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Uttar Pradesh Madrasa Survey: What Riles the Ulama?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

21 September 2022

Perhaps They Want To Protect the Financial Opacity of These Institutions

Main Points:

1.    The Uttar Pradesh government has started a survey of independent madrasas

2.    Initially the Ulama opposed it but now the Deobandis have stated that they do not have a problem with such a survey being conducted

3.    Independent madrasas teach an outmoded syllabus which jeopardizes the educational futures of lakhs of children

4.    It is in the interest of Muslims to reform these madrasas and make it relevant to the demands of contemporary society


Ever since the Uttar Pradesh government ordered the survey of madrasas in the state, Muslim leaders, both religious and political, have been giving statements which do not help the students studying in these institutions. From the AIMIM to the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, the opposition to the government’s move is based on their deep distrust of state institutions. As if they live in created sovereignty of their own, these Muslim institutions think that anything the state wants them to do is an intrusion in their ‘private sphere’. The idea dates back to Shah Waliullah’s famous dichotomy of what he called Zahiri Khilafah and Batini Khilafah. The latter, the inner caliphate was the sphere of religiosity, to be guided by the Ulama, in the absence of an Islamic state. The opposition of the current Ulama to the proposed government move stems from the conviction that this is the domain of inner caliphate where only their writ should run.

One should not be tempted with the lazy analysis that this opposition is because of the “anti-Muslim nature” of the BJP government. History reminds us that whenever such a move has been proposed, the Ulama have opposed it. During the UPA regime, the government wanted the establishment of an All-India-Madrasa Board through which reforms could be implemented. It was the opposition of the Ulama that led to shelving the proposal. Even earlier, when the madrasa modernization program was announced, the Ulama viewed the entire policy as an attempt to undermine the autonomy of madrasas. Even today, madrasas view the modernization policy with a lot of suspicion and a majority of them keep away from it.

It is good to know that now the Deobandis have relented and have said that they do not have a problem with the UP-government survey. It seems better sense has prevailed and they have realized that it is unwise to be seen opposing the government every time it proposes something. Or the reason could be the pragmatic realization that the nature of this government is very different from the previous one. They could bluff their way with Congress led governments, even to the extent of opposition the Right to Education Act and eventually getting madrasas exempt from it. But the BJP led government is a different beast altogether. It doesn’t care for Muslim votes. More importantly, it doesn’t even care for the optics of appearing pro-Muslim. Hence, the Ulama have no choice but to acquiesce to the government’s demands.

As stated by the government, the survey is being undertaken with the intention of helping madrasas in terms of modernizing their content and infrastructural status. Well, one cannot really be sure about the intention of any government, given its hard-earned tag of pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments. But we need to have a dispassionate conversation about the status of education within madrasas. Does it really help the Muslims today?

As we know, there are different kinds of madrasas. But from the point of view of control and authority, they can be divided into those run by the state and those established and run by the community. We have enough data to understand what is wrong with the education system in the government-controlled madrasas and these reasons are not very different from what is wrong with government schools in general. But the real blind spot are madrasas controlled and administered by the community or the Ulama. No one knows their actual number in different states or all over India. No one knows how many of these belong to the Deobandi faction or the Barelvi faction or the Ahle Hadees faction. We do not know the number of teachers or even their qualifications in these madrasas. We do not know how many children study in these institutions. The Sachar Committee gave us the faulty data of 4% but now we know that those numbers are much more but we do not have an actual figure.

What we do know is what is being taught in these madrasas. Most madrasas are primarily sectarian in character, which is to say that they are established to propagate Deobandi, Barelvi or Ahle Hadees interpretation of Islam. There are bitter fights between these sectarian communities but they ultimately become one in the face of any external threat. The perception of threat can come from any quarter: from reformist voices within the Muslim community or from the state. The call to modernize their syllabus is perceived as a threat by these madrasas who argue that this is being done to dilute their ‘Islamic’ character. Since they are largely outside the purview of state control, they are free to teach whatever they want. Most madrasas end up teaching some variation of what they call Dars e Nizami, a curriculum which was designed and perfected at the time of Aurangzeb by a scholar called Mulla Nizamuddin. During that time, it was primarily a syllabus which was meant to produce state officials. There was no distinction between religious sciences and the so-called rational sciences. Philosophy and Kalam went hand in hand in this syllabus. Today, however, the rational content of this syllabus has been reduced to cipher. So, it is a plain lie to say that contemporary teaching in madrasas is based on Dars e Nizami.

The knowledge of students in these madrasas does not extend beyond reading the finer details of Quran and Hadees. It is a crying shame that years after the Right to Education has become a law in this country, madrasa students do not know the geography of the world or even the basic history of India. A famous video of a Barelvi Alim telling his students that it is the sun which goes round the flat earth went viral some years ago. This is certainly not an exception and madrasa students have been taught this nonsense since they were established. The famous Barelvi Alim, Ahmad Riza Khan, in one his treatise, “demonstrated and conclusively proved” that it was the sun that revolved round the earth! Madrasas of other sectarian orientations are no better. I once met someone in a Deobandi madrasa who told me that the “formula for producing electricity” was in the books of logic that he was then reading.

Can one blame the students for this state of affairs? Certainly not. The responsibility for this appalling state lies with the madrasa authorities and the Ulama who operate through such networks. Most students in these madrasas come from very unfortunate financial conditions. And most of the time, the need to get admitted in a madrasa is less about acquiring knowledge but more about escaping from the endemic hunger back home. Madrasas give them food, shelter and clothing, which is the reason why they are sent there by their families.

But the Ulama make use of these poor Muslims by asking for funds and charity from the local and international Muslim community. We have to understand that most of these madrasas are not audited and hence what happens to the funds collected in the name of charity is anyone guess. Many a time, religious entrepreneurs who run these madrasas do not make a distinction between personal and public expenditure. One of them told me frankly: Jo Allah Ka Kaam Karega, Kya Allah Uska Khayal Nahin Rakhega? In other words, he was justifying the fact that he was living off madrasas funds but he did not see it as unethical. It is this opacity of funds and donations which explains the opposition of the Ulama every time there is some talk of government intervention. For if that happens, they will have to get their funds audited and no one within the madrasa establishment, barring a few, is ready for it.

One really hopes that this is not just a Muslim bashing exercise undertaken by the Uttar Pradesh government. The survey will throw up data which can be used to effect a change within the madrasa system, especially with regard to its financial opacity and outmoded curriculum. If the UP government can do this successfully, other state governments should also follow suit.


A regular contributor to, Arshad Alam is a writer and researcher on Islam and Muslims in South Asia.   


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