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Madrasas: Reforms a Must

  by: : By Ghitreef Shahbaz Nadwi (Translated by

A proper system of education is indispensible for every community. Muslim societies have had a long and glorious tradition of education. Islamic centres of learning served as power houses of the community. The madrasas of South Asia are part of this historical tradition, and many of them came into existence to defend Islam. In reality, not only are these institutions a part of our glorious historical legacy, they also play the role of large community NGOs, to use a modern term. In the past, madrasas served important social functions, producing judges, lawyers, commanders, litterateurs, historians, religious scholars and preachers. However, British rule completely undermined this system, and due to external attacks and internal weaknesses, the madrasa system began rapidly to lose its relevance in terms of the objectives it was devised to serve. Muslim religious leaders now began to turn a blind eye to the developments unfolding in the world around them. They ignored the rapid changes occurring in the political, economic and intellectual fields. Instead of working to reform their institutions from within, they considered that other communities or external forces were the root cause for their problems and their decline. Consequently, even today the same educational policies that the ulema of the British colonial era devised continue intact, with all their limitations, and, unfortunately, these inheritors of the legacy of their elders continue to refuse to accept the need for any changes therein.

I am not a victim of any madrasa-phobia and nor do I deny the services of the madrasas and the positive contributions that they have made. On the contrary, I recognise that madrasas play an important role in promoting religious awareness and social reform among Muslims, and that they produce religious specialists who can provide religious guidance to people and who staff religious organisations and institutions. Yet, while recognising this positive and constructive role of the madrasas, I still feel the urgent need for wide-ranging reforms within the madrasa system in accordance with the needs of the present times and also in order that madrasas can effectively fulfil their basic objectives. After all, among the objectives of the madrasas is to produce scholars and ulema who can answer and appropriately respond to contemporary challenges and work as missionaries and leaders who can explain religion in a contemporary idiom suitable to our present era of globalisation and dialogue. In my view, these basic objectives of the madrasas are not being properly addressed by them at present. Hence the need for far-ranging changes in the curriculum and system of madrasa education.

In India today, there are basically two types of madrasas (here I am referring specifically to Sunni madrasas, leaving out Shia madrasas from the discussion) that are not controlled by the state. Firstly, those that follow the traditional dars-e nizami system. These include the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, the Mazahir ul-Ulum, Saharanpur, the Jamia Ashrafia, Azamgarh, and the smaller madrasas associated with these. Secondly, madrasas that do not follow the dars-e nizami pattern, such as the Dar ul-Ulum Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, the Jamia Salafia, Varanasi, the Madrasat ul-Islah, Sarai Mir, the Dar us-Salam, Oomerabad, the Jamiat ul-Huda, Jaipur, the Jamiat ul-Falah, Bilariyaganj, and smaller madrasas affiliated with them.

The first type of madrasas are very numerous. They have a longer history and also exercise a very great influence on the Muslim public. The sort of changes that these madrasas have undergone, both in terms of their curriculum as well as in their structure, has been peripheral, very limited and largely in name alone. This is insufficient to meet the demands of the times. This system has become, in many senses, outdated, and reforms are urgently called for in several respects. Interestingly, in the past, this dars-e nizami system was considerably dynamic in the past and did undergo major changes, but this, unfortunately, is not quite the case today.

In these madrasas, great stress continues to be given to ‘Greek’ logic and philosophy, the so-called ‘Greek rational sciences’, which deal with many issues that are no longer at all relevant and whose place has been taken over by modern philosophy and other disciplines. Likewise, considerable emphasis continues to be given to formulations of fiqh (jurisprudence), but in such a way as to present fiqh in an extremely static, unchanging and frozen manner, ignoring contemporary concerns and developments. Consequently, these madrasas remain stuck in the medieval jurisprudential (fiqhi) framework. No attention is paid to a comparative study of various schools of jurisprudence, and these madrasas are characterised by excessive and unwarranted narrow sectarianism. Another distressing issue is that too much time is spent on the rules and intricacies of Arabic grammar, ignoring the teaching of the language through the more effective and less time consuming direct method. Because of this, even students who spend eight years studying in madrasas cannot speak proper Arabic. Furthermore, Hindi and English, unfortunately, get very little attention.

