Madarsas Do Need Modernisation, but Not in this Manner

What the state really ought to do is help those Muslims who want to transcend the traditional framework of a purely religious education.

The Maharashtra government’s de-recognition of madarsas in the state is being perceived as one more step against minority interests. This step was avoidable, unless the government really wanted to send a message across. It was avoidable because most madarsas function on community support, with little state funding. Most are not even recognised as schools by the government in the first place. If the Maharashtra government really wanted to help Muslim education, it could have done that without raking up the now familiar communal storm.

There is a consistent pattern in the state’s attitude towards Muslim minority education regardless of which political party is in power. Whenever politicians talk about the education of Muslims, they invariably refer to madarsa education and its modernisation. This, in turn, triggers a predictable reaction from some Muslim groups, which decry the interference in so-called Muslim affairs. The resulting debate sends a message that Muslims don’t need modern education, as if modernisation of the madarsa system is any criteria at all.

When only 6 to 7 per cent of Indian Muslims send their children to madarsas – according to data collated by the HRD ministry a few years ago – why do government and community leaders not bother about the 94% who stay away from madarsas? Many a time, madarsas are the only educational option available to Muslim children, especially in areas where no schools have reached the Muslim masses. Very often, children go to madarsas not out of choice but due to the non-availability and inaccessibility of other schools, and a near absence of education in their mother tongue. Thus, most of the 94% are either in mainstream schools and colleges, wherever they are accessible, or are out of the education system totally.

In any case, there is no uniform pattern in the madarsa education system. Maharashtra has 1889 madarsas with some 550 of those teaching maths, science and English and also enjoying a degree of state support. Most of the others are run through private charities. In Gujarat, the majority of madarsas are run on charity, and some of them do teach English and maths, though not necessarily based on the state or Central syllabus. Bihar has a huge network of 3700 madarsas affiliated to the Bihar State Madarsa Board – some of them also teach English, maths and Hindi. As few of them can afford to maintain a lab, science is mostly not taught. We find a similar diversity in other states like UP, Kerala and West Bengal etc. However, the primary aim of all madarsas remains religious instruction.

Division of knowledge in Islam

There are historical reasons why madarsas remained stuck with imparting religious, legal and some philosophical instruction all these centuries. I find it irrelevant when people cite iconic Islamic madarsas as great examples of madarsa instruction (it is often pointed out that Ram Mohun Roy was a product of a madarsa). We are concerned here with those thousands of madarsas which have mushroomed all over India, with scanty resources and poorly trained teachers. They are basically aimed at religious instruction, with an assured employment for the products as imams in mosques all over India.

So why have Islamic madarsas remained limited to religious and literary education? We can find the answer to this question in the history of early Islam and the emergence of the madarsa as an important institution of learning. Turkish scholar Aydin Sayili, the first Ph.D student of Thomas Kuhn, observed that the Muslims by the 10th century – i.e. within 400 years of the birth of Islam – had come to accept a division of knowledge into two general branches, the Arabic or Islamic sciences, and the Old or the Greek sciences. This latter group was generally referred to as the awail sciences (foreign sciences) and included science/philosophy, while the Islamic or Arabic sciences comprised two broad and distinct fields, namely, the literary and the religious.

Various schemes of classification were at times put forward by different scholars, but the broad division of knowledge into the above two distinct and mutually exclusive fields was firmly entrenched in the minds of the Muslims. The expression ‘rational’ and ‘revealed’ sciences was also used, emphasising a methodological distinction between the two groups. For while the awail sciences, which included science and philosophy, were products of the human mind, the Islamic sciences were based on revealed truth, i.e., they had sprung out of Islam or were closely connected with it.

Sayili later found that this dichotomy of knowledge naturally implied a value-based distinction. The Islamic sciences became the praiseworthy sciences, while the awail sciences were often viewed as ‘blameworthy’ sciences.

Evolution of the madarsa

Early Islam saw remarkable achievements in the organisation and systematisation of education. In the Islamic middle ages, for the first time in history, the cultivation of knowledge was seen as everyone’s right. The abundance of public libraries and schools, even madrasas, bears witness to this attitude.

