Why madrassas need to reinvented

Contrary to deeply rooted stereotypes, madrassa students are not all die-hard conservatives, vehemently opposed to change and reform. In India today, many younger generation madrassa graduates, especially those who have gone on to receive higher education in regular universities, are ardent advocates of reforms in the madrassas. Unfortunately, their voices do not get the attention they so sorely deserve.

In this interview, Naseem ur-Rahman, a young graduate of the Jami’at ul-Falah Madrassa in Azamgarh, eastern UP, and currently a doctoral student at the department of Islamic Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, speaks to Yoginder Sikand about his vision for the madrassas.


Q: Can you briefly describe your educational background and career?

A: I was born and brought up in a village in Madhubani, Bihar. As a child, I was sent to the village madrassa, where I memorised the entire Koran. After that, in 1985, when I was around thirteen, my parents sent me to the Jami’at ul-Falah Madrassa in Azamgarh. This madrassa is associated with the Jama’at-i-Islami Hind, and, in contrast to most other madrassas in India, it provides both religious as well as secular education.

After finishing the ‘alimiyat course there I came to Delhi, where I did a B.A. and then an M.A. in Islamic Studies at the Jamia Millia. Currently, I am registered as a doctoral candidate at the Jamia’s Islamic Studies department. For my thesis I am working on a comparative study of the views on religious and social reform of Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy. Alongside my studies, I am working in the editorial department of a leading Muslim publishing house in Delhi, the Markazi Maktaba Islami.

Q: What made you choose this particular topic for your Ph.D. thesis?

A: Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy played a central role in promoting modern education in India, the former among Muslims and the latter among Hindus. They shared much in common, such as their insistence that their communities could not prosper if they did not take to the new forms of education, especially science and the English language, that had been introduced by the British. Both were also ardent advocates of social and religious reform. Interestingly, both were also patronised by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Rammohun received his early education in a madrassa in Bengal, where he learnt Arabic and Farsi. His first book, Tuhfat al-Muwahidin (‘The Gift of the Monotheists’) was written in Persian. Recognising his great contribution, Bahadur Shah Zafar bestowed on him the title of ‘Raja’ or prince. Likewise, Sir Sayyed was given the title of ‘Jawad ud-Daulah’ by Bahadur Shah Zafar.

While much has been written on Sir Sayyed and Raja Rammohun, to my mind no comparative study of the two has been made as yet. This is what I am trying to do in my thesis. I want to look at why the Bengali Hindu elites largely welcomed Raja Rammohun’s educational initiatives, despite significant opposition from conservative priests, but Sir Sayyed did not meet with the same degree of success, as a result of which the Muslims began to lag far behind the ‘upper’ caste Hindus in the field of education.


Q: Having studied at both a madrassa and a regular university, how do you look at the madrassa system of education?

A: Madrassas are meant to train a class of religious scholars or ulema who can interpret and preach Islam. Now, it is for the community to decide how far the madrassas in the country, which number in the thousands, are actually achieving this. As I see it, in order for the ulema to provide proper guidance to the community, they must know about what is happening in the world outside the four walls of their madrassas. I don’t think this is quite the case with many, if not most, madrassas.

In many madrassas, the teachers and managers forbid their students to even read books and magazines published by other Muslim groups, let alone by non-Muslims. Naturally, this works to greatly narrow their vision and severely limit their understanding of the rapidly changing world around them. In turn, this only makes them appear as awkward aliens once they graduate from the madrassas and are forced to confront the outside world.

In the madrassas, teachers constantly tell their students that they are being groomed to become leaders of the community, arguing that the right to leadership rests with them. Imagine the shock these students receive once they finish their studies and suddenly discover that no one wants to accept their leadership claims and, even worse, when they realise that they are regarded as irrelevant as they cannot relate to the wider society.

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2004 Year 11    No.101, Education


Q: What exactly do you mean when you claim that madrassa graduates find it difficult to relate to the world around them?

A: By this I mean that, by and large, and with some significant exceptions, madrassa graduates are ignorant of the problems of the real world. Hence, they come up with completely unrealistic solutions to the problems of the community. This owes, in great measure, to the sort of education that they receive in the madrassas, where they learn next to nothing about the realities of the present world. Another reason why madrassa graduates are seen as irrelevant by many is that very few of them can speak English, which is today indispensable if you want to understand global and national developments and also if you want to relate to others and communicate your views to them. Since few madrassa students speak English, they often suffer from a sense of inferiority, which then adds to their frustration at not being recognised as leaders, contrary to what they are told in the madrassas.

