Madrasas across the world have suffered a great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They are typically condemned in the West by people who presume they are breeding grounds for religious militancy. 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 fulfill a vital function by helping to develop a core of leaders capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters. Hence, an isolation of madrasas would not be in the best interests of the community.

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 (10181092), 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.

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 first War of Indian independence in 1856 marked a separation 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 needs of the time, while Deoband insisted on preserving religious values and traditions in the Indian subcontinent. There were a few attempts to merge both traditions but they did not gain traction among the Muslims.

The ideological foundations of the Darul Uloom, the name by which the Deoband seminary is internationally known and the madrasas as cloned by it 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 tributaries did not compromise on puritanism, there was a strong movement of educational reforms from within the realms of Islamic educationists that strongly believed that in the absence of modern education, Muslims would 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 new 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 Darul Uloom 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.

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.

It is time we let the students of these madrasas acquire a better perspective and a larger worldview and let their knowledge be tempered with liberal thought. There is a very deeply felt need for fostering a culture which allows the two streams of learning to replenish each other in enabling Muslims to lead lives that are as true to their faith as they are attuned to modem needs.

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. Siam is no longer a monolith and madrasas owe allegiance to diverse schools of thought which are hybridizing 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. 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 skepticism.

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 synergies 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 the reality. Religious learning centres are experiencing a 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 funds will 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 and demonstrate they are not in conflict with it. They should cast away their lenses of stubborn puritanism and understand that they owe a responsibility for 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.

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 with the future implications for a society in which a large horde of seminary graduates find themselves jobless. The frustration which these students will undergo can lead to social, economic and intellectual ferment.
A very reasonable and sensible poser of the state to the madrasas is that they should ponder over the relevance of continuing to teach a curriculum that simply does not prepare their students for any aspect of the modern world, leaving them without a set of skills that can help them find any semblance of a job outside the mosque-madrasa-social welfare network.

We can retain some madrasas for exclusive training in theology and make them centers of excellence providing the latest infrastructure. These theological schools offer something of enormous value to Islamic communities, providing religious services and serving as repositories of classical learning. In addition to providing spiritual formation for their students, madrasas also equip them with important tools for intellectual development, offering instruction in the Qur’an, Islamic law, and the Sunna, the way of life based on the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. Properly harnessed, they are repositories of classical learning and seed intellectual sophistication that might challenge the shallow discourses of fundamentalism and revivalism that often pass for Islam today. Madrasas are environments of Islamic cultivation of the self, culture, civility, wisdom, and life.

The general consensus is that madrasas can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education together. 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 against radicalism. These madrasas are allies, in India’s fight against extremism.

Moin Qaziis the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.

2 Responses to “The enduring myth of Indian madrasas”

  1. Farhad Faisal

    If the Sufi-inspired road to God through love, self-purification and search for spiritual perfection has been really accepted in rule (2), then it should have rejected the intolerant/iconoclastic rule (6) as a contradiction.

  2. Sukhamaya Bain

    “Removal of unlawful things (munkirat), and especially the refutation of polytheism, innovations, atheism and materialism” – no matter what source this idea comes from, it is too judgmental of people who do not know what they are talking about, and it is a recipe for discontent in the world.

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