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A Revolutionary Enterprise for Rejuvenating Indian Madrasas

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

30 June 2017

Look at the evils of the world around you and protect yourself from them. Our teachers give all the wrong messages to our youth, since they take away the natural flare from the soul. Take it from me that all knowledge is useless until it is connected with your life, because the purpose of knowledge is nothing but to show you the splendours of yourself!

-Muhammad Iqbal

A new wave of fresh thinking is sweeping madrasas .A  generation of teachers and thinkers ;;imbued with modern perspectives  have awoken to the reality that madrasas may soon become moribund and lose relevance if they are not infused with a new vigour and vision. Heading the chorus for suitable reform of the madrasa curriculum, the most accomplished modern product of madrasa, Ebrahim Moosa believes that constructive engagement with madrasas holds out the promise   of synergizing religious thought and modern learning to create opportunities for   meaningfully serving humanity. As Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned twentieth century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted, quoted by Moosa: “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”

Moosa is in fact spearheading a revolutionary programme designated as “Advancing Scientific and Theological Literacy in Madrasa Discourses in India” for rejuvenating madrasa professionals through exposure to modern knowledge and techniques. Being held under the aegis of University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, it aims at   a conciliation of traditional Islamic thought with contemporary scientific and philosophical worldviews so that students get a better perspective, one that is appropriate for grappling with the challenges of modern society. The project believes that Ulema are conduits of knowledge for an entire generation and they need to have a broader and deeper mindset. The Ulema provide crucial religious guidance in values and everyday practice to Muslims around the world helping shape the social and cultural outlook of their communities. Upgrading the capacity of these theologians, the project believes, could have a multiplier effect on millions. 

Accomplishing this task is far from easy, feels Moosa who studied in Indian madrasas and did his advanced training in western universities. According to him:

“The future of madrasas is hobbled by the inability of madrasa communities to make informed decisions about the complex world they inhabit. Trapped in an ideological bind, hesitant about the merits of Western knowledge production and its potential synthesis with the Islamic knowledge tradition, madrasas are unable to harness their full intellectual strength in order to make a meaningful contribution to broader society.”

Throughout much of Islamic history, madrasas   (Islamic schools) were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe. They continue to serve parts of developing countries that governments never reach.... For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours with limited breaks, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught to read and write.   .

The word "madrasa"--also spelled madrassah or madrasah--is Arabic for "school" and commonly used throughout the Arab and Islamic world to refer to any place of learning in the same sense that the word "school" refers to a primary school, high school or university. It can be a secular, vocational, religious or technical school. In general, however, madrasas offer religious-based instruction focusing on the Koran and Islamic texts at both the primary and secondary levels..

Madrasas cannot be substitutes for modern schools, but for those who can’t afford to send their children to these schools, madrasas are the only option. In the absence of madrasas, the threat of illiteracy looms large for this section of population.

The early Muslims made no distinction between the religious and the secular – this was a concept introduced by the British during colonial rule. Muslim scholars  distinguished between the ‘transmitted’ and ‘rational’ sciences, the former corresponding to Qur’anic commentary, the science of Hadith, and Fiqh, while the latter referred to disciplines such as Arabic grammar, poetry, philosophy, medicine, and the like. Both types of knowledge were valued and taught at the madrasa and were a source of upward mobility, prestige, and employment.

Before Mulla Nizam Uddin standardized the curriculum known as the  Dars-i-Nizami, different teachers taught different texts to students. Shah Abdul Rahim had made an attempt to create a fixed curriculum which was taught at the Madrasa-i-Rahimiya and emphasized the Manqulat (Islamic sciences such as Hadith). The Dars-i-Nizami, on the other hand, emphasized the Maqulat (rational sciences). Thus there were more books on grammar, logic and philosophy than before. The significance of the enhanced emphasis on Maqulat in the Dars-i-Nizamiyya lies in part in the superior training it offered prospective lawyers, judges and administrators. The study of advanced books of logic, philosophy and dialectics sharpened the rational faculties and, ideally, brought to the business of government men with better-trained minds and better-formed judgment.

The madrasas saw themselves as conservers of Islamic identity and heritage when secular studies had displaced the Islamic texts as well as the classical languages of the Indian Muslims -Arabic and Persian- from their privileged pedestal.