Because of the sort of education they receive in the madrassas, most madrassa graduates, who largely come from poor families, end up accepting any sort of grossly underpaid employment. As madrassa teachers they are dependent on madrassa managers; as Imams in mosques they depend on the goodwill of the mosque mutawallis. They cannot assert themselves for fear of losing their jobs. So, barring some exceptions, madrassa graduates who were taught that they would become leaders of the community after leaving the madrassas are really leading very vulnerable lives.


Q: What sort of reforms would you like to see introduced in the madrassas in order to make them more effective?

A: Before any practical steps are taken to reform the madrassas, I think we need to be clear, and to spell out, what precisely the rationale of the madrassa system is. If it is to train ulema, we need to be clear as to what sort of education the ulema need. I think that madrassas must also incorporate social science education, so that the students can relate what they learn in the classroom to the outside world. In formulating proposals for reform we must also take into account the employment possibilities of madrassa graduates, something that has not been seriously considered so far.

I think it is essential to challenge this deeply rooted but completely un-Islamic notion of a radical division, indeed opposition, between ‘religious’ (deeni) and ‘worldly’ (duniyavi) education. By making this distinction, in practice if not in theory, many ulema have actually contributed to Muslim educational backwardness, by arguing that madrassas need not teach what they describe as ‘worldly’ subjects.

Contrast this with Sir Sayyed’s opinion, which I firmly endorse, that Islam and the confirmed facts of science are not incompatible, and that Muslims, in order to be faithful to their religion, must combine both forms of knowledge.
In addition to teaching modern science, madrassas must also introduce English. In the British period, some ulema feared that teaching English would lead Muslims to abandon their faith and convert to Christianity. The situation has drastically changed today, however. For the task of tabligh, or communicating the message of Islam to others, they must know English as well as local languages, without which how can they communicate with other people? Madrassas must also make proper arrangements for some sort of vocational training for their students so that they can go on to be self-sufficient instead of becoming a burden on society. Some madrassas have started such training programmes, for instance, for computer applications, translation, journalism and so on, and I think this needs to be greatly expanded.


Q: Advocates of reform in the madrassa curriculum place great stress on the teaching of the natural sciences, seeing this as central to the reform project. How do you see this argument?

A: I am, of course, not averse to the teaching of the natural sciences, but I think we must adopt a realistic stance in this regard. Madrassa graduates are not intended to become scientists or mathematicians. Rather, they are expected to be religious leaders or community activists. Hence, I think introducing modern social or human sciences (‘ulum al-insani) is much more necessary than teaching physics, biology or chemistry in the madrassas. By human sciences I mean subjects like anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, history, political science and so on.

These are subjects that madrassa students would find useful in their future roles as religious leaders. On the other hand, there is no need to provide the students with any detailed teaching of the natural sciences, and if one were to do so the burden on the students would be so great that they would do well neither in the traditional subjects nor in the natural sciences.

I also think that madrassas need to arrange for their students to learn about other religions as well. India is a religiously plural society and so it is imperative that madrassa students know about the other faiths that are followed in our country. Only then can they interact with people of other faiths. Only then can they work for inter-faith dialogue, free from polemics. Even simply in order to tell others about Islam, which the ulema see as one of their principal duties, you have to know about the beliefs, traditions and histories of other communities, but this is almost totally absent in the Indian madrassas today.


Q: What do you feel about the subjects that are included in the present madrassa curriculum? To what extent do you feel they are in need of change or reform?

A: Since madrassas are Islamic schools, the Koran and the Hadith must form the central core of the syllabus. However, many madrassas place an inordinate stress on the nitty-gritty of fiqh, or jurisprudence. I am not saying that fiqh is not important, but my point is that much of what the madrassas teach in fiqh is simply irrelevant and outdated.

For instance, the old fiqh books that continue to be used in most madrassas discuss in great detail such issues as: What should you do to purify a well if a cat or lizard falls inside it? How much water should you remove from the well in order to restore its purity? Is it legal to eat a bird that has been shot while flying? And so on. Now, these issues, many of which are purely hypothetical, are not really such pressing questions that madrassa students should have to spend weeks upon weeks studying and thinking about them.

I think madrassas must radically reform the fiqh component of their curriculum, and in place of these outdated things should teach their students about fiqh perspectives on issues of contemporary concern, from organ transplants and cloning to insurance and banking. Almost no madrassa in India arranges for these issues to be taught to its students. Although there are a number of books on fiqh issues of contemporary relevance (jadid fiqhi masa’il), these are not taught in the madrassas as part of the classroom curriculum.

One reason is that many teachers are simply not aware of these issues themselves. Likewise, in many cases the ulema and managers of madrassas who frame their curriculum just don’t think about this, as if all the wisdom of the world were contained in the medieval books of fiqh!

