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Islamic Society ( 16 Sept 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How Relevant Are Madrasas

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

17 September 2015

The debate about the alleged links between madrasas and terrorism has tended to obscure the unique contribution of madrasas to human civilization. The debate on their relevance has morphed into a full scale media and commentator war that endangers their very survival. The implacable media and communally motivated leaders have continually targeted it with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques. The State has not only castigated it but has attempted to wrest exclusive control ever them. While it is true that madrasas have outlived their role, they need not be decimated. What they need is essentially a makeover in a way that respects traditional sensibilities and attempts to synergy classical and modern learning so that their products are viable for modern society. There is certainly a need for shift in paradigm. This has to be done in a gradual manner .As we have seen, huge changes can be brought about by surprisingly small steps. This has also been the stance of the Muslim religio-political elite. Any attempt at modernizing Madrasas should ensure that their traditional cultural moorings are not uprooted.

The Key Motor of Civilization

Throughout much of Islamic history, madrasas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe. They were primogenitors of Islam’s hallowed scholarly tradition and a conduit for exporting Islamic scholarship to the global world between the seventh and twelfth centuries, madrasas produced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina, and al-Khwarizmi. They also produced America’s bestselling poet throughout the 1990s, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as a Muslim jurist, and throughout his life taught Shari’a law in a madrasa in Konya. It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic of the Ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system. Moreover, he never lost sight of the Islamic perspective and his commitment to Shari’ah was inviolable. It is American’ translations of the verses that have emptied his philosophy of its Islamic core content. The Qur’an remains the central tenet of his teachings.

The great intellectual colossus Muhammad Iqbal was offered knighthood by King George V. In the course of his life Iqbal would receive numerous distinctions and honours, author a variety or books and papers, and become known as one of the most influential figures of his time. When knighthood is about to be bestowed him, he responds by saying that if he is to be given such an honour, then his madrasa teacher who taught him, Syed Mir Hassan, should also be honoured. No one really seemed to know who Syed Mir Hassan was. They asked Iqbal about him. Was he also a scholar? Which books he had written? Iqbal's response was: "I am his book."

None of this should be a surprise. To seek knowledge and education is an obligation placed upon every Muslim, male or female given that the first word in the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Mohammad was "Iqra" or read! In the entire Qur’an there are only about two hundred verses directly commanding believers to pray and three times that number commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyze God’s magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system. The word Ilm (knowledge) and its derivations occur 805 times in the Holy Quran. It is the most used term after the word Allah. The word Albab (minds) occurs 16 times and the word Aql (reason) and its derivatives occur 49 times The superiority accorded to humans over angels in the Quran emphasises the significance of reason and heralds the ushering in, acquisition and cultivation of knowledge, both religious and secular,  modern and traditional.  It is true that madrasas are out of sync with the mainstream, but stonewalling them could amount to demeaning their rich legacy.

The oldest and greatest of all the madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense—a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” “convocations”, “graduation ceremonies “as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defence, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas. It was in cities not far from Islamic Spain and Sicily—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, and Montpellier—that the first universities in Christendom were developed, while the very first college in Europe that of Paris was founded by Jocius de Londoniis, a pilgrim newly returned from the Middle East.7Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian scholars such as Adelard of Bath would travel to the Islamic world to study the advanced learning available in the madrasas. Alvaro of Córdoba, a Mozarab, or Christian living under Muslim rule, wrote in the fourteenth century:

“My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the work of Muslim theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads Latin commentaries on Holy scripture? At the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice.”

Harbingers of Knowledge

As early as 859 two sisters, Fatima Al-Fihri and Mariam Fihri established the acclaimed institution, Al-Qarawiyyin at Fez in Morocco. Which became a major centre of advanced learning in medieval times in the Mediterranean?  It is now recognized by UNESCO as the first formal university.    The initial curriculum focused on the religious sciences and later covered other disciplines such as grammar, geography, history, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and astronomy. The university attracted scholars from far and wide. Fes, being the most influential cities in the Muslim world has been renowned for centuries as the centre for religion and culture. The Al-Qarawiyyin madrasa played a leading role in the cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe in the middle ages. The cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi   whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance is said to have lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that he may have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin. The madrasa has produced numerous scholars who have strongly influenced the intellectual and academic history of the Muslim and Jewish worlds. Among these are Ibn Rushayd al-Sabti , Mohammed Ibn al-Hajj al-Abdari al-Fasi ,Abu Imran al-Fasi,), a leading theorist of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, Leo Africanus, a renowned traveler and writer, and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.