In madrasa educational system religion is understood as a exclusivist sphere, neatly set apart from other spheres of life. The traditionalists fear that the introduction of modern disciplines in the madrasa curriculum might lead tempt students their   towards   the pursuits of worldly life. Proposals of the government for reform of the madrasas by incorporating modern subjects are sometimes seen as hidden ploys   for diluting   the religious character of the madrasas. 

 This was also the argument of Ashraf Ali Thanwi, a leading early 20thcentury Deobandi Alim: “It is, in fact, a source of great pride for the religious madrasas not to impart any secular (Duniyavi) education at all. For if this is done, the religious character of these madrasas would inevitably be grievously harmed. Some people say that madrasas should teach their students additional subjects that would help them earn a livelihood, but this is not the aim of the madrasa at all. The madrasa is actually meant for those who are passionate about their concern for the hereafter (Jinko Fikr-I Akhirat Ne Divana Kar Diya Hai)”.

There has however lately been a tectonic shift in this perception. More and more Muslims now perceive madrasas to be dangerously obsolete. And these also include the Ulema.   

Madrasa education is generally viewed as an inferior alternative to secular education or as the choice of the underprivileged. Consequently, sons who have low scholarly potential are sent off at an early age to pursue full time religious learning with the choice of Hifz (memorization of the Qur’an) or Islamic studies and more often than not, the former as a precursor to the latter. The quality of the raw material notwithstanding, many of the madrasas have succeeded in producing some of the most outstanding scholars of Muslim traditional learning.

However, divorced from their environment and ignorant of contemporary issues, the madrasa graduates are hardly able to interpret Islam in a manner that would make sense to the larger society.  The ones who confine their pursuit to the memorization of the Qur’an do not really have any claim to religious leadership. They are nevertheless embraced as part of the ulema fraternity.

 The very first revelation to the Prophet - “Read, in the name of your Lord” - and the numerous Hadith stressing the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper and the martyr are said to indicate the great emphasis Islam gives to the acquisition of knowledge.

The Quran is quoted as repeatedly exhorting the believers to ponder over the mysteries of creation as signs of the power and mercy of God. Knowledge of the creation is regarded as the means for acquiring knowledge of God.

In the entire Quran, there are about 600 verses directly commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyse God’s magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system. Far from leading to doubt and disbelief, scientific investigation - if conducted within properly defined Islamic bounds - can deepen one’s faith and is, in fact, commanded so by the God.

The production of seminary graduates in a greater number than the country’s ability to offer them proper jobs can create enormous social stress  s. We should be concerned about the future implications for a society in which a large horde of graduates emerging out of madrasas find themselves jobless. The frustration these students will undergo can lead to social, economic and intellectual ferment.

Many of the students join madrasas   not out of any fervour for religious knowledge. Perhaps, their economic misery gave them little choice .The madrasa rectors agree that they   cannot be seen as gateways to stable employment. One of them told me: “Our job now is propagating Islamic ideology. We give free education, free clothes and books. We even give free accommodation. We are the only people giving the poor education.”

 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 multilayered 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.

 The state has been trying to   adopt two basic approaches to madrasas: reform and regulation .Both strategies risk running into the sand. The trouble with regulatory interventions is they can become  excessive or even counterproductive unless leavened with caution and wisdom .Enforcing reforms in  curriculum without getting the buy in of the community  is likely to trigger a backlash. Madrasa curriculum has been     organically designed to transmit a religious tradition, and their independence is a core part of their identity. Many graduates from the better madrasas resent any notion of enforced regulation, and these same graduates are often the best critics of the madrasa system who , while recognizing its shortfalls, ae trying to eliminate them  as they go on  to run madrasas of their own. 

 Madrasas are however not totally 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.

The oldest and greatest of all madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, was one of the most sophisticated schools in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. We should strive to make the new madrasas religious seminaries as well as universities, like al-Azhar.

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.

Rather than stressing only on madrasa modernization, let us take the madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions during the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning the hearts and minds of the custodians of madrasas.


 Moin Qazi is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker and Women in Islam: Exploring New Paradigms.