Modernization of Madarsa: need for methodology corrective 

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Modernization of madarsa : need for methodology corrective

By M J Warsi

Education rates among the highest concerns of Muslims in the world. We should learn from others, complying with the words of the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihe wasallam): Seek knowledge even, if it is to be found in a place as distant as, China, the role of education has been central in any Islamic principle from the very beginning. The word " madarsa" comes from the same Arabic root as "dars" which means a lesson or a lecture.Madrasa, as traditionally constructed in Islam, is an institution where any one of the four schools of religion in Islam - the madhhab - along with Arabic grammar, the traditions of the Prophet -hadith, history, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, and astronomy are taught. They emerged in the early tenth century in Iran although we have reports as early as 'Abdul Malik (c.685-705) of Quranic teachings done in two types of settings. The first was the maktab which was geared towards the illiterate and primarily to teach the Qur'an. This was done anywhere - private house, shop etc. presided over by an alim. The second was the majlis , which rose out of a gathering of scholars in the mosque and was dedicated to more specialized study.

The establishment of the current model of the madarsa can be traced to Nizam ul Mulk (c.1018 92), the Grand Vizier under two Seljuk Sultans. He wrote the influential Siyasat Namah - The Book of Government and founded a series of madarsas all over Iraq and Khurusan (Iran). The biggest of them was the Nazimiya in Baghdad (c.1065). In his book, as in the establishment of these madarsas, Nizam ul Mulk sought to train a cadre of intellectuals and theologians that would guide the Sultans in their governance over the Muslim lands. Nizam ul Mulk's reforms instituted a state-funded (through waqf - land endowment) institute of higher learning that was responsible for creating new elite.

The British in India were responsible for both the diminution of the syllabi of madarsas as well as their spread as a counter-British institution. After the 1857 war, the language of the courts was shifted from Persian to English. The Muslim elites who were trained at home and in madrasas in the "classical" subjects were loathe to join the English grammar schools.

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 While people like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, argued for a modernization of the Islamic knowledge systems and founded a school which is now known in the World as Aligarh Muslim University. Others like Thanawi, Maududi, Nanotovi etc. opted for enshrining Arabic and the Qur'an at the heart of any system of Muslim knowledge in India. The effect was the growth of two separate strains of Muslim thought in India. In pre-colonial India, the 'alim had to know fiqh, history, sciences, archery etc. to be an effective administrator or jurist, but the colonial counterpart needed only English language and English Law. As a result, the curriculums in the madarsas deteriorated down to just religious law.

The service rendered by madarsas to the country and the Muslim community is an established fact. In India these madarsas have played an important role in protecting human, Islamic and social values. These institutes have also played an important role in survival of Islamic practices. Dissemination, publication of Islamic literature, protection of Islamic faith and development of Islamic culture and civilization besides contributing in the development of the country. These invaluable services rendered by Islamic madarsas can not be forgotten.

Kids were sent to madarsas in their earliest age to learn to read the Qur'an and other religious rituals. A minority, only those pursuing a religious living, went on to studying fiqh etc. and the rest went to public or private secular schools. The madarsas existed not in competition with secular Urdu, Hindi or English medium schools but as optional supplements. The main problem in the system is with 'Islamic education' which simply juxtaposes 'religious' subjects with 'secular or modern' subjects.

In 1986, the Indian government initiated a project to modernize madarsa by bringing in subjects like science, math, English, and Hindi. But many madarsas refused to cooperate, wary of the state's interference. (Their Hindu equivalent, the Sanskrit schools, have been gradually folded into the state education system.) The government has continued its efforts, with limited success, but in 2002 it drew criticism from Muslims when a secret memorandum came to light in which all state education officials were ordered to ensure that madarsas applying for government funding "are not indulging, abetting, or in any other way linked with anti-national activities."

The Union government's madarsa modernization scheme has enabled students from various parts of the country to seek jobs of their choice, says Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, better known for his own writings on minority issues and madarsa education.

The agenda for reforming the madarsas has, unfortunately, today come to be linked with the question of countering 'terrorism'. Yoginder Sikand in one of his writings focused on efforts being made today by 'ulama and Muslim activists in India to introduce modern subjects in the curriculum, excise subjects and books that are considered irrelevant and introduce reforms in teaching methods. Sikand looked at the ways in which this demand for reform are formulated and legitimated, such as reviving a wholistic understanding of knowledge in Islam, doing away with educational dualism, widening employment opportunities for the 'ulama and empowering the Muslim community.

The menace of growing educational backwardness through madarsas that everybody is afraid of can be curbed only by providing a progressive, modern alternative with a promising future for the younger generations, writes Arjumand Ara, a teaching faculty at Delhi University.

"We are not going to compromise on the content and structure of Islamic education but certainly welcome any initiative by the government to upgrade the curriculum to have modern education in madarsa system," Maulana Mohammad Wali Rahmani, a well reputed Islamic scholar and the Director of Khanqah Rahmania Munger, Bihar said.

It is a well known fact and one can believe that nothing was ever wrong with the madarsas in India. A well thought statement by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington DC recently remove all the doubts on the credibility of madarsa when he said, "we have 150 million citizens who practice the faith of Islam. And I say it with some pride about their patriotism that not one of them has joined the ranks of these gangs like the Al Qaeda or other terrorist activities".

I visited Khanqah Rahmania Munger, a well established Islamic seminary in Bihar, I have seen the students besides religious education they were also getting the computer education and comfortably surfing the net. "We have computers, we have books in English, we have students who can converse in English but not militants. The allegations about Madarsa that it produces millitants is completely baseless," said Maulana Rahmani, a supporter of modernization process.

"We are more open and have nothing to hide from any one.If anyone have doubt they are more than welcome to come and have a look" said Maulana Khalid Saifullah, principal of Madarsa Ashrafiya, Saharsa.

Demands for the 'modernization' of the madarsa system are today being voiced from many quarters, including from several ulema associated with the madarsa themselves. The voices of ulama advocates of reform are particularly significant, in that they are influential in moulding the opinions and policies of principals of the madarsas, which outside critics are not.

It is really time, that when we think of introducing Modern Education into the Madarsas, we should also look at the existing syllabi and incorporate the modern and technical subjects. The madarsa need trained modern teacher, modern subjects (science, computer and humanities) and certainly a modern well structured curriculu m alongwith its own religious contents.


M J WARSI holds a doctorate in Linguistics and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis , USA. He may be reached at