Madrasas serve parts of developing countries that governments never reach. Turn off any main highway in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or northern India, drive 15 miles down a poor-quality road, and more often than not you will find a small madrasa, funded by donations and occasionally fees, in the nearest village. Even in the cities, where there are many more government and other private schools, madrasas survive as providers of social services for Muslim orphans (many of whom are taken in and brought up there for free). Meanwhile, many Muslim parents choose to send their sons (it is usually sons) to madrasas because they consider the education they get there to be a respectable one. Madrasas offer a free education, room, and board to their students, and thus they appeal to impoverished families and individuals. On the whole, these religious schools are supported by private donations from Muslim believers through a process of alms-giving known in Arabic as Zakat. The practice of Zakat — one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith — prescribes that a fixed proportion of one’s income be given to specified charitable causes, and traditionally a portion of Zakat has endowed religious education.  Almost all madrasas are intended for educating boys, although there are a small number of madrasas for girls.

A Nursery for Education

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. They have played this role in the subcontinent since at least the 11th century when Islam spread to the region. In more recent centuries they have bred major schools of Islamic thought. The towns of Bareilly and Deoband in modern day India, for instance, are the sites of two of the most influential schools of Islamic thought in South Asia. Indeed Deoband, and the Deobandi stream of Islam founded there, became vanguards of Muslim resistance to the British rule from the 19th century onwards. Then many clerics condemned their communities' self-appointed religious leaders for toadying to foreign occupiers. Madrasas quickly became a focal point for polemics and heated rhetoric. It was on account of this aggressive stance that madrasas started acquiring controversial and dubious labels.

Madrasas, in most Muslim countries today, exist as part of a broader educational infrastructure. The private educational sector provides what is considered to be a quality western-style education for those students who can afford high tuition costs. Because of their relatively lower costs, many people turn to state schools, where they exist. However, in recent years and in more impoverished nations, the rising costs and shortages of public educational institutions have encouraged parents to send their children to madrasas. Supporters of a state educational system have argued that the improvement of existing schools or the building of new ones could offer a viable alternative to religious-based madrasas. Others maintain that reforms should be institutionalized primarily within Islamic madrasas in order to ensure a well-rounded curriculum at these popular institutions.

Madrasas around the world play a role of   fountainheads of religious learning and guardians of tradition .Besides providing    general education to broad groups at the grassroots levels of society,   they have long constituted nodes in extensive networks of communication. No madrasa stood alone; each was linked to other madrasas through a steady exchange of visiting scholars, teachers and students.

Madras as 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 parents on their part must realize that if they can’t afford the financial means to nurture these children they must properly plan their families. Madrasas should not be seen as orphan homes or crèches for   parental children who are financially orphaned.

The madrasa system is a thousand years old. It originated in eleventh-century Baghdad, and the earliest recorded South Asian madrasa was established in Ajmer (in India) in 1191. In medieval times, madrasas were instruments of the state -- funded by rulers and steadfastly loyal -- and focused on Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh). Over time, with the advent of the Mughal empire in South Asia, this curriculum expanded, first to include philosophy, logic, and the rational disciplines (Maqalat) and then to include the study of reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith) as well. Madrasas were also bastions of social exclusion. They served as prestigious training schools for imperial officials and religious scholars, catering to and funded by the Muslim elite.

Even in pre-modern times, ideas travelled across the Muslim world with surprising speed due to the madrasa network. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the number of madrasas expanded rapidly, the pattern of communications also became more complex, and madrasas provided the infrastructure to various religious and political movements, reformist, anti-colonial, and nationalist. Whereas in the Ottoman Empire, the last great Muslim state, the major madrasas were all established and supervised by the state, throughout most of Asia the madrasas were established by private initiatives and they jealously guarded their autonomy vis-à-vis the state. In their own way they contributed to the integration of the Muslim world, bringing hitherto marginal localities within the orbit of a global system long before the term ‘globalization’ became commonplace. This was a parallel globalization driven not by the flow of capital but rather by the traffic and circulation of ideas – perhaps the most remarkable form of transnationalism from below.

