How relevant are madrassas today?

The madrassas around the world were known as fountainheads of religious learning and guardians of tradition and had an increasingly important role in bringing a degree of general education to broad groups at the grassroots levels of society. Another aspect that contributes to their societal importance is that they have long constituted nodes in extensive networks of communication.

By Moin Qazi,

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The debate about the alleged links between madrassas and terrorism has tended to obscure both the madrassas’ long histories and the differences among them.Throughout much of Islamic his¬tory, madrassas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe.

Between the 7th and 12th centuries, madrassas pro¬duced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina and al-Khwarizmi. They also produced America’sbestsell¬ing poet throughout the 1990s, the 13thcentury Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as aMuslim jurist, and through¬out his life taught Sharia law in a madra¬ssa in Konya. It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic ofthe ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system.

The majority of madrassas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For youngvillage child, it may be his only path to literacy. For many orphans and the ruralpoor, madrassas provide essential social services: education and lodging forchildren who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labour, sex trafficking, or other abuse.

A small Madrasa in Siwan village Bihar
Photo for representation purpose

The madrassas around the world were known as fountainheads of religiouslearning and guardians of tradition and had an increasingly important role in bringing a degree of general education to broad groups at the grassroots levels of society. Another aspect that contributes to their societal importance is that they have long constituted nodes in extensive networks of communication. No madrassa stood alone; each was linked to other madrassas through a steady exchange of visiting scholars, teachers and students.

Madrassas serve parts of developing countries that governments never reach. Turn off on any main highway in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or northern India, drive 15 kms down a poor-quality road, and more often than not you will find a small madrassa, funded by donations and occasionally fees, in the nearest village. Even in thecities, where there are many more government and other private schools, madrassas survive as providers of social services for Muslim orphans (many of whom are taken in and brought up there for free). Meanwhile, many Muslim parents choose to send their sons (it is usually sons) to madrassas because they consider the education they get there to be a respectable one.

Madrassas come in many shapes and sizes: much as Christians go to Sunday school, almost all Muslims have learnt to read the Qur’an in a madrassa. Some of these seminaries are as small as a single class room. Others, like Darul-Uloom in Karachi and Deoband in India are more like universities. These larger schools are typically well funded thanks to tax free donations by wealthy individuals and organisations that claim donations as their ‘zakaat’ – part of their obligation as Muslims to give alms to the poor.

For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours with limited breaks, madrassas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught to read and write. They have played this role in the subcontinent since at least the 11th century when Islam spread to the region. In more recent centuries, they have bred major schools of Islamic thought. The towns of Bareilly and Deoband in modern day India, for instance, are the sites of two of the most influential schools of Islamic thought in South Asia.

Indeed Deoband and the Deobandi stream of Islam founded there becamevanguards of Muslim resistance to the British rule from the 19th century onwards. Then many clerics condemned their communities’ self-appointed religious leaders for toadying to foreign occupiers. Madrassas quickly became a focal point for charged discussion and debate.

The early Muslims made no distinction between the religious and the secular – this was a concept introduced by the British during colonial rule. Muslimscholars (`ulama) in India distinguished between the ‘transmitted’ and ‘rational’ sciences, the former corresponding to Qur’anic commentary, the science of hadith, and fiqh, while the latter referred to disciplines such as Arabic grammar, poetry, philosophy, medicine, and the like. Both types of knowledge were valued and taught at themadrassa and were a source of upward mobility, prestige, and employment.

Before Mulla Nizam Uddin standardised the curriculum known as the Dars-i-Nizami, different teachers taught different texts to students. Shah Abdul Rahim had made an attempt to create a fixed curriculum which was taught at the Madrassa-i-Rahimiya and emphasized the manqulat (Islamic sciences such as hadith). The Dars-i-Nizami, on the other hand, emphasized the maqulat(rational sciences). Thus there were more books on grammar, logic and philosophy than before. The significance of the enhanced emphasis on ma’qulat in the Dars-i-Nizamiyya lies in part in the superior training it offered prospective lawyers, judges and administrators. The study of advanced books of logic, philosophy and dialectics sharpened the rational faculties and, ideally, brought to the business of government men with better-trained minds and better-formed judgement.