However, leaving out certain exceptional cases, especially in the 13th and later centuries, the madarsa, as well as other institutions of instruction in Islam, were devoted almost solely to the cultivation and dissemination of the Islamic sciences. The awail sciences and philosophy were left out of the madarsa curriculum. Thus, madarsas missed out on encyclopaedic knowledge in the secular domain deemed essential for the holistic development of a student. Looking into the historical context, this lapse does not appear really surprising: Madarsas appeared in Islam four-and-a-half centuries after it emerged as a new spiritual power and about two-and-a-half centuries after embarking on an intense intellectual and scientific activity.

The madarsa curriculum would very likely have included the awail sciences if that institution had come into existence during the Islamic “Golden Age” of science. But Greek philosophical thought and scientific knowledge had already become suspect when the madarsa appeared in Islam. The consequence was that the teaching of secular and philosophical sciences in Islamic societies became totally dependent on private study and instruction.

It is this historically-evolved model of the Islamic madarsa, broadly speaking, which was exported to other parts of the world with the expansion of Islam, including India, from the 13th century onwards. It had already been tightly structured around theological and literary studies, with little scope of any change. The intellectual turmoil in 19th century India did witness some questioning of this model. However it remained a very limited and enclaved exercise.

Even Maulana Azad questioned this centuries old model and found it outdated. Writing in Ghubar-e-Khatir, he commented upon the madarsa system and its curriculum saying, “It was an outdated system of education which had become barren from every point of view – teaching methods defective, worthless subjects of study, deficient in the selection of books, defective way of reading and calligraphy.”

If this is what Maulana Azad felt about the Islamic madarsa more than a hundred years ago, we can well imagine the urgency and necessity of radical reform in the contemporary madarsas. He was even critical of Al Azhar in Cairo and found their syllabus poor. Expressing a sense of relief that he didn’t have to depend on these madarsas for his early education, he writes: “Just imagine if I had stopped there and had not gone in search of new knowledge with a new curiosity what would be my plight! Obviously my early education would not have given me anything except stagnant mind, a total stranger to reality.” These personal experiences of Maulana Azad should motivate those involved in the madarsa system to revitalise these centuries old institutions, responding to the changing times.

Maulana Azad’s plans

Getting back from history we need to keep in mind the paranoia which afflicts many of us these days, particularly in the context of madarsas in Pakistan. Post Zia ul Haq, madarsas in Pakistan had a political context, not really a religious one. Many of them were aimed at producing mujahids and suicide bombers through indoctrination, interpreting the Quran and its verses to suit their devious programme. Madarsas in India are not implicated in any of this, according to the Home Ministry’s own reports.  However, this does not mean that madarsas do not need a serious rethink. I once again go back to Maulana Azad, who chalked out a plan of madarsa reform while in exile in Ranchi in 1916-17. He founded the Madarsa-i-Islamia with the following features:

  • A reformed madarsa curriculum with a combination of the best of Arabic and English education, a holistic syllabus instead of old outdated one.
  • English, mathematics, Indian history, geography, history of Islam and sciences.
  • To bring madarsa at par with government run schools
  • Curriculum should be designed to keep in mind the university education in the country
  • No curriculum will be successful with just minor reshuffling here and there. New books need to be written in the basics of natural sciences and even in theology.

The Maulana himself couldn’t find time to pursue his educational programme. However, he has left behind a framework which can be used and reworked to make madarsa education more contemporaneous and relevant. Even the theological studies curriculum can’t be frozen in time. It had to be a dynamic programme conforming with the changing context. When the Maharashtra government raises the issue of English and mathematics teaching in madarsas it should be aware that such attempts have failed in many states. Modernising madarsas by the government has been a very contentious issue with many differing viewpoints amongst the Muslims.

While there is a general acceptance of the urgent need t0 modernise madarsas, the modernisation schemes of the government have not really provided much relief as far as quality education is concerned. Promises made with regard to modernisation have proved inadequate as nothing much has been done. Science and mathematics teachers appointed under this scheme have not been paid their salaries regularly. Besides, the salaries fixed are too low. It is widely believed that the help given to madarsas is merely symbolic.

As I have tried to point out through the early history of Islam, the madarsa became an institution for religious instruction. It has remained so for centuries. Any change in its age-old agenda should come from the community, which has to realise the need for change. The mere introduction of secular subjects won’t make much of a difference. And state support is not enough. We know the condition of state-run schools and their teachers. Unfortunately, the madarsa has become a political instrument to polarise Indians. Why coerce those who want to carry on with religious instruction? Good luck to them. What the state should do is help those Muslims who want to transcend the traditional madarsa framework.

S. Irfan Habib is Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.