The Madrasa Curriculum

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 (Ulema) in India 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. Islamic legacy doesn't comprise just of religions; scientists, physicians, astronomers, navigators, philosophers all collectively symphonized the efflorescence of Islamic civilization.

In the early eighteenth century, madrasas had a comprehensive syllabus full of theological and philosophical sciences. This Islamic educational curriculum offered a very holistic and comprehensive view of education including mainstream subjects like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, logic, geography, literature, chemistry and so on, as well as the Qur'anic exegesis, the Prophetic traditions, Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Sufism. In fact, this Madrasa curriculum was initially framed and institutionalized by Meer Fathullah Serazi in Akbar’s age. Later on, Indian Ulema incorporated a few changes and modifications in this traditional Islamic curriculum. It was Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi, a contemporary of Shah Wali Allah Muhaddith Dehlvi, who reshaped the educational curriculum in the mainstream Indian madrasas. Thus, the curriculum was named after him as “Dars-e-Nizami”.

 As Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi hailed from the family of teachers and clerics appointed at the leading madrasas of Firangi Mahal, the citadel of Islamic learning in India then, there was no stiff opposition to his curriculum. Consequently, the Dars-e-Nizami syllabus took deep roots in the mainstream Indian madrasas running particularly in Delhi, Firangi Mahal, Lucknow and Khairabad. Even the leading Islamic scholars of Lucknow and Delhi endorsed and accepted it due to the paramount importance attached to the Firangi Mahal clerics and scholars. There were a variety of reasons for the madrasas to embrace the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum. Mufti Taqi Usmani figures out one:

“After the Moguls took control over India, the Dars-e- Nizami system became wide spread in south Asia. India came to be known worldwide for its educational institutions imparting religious sciences. It was this very system that pushed the Asian society towards great success”. He further says: “It was essential that we would adopt the Dars-e-Nizami system, as it produced thousands of men well-versed in the fields of knowledge‟‟ (Usmani .M.T. (2000) page: 6)

The Dars-e-Nizami has been modified though the canonical texts are still there. These texts are used as   symbols of continuity and identity. The madrasas saw themselves as preservers and nurturers of Islamic identity and heritage during the colonial era when secular studies displaced the Islamic texts as well as the classical languages of the Indian Muslims -Arabic and Persian- from their privileged pedestal. Thus the madrasas, despite the desire to reform their courses, did not give up the canonical texts. They felt hat preservation of the Islamic heritage was their primary objective and the topmost priority. 

The noted Islamic scholars of undivided India who worked upon the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum after Meer Fathullah Serazi were: Mufti Abdus Salam Lahuari, Maulana Daniyal Chaurasi, Mulla Qutbuddin Sahalvi, Hafiz Amanullah Banarasi, Maulana Qutubuddin Shamsabadi and Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi. They belonged to different eras and introduced to the Islamic curriculum different dimensions.

Though ancient works like Sarf-e-Meer and Kafiya remain in the course, easier and more modern books are used to supplement them. Arabic, for instance, is taught through modern and much easier texts than the canonical works mentioned in the Dars-e-Nizami. The canonical texts are taught in Arabic but, because students do not really gain competence in the language, they are either memorized or understood from Urdu translations available in the market.

The Dars-e-Nizami has come to symbolise the stagnation and ossification of knowledge. It is taught through canonical texts which, however, are taught through commentaries (Sharh); glosses or marginal notes (Hashiya) and super commentaries (Taqareer). There are commentaries upon commentaries explained by even more commentaries. For the South Asian students, they no longer explain the original texts being themselves in Arabic. They have to be learned by heart which makes students use only their memory not their analytical powers. Indeed, the assumption on which the Dars functions is that the past was a golden age in which all that was best has already been written. What remains to the modern age is merely to preserve it.

