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The madrassas in India

By Mushirul Hasan

Though conservative in outlook, the madrassas in India stand opposite to fundamentalist Islam and contribute to a rather pluralist attitude among their students.

ON MAY 6, 2002, the Government of India wrote a secret letter (Memo No F3-5/99-D.III (L) to all Chief Secretaries and Education Secretaries of the State Governments and Union Territories to verify the antecedents of the madrassas applying for financial assistance from the Government. "While forwarding the application", the letter stated, "the State Government may ensure that the applications of the madrassas it is forwarding are not indulging, abetting or in any other way linked with anti-national activities. The State Governments may categorically certify that the applicant madrassas are free from security angle (sic)." The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, had this to say in his reply on July 22 (No. 2026/CMO/02): "It appears that institutions being run by one community are being singled out and the sense that is sought to be conveyed is that these are potentially anti-national. This in my opinion does grave harm to the secular fabric of our country... By singling out institutions of one community alone, a grave disservice has been done to sow in a suspicion about this community itself as prone to anti-national activities. May I request you to kindly correct this perception and make the application of such institutions general in nature instead of making it discriminatory to institutions of one particular community."

Not long ago, we took pride in our seminaries for their part in the anti-colonial struggle. Today, they are portrayed as nurseries of "sedition". The Dar al-ulum at Deoband and the Nadwat al-ulama in Lucknow were showcased as vibrant symbols of secular India. Come 9/11 and, suddenly, they are mentioned frequently in the media, often in the form of allegations stating that the madrassas form breeding grounds for such terrorist activities carried out in the name of Islam. The New War discourse on the "axis of evil", a heading under which these days the madrassas are also often mentioned, ignores the far complex reality of this traditional system of learning.

The Turks established the earliest known madrassas in north India in the 13th century. In the 14th century, Delhi alone had a thousand madrassas. A 16th century British traveller visiting Thata, now near Karachi, reported 400 large and small madrassas. In the 18th century, the Dars-i Nizamiya (devised by Mulla Nizamuddin) became the standard syllabus. It was confined to the purely religious sciences. The Holy Koran was at the heart of the curriculum, and its memorisation the highest scholastic attainment. By adhering to the Dars-i Nizamiya, the seminaries at Deoband and Lucknow seek to maintain uniformity in belief and practice and determine what is true or desirable in accordance with the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet.

Such institutions are plagued with two major problems. First, their managers brook no intrusion in their special field of instruction. A majority of them shut themselves off from the contemporary world denouncing each other and dubbing everyone else ignorant, irreligious and atheistic. The other major problem has been the unchanging character of the curriculum. The Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, reprimanded his former teacher for having taught him Arabic, grammar and philosophy rather than subjects more practical for a future ruler of a vast empire. Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, found the madrassa syllabus "unsuited to the present age and to the spirit of the time". He criticised it for encouraging memorising rather than real understanding.

The scholar, Fazlur Rahman, commented: "By organically relating all forms of knowledge and gearing these to dogmatic theology the very sources of intellectual fecundity were blighted and the possibility of original thinking stifled." Today, we notice the narrowing down of the general field of learning, and the consequent decline and stagnation of Muslim scholarship in South Asia.

In the second half of the 19th century, the traditional system of education was reorganised to prevent the influx of subversive ideas from the religiously alien and "morally inferior" British, and to put a premium on unorthodox thought and learning. Nowadays, the Muslim communities are faced with a different challenge, i.e. to define their agenda in response to the currents of change and progress. A standard curriculum that excludes rational sciences is not good enough; instead, there is a serious need for a constructive and bold humanism that would restate and reinterpret Islamic educational ideas in the contemporary social and cultural environment. India's Muslims must have their share of men with turbans and flowing gowns, but they must also produce, in equal measure, front-rank professionals. For this to happen, the secular and religious leadership has to amend the curriculum in order to make it responsive to the requirements of this millennium. The principles of intellectual integrity, I repeat, necessitate a fundamental reconstruction of Muslim educational thought.

Future trajectories of madrassa graduates need to be crystallised as the main issue for further scrutiny. Islam is "surrender to the Will of the God", i.e. the determination to implement the command of Allah. Given the place assigned, in the Koran, to knowledge one hopes that the madrassa managers will discover a fuller meaning of their role in Muslim society. The degree and effectiveness of their vision may affect not only their own future but also much of the world around them. At the same time, the current mindset towards the madrassas must be changed. Just as all `Hindu' or Arya Samaj schools do not spew venom against Islam and Christianity, the maktabs and madrassas do not necessarily nurture fundamentalist ideas. Part of the reason why they flourish is because the state has not done enough to promote "secular" education in mofussil towns and the rural hinterland. Hence, children of poor Muslim families flock to religious schools. Given the limited access to state-run or state-aided schools, religious schools provide space for education and cultural-religious survival for the deprived, who suffer from poverty, conflict and oppression.

Over the decades, such schools have performed a vital function (as do the gurukuls or the Christian schools) and cannot, for this reason alone, be done away with. They should be treated with sympathy and understanding, rather than with suspicion and disdain. Central and State Governments should intervene creatively in secularising (not crass secularism) their curriculum and methods of instruction. In the past, they produced leading theologians, political activists (thousands went to jail in response to the Gandhian movements) and liberal reformers. They can still be the resource of (for, example, the Deoband school) and the inspiration behind rationalist thought and reformist initiatives. Though conservative in outlook, the madrassas in India stand opposite to fundamentalist Islam and contribute, as is evident from the histories of the Deoband and the Nadwat al-ulama, to a rather pluralist attitude among their students.

Barbara Metcalf, the distinguished historian of Islam in India, points out that the Deoband movement illustrates that there are long and deep traditions of Islamic apoliticism and a de facto embrace of democratic and liberal traditions. Second, it demonstrates that the goals and satisfactions that come from participation in Islamic movements may well have little to do with opposition or resistance to non-Muslims or "the West". Last, what they offer their participants may be the fulfilment of desires for individual empowerment, transcendent meaning and moral sociality that do not engage directly with national or global political life at all. One hopes someone in the Ministry Human Resource Development is listening!

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