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Islamic Society ( 21 March 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Madrasa Myth

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

22 March 2017

A scene in room after room inside: teenage boys in skullcaps, sit cross-legged on carpets, reading from Qur’ans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. They are supervised by teachers, most of them respected elders, with shaved upper lips and fistful beards. These students are attending one of India’s many Islamic boarding schools or seminaries or madrasas.  

Madrasas across the world have suffered great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They have been malicious projected as incubators of holy warriors or what has been derisorily called as ‘jihad machines’.  However, the negative stereotypes that we get to read in sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of madrasas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, they may be their only path to literacy. For parents mired in poverty, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught. Madrasas fulfil a vital function by helping   develop a core of   leaders capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters

Maulana Qasim Nomani, the present Vice Chancellor or Rector  of Darul Uloom ,the  Deoband seminary which is the beacon for Asian seminaries , is at pains to point out the patriotic zeal of the seminary’s   early leaders. Maulana Mahmood-ul-Hasan [widely regarded as the first student and who later taught at the seminary] was a part of the nationalist government-in-exile set up in 1915 in Kabul which was headed by Raja Mahendra Pratap and had Maulana Barkatullah as foreign minister in what is known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. Deoband’s early leaders such as Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Ozair Gul were arrested and kept under detention on the island of Malta for a number of years.” 

Mahmood-ul-Hasan gave the fatwa of “Tark-e-Mawalat (boycott of goods)” to boycott every English product. “This was one of the effective instruments against the colonial rulers which later even Mahatma Gandhi adopted

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 (in India) in 1191.

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 own 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.

From the 18th 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.

  It was the 18th-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”.

The fist War of Indian independence of 1856 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.    

Darul Uloom was founded in 1866 to preserve Muslim identity and heritage in the face of British imperialism, which had replaced the rule of the Mughals, India's Muslim conquerors the ideological foundations   are summarized in a set of seven principles that defined the school’s fundamental principles (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 with reference to the Hanafi theologian al-Maturidi, (6) removal of unlawful things (Munkirat), and especially the refutation of polytheism, innovations, atheism and materialism, and (7) adherence to the principles personally embodied by the founders of the school, Muhammad Qasim and Rashid Gangohi. 

While Deoband and its clones did not compromise on puritanism, there was a strong movement of educational reforms form within the realms of Islamic educationists that strongly believed that In 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 news current of enlightenment.

The Darul Uloom educates 3,500 students for the 13 years it takes each to graduate; 800 are chosen for admission each year from 10,000 applicants. There are no tuition fees.  The boys have rigorous Islamic studies, but also bookbinding, IT proficiency. The Deoband seminary is also famous for its   Fatwas which it sends to the world in English and Urdu – and other languages, including Arabic. But with even clerics preferring to send their children to mainstream schools, madrasas attract very mediocre talents. The quality of scholarship is also declining.

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.

But one of the most accomplished modern products of madrasas, Ebrahim Moosa avers that,” 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.”

Madrasa education in India is caught between the need to maintain its exclusive identity as a centre of Islamic studies and culture and at the same time to remain relevant to the present imperatives of the community.

Indeed, leading Ulema are themselves conscious of the need for change in the madrasa system. There is mounting pressure for change both in the texture of education as also in the pedagogy and the contents of the curriculum. 

Nomani rules out any compromise in the present Dars-e-Nizamia syllabus at madrasas   .More than 3000 madrasas affiliated to the seminary have already spurned government assistance.  We are for ‘Deen Ka Ilm’ and ‘Deen Ki Hifazat’ (religious teachings and protection of religion). For other modern subjects, there are other institutions,” says Nomani “I will continue with the traditions of Darul Uloom,” he says. “I take my inspiration from my predecessors and follow the traditional path.” 

The issue  of reforms is  however quite complex and   the adoption of state-led modernization 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 ,  and of course the faultiness within  Islam  that are manifested in the various strains of Islamic thought that pervaded the faith.

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

While it is true that most 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 synergise classical and modern learning. 

A number of madrasas across India have adopted so-called secular, modern education by introducing regular mainstream educational subjects in madrasa curriculum, seeking recognition of their degrees from accredited universities, incorporating skill-training courses and so on. However, policy documents  have made sweeping generalizations and they  conflate the madrasas’ scepticism and/or rejection of the state-led modernization programme with  an ideology that has a pathological  antipathy for the state   .The  madrasa leadership is projected as a stubborn stereotype not amenable to the state ,howsoever good and benign the mission of the state be.

Seminaries are generally regarded as traditional educational facilities not compatible with modern educational values. This is far from   reality. Religious learning centres are experiencing severe financial crunch and are also keen that if their education starts losing relevance they will stop attracting both talented students but also the spigots of the runds would slowly turn off.    Instead of going in for radical reform and restructuring the state should engage with madrasas in a more supportive way For their part, madrasas, which tend to believe that curriculum and management are their exclusive jurisdiction — in the process of which they neglect curriculum development and teacher training — must cooperate with the state it. They should understand that they owe a responsibility for the economic and social well being for families of generations of students whose future hinges on the skills they are learning in these madrasas.  The state    should not see madrasas as an adversarial educational system; rather it should consider them   as an alternative.

Let the new madrasas be religious seminaries as well as universities, as in ancient Samarkand and Rather than stress only madrasa modernisation, let us take madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning   hearts and minds of the custodians of madrasas

The inmates at the Darul Uloom, Deoband, who proudly love to be called “Deobandis”, are clear about one conviction. ''India is our motherland, and we love it.''

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.


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