During the 19th century Indian Muslims were split between the followers of Aligarh, home of the Aligarh Muslim University, which provided a Western-style higher education to Indian Muslims, and Deoband, where the madrasa provided a conservative education focused on Islamic law (Shari’a) and jurisprudence (Fiqh). Deobandis looked back for inspiration to Shah Wali Allah, an 18th-century Indian thinker influenced by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab of Arabia (whose followers are called Wahhabis by their opponents), the Shah's contemporary, who provided the ideological legitimacy for the dynasty of Ibn Sa'ud.

Deobandis reject all forms of Ijtihad, the use of reason to create innovations in Shari’a in response to new conditions. The revival of Ijtihad is a key plank in the platform of the Islamic modernists. Deobandis oppose all forms of hierarchy within the Muslim community, including tribalism or royalty, favour excluding Shia from participation in the polity, and take a very restrictive view of the social role of women. This is where madrasas have insulated themselves from the new wave of enlightened thinking that is actually attuned to the contemporary realities and challenges.

The Need for Makeover

Madrasas are far from being completely immune to change and reform. Likewise, few Ulema would claim to be completely satisfied with the madrasas as they exist today. Indeed, leading Ulema are themselves conscious of the need for change in the madrasa system. As their graduates go out and take up a range of new careers, in India and abroad, and as pressures from within the community as well as from the state and the media for reform grow, madrasas, too, are changing. Change is, however, gradual, emerging out of sharply contested notions of appropriate Islamic education.

The dilemmas that accompany change are well illustrated in the case of the Dar al-Ulum at Deoband, often considered to be a major bastion of Ulema conservatism in South Asia. The Deobandis stress conformity to traditional understandings of Hanafi Fiqh, and they tend to see the solution to all contemporary problems as lying in a rigid adherence to past fiqh formulations. The Hanafi School is one of the four religious Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence (Fiqh).   It is named after the scholar Abū anīfa an-Nu‘man ibn Thābit (d. 767),   whose legal views were preserved primarily by his two most important disciples, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad al-Shaybani. The other major schools of Shari’a in Sunni Islam are Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali.

The foundation of Darul Uloom also marked a closing of doors to modern knowledge, which was now seen as polluting because of its association with the British. Deobandis (as those associated with Darul Uloom became known) worked hard to spread their message across northern India, and the social composition of madrasas began to change, becoming less affluent and more rural. Madrasas soon started losing their sheen and they no longer occupied the venerable status in the realm of education. They started losing talent to the modern educational institutions .The madrasas were reduced to an arena for mediocre talent

The traditionalists believe  that the aim of the madrasa is different from that of a modern school .The only way to pass judgment on the madrasas is to see how far they have been able to achieve their own aims, such as inculcating piety, promoting religious knowledge, control over the base self (Tahzib-I Nafs) and service of others. Therefore, no suggestion for reform of the syllabus which goes against these aims is acceptable.

They fear that the introduction of modern disciplines in the madrasa curriculum might lead to a creeping secularization of the institution as such, as well as tempting their students away from the path of religion and enticing them towards the snares of the world. Proposals for reform of the madrasas by incorporating modern subjects are sometimes seen as hidden ploys or even as grand conspiracies to dilute the religious character of the madrasas. Religion is here understood as a distinct sphere, neatly set apart from other spheres of life. This is readily apparent in the writings of many Ulema. Take, for instance, the following statement of Ashraf Ali Thanwi, a leading early twentieth-century 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 have gone mad with their concern for the hereafter (Jinko Fikr-I Akhirat Ne Divana Kar Diya Hai)”.

Largely unchanged and unchallenged, this approach to education dominated the Islamic world for centuries, until the advent of colonial rule, when Western education penetrated countries previously ruled by Muslims. Throughout the Middle East, as well as in British India and Dutch-ruled Indonesia, modernization marginalized madrasas. Their graduates were no longer employable as judges or administrators as the Islamic legal system gave way to Western jurisprudence. Muslim societies became polarized between madrasa-educated mullahs and the economically prosperous, Western-educated individuals attending modern schools and colleges. This was the beginning of the precipitous decline of the madrasa from the highway of enlightened education .Eclecticism gave way to obscurantism. The madrasas never focused on improvisation of traditional skills of which had been the economic backbone of families whose children were exclusively denominated for religious education .The arrival of technology signalled death knell for their livelihood.

