Madrasa education myth and reality

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Madrasas have been at the centre of controversy since 9/11 attack on New York towers. It was thought that attacks were planned by Taliban who were students of madrasas run by Muslims of Wahabi ideology. Though as far as 9/11 attack was concerned, the madrasas in focus were from North West Frontier Province but in India too madrasas came under fire especially from those who were politically motivated and also from a section of media which took a biased view.

Most of the views about madrasas were expressed by those who hardly had any first hand knowledge of madrasa system or what is taught in these madrasas. They just presumed that since these are Islamic institution they must be teaching about jihad and war. Even responsible ministers from NDA Government in those days made such statements. What is needed is well informed and well studied opinion.

I am glad that Ms. Saral Jhingran has made such an attempt to do systematic study of madrasas system in historical perspective. The other person who has made such an attempt is Yogi Sikand. These studies are most welcome to fight uninformed prejudices even among scholars. These madrasas were set up to fulfill a religious need rather than promote enmity with any community.

Islam entered into India from earliest time, some maintain even during Prophet’s lifetime through Kerala, and a century later through Sindh in North India. Both in South and North India hundreds of people converted to Islam and hence right from earliest time there was need for madrasa institution to teach religion and also to create ‘Ulama who in turn could teach others and also help perform prayers and other religious rites.

Madrasa, an Arabic word, literally means place of dars i.e. teaching. In Islamic countries even institutions of higher learning are known as madrasas. In Kolkata there was Madrasa ‘Aliyah i.e. higher institution of learning which now West Bengal government has given university status. It is interesting to note that these madrasas were open to students of other communities as well. Raja Rammohan Roy studied in Madrasa Aliyah and was as much scholar of Persian and Arabic as that of Sanskrit and Hindu religion.

In many cases thus madrasas in fact fulfilled both religious and secular needs and taught was necessary for secular as well as religious life. These madrasas can be, in a way, compared with Christian seminaries during medieval ages wherein too what was taught was to fulfill both religious as well as secular needs. These institutions served in those days vital scholarly needs.

The question today is how relevant are these madrasas today? Some would say they are highly relevant and should be abolished and replaced by modern secular educational institutions. Those who subscribe to rational secular point of view would easily subscribe to this position. However, such complex questions cannot be reduced to such simplistic solutions. Things in actual life are far more complex.

A large number of Muslims in India, in fact a vast majority, is of poor and illiterate variety. Most of them are converts from low Hindu caste and still pursue their ancestral vocations. Very few have emerged successfully from their inherited position to take up modern professions. These poor Muslims cannot afford, even if they want, to send their children to institutions of secular education.

Moreover they have religious needs and madrasas can fulfill not only religious needs but also provide free education and what is more, are conveniently located. Also, we should not homogenize all madrasas. They need to be divided into different categories i.e. preliminary known as maktabs where only preliminary religious teaching is imparted. Then comes middle level madrasas where Arabic language, Qur’an, commentary on Qur’an, hadith etc. are taught.

Then higher madrasas which can be compared with graduate and post-graduate level studies where apart from Arabic literature, Islamic theology, Kalam¸ philosophy and Greek sciences are taught. This syllabus in India is based on what is known as dars-e-Nizami devised by Mulla Nizami in eighteenth century is taught. Today there is debate on this issue between orthodox and modernist Muslims whether Dars-e-Nizami should be continued. There is a movement for modernization of madrasas and many madrasas have gone for modernization.

Now coming to Jhingran’s study of madrasa, I should say it is quite objective and systematic study of madrasas in India. In the first chapter, ‘Society, Religion, Education and Modernity’ she defines and discusses categories like society, religion, education and modernity. This discussion imparts clarity to discussion. While defining religion, particularly Islam, she observes in this chapter, “…Religion is a very complex phenomenon, which is impossible to understand in a few pages. In as much as our main interest here is in Islam, we can generally say that it regards itself as; possessing God’s final ‘revelation’, as well as being a comprehensive whole which includes not only Holy Quran but also the sunna as recorded in the Hadiths. As such religious education is more important and detailed for Muslims, especially the orthodox ones.”

