Reforming Indian Madrassas
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
Madrasas have for centuries served as centres of Islamic education and played a key role in the development of Islamic thought and in the formation and progress of Muslim communities. It would not be wrong to say that there is no aspect of Muslim life and society that has remained outside their purview. For centuries, madrassas were the centre of intellectualism in Muslim communities, and influenced all sections of society. Madrassas produced both religious scholars and guides as well as leaders in various ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ fields, including traders, administrators, judges, and so on.
The question here arises as to why it is now assumed that madrasas can no longer produce such people who combine in themselves the good of the deen and the good of this world, in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. Modern developments in the field of education and the startling increase in educational resources have made the attainment of education much easier. Moreover, one can cite dozens of examples of graduates of the madrasas who have gone on to excel in various branches of what are conventionally thought of as ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’subjects. This suggests that the basic problem we face here is that of not seeing things properly and not acting courageously with regard to the aims of madrassa education. In the face of the rapid social and civilisational changes of the modern world, it is essential that the objectives of the madrassas be broadened, rather than being narrowed down.
The Division Between ‘Religious’ and ‘Worldly’ Knowledge
Lamentably, the intellectual downfall of Muslims has spawned the misleading notion that there is a rigid separation in Islam between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge. The Quran and the Sunnah bear no evidence to this effect. Knowledge is a comprehensive whole, and it makes no sense to divide it in this fashion. In Islam, knowledge is divided on the basis of what is beneficial (nafe) and what is not beneficial (ghair nafe). According to a well-known hadith, Muhammad is said to have begged God for safety from knowledge that was not beneficial. Likewise, the very first Quranic revelation tells us: ‘Read in the name of thy Lord’. Keeping these two references in mind, it becomes clear that whatever knowledge is received from the name of God and that which is beneficial is in accordance with Islam and can be considered ‘religious knowledge’, even if it is about mathematics, geography or science. Conversely, knowledge that is acquired only for the sake of worldly pleasure or desire is definitely irreligious, even if this be knowledge of Hadith, tafsir and fiqh (jurisprudence). There have been numerous instances of people seeking to acquire religious knowledge simply for worldly purposes. Abu Muhammad al-Ghazali castigated numerous students of fiqh of his own times for studying the subject simply to promote their worldly interests.
This dichotomy was absent even in the the early period of the history of madrassas. It originated with the establishment of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband in 1861, at least among South Asian Muslims. However, it is salient to note that the founder of the Deoband madrassa regarded this as only a temporary necessity in the light of the particular historical juncture and the specific context in which this madrassa was established, and not as something permanent. This is indicated by his statement that:
‘These days, modern subjects (ulum-e jadida) are being taught in a big way in government schools. But the ancient subjects (ulum al-qadima) have experienced such a decline as has never been witnessed hitherto.’
This is why it can be said that the syllabus that the founders of the Deoband madrassa developed was a temporary and transitional one, suited to the particular context when the ‘ancient subjects’ were under decline and had to be salvaged. It was a product of, as well as a response to, non-Muslim colonial rule and the imperialist presence. The forces of imperialism promoted the belief that religion and the world were two different entities and that education was to be concerned solely with the latter. This belief soon came to be internalized by many Muslims as well. It also led to a heightened sense of defensiveness among Muslims so that Muslim leaders felt it best that the Muslims’ system of religious education be narrowed down, confined and carefully protected. But many ulema looked askance at this policy. For instance, Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi writes:
‘The present system of educational dualism is a gift of the period of non-Islamic rule. Earlier, our system of education was based on unity and integrity. Our ancient system of education, represented by the Dars-e Nizami, was the principal system of education in the country in the period of Muslim rule. It was also the principal means for cultural and intellectual training and advancement. It prepared scholars of Hadith and fiqh and teachers, as well as civil servants and administrators […] The same was true for other [Muslim] countries, where there were no separate curricula for religious and worldly education. Everyone knows that the famous mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam and the Seljuq Prime Minister Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi studied in the same learning-circle and were products of the same educational system.’
A major damage caused by the stark dualism in Muslim education is that it has given birth to rival factions within the Muslim fold that are viscerally opposed to each other. One of these factions considers the other to be ignorant of Islam, or, sometimes, even as ‘enemies of Islam’. On the other hand, the second group considers the first to be ignorant of the world and the demands of the contemporary age—veritable ‘ignorant friends’ of the faith. It is crucial that these two groups should dialogue with each other and try to come closer. Only on that basis can a generation of educated Muslims come into being that upholds a correct Islamic vision and that can, in accordance with contemporary demands, properly serve the faith, the community and the country.
[This is a translation of an article titled Dini Madaris Ka Nisab Wa Nizam Aur Asr-e Hazir Ke Taqaze which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Urdu journal Islam Aur Asr-e Jadid. First of the series of article appeared in November 2010 issue of Islamic Voice. ]