Other traditionalists may not go to such lengths in denying the need for inclusion of modern subjects in the curriculum, but, while accepting the need for reform, might argue that this should be strictly limited, and must not threaten or dilute the religious character of the madrasas. Madrasas, they argue, are geared to the training of religious specialists, and so it is important that worldly subjects must not assume the upper hand over religious instruction. Instead, it is enough, they insist, if the students are able to read and speak elementary English, perform basic mathematical problems and are familiar with the basic social sciences, albeit suitably ‘Islamised’, and so to that extent they welcome efforts for reform. They feel that madrasas can’t jettison Islam to accord with Eurocentric notions.

The New Realities

The truism which the madrasa backers must accept and acknowledge is that piety and righteousness are, the fundamental tenets of the Qur'an are no longer the sacred preserve of the madrasas. In fact several madrasas have become breeding grounds of many vice  .Values cannot be taught ,they have to be demonstrated and instilled in the students. Student coming from impoverished families living in ghettoes have poor morality and unless immoral impulses are chastened the moral ambience becomes contaminated. Moreover, in the absence of interaction with students of other faiths, students develop a parochial and sectarian mindset which is antithetical to the pluralist character of the Qur’an.

In those parts of the Muslim world ,and in some minority countries where madrasas function in parallel to a secular education system, madrasa education is generally viewed as an inferior alternative to secular education or as the choice of the underprivileged .Consequently ,sons who display the least visible 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 these institutions have succeeded in producing some of the most outstanding scholars of Muslim traditional learning.

However, divorced from their environment and ignorant of contemporary issues, they are hardly able to interpret Islam in a manner that would make sense to those who remained behind to pursue secular learning. The ones who confined their pursuit to the memorization of the Qur’an do not really have any claim to religious leadership because their intellect has not been honed to grasp the four cardinal components of Islamic law. They are nevertheless embraced as part of the Ulema societies that place a high value on learning and intellectual competence. It is hard to imagine that several years spent memorizing a book without any understanding of its contents can catapult one into socio-religious leadership.

Let alone modern education, even theological issues are not addressed in synergy with the modern advancements. The traditionalist clerics and obscurantist rectors of the madrasas loudly claim that the Dars-e Nizami curriculum has a universal application and hence does not require any change at all. They argue that since it churned out well-versed Islamic scholars in the past, it will continue to do so in the present and future too. In their view, anyone who calls for change in the Dars-e Nizami is either a Badmazhab (misguided in thought) or conspirator against the religious institution of the madrasas. On the contrary, a critical analysis of the Dars-e Nizami curriculum reveals that it is not only dominated by the obsolete, polemical and outdated branches of learning, but also detrimental to the mental advancements of the students. There seems to be no scope for "renewal”, “research” or “rethinking” which are essential values of Islamic education. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet (SAW): "Every 100years, Allah will send someone to renew faith for the Ummah." While the madrasas keep refreshing their students with this Prophetic exhortation, they miserably fail to produce one who can stand up to this position and address the changes and challenges of the modern era.  It is time we stop wallowing in the legacy of the Golden Age. The most authentic tribute tour great forbear would be to carry forward the torch of critical thinking which they ignited in those dark days. Let it continue to illumine our minds and hearts.

There is no denying the fact that madrasas have always been harbingers of Prophetic teachings and there are still some madrasas that are making a mark. But majority of madrasas today are unable to prepare their graduates to face the challenges that the modern era places upon them. A mere glance at the state of affairs in the present-day madrasas reveals that they have strayed far away from the path that our visionary Ulema and Islamic intellectuals had originally charted out.

The great modernist Fazl ur Rahman contextualizes and describes madrasa learning in the following manner: "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 religi6us 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, in order to be memorized by students and, then, in order to explain the enigmatic text, himself authored both a commentary and a super commentary!" 

The educational environment in madrasas now is intellectually sterile. Students come out of madrasas with stagnant minds and constrained world-view antithetical to critical analysis of the socio-religious issues. Religion needs not to be changed, reformed or perfected. God has already completed his glorious religion with the Prophet Muhammad’s message, as he said: "This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion." We, actually, need reformers and change agents in our madrasas who can renew and revive the intellectual tools that are critical for navigating and responding to the evolving modern challenges As long as this deep understanding of Tajdeed-e-Deen (renewal of faith) is missing from the madrasa curriculum, we cannot hope an enlightened vision for their future.