The Dars-i-Nizami has been modified though the canonical texts are still there. These texts are used as a symbol of continuity and identity. The madrasas saw themselves as preservers of Islamic identity and heritage during the colonial era when secular studies displaced the Islamic texts as well as the classical languages of the Indian Muslims -Arabic and Persian- from their privileged pedestal. Thus the madrasas, despite the desire to reform their courses, did not give up the canonical texts.

The traditionalists believe that the aim of the madrassa is different from that of a modern school.The only way to pass judgement on the madrassas is to see how farthey have been able to achieve their own aims, such as inculcating piety, promoting religious knowledge, control over the base self (tahzib-i nafs) and service of others. Therefore, no suggestion for reform of the syllabus which goes against these aims is acceptable.

They fear that the introduction of modern disciplines in the madrassa curriculum might lead to a creeping secularisation of the institution as such, as well as tempting their students away from the path of religion and enticing them towards the snares of the world. Proposals for reform of the madrassas by incorporating modern subjects are sometimes seen as hidden ploys or even as grand conspiracies to dilute the religious character of the madrassas. Religion is here understood as a distinct sphere, neatly set apart from other spheres of life.

This is readily apparent in the writings of many ulama. Take, for instance, the following statement of Ashraf Ali Thanwi, a leading early 20thcentury Deobandi alim:“It is, in fact, a source of great pride for the religious madrassas not to impart any secular (duniyavi) education at all. For if this is done, the religious character of these madrassas would inevitably be grievously harmed. Some people say that madrassas should teach their students additional subjects that would help them earn a livelihood, but this is not the aim of the madrassa at all. The madrassa is actually meant for those who are passionate about their concern for the hereafter(jinko fikr-i akhirat ne divana kar diya hai)”.

In those parts of the Muslim world,and in some minority countries wheremadrassas function in parallel to a secular education system, madrassa education is generally viewed as an inferior alternative to secular education or as the choice of the underprivileged, consequently,sons who display the least visible scholarlypotential are sent off at an early age to pursue full time religious learning with the choice of hifz(memorization of the Qur’an)or Islamic studies and more often than not,the former as a precursor to the latter. The quality of the raw material notwithstanding,many of these institutions have succeeded in producing some ofthe most outstanding scholars of Muslim traditional learning.

However, divorced from their environment and ignorant of contemporary issues,they are hardly able to interpret Islam in a manner that would make sense to those who remained behind to pursue secular learning. While the ones who confinedtheir pursuit to the memorization of the Qur’an do not really have any claim to religious leadership.They are nevertheless embraced as part of the ulama fraternity – thescholarly managers of the sacred in societies that place a high value onlearning and intellectual competence. It is hard to imagine that several years spent memorizing a book without any understanding of its contents can catapult one into socio-religious leadership.

Reformists insist that knowledge in Islam is one whole, and that the division between dini (religious) and duniyavi (worldly) knowledge, with the two opposed to each other, which many contemporary ulema seem to have accepted, has no sanction in the Quran. The very first revelation to the Prophet (PBUH), “Read, in the name of your Lord,” and the numerous hadith stressing the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper and the martyr are said to indicate the great emphasis Islam gives to the acquisition of knowledge.

The Quran is quoted as repeatedly exhorting the believers to ponder the mysteries of creation as signs of the power and mercy of God. Knowledge of the creation is said to be the means for acquiring knowledge of God. Thus, far from leading to doubt and disbelief, scientific investigation, if conducted within properly defined Islamic bounds, can deepens one’s faith and is, in fact, commanded so by the God.

Reformists argue that since Islam is all embracing in its scope – providingguidance not only for worship and devotion but also rules for collective existence, ranging from personal affairs to matters of the state – Muslimsmust acquire knowledge of all aspects of the duniya, in addition to that of the shari’a. Since Islam is God’s chosen religion and is valid for all times, the ulema must remainabreast with changing developments in the world to be able to express Islam anew in response to changing conditions.