Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Ramadan / Shawwal 1423 H
December 2002
Volume 15-12 No : 192
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Face To Face


"Madrasa Syllabus ought to include Comparitive Religion and Humanities"


"Madrasa Syllabus ought to include
Comparitive Religion and Humanities"

Asghar Ali Engineer is the director of the Mumbai-based Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society and
the Institute for Islamic Studies. He has written extensively on Muslim issues and has been in
the forefront of the struggle against fascism and inter-communal conflict in India.
Here he speaks to Yoginder Sikand on Muslim madrasas in contemporary India.
By M. H. Lakdawala

Asghar AliHindutva groups and sections of the government and the Indian press have started a massive campaign against the madrasas, branding them as centres of obscurantism and as breeding grounds for ‘terrorists’. What do you have to say about this?

This propaganda against the madrasas in India is unfair. It is nothing short of motivated political propaganda. It is a calculated effort to seek to ‘prove’ that Muslims are ‘terrorists’ and that they are not faithful to India, so that the advocates of Hindutva can pose as saviours of the Hindus and grab their votes. It is a complete travesty of truth to say that all or even most madrasas in India are centers of pro-Pakistani elements or agents of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). If there is any truth in the allegations against the madrasas, then why does not L.K. Advani publish a white paper on the subject? Most madrasas only impart basic education of Islam to children. How on earth can these children be agents of the ISI? As for the larger madrasas, these are basically centers of higher Islamic learning. One can differ with them on their syllabus and methods of teaching, but one cannot accuse them of engaging in any sort of political activity.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the Deobandi scholars were fierce opponents of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan. Instead, they strongly supported a united India. In the 1940s, the head of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, wrote extensively against the Pakistan movement. In his book Muttahida Qaumiyat Aur Islam (Composite Nationalism and Islam), he argued that the Muslims and Hindus of India were one nation, and that religion alone could not be the basis of nationalism. Hence, he argued, Muslims must work along with Hindus, for a free, united India, where all communities would have equal rights.

Has there been any change in this political position of the madrasas after 1947?

I don’t know of a single madrasa of higher learning in India which is pro-Pakistan. Some madrasas may indeed be critical of the policies of the Indian government on issues related to the Muslims, such as Muslim employment and representation or massacres of Muslims, but by no stretch of imagination are they pro-Pakistan or anti-India. There might a few small madrasas along the India-Nepal border, which, unknown to them, have been used by Pakistani agencies for their own purposes, but if this is at all the case these must be very small in number. In any case, how can you expect the young children who study in these madrasas to be employed as intelligence agents?

How do you see the question of reform in the madrasa system?

I have been critical of the Dars-e-Nizami, the syllabus which is used in most of the Indian madrasas. This syllabus is, in my view, outdated and needs to be revised. Madrasas still teach subjects like ancient Greek philosophy and Ptolemian astronomy, which they wrongly consider to be somehow part of the Islamic tradition. At a certain stage in history, perhaps these subjects were useful, but are no longer so and so should be done away with. I am not alone in saying this, many ulama hold the same position. In place of the old and outdated ‘rational sciences’ (maqulat), modern social and natural sciences and humanities should be taught, as well as comparative religions. In this way, the graduates of the madrasas would be better informed about the conditions of the modern world and hence would be in a better position to give their legal opinions (fatwa) on matters related to Islamic jurisprudence. Christian seminaries are doing this today. In medieval times, leading Muslim ulama faced with the challenge of Greek philosophy, mastered it, and medieval madrasas produced leading Muslim philosophers, scientists, logicians and mathematicians, who were also pious Muslims themselves. So, there is no reason why the ulama of today shouldn’t do the same and learn modern subjects.

Why do you think Indian madrasas today stress so much on the intricacies of jurisprudence (fiqh), almost neglecting other subjects?

The reason for this is that Islam first spread among people who had no well-developed tradition of law. The Arab tribes had no regular system of government. That is why the early Muslim scholars paid such close attention to developing a system of jurisprudence. However, today, most traditional ulama insist on the need to blindly follow past jurisprudential precedent (taqlid), while ignoring the need to exercise independent judgement (ijtihad), based on a thorough understanding of the principles of fiqh (usul-i-fiqh), which, unfortunately, are not much stressed in the madrasas today.

But surely there are many ulama who stress the need today for ijtihad in order to come to terms with the demands of modernity?

Such ulama, in India at least, are few, and the vast majority still insist on the need for taqlid of the particular school of law (mazhab) to which they belong. Forget about ijtihad-i-mutlaq (allowing for ijtihad by choosing an opinion from among the existing mazhabs), many of them would not even allow for ijtihad-i-muqayyad (ijtihad within a particular mazhab). I agree that there is no need for ijtihad as far as basic beliefs and ritual practices are concerned, but surely in other matters, such as social relations, Islam does allow for the exercise of ijtihad. Unfortunately, we are yet to see the emergence of ulama brave enough to talk of ijtihad in these matters, which is really the need of the hour today.

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