Reformists insist that knowledge in Islam is one whole, and that the division between Dini (religious) and Duniyavi (worldly) knowledge, with the two opposed to each other, which many contemporary Ulema seem to have accepted, has no sanction in the Quran.  The very first revelation to the Prophet (SAW), “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 the mysteries of creation as signs of the power and mercy of God. Knowledge of the creation is said to be the means for acquiring knowledge of God. Thus, far from leading to doubt and disbelief, scientific investigation, if conducted within properly defined Islamic bounds, can deepens one’s faith and is, in fact, commanded so by God.

Reformists argue that since Islam is all-embracing in its scope, providing guidance not only for worship and devotion but also rules for collective existence, ranging from personal affairs to matters of the state, Muslims must acquire knowledge of all aspects of the Duniya, in addition to that of the Shari’a. Since Islam is God’s chosen religion and is valid for all times, the Ulema must remain abreast with changing developments in the world to be able to express Islam anew in response to changing conditions.

Besides reforms in the curriculum of the madrasas, reformists also argue for suitable changes in the methods of teaching. Many writers are critical of the current stress on parroting entire sections of books without exercising reason or critical thought, as a result of which few students are said to actually properly comprehend what they are taught.  Critics see the madrasas as discouraging debate, dialogue and critical reflection, and as treating their students as passive students, thus cultivating a climate of stern authoritarianism.  The stress on bookish learning is said to have deflected attention from moral development, and some writers bewail what they see as the low moral standards of many madrasa students. Even traditionally educate religious scholars, who may be considered to have a vested interest in the preservation and defence of their tradition have also often been vigorous critics of particular aspects of madrasas.

We have to examine the entire issue surrounding madrasas from multiple dimensions. Viewing them through the lens of pure modernism will give only a jaundiced view and will trap us all in a welter of confusion. Madrasa backers consider madrasas as bedrocks of Islamic civilization wherein whereas madrasa baiters consider them a cesspool and a breeding quagmire that is spawning terrorism and are considered by many as ghettoes with a siege mentality impervious to the outside influences.

The Clash of Cultures

Madrasas are certainly facing a clash of and ,far from being opposed to modernization ,they are suspicious of the intentions of we modernizers and see our mission as a ploy for stripping them of their autonomy .Like all institutions they are possessive f their exclusive space and would not tolerate dilution of their founding motto and credo.

Intrusiveness of even seemingly benign intervention s looked with suspicion.

In the whole new plan that we are envisaging their voices must find a legitimate space on the dialogue table.

They are primary stakeholders and we must be able to allay their fears and apprehensions. .The majority of madrasas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, it 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 abuse. There is no reason why they should respond to something that benefits them. They need an authentic torchlight that can dispel their misconceptions and clear the cobwebs of their mnds.ill motives will always generate negative vibes and an aura of mistrust. Let our sincerity be as clear as daylight. .

It is a hard reality that most of those who end up in madrasas are children of poor parents who cannot feed the family properly. Some of these children may be fortunate to get admission in professional madrasas which have qualified teachers .Most madrasas are however managed by those whose understanding of Islam is flawed and are quite ill equipped to impart proper knowledge to students .in almost every Muslim ghetto, you will find a madrasa promoted by self styled Islamic clerics whose knowledge of Islam may at best be rudimentary and their concept of both Islam and Quran derived from questionable sources. One can understand the quality of graduates these madrasas will produce .several of these madrasas don’t even have the standard syllabus and are confined to memorization of the Qur’an .The damage which these students can cause to Islam is anybody’s guess. There was a time when mosques, particularly in remote areas, could hardly afford a full time imam. The local leader would deputize for a regular imam and handle certain basic duties like leading the prayers. Or else the residents would take up this job by rotation. The more literate mother would teach the Qur’an to the children. Those parents knowledge of the Qur’an was poor would often take the help of these women .Today things have vastly changed and most mosques have permanent imams. One of the key functions of the imam, apart from leading the congregational prayers and teaching the Quran to the children, is delivering the Friday sermon, called the Khutbah. The imam is also expected to deliver sermons on important occasions. The Friday congregational prayers are the largest crowd pullers on account of the solemnity of the occasion. The Muslim mindscape is largely shaped by these Khutbah .There are cases where these sermons are circulated by main centres. There are also sample sermons which are recited in the absence; of other avenues of sermons. However these sample sermons are basically religious teachings.

