Madrasa students need to understand the world in which we live: Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqui

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Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqui is a leading Indian Islamic scholar, whose specialisation is Islamic Economics. Recipient of the King Faisal Award for Islamic Studies, he has taught at the Aligarh Muslim University and the King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah. He was a Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles and Visting Scholar at the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah. He served for sixteen years as member of the central committee of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind. He is the author of numerous books, including a recent one on madrasas. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about various issues related to madrasas in contemporary South Asia.

Q: Briefly, can you describe your educational and professional background?

A: I was born in 1931 in Gorakhpur, in what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh. I studied there till the ninth standard. It was then that I happened to read some books by Maulana Maududi, which made me decide to change my line of studies. I procured the syllabus of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, thinking that I might go there for higher education, but it did not satisfy me . Meanwhile, the Jamaat-e Islami had, following the Partition, shifted its headquarters to Malihabad, near Lucknow . After my eleventh grade examinations, I went there and met senior Jamaat leaders, including then then amir, Maulana Abul Lais Nadwi. I told him that I wanted to discontinue my studies and devote myself to the work of the Jamaat .He asked me to wait till the jamaat was in a position to make some arrangements.

I followed Maulana Sahib’s advice. I finished my twelfth grade in science from the Islamia College, Gorakhpur. Thereafter, I joined the Jamaat’s Thanavi Darsgah-e Islami in Rampur. This was in 1949, and I was among the first batch of this school’s students. I stayed there for four years, studying Islamic Studies and Arabic, after which I joined the Aligarh Muslim University to study Arabic, English and Economics. I graduated in 1958, then did my M.A. and then my Ph.D. from Aligarh in 1966. I then taught Economics at the AMU, later shifting to King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, where I served as Professor of Economics. In between I also served as Professor and head at the Department of Islamic Studies at AMU.

Q: Most of your writings are about Islamic Economics, but you have recently done a book on Madrasa Education, in which you have put forward a plan for reforms. Here you’ve argued for madrasas to also teach a modicum of ‘secular’ subjects. Why do you feel this is important?

A: I think this is necessary so that the madrasa students, as would-be ulema, can provide appropriate responses to the manifold challenges that Muslims are today faced with. They need to understand the world in which we live in order to make suitable responses to challenges. Modern sciences, especially social sciences, are crucial in this respect. No proper understanding of self, society and environment can come from exclusive reliance on old knowledge. Some ulema, who may be in a minority but whose voices are undoubtedly influential, continue to argue against the inclusion of ‘secular’ subjects in the madrasa curriculum. Their argument is that if madrasa students are taught these subjects, in addition to the traditional subjects, the burden on the students would simply be too much for them to bear. Consequently, they claim, the students would be good neither for ‘this world’ (duniya) nor the hereafter (akhirat).

I think this argument is superficial, and it needs to be contested. How can you be considered educated, even in Islamic terms, if you do not know even such basic things as which side of the body the appendix lies on, how many lungs a human being has or what bacteria, that cause various diseases, are? So, modern (asri) knowledge starts from here, from knowledge of oneself, and then stretches beyond, to areas covered by various disciplines such as Geography, Economics and so on and then their various specialised branches. Obviously, it is not necessary for madrasa students to be taught these subjects in depth, but certainly they should be at least familiar with their basic concepts. The Quran repeatedly stresses the need for us to ponder on the beauties of creation, which are signs of God’s existence and His power and mercy. Obviously, therefore, Islam positively encourages the acquisition of such knowledge.

So, to come back to the question of whether teaching the basics of some of these ‘secular’ subjects in the madrasas would be feasible, I unhesitatingly say it is. For this, the madrasas will have to compress their existing syllabus. When I was studying at the Thanavi Darsgah in Rampur, I discovered that more than 80 per cent of the syllabus of Fiqh, Muslim jurisprudence, and Hadith, Traditions attributed to the Prophet, was the same. The Hadith course started with teaching the books of Ritual Purity, Fasting, Prayer and so on, and this was the same in the case of the Fiqh course. So, this sort of repetition can be cut down drastically, which would then give enough time for students to study basic ‘secular’ subjects without burdening them.

Q: A major focus of the existing madrasa syllabus is on Fiqh. In many madrasas, the medieval fiqh texts, prepared in a very different historical context, continue to be taught. What changes would you advise in this regard?

A: Unfortunately, fiqh is taught in most madrasas as something timeless and changeless, although it is largely a historical product. So, it is as if the same Fiqhi or jurisprudential responses are applicable for all time, leaving no room for ijtihad or creative juridical responses based on individual reasoning and reflection on the primary scriptural sources of Islam. Of course, the rules for prayers, ablutions, pilgrimage and so on do not change but surely those related to several other spheres of life which the medieval jurists have pronounced on, based on their own ijtihad, might need to be modified in order to serve their original purpose in a changed social context.