In addition to reforming the fiqh syllabus, madrassas also need to reform their methods of teaching Arabic. They should adapt and adopt new teaching techniques, instead of insisting on rote learning of the rules of grammar. The old methods may have served their purpose in the past, but today they are outdated in many respects. Because of this, most madrassa graduates are unable to speak proper Arabic despite spending many years supposedly mastering it.

All these reforms are necessary for their own sake, but equally, in order to expand the employment possibilities for the students. In turn, all this is essential for madrassa graduates to gain self-respect and the respect of others, without which they cannot be expected to play a more meaningful role in society at large.

Q: What roles would you envisage for the new sort of ulema that you wish to see emerge from the madrassas?

A: As I said earlier, the ulema envisage themselves as ‘leaders’ of the community, and constantly tell their students that they, too, are destined to lead the community, if not the whole wide world! I think there should be a drastic change of priorities and perceptions here. Instead of imagining themselves as ‘leaders’ (makhdum), they must think of themselves as ‘servers’ (khadim), for their role is to serve Islam and to guide, in a spirit of humility, the community, as well as to serve the whole of humanity, irrespective of religion.

In this regard, organised social work is really a vital task, which madrassas must incorporate into their curriculum. As I see it, serving humanity, not simply through preaching but through practical action, is one aspect of the social dimension of tauhid (monotheism), which is the central tenet of Islam. This, however, is not given much stress in the madrassa system.

I think there is a lot that the ulema could learn from the Catholics in this regard. In contrast to the madrassas, Catholic seminaries teach religious as well as what are called ‘worldly’ subjects to their students. After a long course that lasts several years, Catholic seminary students then go on to specialise in any one field, which could be theology, or law, medicine, social work, economics, other religions and languages or whatever. So once they finish their course they have a solid grounding in their religion as well as in a particular subject or field, on which they build their career. In this way they can provide proper guidance to their community as well as serve humanity at large. Because of this they can earn the respect of people and are able to communicate with others, free of the sort of debilitating sense of inferiority and incapacity that is so characteristic of many of our ulema.

Q: You just mentioned that while Catholic priests are encouraged to be socially engaged, this is not the case with the ulema. How do you think the ulema could be made to be more sensitive to, as well as engaged with, society at large?

A: Many Catholic seminaries insist that their students should do some sort of social work or even work as social activists. This is quite in contrast to the madrassas, where students are sought to be carefully insulated from the wider society and the problems that afflict it. I strongly feel this must change. I don’t think any madrassa in India incorporates organised social work or social activism in its curriculum.

This is really unfortunate, in view of the magnitude of the poverty, illiteracy and other social problems of the Muslims in India in general. Given the great stress that Islam lays on helping the poor and the needy, irrespective of religion, madrassa students should be active in social work. Madrassas should have facilities to train their students in modern methods of social work. I don’t think any madrassa in the country makes any such arrangement, however.

But this is not all. Since Islam addresses itself to the whole of humanity, Muslims, particularly the ulema, must work for the needy among all communities, and not just the Muslims alone. This, however, is hardly happening. Our love and concern should not be limited to Muslims alone. In our social engagement we need to be as concerned about our duties to others, to the country and to humanity as a whole, as we are of our rights. It is completely hypocritical to keep harping on our rights while not living up to our responsibilities. We should stop this habit of complaining only when Muslim rights are trampled upon, but remaining silent when others suffer, whether at the hands of Muslims or non-Muslims.

Of course, by this I don’t mean that we should not demand our rights. As citizens, we deserve the same rights as others, but we should struggle for our rights in a proper manner. And this must be constantly balanced by living up to our responsibilities as well.

So, as I was saying, no madrassa trains its students in any sort of organised social work. Many ulema think that training their students in the fine art of fiery debate, particularly against other Muslim sects, is the only form of social work that they should be engaged in. This, to my mind, is completely misplaced. The age of polemics is now long past, and we should be thinking seriously about dialogue instead, both inter-sectarian dialogue among Muslims as well as dialogue between Muslims and others. However, hardly any madrassas and ulema are actually doing anything about this. Their heated polemics only serve to further solidify intra-Muslim sectarian differences and conflicts, and to further increase the gulf between Muslims and others. This, in turn, is related to simple greed for power and pelf.

Even from the point of view of tabligh or missionary work, this is simply counterproductive. How can you expect people of other faiths to listen to you if you do not respect them or relate to them in a spirit of love and friendship? For that you need dialogue and harmony, not strife. Likewise, intra-Muslim differences that are fanned by ulema associated with rival sects and their madrassas leads to a tremendous waste of resources and energies, which could otherwise be channelled to help the Muslim community at large, particularly the poor.