However the real value of the sermon lies in it being delivered by the local imams who are expected to interpret and convey the Quran in the local idiom and address the broad range of local as well as regional issues. The tragedy is that imams not versed in either the pure sciences or social sciences and without any exposure to social and economic issues confronting Muslims will not be able to make his sermon either meaningful or relevant .An ideal imam is one who has larger worldview and the global national concerns of the community and religion are refracted in his local address. A Friday sermon , in order to be of real value and proper guide to Muslim issues , requires the imam to have a sharp intellect and grounding in various sciences so that he has the necessary intellectual tools to analyze the concerns of the community and come up useful guidance .in that absence of competent imams the huge Friday crowd is  fed with the staple of half baked ideas of Islam .The importance of well trained imams is very acutely felt in present day times when the community is facing highly complex issues which need the best brains to address them.

As regards modernization, the Muslim intelligentsia is of the opinion that by focusing on the issue of modernization of madrasas, the government is deflecting opinion from the real issues and needs of Muslims in education. They opine that governments—both central and state—need to have Muslim representation while making and implementing educational policies.

We cannot ignore the fact that about 95% of Muslim children go to formal (non-madrasa schools. However, the opportunities and conveniences that should come as a result of such formal education are not available to them the way they should be. Talking about the progress of madrasas is a convenient way for the government to put a veil on the discriminations faced by them in formal schools and the shortcomings of its own policies. There is also a feeling among Muslims that one of the reasons the government focuses so much on madrasas is because it remains unaware of the needs and objectives of educational institutions where Muslim students go.

Education is extremely important for human welfare, progress and cultural accomplishments. Education becomes easily accessible when it is free, and free education in the present day context of Muslims in India is given only through madrasas. Governmental schemes have remained unsuccessful in bringing education to all, particularly to the poor and marginalised communities. But religious madrasas have made education a reality for all sections of Muslims in villages as well as towns.

In this context, it is also necessary that the management of madrasas and scholars come together to identify how and how much formal, modern education can be made part of the madrasa system. It also needs to be discussed whether modern formal education should be introduced in conjunction with existing religious education in madrasas or should religious education itself be strengthened by modernising it? Whenever one is faced with a problem, the solution lies in studying the problem, debating the issue, identifying the consequences of the problem and various solutions as well as in adopting reason and scientific method to find a way out. It is meaningless to keep accusing madrasas of being the hotbeds of extremism and hate –mongering and fire-spewing rhetoric. We are not making a distinction between radicalists and madrasa promoters. It is unfair to tar everyone with the same brush. A solution cannot come out if the differing ideologues remain at loggerheads.

The Turn to Secularism

Even while the debate over the modernization of madrasas continues, there are several madrasas which are taking steps for initiating steps for changing with modern times. It is important to understand that the madrasa is not a monolithic institution. Several madrasas in India are open to non-Muslims and teach secular subjects as well. In Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, among several other states, madrasas provide modern education through computers and the Internet. This wave of reform has transformed them several decades back. The madrasas operated by the Nida Mahila Mandal in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh have taken this a step further. Eighty out of 120 odd madrasas run by the group have more Hindu students and teachers than Muslim ones.

The Hindu students are required to study Hindu religious teachings while the Muslim ones must pass Deeniyat in addition to the modern syllabus that is imparted. These are not aberrations. In West Bengal, ten to 12 per cent (50,000) madrasa students are Hindus.

In 2009, the Centre initiated the scheme for providing quality education in madrasas (SPQEM), which envisaged teaching subjects like Science, Mathematics, Social studies, etc with teachers getting an honorarium and science and computer labs being provided to the madrasas that register with the scheme. Although the scheme was allocated Rs 325 Crore, only Rs 18.27 Crore was utilised. This is because madrasas have stayed away fearing interference from the government.

