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Islamic Society ( 8 May 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Reforming Islamic Seminaries

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

09 May 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

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...  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 children (earlier it used to be just sons, now it includes daughters also) to Madrasas because they consider the education they get there to be a respectable one. 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 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. Thus the Madrasas, despite their desire to reform their courses, did not give up the canonical texts.

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)  . Therefore, reforms which go against these basic aims are not acceptable.

In madrasa educational system religion is understood as an 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 to a creeping secularization of the institution as such, as well as tempt their students away religion and wean them towards   the pursuit 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 is readily apparent in the writings of many Ulema. Take, for instance, the following statement 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.   

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 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 those who remained behind to pursue secular learning.  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. 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.

The reformists of madrasa education insist that knowledge in Islam is one whole, and that the division between Deeni (religious) and Duniyavi (worldly) knowledge - with the two opposed to each other and which many contemporary Ulema seem to have accepted - has no sanction in the Quran.

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.

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.

Madrasas are far from being completely immune to change and reform. Likewise, few Ulema could 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 system.

As their graduates go out and take up a range of new careers, 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 production of seminary graduates in a greater number than the country’s capacity to offer them proper jobs can create enormous problems. 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.

Most of them had undergone the same ritual. Moreover many of the students that have been drawn to Madrasas have joined them not out of any fervour for religious knowledge. Perhaps, their economic misery gave them little choice .The madrasa rectors agree that the institutes cannot be seen as gateways for 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.”

Although Madrasas have largely lost relevance in mainstream education, they fulfil a vital function by helping to develop a core of leaders capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters but they provide the poor with a real hope of advancing themselves.

In certain traditional subjects - such as rhetoric, logic, and jurisprudence - the teaching can be excellent. Considering this, isolation of Madrasas would not be in the best interests of the community. For example, when Madrasas produce leaders rooted in larger perspectives, they also contribute to the strengthening of society as a whole. 

Far from typifying one end of the polarising spectrum of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular education, the state must continue to use Madrasas as part of the regular educational paradigm. It must evolve an educational grid that allows constant movement between Madrasas and mainstream educational institutions.

If policymakers of the state are genuinely committed to the stated aim of mainstreaming madrasa education, they need to pay closer attention to how transitions from madrasa to so-called mainstream spaces can be seamlessly achieved. The state should not interfere in religious instruction, which should be the business of private individuals and associations.

Those who carry out the inspections should be properly oriented to the traditions of learning in Muslim communities and the history and status of Madrasas in particular so that they can properly appreciate the nuances of madrasa teaching.

In a larger landscape of increasing communalization, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and development schemes, the government should economically and socially empower the community so that it comes out with its own appropriate solutions not just for overall social reforms but also with a new perspective on education.

The general consensus is that Madrasas can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. 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 own communities as well as to the mainstream society and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shields them from radicalism. The Madrasas are allies in India’s fight against extremism.

But Madrasas are 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.

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 modernisation, 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.


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