This is why I think History needs to be taught in madrasas, so that students can gain an understanding of social dynamics and how that impacts on our understanding of religion. By History, I don’t mean just a chronicle about rulers, as it is generally presented in our textbooks. Besides political history, the history of ruling elites, we need to also focus on social, economic and cultural history, the history of ‘ordinary’ people also. And not just what is conceived of as Islamic History but World History and Indian History, too. And then, we must try to see history as objectively as possible, also looking at the dark spots of our history as well. There’s no use trying to sweep that under the carpet, as many of us try to. A proper understanding of history will provide madrasa students with an understanding of social change, enabling them to understand the need for ijtihad to reflect on current social issues, rather than remain stuck in the groove of the medieval jurists. They will then learn to appreciate how conditions have changed so considerably after the age of the classical Imams that many of their legal prescriptions, based on their own ijtihad, are not relevant today and need to be re-thought, and that it is impossible to strictly abide by them today in the name of taqlid.

There has to be this realization that today, in many cases, taqlid can lead to considerable taklif or hardship and is thus not feasible. To cite a small example, the medieval fuqaha or jurisprudents insist that a woman should never travel alone, without a mehram man. Some years ago a man approached an alim and asked him if his wife could travel by air alone from Jeddah to Riyadh, a very short journey, provided that she were dropped off at the Jeddah airport by him and received by her brother in Riyadh. The alim, who insisted on taqlid of what the medieval jurists had ordered, insisted that this was not permissible!

Or take this other case. When currency notes began being circulated, some ulema argued that zakat need not be paid on them because, they pointed out, they are simply a promise to pay the bearer a certain sum and not tangible assets themselves, on which zakat could be levied. This they argued based on their strict adherence to taqlid, but obviously it defeated the very purpose of zakat, which later forced these ulema to revise their position.

So, you can see how this adherence to taqlid and an unhistorical approach to the medieval fiqh schools, which is often stressed in the madrasas, can lead to considerable problems today, when the social context has changed radically. What eventually happens because of this stern insistence on taqlid in many cases is that people simply do not follow what the ulema say, finding it too difficult or inconvenient, or else approach an alim of a different school of thought for a more convenient answer.

Obviously, in many cases, strict adherence to taqlid can lead to a violation of the aims of the shariah (maqasid-e shariah). Hence, there is an urgent need for madrasas to also begin to teach maqasid-e shariah as a separate discipline in order to encourage ijtihad on a host of issues. Presently, however, this subject is largely ignored, although recently some publications have appeared on the subject, and the Islamic Fiqh Academy in New Delhi is seeking to popularize it among ulema circles.

Q: Do you think that making the maqasid-e shariah the focus of teaching fiqh could lead to reformulation of several fiqh rules, conceived in medieval times, that might militate against the basic shariah mandate of equality and justice, such as, for instance, in matters concerning women and non-Muslims?

A: Certainly. No sphere of life, other than the ritual observances, can remain immune. Obviously, in many cases, fiqh rules must change as contexts change if the aims of the shariah are to be observed. Blind adherence to the rules of medieval fiqh on a number of issues can otherwise lead to subverting the very aims of the shariah. So, for this, the text would have to be read in its context to discover its underlying meaning and purpose, and new rules need to be formulated that would serve the same purpose in today’s very different social context.

Q: How far have madrasas been able to go beyond the medieval fiqh texts and also include issues (masail) of contemporary import in their fiqh curriculum?

A: There has been some progress in this regard, although this has been very limited. Most madrasas keep repeating the same old fiqhi masail, ignoring contemporary concerns and questions. Fatima Mernissi, the noted Moroccan sociologist, mentions a very apt instance in this regard. She writes that in a noted madrasa in Tunisia, students were taught about the various types of water that could be used for ablutions (wazu). At the end of the class, a student got up and pointed out that the teacher had mentioned so many different sources of water, but asked why he had not mentioned water that comes out of a tap! The teacher turned red in the face and scolded him, saying that he was teaching from a very reliable book, written in medieval times, which did not mention taps! So, the teacher’s whole life was spent in reading such books, because of which he was unable to answer even this basic question asked by the student if tap water could be used for ablutions!

Q: You argue for the need for encouraging ijtihad, but that requires an environment of critical thinking. Would you say that the ethos in the madrasas is conducive to this?

A: With some exceptions, I would say no. Most madrasas do not encourage their students to ask teachers questions or to critically think for themselves. When I was teaching at the Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia, I was asked to be the co-examiner of a thesis prepared by a Sudanese student on labour relations in Islam. In the context of offering a solution to labour dispute, the student had written: ‘I propose this…’. No sooner had he said this than the senior examiner pounced on him and scolded him, saying, ‘How dare you propose anything? Your work is simply to transmit what has been written by the ulema of the past, not to propose anything new on your own!’.

Now, look at the contrast. I recently visited the King Fahd Chair of Islamic Commercial Law at Harvard University in America. I had a look at the course outline, and was delighted to discover that the professor had asked his students to collect the views of the different schools of Muslim jurisprudence on a range of issues and then decide for themselves which views were more in accordance with their own understanding of the Quran and the Prophet’s Tradition. This is a way to encourage students to think critically for themselves, rather than being spoon-fed in an authoritarian manner.