In 1979, a Muslim cleric started a school in a hut in the remote tribal area of Akkalkuwa with just six students. Today, the humble school in Maharashtra's Nandurbar district, bordering Gujarat, has grown into an institute, the Jamia Islamia Ishaat ul Uloom, which has two Lakh students on its rolls in schools across India. The man behind the success story is Maulana Ghulam Mohamad Vastanvi. The Maulana began from grassroots and gradually built the huge infrastructure in 30 years because of his positive approach and hard work

At Akkalkuwa, there is an Industrial Training Institute run by Jamia on which the name of the institute is written in colours of the national flag. In Akkalkuwa alone, the Jamia runs 15 colleges which look like any other modern campuses. The swanky buildings not only give an international look but they also have modern infrastructure. Each college has a computer lab with internet connections.

The Jamia Islamia Ishaat ul Uloom also runs 30 hospitals in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Its education budget is around Rs 24 Crore. It boldly combines modern education with religious studies. Vastanvi is also behind construction of 4,500 mosques across India.

 Apart from directly imparting education to the students, we also give scholarships to thousands of students for higher education.  The Jamia is looking forward to doubling its intake in all major courses such as diploma/degree in engineering, medicine, teaching, and pharmacy and information technology.

 West Bengal has become the first state to begin the modernization of the traditional madrasas with the support from central government. As a result of this nearly 600 government recognized madrasas have modern curriculum. They offer courses in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, mathematics, computer science, English language and literature and other regular subjects. Islamic studies and the Arabic language course form a small part of the curriculum. About 15% of the students in the state's modernized madrasas are non-Muslims. Now the modern madrasas are part of mainstream education infrastructure in W. Bengal. Many Muslim as well as non-Muslim students who attended these madrasas are now successful in their careers. It can be said that madrasas can help overturn the historical divide between Hindus and Muslims. The Brookings Dohn Centre which is located in Qatar and is sponsored by the Brookings Institution of Washington 2009 identified W. Bengal' madrasas as model for modern education and suggested that Pakistan should emulate them. The process of modernization of madrasas has earned W. Bengal international accolades. Such madrasas with success and utility provide excellent examples for others to follow.

A Need for New Worldview

One truism which we Muslims must accept is that the inclusion of English, math and science in the curriculum of madrasas would enable students to better deal with the contemporary world and help them develop a   proper  mindset is fallacious. Mere access to technology cannot help a person develop a progressive and liberal attitude. These subjects are only tools. It is the mindset determines to what use these tools will be put to. In the absence of a catholic mindset and a spirit of cosmopolitanism these modern tools usually end up promoting a medieval agenda of hate and bigotry .When we live in a pluralist society it is equally important that we have a basic understanding of other faiths.

Thus, apart from equipping madrasas with tools of modern education, we have to orient their mindset to attune it to social realities and sensitize madrasa students to the emerging socio-cultural paradigms. This must be the fundamental objective of the modernization process if we want madrasas tube relevant tour times. madrasas need to keep pace with the imperatives of changing times .They should enlarge their worldview and show have enough resilience and malleability to respond to the fluid and changing world. We must remember that cultural isolation would only lad to stagnation.

Let the students of these madrasas acquire a better perspective and a larger worldview and let their knowledge be tempered with   liberal thought. It will enliven their coarse minds and deepen and broaden their intellect. Let them develop a holistic vision sol beautifully espoused by the legendary poet, Muhammad Iqbal:

Ilm Ne Mujh Se Kaha Ishq Hai Diwana-Pan

Ishq Ne Mujh Se Kaha Ilm Hai Takhmeen-o-Zan

Band-e-Takhmeen-o-Zan! Kirm-e-Kitabi Na Ban

Ishq Sarapa Huzoor, Ilm Sarapa Hijab!

Ishq Ki Garmi Se Hai Maarka-e-Kainat

Ilm Maqam-e-Sifat, Ishq Tamasha-e-Zaat


(Knowledge said to me, Love is madness;

Love said to me, Knowledge is calculation—

O slave of calculation, do not be a bookworm!

 Love is Presence entire, Knowledge nothing but a Veil.

The universe is moved by the warmth of Love;

Knowledge deals with the Attributes, Love is a vision of the Essence); 


Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and journalist. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He received an Honorary D Litt at the World Congress of Poets at Istanbul in 1991. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications and was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur.