Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

November 2010
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Reforming Indian Madrasas
Akhtarul Wasey

The basic aim of the madrassas is promotion of knowledge of the deen. With this as a priority in mind, efforts should be made to mould the madrassa curriculum at the secondary level in keeping with the urges of the time and society. A large portion of the current syllabus is now defunct and useless. Most of the books taught there were written 700 years ago. Humanity has made immense leaps in knowledge and civilization. Old perspectives have been replaced with new ones bringing revolutionary changes, most of them coming in the last two centuries. It is important for scholars to understand the new religious, moral, social and intellectual challenges.
In the 3rd and 4th AH, the translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic led to the spread of new ideas that were seen as undermining the Muslims’ commitment to Islam. But the Muslim intellectuals studied the Greek sciences, and sought to address the threat that they posed. Today, we need to do the same in the face of the ideologies that pose such a major challenge to religion and morality at the global level. We need to ask ourselves if we have measured upto these challenges.
The Features of Reform and Change
The present madrassa syllabus is based on two forms of knowledge, i.e., ulum al-aqliya and ulum al-naqaliya, the ‘rational sciences’ and the ‘revealed sciences’ respectively. Both require changes.  As for the former, the Quran, Hadith and fiqh, most of the ulema themselves feel that the new generation of madrassa graduates lack expertise in understanding the deen, and even the basic capacity to engage in deduction on various issues. Their capacity to directly study the Quran and Sunnah is in doubt and focus has been mainly on a sectarian understanding of different fiqh issues. They lack the capacity to reflect deeply on civilizational issues in correlation with the scriptural sources. Consequently, they avoid discussion on these topics in their public discourse and choose to promote sectarian rivalry.
Given this background, it is crucial that madrassa students gain a proper expertise in the Islamic sciences so that they can properly understand and communicate Islamic teachings to people in light of the changing social context. This requires suitable reforms in methods of teaching, as well as new and easily understandable textbooks. The syllabus must also make provision for teaching subjects such as the life of the Prophet, Islamic History, Comparative Religions, Islamic Mission and so on.
Similarly, the ‘rational sciences’ too need a total transformation. This requires a good understanding of modern philosophy, economics, sociology and political science. This is inevitable if modern challenges have to be understood. These sciences are the basis of the intellectual trends. A better way of incorporating them would be the tenth grade of ‘modern’ education should be considered as the basis for the introductory programme for students to begin their religious studies. This would add a few years in a madrassa, but would help in promoting the basic aims of education.
Stress on linguistic abilities is another area. Madrassa students need to learn all languages necessary for accessing the global media, understanding politics, science, technology and for using the modern means of communication. Knowledge of English holds the key to understand trends that influence popular thinking and to respond to misgivings that prevail with regard to Islam. Similarly, knowledge of local languages too would be necessary.
A subject of great importance is Comparative Religions. Only a few madrasas, such as the Jamiat ul-Falah, Azamgarh, and the Jamia Darussalam, Oomerabad, provide some inkling of other religions. Most universities in Arab countries teach them. Most madrassa graduates will have to work within India’s religiously-plural society and serve the cause of dawah, and so it is indispensable for them to know the native faiths.
A plural society has its own mentality, sensitivities, issues, requiring proper appreciation. That is why the syllabus used in Indian madrassas and the West cannot be identical to that used in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Factors such as political ideologies, secularism, and democracy need to be taken into cognizance in this respect, but tremendous confusion continues to rage about these in madrasa circles. New questions are constantly being raised. There is the ongoing debate on the terms kafir and mushrik and who exactly these apply to. So also on legitimacy or illegitimacy of jihad in a plural society. There is the question of helping, working with and befriending non-Muslims. There are different legal questions about citizenship and citizen’s rights. This is something that needs to be looked at.
Familiarization with ideologies such as Marxism, Capitalism, Modernism, Liberalism, Existentialism which have roots in modern Western thought is also crucial. Muslims have faced defeat on every intellectual and practical front. While the West has studied finer aspects of Islam, minuscule Muslim groups and resources, all that we know about the West is their sexual license, materialism, women’s liberation and drunkenness. Our very low and limited understanding of Western thought and civilisation does not give us the opportunity to properly understand the causes for the development of the West and of our own decline.
It is also very necessary for madrassas to include the teaching of the hard sciences, just as the social sciences need to be taught. It is not necessary, nor possible, that these sciences be taught to the same level as in schools, but it is essential that madrassa students have a general idea of them.
Madrassa education currently focuses on mastering particular books. There should be a shift to stressing mastering a subject or topic. It will require changes in teaching methods, from rote-learning and a book-centric approach to practice and lectures, as is the case in modern universities.
Mental Blocks
Generally speaking, people associated with madrasas have mental blocks with regard to reform in syllabus with inclusion of modern subjects, pleading that the curriculum is already too loaded. The truth is that the present syllabus is burdened with defunct subjects. For example, a major portion of Arabic grammar is based on useless discussions. Numerous ulema have recommended their removal. Also unnecessary are the books about antiquated Greek logic. If at all necessary, easier books can be used in their place.
Status-quoists apprehend that reforms would lead to increased materialism and promote worldly desires among students, resulting in dilution of their commitment to the faith. Such fears are baseless. Throughout the history the madrassas have combined both deen—religion—and duniya—the world producing well-rounded personalities. This point can better be appreciated from the fact that the founders of the Deoband madrassa were educated at the Delhi College, an institution whose syllabus was not that of any madrassa of today.
Reforms are also opposed on the plea of paucity of suitable teachers for modern subjects with requisite levels of piety. The fact is that there are people among the Muslims who are quite appropriate for this task. They need to identified. Some difficulties can be expected in the beginning. Later madrasass products could recruit their own products.                                    
Reforming, on appropriate lines, the syllabus and system of madrasa education in India, and bringing these in line with contemporary demands is essential for the overall religious and worldly progress of the Indian Muslims, for properly representing Islam, and for fulfilling the duty of dawah. The longer that this work of renewal is postponed the more damage it will cause.  
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand. Abridged by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj.)  Original Urdu piece titled Dini Madaris Ka Nisab Wa Nizam Aur Asr-e Hazir Ke Taqaze appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Urdu journal Islam Aur Asr-e Jadid]

Generally speaking, people associated with madrassas have mental blocks with regard to reform in syllabus with inclusion of modern subjects, pleading that the curriculum is already too loaded.