The Madrasa Myth



The silhouette of the large mosque, brick-like but for a bulbous dome, looks blurry in the downpour past the minarets as the imposing wide red brick gates, herald you into the hallowed precincts of an institution—one of the most influential institutions in the world that frames Islamic discourse in the subcontinent. The occasional rain is heavy, lending a sparkle to the green paddies and a scent of the moist earth to the air.

This is Darul Uloom, the hallowed seminary, now in its 150th year, the beacon for Asian madrasas (Islamic seminaries).  It is the spiritual lodestar for South Asia’s 500 million Muslims and considered a “citadel of Islam” amid the westernisation of the subcontinent. The town is Deoband, a placid north Indian habitation where Hindus and Muslims peacefully coexist to the eternal rhythms of sowing and harvesting. Inside, room after room is filled with students wrapped in shawls against the winter chill and wearing crocheted skullcaps. They sit cross-legged on carpets, reading from Qur’ans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. They are supervised by teachers, most of them respected elders, with shaved upper lips and faces framed by   scraggly   beards, many of them dyed with henna. Several of them flaunt, on their foreheads, puffy, nickel-sized   bruises that pious Muslims acquire from intense and regular prayers. Every waking hour of the day is geared to an exercise called tahfiz—learning the Qur’an by heart. A Muslim who has memorized all 6,236 verses of the Qur’an earns the right to be called a hafiz.

Madrasas across the world have suffered a great loss of reputation recently, primarily owing to a wave of extremism. These Islamic schools have been maliciously projected as incubators of holy warriors or what has been derisorily called as ‘jihad machines’.  However, the negative stereotypes that we get to read in sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of madrasas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, they may be their only path to literacy. For parents mired in poverty, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught. Madrasas fulfil a vital function by helping develop leaders capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters.

Maulana Qasim Nomani, the present Vice Chancellor or Rector of the Deoband seminary is at pains to point out the patriotic zeal of the seminary’s early leaders. Maulana Mahmood-ul-Hasan—widely regarded as the first student and who later taught at the seminary—was a part of the nationalist government-in-exile, set up in 1915 in Kabul which was headed by Raja Mahendra Pratap and had Maulana Barkatullah as foreign minister in what is known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. Deoband’s early leaders such as Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Ozair Gul were arrested and kept under detention on the island of Malta for a number of years.   Mahmood-ul-Hasan gave the fatwa of “tark-e-mawalat (boycott of goods)” to boycott every English product. This was one of the effective instruments against the colonial rulers which later even Mahatma Gandhi adopted. Nomani  debunks charges of extremism   as farfetched ,rolling his eyes as he lets out a dismissive laugh. He considers it a very facile stereotype. His students who proudly love to be called “Deobandis” are clear about one conviction. ”India is our motherland and we love it.

The madrasa system is a thousand years old. The first major academic institution in the Muslim world, however, was founded by Nizam al-Mulk Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi (1018-1092), the celebrated Persian scholar and vizier of the Seljuk Empire. Later, Nizam al-Mulk established numerous madrasas all over the empire that, in addition to providing Islamic knowledge, imparted secular education in the fields of science, philosophy, public administration, and governance. The earliest recorded South Asian madrasa was established in Ajmer, India in 1191.

The spread of madrasas played a key role in the consolidation of doctrinal positions and legal thinking which now form the dominant position among Sunnis. In time, the Shias developed their own religious seminaries, called hawzas, which play a similar role. Some of the most famous madrasas are the Deoband in India, al-Azhar in Egypt, Hawzas of Qum in Iran and the Zaytunia in Tunisia.

From the 18th century, large parts of the Muslim world engaged with modernity in its colonial form—an encounter that transformed almost all aspects of Muslim societies. Modern schools, higher education institutions, new official languages, and, above all, a new epistemology was introduced. Madrasas continued to provide religious instructions, though in the process they went through remarkable transformations in form, teaching and, to some extent, content.

It was the 18th-century scholar Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi who designed the educational curriculum for the mainstream Indian madrasas. Thus, the curriculum was named after him as “Dars-e-Nizami”.

The first War of Indian independence of 1856 marked a division of the composite madrasa education into secular and religious spaces. This division can be seen in the Deoband and Aligarh traditions, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan emphasised the development of an educational system according to the need of the time while Deoband insisted on preserving religious values and tradition in the Indian subcontinent.

Darul Uloom was founded in 1866 to preserve Muslim identity and heritage in the face of British imperialism, which had replaced the rule of the Mughals, India’s Muslim conquerors. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the madrasa’s founders reacted against what they saw as the degenerate ways of the old elite. The leaders of Deoband, therefore, went back to Qur’anic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. Deoband’s founders made it the centre for a “newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam”, according to Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who researched South Asian madrasas. “The foundation of Darul Uloom also marked a closing of doors to modern knowledge, which was now seen as polluting because of its association with the British,” he wrote.

