts of India and Arabia, central Asia, and China. In 1896 A.D., Shibli Numani, the legendary Islamic scholar referred to Firang Mahalas as “The Cambridge of   India.”  In the late nineteenth century, a madrasa was formed and in 1905 A.D. a formal institution took shape under the name, Madrasayi Aliya Nizamiyya, which continued until 1969 A.D.

While Deoband and its clones did not compromise on puritanism, there was a movement of educational reforms from within the realms of Islamic educationists that strongly believed that in the absence of modern education, Muslims will be unable to compete in the global employment market. These educationists were driven by social and economic concerns and believed that the community should adapt itself to the new currents.

The Critique

Critics often charge the madrasa system of anachronism, citing its insistence on the supreme pedagogical value of the old texts. The traditionalists argue that, apart from connecting students to the canonical tradition, the “Nizami curriculum” enhances the student’s mastery of every discipline and enables scholars to solve any contemporary problem.

One of the most accomplished modern products of madrasas, who had a very close association with the Deoband seminary, Ebrahim Moosa, avers, “Few have been able to rebut the charge that the texts used are redundant and at times impenetrable, save to a few scholars who have spent their lives mastering them. Indeed most texts are frustratingly terse, forcing teachers and students to scour commentaries and super-commentaries for help.”

He further argues, “For decades critics have petitioned for more lucid texts. But inertia has turned the texts and syllabus into inviolable monuments to the past. The result is that students are poorly prepared and lack the confidence to engage the tradition critically to meet the needs of a changing world. At its worst, the system recycles intellectual mediocrity as piety.”

The modern Muslim reformist thinker, Fazlur Rahman, believed that the cultural isolation of madrasa students would lead to stagnation. Indeed, the puritan madrasas are already bellowing signs of a deeper dissatisfaction and fatigue with a redundant learning system. Rahman contextualized and described madrasa learning as follows:

“With the decline in intellectual creativity and the onset of ever-deepening conservatism, the curricula of education… shrank and the intellectual and scientific disciplines were expurgated, yielding the entire space to purely religious disciplines in the narrowest sense of the word. Mechanical learning largely took the place of original thought. With the thirteenth century, the age of commentaries begins and it is not rare to find an author who wrote a highly terse text in a certain field, to be memorized by students and, then, to explain the enigmatic text, he authored both a commentary and a super commentary!”

Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned twentieth-century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted, “For us, Muslims, mere English [modern] education is not sufficient, nor does the old Arabic madrasa education suffice. Our ailment requires a ‘compound panacea’ (Maʿjun-I Murakkab)one portion eastern and the other western. These sentiments are true even though the local custodians of madrasas dont acknowledge them. The curriculums are often fossilized, with some science and philosophy texts dating back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

The Way Forward

The issue of reforms of madrasas is however quite complex and the adoption of state-led modernisation has a complex interplay of several factors such as trust, financial incentives, the impact of state-led policies on the functioning of madrasas and its implications on the community resources, which the madrasas are now accessing for their finances, need to examine.

Islam is not a monolith and madrasas owe allegiance to diverse schools of thought, which are hybridising into further new strains. The government’s understanding and strategy for dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one.

The policymakers need to be more sensitive to the sentiments of Islamic clerics and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to “Secular versus Non-secular” and “Pro-Hindu versus Anti-Muslim” debates. The deep reservations of madrasa managers about the government are all not ill-founded and several of the duplicitous actions and policies of the state give enough ground for a creeping scepticism.

 Efforts to stay, “politically correct” have obfuscated the debate and discussion on how best to make modern education accessible to millions of poor Muslim youths so that they join the mainstream. The government understands that a proper strategy for dealing with madrasas needs to evolve from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one.

Madrasas are multi-layered institutions and have a depth and diversity that requires a much-nuanced understanding on part of policy wonks. The government machinery needs to be properly sensitized to the sentiments of madrasa custodians and should refrain from reducing the whole issue to “Secular versus Non-secular” and “Pro-Hindu versus Pro-Muslim” debates. Madrasas are however not immune to change. Many of them are trying to forge a Muslim identity that is compatible with modern culture and resistant to the blandishments of radicalisation.

What we should attempt is to make new madrasas, as well as universities, be patterned on ancient Samarkand or Bokhara rather than stressing only madrasa modernization. Let us take madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning the hearts and minds of the custodians of madrasas.

Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under eminent scholars, is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.  Since the students are schooled in classical and modern science as well as secular and religious thought, they are better able to spot scriptural distortions. They also tend to be more connected to their communities as well as to the mainstream society and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shield them against radicalism. These madrasas are allies in India’s transition to modernity.

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Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.


URL:    https://newageislam.com/islamic-society/madrasas-monolith-diverse-thought/d/126993


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