So, I would say, rather than enable or encourage the madrassa students to be socially engaged and to work for the needy, the madrassa system as it exists today works to actually further solidify structures of dependence in society. Most of the madrassa students come from poor families and often they are made to feel that they live off the donations of others in the form of zakat and sadqat. Sometimes, if a student misbehaves the managers of the madrassa threaten to ban him from eating in the madrassa mess!

Now, this sort of patronising attitude only further encourages a feeling of dependence and inferiority among the students. In such a situation, how can one expect these poor students to be actively involved in working for others, when they themselves are so vulnerably placed?


Q: How do you think madrassas should relate to people of other communities?

A: Madrassas have sought to keep themselves carefully insulated or cut off from the wider society, particularly from people of other communities. However, since India is a plural society where Muslims are a relatively small minority, this sort of attitude is not healthy. Even from the strictly Islamic point of view I do not think this is quite appropriate. I think here, too, we could learn from the Catholic example.

Catholic priests work closely with non-Catholics in diverse fields such as legal activism, education, social work and so on, and in this way are able to relate to them in a spirit of mutual love and acceptance.

Further, in this way they are able to exchange views, including about religion, with others and work with them on a variety of issues of common concern. This is precisely what the ulema should be doing. I don’t think this would constitute a totally new innovation for the Muslims. After all, in the Sufi lodges (khanqahs) in medieval times, people of different castes and communities would come together. The Sufis drew them to their lodges with their message of love for all. That is why even today Hindus outnumber Muslims as devotees in many Sufi shrines in the country. The underlying message is that we all need to appreciate the good things that we find in others.
The Sufis in medieval times travelled far and wide and many of them settled in areas where there was hardly any Muslim presence. They did not think that living amidst non-Muslims would threaten their faith because their faith was firm. Because of their endeavours and firm commitment, they made numerous disciples. In fact, the spread of Islam in India owes principally to the work of the Sufis. In the face of this, I think that those who argue that if madrassa students were to interact with people of other faiths or learn about their religions they would abandon Islam are quite wrong. Do they mean to say that the faith of the students is so weak that they can be led astray so easily? If this indeed happens it would only reflect on the fact that the madrassas have failed in properly training their students and inculcating a firm faith in them.


Q: At the crux of the problem seems to be the question of accountability and answerability. How does one ensure that the madrassas actually fulfil their stated objectives?

A: Today, most madrassas are autonomous institutions, run by their own management committees. They solicit vast amounts of money from the Muslim community but there is no system of monitoring by the community of how these funds are used. Here I refer not only to the possibility of financial corruption but also to the efficiency of the madrassas. Because there is no such evaluation mechanism, we have absolutely no idea of what sort of jobs the thousands of madrassa graduates that are churned out every year eventually take up. We have no data on whether or not these students are doing anything creative or useful for society. We have not the faintest idea if the vast sums of money that the impoverished Muslim community spends on the madrassas every year is really worth it, in terms of producing leading scholars or social activists or whatever. That sort of data simply does not exist.

So, what I am arguing for is a sort of mechanism, perhaps a central board or team for each Muslim sect that can monitor and evaluate the functioning of the madrassas. This is crucial in order to make the madrassas accountable to the community, which, because it provides the madrassas with the resources that they need to survive, has the right to know precisely how its money is being spent.

Q: What do you feel about the propaganda about madrassas having emerged as ‘dens of terrorism’?

A: I can speak here only about the Indian case. As far as the Indian madrassas are concerned, there is not a single madrassa that is providing any sort of terrorist training to its students. If you examine the police records I am sure you will find hardly any madrassa students who have been booked as criminals. In actual fact, madrassas teach their students to love their country, to be faithful and responsible citizens of India. Given this, I think this baseless anti-madrassa propaganda is really tragic. Numerous ulema connected with the Deoband madrassa were in the forefront of India’s freedom struggle. They championed a united India and opposed the partition of the country. Compare this with the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, who, as the historical records show, worked to assist, rather than resist, British imperialism.

I think the propaganda against madrassas as ‘dens of terror’ is simply politically motivated, in order to give Muslims a bad name. If the government had any evidence of madrassas promoting terrorism, how is it that it has, till date, been unable to name even one specific madrassa as being engaged in such work? I think the government should come out and explicitly state that the anti-madrassa propaganda is baseless. It must sternly punish those who are bent on spreading this disinformation.

(Naseem ur-Rahman can be contacted on n_majeedi@rediffmail.com).