Madarsa education in India: Need for modern approach

Education rates among the highest concerns of Muslims in the world. We should learn from others, complying with the words of the Prophet:

“Seek knowledge even if it is to be found in a place as distant as China.” The role of
education has been central in any Islamic principle from the very beginning. The word  “madarsa” comes from the same Arabic root as “dars” which means a lesson or a lecture.

Madarsa, as traditionally constructed in Islam, is an institution where any one of the four schools of religion in Islam – the madhhab – along with Arabic grammar, the traditions of the Prophet – hadith, history, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, and astronomy are taught. They emerged in the early 10th century in Iran although we have reports as early as Abdul Malik (c.685-705) of Quranic teachings done in two types of settings.

The first was the maktab which was geared towards the illiterate and primarily to teach the Qur’an. This was done anywhere – private house, shop etc. presided over by an alim. The second was the majlis, which rose out of a gathering of scholars in the mosque and was dedicated to a more specialised study.

The establishment of the current model of the madarsa can be traced to Nizam ul Mulk (c. 1018-92), the Grand Vizier under two Seljuk Sultans. He wrote the influential Siyasat Namah (The Book of Government) and founded a series of madarsas all
over Iraq and Khurusan (Iran). The biggest of them was the Nazimiya in Baghdad
(c. 1065).

In his book, as in the establishment of these madarsas, Nizam ul Mulk sought to train a cadre of intellectuals and theologians that would guide the Sultans in their governance over the Muslim lands. Nizam ul Mulk’s reforms established a state-funded (through waqf or land endowment) institute of higher learning that was responsible for creating new elite.

The British in India were responsible for both the diminution of the syllabi of madarsas as well as their spread as a counter-British institution. After the 1857 war, the language of the courts was changed from Persian to English. The Muslim elites who were trained at home and in madarsas in the “classical” subjects were loathe to join the English grammar schools. However, people like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan argued for a modernisation of the Islamic knowledge systems and founded a school which is now known to the world as the Aligarh Muslim University. Others like Thanawi, Maududi, Nanotovi etc. opted for enshrining Arabic and the Qur’an at the heart of any system of Muslim knowledge in India.

In 1986, the Indian government initiated a project to modernise the madarsa by bringing in subjects like science, mathematics, English, and Hindi. But many madarsas refused to cooperate, wary of the state's interference (their Hindu equivalent, the Sanskrit schools, have been gradually folded into the state education system).

The government has continued its efforts, with limited success. But in 2002 it drew criticism from Muslims when a secret memorandum came to light in which all state education officials were ordered to ensure that madarsas applying for government funding “are not indulging, abetting, or in any other way linked with anti-national activities.”

The Union government’s madarsa-modernisation scheme has enabled students from various parts of the country to seek jobs of their choice, says Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, better known for his own writings on minority issues and madarsa education. The agenda for reforming the madarsas has, unfortunately, today come to be linked with the question of countering ‘terrorism’.

Yoginder Sikand, in one of his writings, has focused on the efforts being made today by the ulema and Muslim activists in India to introduce modern subjects in the curriculum, excise subjects and books that are considered irrelevant and introduce reforms in teaching methods.

A progressive alternative

The menace of growing educational backwardness through madarsas that everybody is afraid of can be curbed only by providing a progressive, modern alternative with a promising future for the younger generations, writes Arjumand Ara, a teaching faculty at the Delhi University.

“We are not going to compromise on the content and structure of Islamic education but certainly welcome any initiative by the government to upgrade the curriculum to have modern education in madarsa system,” Maulana Mohammad Wali Rahmani, a reputed Islamic scholar and Director of Khanqah Rahmanim Munger, Bihar, said.

I visited Khanqah Rahmanim Munger, a well-established Islamic seminary in Bihar, where, besides imbibing religious education, I also saw the students learning computer education and comfortably surfing the net. “We have computers, we have books in English, we have students who can converse in English but they are not militants. The allegations about madarsa, that it produces militants, is completely baseless” said Maulana Rahmani, a supporter of bringing reforms in madarsa.

Demands for the ‘modernisation’ of the madarsa system are today being voiced from many quarters, including from several ulema associated with the madarsa themselves. The voices of ulema advocates of reform are particularly significant, in that they are influential in moulding the opinions and policies of principals of the madarsas, which outside critics are not.

This is the perfect time that we must think of introducing modern education into the madarsas, while also looking at the existing syllabi and incorporating modern and technical subjects. The madarsas need trained modern teachers, modern subjects (science, computer and humanities) and certainly a modern well-structured curriculum along with its own religious contents.

(The writer holds a doctorate in Linguistics and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, USA)

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