The ideological foundations of the seminary have been distilled in a set of seven cardinal principles that define the school’s charter (maslak).  These are: (1) conformity with Islamic law (shari’a), (2) Sufi-inspired self-purification and the search for spiritual perfection (suluk-i batin), (3) conformity to the principles that guided the Prophet and his companions (sunna),(4) reliance on the Hanafi law school, (5) certitude and stability in true beliefs with reference to the Hanafi theologian al-Maturidi, (6) removal of unlawful things (munkirat), and especially the refutation of polytheism, innovations, atheism and materialism, and (7) adherence to the principles personally embodied by the founders of the school, Muhammad Qasim and Rashid Gangohi.

While Deoband and its clones did not compromise on puritanism, there was a movement of educational reforms from within the realms of Islamic educationists that strongly believed that in the absence of modern education, Muslims will be unable to compete in the global employment market. These educationists were driven by social and economic concerns and believed that the community should adapt itself to the new currents.

The Darul Uloom educates 3,500 students for the 13 years it takes each to graduate. 800 are chosen for admission each year from 10,000 applicants. There are no tuition fees.  The boys have rigorous Islamic studies, but also bookbinding and IT proficiency. The Deoband seminary is also famous for its fatwas which it sends to the world in English, Urdu and other languages including Arabic. However, with even clerics preferring to send their children to mainstream schools, madrasas attract very mediocre talents. The quality of scholarship is also declining.

Critics often charge the madrasa system of anachronism, citing its insistence on the supreme pedagogical value of the old texts. The traditionalists argue that, apart from connecting students to the canonical tradition, the “Nizami curriculum” enhances the student’s mastery of every discipline and enables scholars to solve any contemporary problem.

Madrasa education in India is caught between the need to maintain its exclusive identity as a centre of Islamic studies and culture and at the same time to remain relevant to the present imperatives of the community.

Secular Muslim educationists also tend to agree that curriculums are often fossilised, with some science and philosophy texts dating back to the 13th or 14th centuries.  What is dispiriting is that most graduates are qualified to do nothing in the modern world except become a preacher or open yet another madrasa.  

Indeed, leading ulemas (a body of Muslim scholars who are recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology) are themselves conscious of the need for change in the madrasa system. There is mounting pressure for change both in the texture of education as also in the pedagogy and the contents of the curriculum.

The issue of reforms is however quite complex and the adoption of state-led modernisation has a complex interplay of several factors such as trust, financial incentives, the impact of state-led policies on the functioning of madrasas and its implications on the community resources which the madrasas are now accessing their finances, and of course the faultiness within Islam that are manifested in the various strains of Islamic thought that pervaded the faith.

Islam is not a monolith and madrasas owe allegiance to diverse schools of thought which are hybridising into further new strains. The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one. The policymakers need to be more sensitive to the sentiments of Islamic clerics and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to ‘secular versus non-secular’ and ‘pro-Hindu versus anti-Muslim’ debates. The deep reservations of madrasa managers about the government are all not ill-founded and several of the duplicitous actions and policies of the state give enough ground for a creeping scepticism.While it is true that most madrasas have outlived their role, they need not be decimated. What they need is essentially a makeover in a way that respects traditional sensibilities and attempts to synergise classical and modern learning.

A number of madrasas across India have adopted so-called secular, modern education by introducing regular mainstream educational subjects in madrasa curriculum, seeking recognition of their degrees from accredited universities, incorporating skill-training courses and so on. However, policy documents have made sweeping generalisations and they conflate the madrasas’ scepticism and/or rejection of the state-led modernisation programme with an ideology that has a pathological antipathy for the state. The madrasa leadership is projected as a stubborn stereotype not amenable to the state, however good and benign the mission of the state may be.

Seminaries are generally regarded as centres whose culture is not compatible with modern educational values. This is far from reality. Religious learning centres are experiencing a severe financial crunch and are also keen that if their education starts losing relevance they will stop attracting both talented students. Instead of going in for radical reform and restructuring the state should engage with madrasas in a more supportive way For their part madrasas which tend to believe that curriculum and management are their exclusive jurisdiction—in the process of which they neglect curriculum development and teacher training—must cooperate with the state. They should understand that they owe a responsibility for the economic and social well being of families of generations of students whose future hinges on the skills they are learning in these madrasas. The state should not see madrasas as an adversarial educational system; rather it should consider them an alternative.  Families in the  higher echelons also send   children to a madrasa (or a primary religious school called a maktab) to ensure that they can properly recite the Qur’an  or even commit it to memory. These students are not so dissimilar from Christian children who go to Bible study or catechism classes, or Jewish children who attend Hebrew school.

What we should attempt is to make new madrasas as well as universities to be patterned on ancient Samarkand or Bokhara. Instead of solely stressing on madrasa modernisation, let us take madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning hearts and minds of the custodians of is what the founders of Jamia Millia Islamia, India’s mainstream education Jamia’s who were legendary Islamists  wrote for its students to sing as the official anthem :

“Here conscience alone is the beacon . . .

It’s the Mecca of many faiths,

Travelling is the credo here, pausing a sacrilege, . . .

Cleaving against currents is the creed here,

The pleasure of arrival lies in countering crosscurrents.

This is the home of my yearnings,

This is the land of my dreams.”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News