In the second chapter Ms. Jhingran discusses, right at the outset the possible number of Muslim children going to madrasas. She quotes various sources and various estimates available. She is not satisfied by the estimate given by Sachar Committee that about 4 per cent Muslim children go to madrasas. She tries to work out her own estimate. She says, “The feed back that I have got from my frequent talks with the madrasa pass outs, now studying in JNU, or those who have roots in villages, puts the number of madrasa going children much higher …Generally they estimate that at least in villages about 15 to 30 % Muslim children go first to maktabs than to madrasas, if only for a few years.
Well, 15 to 30 per cent is a wide variation and to me it appears to be on higher side though at maktab level it may be so but not at higher madrasa level. I do not think so many maktabs and madrasas are available to that kind of number. But that is not important. What is important is that madrasa continues to be an important institution for poorer rural and to some extent urban Muslims.

The author also discusses reasons for preference for madrasa education among Muslims. Among reasons she points out are 1) paucity of modern schools is Muslim majority areas; 2) lack of separate girls’ schools and even female teachers in common schools; 3) cost of modern education and the poor quality of government schools; 4) poor quality of education in government schools and 5) “genuine grievance of orthodox Muslims is that there is a Hindu bias in school text books.” Then she comments, “Though such biases have tendency to creep up even in supposedly objective statements, any such pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim bias is unfortunate and must be avoided with utmost sincerity as it would cause further resistance to modern education among a particular section of Muslims.”

This chapter is quite important as Jhingran extensively discusses these reasons for preference among a section of Muslims for madrasa education. This chapter would remove many misunderstandings about madrasa education among non-Muslims.

In third chapter the author discusses historical background of madrasa education. She traces the origin of madrasa right from the time of Prophet of Islam as he established first such ‘madrasa’ in his mosque where he would teach tenets of Islam and explain the contents of revelation, which he received. The formal establishment of institution of madrasa came into existence much later. At first formal madrasa was established in Nishapur in Khurasan, and second was Nizamia madrasa in Baghdad, both in 11th century. Al-Azhar, now famous Islamic university, came into existence during Fatimid rule in Egypt around that time.

She then discusses establishment of madrasas in India. She traces teaching of rational sciences (ma’qulat) during Akbar’s period by Fatehullah Shirazi. He introduced, she says, and popularized various rational sciences (ma’qulat) which became major part of madrasa curriculum. It must be pointed out that rational sciences included astronomy, geography, physics and philosophy, mostly derived from Greek sources. Unfortunately all this continues to be taught even today under the general rubric of ma’qulat though at best they are of only historical importance now.

She then discusses madrasa system from Aurangzeb’s time to the coming of the British in India. Jhingran says, “For the first time, Aurangzeb (17th century) made a team of scholars to prepare a digest of Islamic law, later on called Fataw-i-Alamgiri. Then he granted Nulla Nizamuddin a mansion in Lucknow, known as Firangi Mahal where he established a madrasa. It was a predecessor of later madrasas and became a renowned centre of Islamic learning.” It was here that Mulla Nizamuddin developed a systematic syllabus which is known as Dars-e-Nizami and is still taught in most of the higher madrasas. Mulla Nizamuddin had tried to create quite a balanced and flexible system by standards of that time, it later on became quite rigid and no change was contemplated.

Ms. Saral Jhingran then discusses madrasas after independence and also devotes one chapter to madrasa nisabs (syllabus) and an effort to understand them and a critique. Her critique is also well informed about Islam. I must say on the whole the book is a learned and scholarly study of madrasa system and what is taught in them, how relevant those teachings are and what reforms are needed.

This book will greatly help in dispelling many misunderstandings prevalent among non-Muslims and to an extent among Muslims themselves. The critique developed by her invites orthodox Muslims to reflect seriously as to what modern madrasas should be like. Many Muslim modernists have also developed such critique. This book on the whole will be quite useful for scholars as well as for lay people.

Her fear about madrasa system seems to be that it creates sense of separate identity among Muslim children. While this criticism may be valid from her point of view question is in a diverse and now polarized society like India can we avoid such separate sense of identity? Our whole political system is thriving on religious, caste, ethnic and linguistic identities and sub-identities. Though there is nothing wrong with separate identities what is wrong is its politicization.