Sadly, there is no proper arrangement for teaching modern subjects in these madrasas. Whatever is actually taught in these madrasas in the name of modern subjects amounts to nothing more than A,B,C,D. Despite this, it is worth noting that some of the leading ulema who had themselves studied the dars-e nizami course and were ranked among the leading ulema of the Deobandi school of thought exhorted and encouraged madrasa students to also study modern subjects. Thus, Maulana Qasim Nanotawi, the founder of the Deoband madrasa, is reported to have said that he wished he had learnt English so that he could use it to tell others about Islam and also to defend the faith from its detractors. Maulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri, another leading Deobandi scholar, studied modern philosophy and encouraged his students to do likewise. Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani, rector of the Deoband madrasa, was vehemently opposed to British colonialism, but yet stressed the need to study modern languages for purposes of telling others about Islam. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, another doyen of the Deobandi school of thought, believed that madrasa students must also have a general education till the Bachelor’s degree level.

As far as the second type of madrasas—those that do not follow the dars-e nizami system—are concerned, there is no uniformity among them in terms of curriculum. Instead, each big madrasa of this sort has its own educational policy and tradition, and while sharing some things in common, they differ considerably from each other in other respects. Though they claim to have borrowed good things from both the traditional and the modern systems of education in order to evolve a balanced approach, this, sadly, has been more in the nature of a slogan, limited to theory and hardly put into actual practice.

In terms of methods of teaching, both types of madrasas do not differ substantially from each other. Both are generally characterised by a standard approach which is based on specific texts and on the person of the teacher, while students are treated simply as mute listeners. The focus is on the actual content of texts specified in the curriculum, rather than on the disciplines that are meant to be learnt by the students. It is the teacher, rather than the student, who is at the centre of the system. In place of comprehension, great stress is given to memorisation of texts and lessons. The method of teaching Arabic grammar is extremely faulty. Students are made to memorise elaborate grammar rules, and little attention is paid to practical exercises. The books of Arabic grammar used in madrasas that follow the dars-e nizami are centuries old and are written in an extremely antiquated style. Teaching these texts and in the present fashion is greatly time consuming.

Because madrasas continue to ignore modern teaching methods, they make no arrangements to properly train their teachers. Consequently, teachers often lack expertise in the subjects they are appointed to teach, and students do not properly participate in the learning process. They are not taught to freely use their reason and to think on their own, while the Quran actually gives great stress to this—the word ‘aql’ (reason) occurs more than a hundred times in the Quran. The present system lacks a free atmosphere wherein students and teachers can discuss with each other in a healthy manner. Students are treated sternly, and are sometimes even given physical punishments, particularly those in maktabs, junior madrasa classes and departments for the memorising of the Quran. In selecting subjects to teach, no consideration is made of the students’ interest or natural inclinations. The environment in the madrasas is so insular and closed that it breeds ‘personality worship’ and ‘worship of the elders’. The students’ intellectual capacities are rendered completely frozen and they do not dare to differ with their teachers.

These are all very bitter truths, but they must be recounted because they have remained the same for over a hundred years and little has been done to address them. While much has been written about this, unfortunately in practical terms little has been achieved so far.

In the modern system of education, students are provided a basic common education till a certain level, and after this they go on to specialise in different fields depending on what subjects they are interested in. Because of this basic common education that they receive at the initial stage, doctors and engineers, for instance, despite their different areas of specialisation, are able to understand each other. However, madrasa-educated graduates are unable to communicate with secular educated people because they lack the basic common or secular education needed for this purpose. This is an issue that madrasas must seriously consider and address. The system of madrasa education as it presently is renders madrasa students completely cut off from the wider society, as a result of which they have no understanding of modern thought and contemporary intellectual developments in the world around them. The modern globalised world has no place for such people who want to live cut off from the rest of the world. This is an age of dialogue. But all this is not taught to the madrasa students. What they learn is related only to one aspect of society, and is not relevant to the rest. It is because of this that madrasa graduates cannot play an active and constructive role in society at large. It is in this context that madrasas urgently need to introspect and do away with their numerous shortcomings.