This culture of examining, pondering for oneself, asking questions and critically examining whatever is passed down in the name of medieval tradition is heavily discouraged in our madrasas. Sometimes, so stern is this opposition that those who question what a certain maulvi says can be easily branded and condemned as a kafir, even if he might use perfectly valid Islamic arguments to back his case. So, when we talk of madrasa reforms, we should not simply advocate the inclusion of a few ‘modern’ subjects like social and natural sciences, but also reform of our ways of teaching and thinking, encouraging the students to reflect on changing social realities and what this means for how fiqh is formulated and understood. There is no need to think within the established box of the established schools of medieval fiqh if they don’t provide proper guidance to a range of issues that we are faced with today.

Q: So, are you then saying that the scripturalist resources need to be contextually understood in order to gauge their import in today’s circumstances?

A: Exactly. They need to be located in their social and historical contexts in order to understand their essence. Meaningful ijtihad can only happen then, or else we’ll be sticking to the letter and ignoring its substance or essence. Take one instance. The Prophet, when in Medina, forbade price fixing, saying that God would arrange for this. This was in order to prevent people from being exploited. But 150 years later, when the Islamic Empire came into being, Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, had a population of almost a million. In order to relieve people of suffering due to short supplies of wheat, the ulema agreed that the Sultan could indeed fix the price of wheat. So, although what they decided might seem, on the face of it, to have contravened the Prophet’s dictum, it was done to serve precisely the same purpose of the shariah—ensuring justice.

Q: How far do you think the Indian ulema have actually gone in accepting this need for ijtihad to suit the conditions of contemporary times?

A: Many ulema continue to argue that the age of ijtihad came to an end with the establishment of the established schools of Muslim jurisprudence, although, of course, I do not agree. This opposition to ijtihad perhaps emerged from the fear that rulers would begin to interfere in the domain of the shariah to suit their own purposes. Eighty years ago, the poet-scholar Muhammad Iqbal boldly called for what he called the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, but this is yet to happen in ulema circles to any appreciable extent. Perhaps this is because of general apathy. Another reason is that most Muslim countries are ruled by dictators, and naturally they do not want any radical change, which ijtihad would encourage, and their own vested interests lie in the preservation of the status quo.

Reviving ijtihad would also necessitate familiarizing the ulema with the actual empirical conditions of the Muslims, the country and the global scenario as a whole, issues that are hardly taught in the madrasas. We need to think of setting up research institutions to do this sort of social science research, using the findings to formulate appropriate juridical and theological responses to new issues, if need be. Only then can the ulema provide relevant and proper guidance to the community. Unfortunately, there are no such social science research centres worth the name run by Muslims in India. Such institutions are also needed to fund research scholars to do proper research and publish books to counter growing anti-Muslim propaganda. But the idea of this sort of investment remains totally foreign to our leaders, unfortunately. There is simply no vision of this sort. They fancifully think that simply by issuing some statements or delivering an impassioned sermon these issues can be sorted out.

In other words, what I wish to argue is that the normative discourse about Islam emanating from the madrasas is not enough. It has to be supplemented by in-depth social science research. Then, bringing theory and praxis together, one can come up with relevant understandings and interpretations of religion. Studying texts alone is not adequate. That has to be supplemented with reading life, reading about and understanding how people lead their lives, what their existing social problems are. This, unfortunately, is sorely missing in most madrasas.

You cannot change the conditions of the community by simply preaching, appealing to people to abide by a certain normative model, as most of our ulema do. After some time, most people will react simply by paying lip service to what is preached. The appeal to the normative has to be supplemented by practical action, for which you have to know what the existing ground realities of the community are. Sad to say, there is no tradition of empirical social science research in the madrasas, that still remain trapped in a purely normative discursive framework.

Q: Some ulema argue that demands for reform in the madrasa system are a guise to promote the interests of what they see as anti-Islamic forces, such as the American establishment. How do you react to this argument?

A: America’s assault on Iraq and Afghanistan have led many to feel this way. They also see the pressure that the American government is exercising on a number of Muslim countries to modify their religious studies’ curriculum in the name of ‘reform’ but actually to combat opposition to America. But, then, throughout history, it has been very difficult for one society to properly appreciate the other. We today live in a globalised world but we have not been able to change our ways suitably to understand the ‘other’—this applies to Muslim-Hindu relations as much as it does to relations between Muslims and the ‘West’. So, I would argue for the pressing need for genuine dialogue between Muslims and others on all the issues that are seen as contentious between them. And, frankly, madrasas will be able to effectively counter the mounting vilification campaign against them only if they introduce necessary changes, such as which I, and many other Muslims who work along with the ulema, have suggested. They should learn to introspect and do away with their own shortcomings.

I think the best way to convince the ulema about the need for the reforms that I, and several others, hav e been calling for is to convince them that this is necessary for producing good Muslim scholars, that this is precisely what Islam wants, that the ulema cannot guide Muslim society without a basic knowledge of a range of contemporary disciplines that are presently not taught in the madrasas. You need to convince them that this is an Islamic task, and not that ‘modernity’ is something that they are being sought to be compelled to embrace against their will.


Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqui can be contacted on [email protected]

Several of his articles can be accessed on