Presently, the system of madrasa education is such that there is no proper way of categorising the students according to different levels and capacities. Some students join the madrasas out of compulsion, and are dull and not particularly interested in their studies. Most of them fail to finish the course of studies and drop out mid way. Those who somehow manage to finish the course often take to other occupations after graduation and forget what they had learnt in the madrasas. On the other hand are bright and hardworking students who wish to complete the entire course of learning. Accordingly, madrasas should devise some system whereby from the very outset they can distinguish between both sorts of students. The former sort can, after receiving a basic education, be provided with some sort of technical or vocational education, while the others can continue with their course of studies in the madrasas. Unfortunately, there is no system like this in place, and hence both bright and dull students are made to study the same course till the final level. Further, there is the additional concern of economic problems that madrasa students face once they graduate and the fact that they cannot all be absorbed in appropriate positions. Because of this they resort to setting up new madrasas of their own, although the large number of madrasas across the country are quite adequate for the community’s needs. There is need to address this issue as well, so that by properly categorising various levels of madrasa education, precious economic resources can be saved and used wisely and the students’ capacities can be properly developed.

These levels can be categorised on the following lines:

At the first level, students would be provided with enough religious and secular education so as to enable them to lead a respectable life as Muslims in society. At this level, students would learn the basics of Arabic and other disciplines, and the curriculum can be developed with the help of experts.

At the second level, students would receive that amount of religious education so as to be able to provide guidance to people on issues of day-to-day concern. It is at this stage that a large number of students drop out of madrasas and leave their education half finished. Hence, they should be trained in such a way that even if they discontinue studying in the madrasas they would be able to study further on their own. At this level, intelligent, hardworking and serious students must be separated from the others so that they can later go on to receive higher madrasa education. At this level, too, technical or vocational education can be provided to the extent that resources permit, for which benefit should be taken of various government schemes.

At the third stage of madrasa education only those students who are serious about their studies should be taken, because to admit all and sundry will prove damaging. The selection process must be strict, and quality of the students should be preferred to their numbers. At this stage, students should be trained in the various religious disciplines so that they can directly access and benefit from the original sources. Alongside this, they must be made aware of modern disciplines and contemporary developments. After passing out of this stage of education, students can go on to join suitable departments in colleges and universities and receive higher education in fields of their choice and interest.

The fourth and final stage of madrasa education should be reserved only for selected students who wish to specialise in a particular branch of religious learning. They must be trained in this in such a way as to be able to provide appropriate guidance to society in accordance with contemporary needs. For this they would also need to engage in detailed study of one or the other modern social science discipline. At this stage, in place of total reliance on texts and teachers, students must be made to do field or empirical work and experimentation. They should be encouraged to become creative, rather than simply blindly repeating what has been said or written before.

Certain changes are also necessary with regard to the texts and methods of learning employed in the madrasas. A complete and new syllabus needs to be devised for the madrasas, and for the first two stages of madrasa education that I have outlined above, entirely new books should be written and used. This should be prepared by a team of experts and must take into account the age, interests and psychology of the students. Direct methods of teaching Arabic must be adopted, with less reliance on the intricacies of grammar. The number of prescribed texts needs to be reduced and greater focus needs to be paid to the proper comprehension of the various disciplines that the students study. Further, adequate arrangements need to be made for training madrasa teachers, for which new research and methods need to be benefitted from. Students should be given adequate freedom. Presently, the madrasas are unnecessarily strict with their students, suppressing their minds and stifling their personalities. Such methods of training are resorted to as make many students petrified of the very faces of their teachers so much so that because of this they even discontinue their studies.

A hundred years ago, Maulana Shibli Numani had very rightly said about the madrasas, ‘Our education, our curriculum and our progress have remained at the same level as they were two centuries ago. How, then, can we appropriately respond to contemporary developments?’ Sadly, this plea of the Maulana still remains unaddressed even today.

*This article appeared in the Urdu monthly Dar us-Salaam (published from Malerkotla), vol.21, issue no.5, August 2008.

The author, Ghiftreef Shahbaz Nadwi, is the Director of the New Delhi-based Foundation for Islamic Studies and the Assistant Editor of the Urdu monthly Afkar-e Milli. He can be contacted on

Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye The world is 'happy', eating and sleeping
The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping