Saturday, May 9, 2009

To Kill the Mockingbird by Zafar Anjum

Madarsah System in India: Past, Present, and Future by: Amir Ullah Khan, Mohammad Saqib and Zafar H. Anjum [Courtesy: CHOWK Dated, August 5, 2003]

Madarsahs (religious schools) and maktabs (primary schools) have been providing traditional education in India [1]. They have helped inpromoting literacy among the Muslims. Over the centuries, they have produced academics and administrators such as Sher Shah Suri, Abul Fazal, Faizi, Todar Mal, and Fatehullah Shirazi, among a host of others. Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the Hindu reformer and the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, was educated in a Madarsah.

At present, there are several thousand Islamic schools spread all across India . Most mosques have a primary religious school or maktab attached to them, where Muslim children learn the Qur’an and the basics of their faith. For children who desire to specialize in religious studies and train as imams and maulvis, numerous large seminaries or Madarsahs exist, with each Muslim sect having its own chain of such institutions. For many poor families, Madarsahs are the only source of education for their children, since they charge no fees and provide free boarding and lodging to their students [2]. Given the dismal level of access to education, and the increased mistrust [3] against the curricula of government schools, Madarsahs are often the only available educational option for children from poor Muslim families, who have the dubious distinction of being, along with Dalits, the least educated community in India.

The Taliban [4] in Afghanistan and the WTC tragedy [5] in the US have brought the ancient Madarsah [6] (religious school) into the limelight. Labeled as breeding grounds of Islamic terrorism, Madarsahs suddenly find themselves under harsh scrutiny. In India, Hindutva groups and sections of the government and the press have started a campaign against the Madarsahs, branding them as centers of obscurantism and breeding grounds for ‘terrorism.’

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition assumed power, there has been a spate of attacks on the Madarsahs in various parts of the country. Indian intelligence agencies claim that some madarsahs are training grounds for ISI spies and anti-Indian ‘terrorists’. The reports suggest that the muftis, maulvis and imams in these religious schools may have been replaced by “highly fanatic agents of ISI”, secretly working for the disintegration of India. In May 2001, a ministerial group for the “reform of internal security” headed by Home Minister L.K. Advani, released a 137-page report that recommended a close scrutiny of Madarsahs, among other things [7].

According to a report published in the Delhi-based Muslim fortnightly, Milli Gazette, the Uttar Pradesh government has issued “a mischievous circular” that suggests that certain vested interests are seriously preparing the ground for a “communal civil war” in the state. The circular, signed by Senior Superintendent of Police, Lucknow, B. B. Bakhshi, has been issued to the state police as a guideline on how to keep a vigil on “ISI activities”. The circular says that ISI is “leaving no stone unturned” to disrupt life in the state, and is luring Muslim and Sikh youth “to involve them in subversive activities”, besides also fanning anti-Hindu sentiments. The circular instructs the Station House Officer of every police station to “prepare a register of Muslim and Sikh families living in his respective area”. In particular, the report emphasized, a list of newly constructed Madarsahs and mosques should be kept and these are to be closely monitored.

The Milli Gazette sent a team to inspect several of the Madarsahs along the Nepal-India border being monitored by the police. It reported that none of the dozen Muslim seminaries that the team visited had any association whatsoever with the ISI. In not one of these Madarsahs was any sort of physical training being imparted. The report added that these Madarsahs have no history of provoking Hindu-Muslim conflict. In fact, one of them had several Hindu students and teachers on its rolls, while another had several regular Hindu donors. Official sources have so far failed to name the Madarsahs involved in ISI activities. The state’s Director General of Police (DGP), Sriram Arun, while asserting that the ISI was active along the Indo-Nepal border, is said to have denied that Madarsahs were being used as hideouts. Likewise, the DGP of Rajasthan admitted that Madarsahs near the border areas are “neither centers of the ISI nor have they ever participated in any anti-national activities”.

According to Asghar Ali Engineer, a noted expert on Islam, more than 95% of the Indian Madarsahs have absolutely nothing to do with the ISI. Most Madarsahs only impart basic education of Islam to children. As for the larger Madarsahs, 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 [8].

Some Madarsahs [9] may indeed be critical of the policies of the Indian government on issues related to the Muslims, such as on Muslim employment and representation or massacres of Muslims, but by no stretch of imagination are they pro-Pakistan or anti-India. There might be a few small Madarsahs 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. This is not to suggest that all is well with the Madarsahs today [10]. Many Madarsahs in Pakistan, for instance, have emerged as breeding grounds for self-styled jehadists, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-i-Tayyeba which wants to emancipate Kashmir. It appears that the experience of Madarsahs in Pakistan [11] has fuelled the fear of Madarsahs in India, but clearly such a fear is misplaced, as there is no evidence of Indian Madarsahs having anything to do with their counterparts across the border, or for that sake, even their counterparts within the country. Madarsahs are extremely autonomous institutions and there is no federation or Union that runs or monitors them.

Many teachers as well as students of Madarsahs increasingly realize the datedness and irrelevance of their curriculum and methods of teaching. The danger to Madarsahs comes not so much from the outside, but also from within. This is manifest in the form of animosity and competition among Madarsahs of different maslaks [12] (schools of thought). Most Madarsah graduates are taught how to put down the other school of thought (through an interesting expertise called the Radd, meaning to argue against, but in reality translates to “rubbishing”) whenever chance permits. The Radd is not targeted at other religions, but at the various Islamis sects and more specifically at other madarsahs run by rival sects. The other danger is the quality of teaching and instruction in the Madarsahs today. Barring the top few, most Madarsahs have teachers who have little knowledge of subjects other than that of religious texts.

Madrasas in India

There are a large number of madrasas in northern and western parts of the country. There are various estimates about their number. Estimates range from a figure of eight thousand to thirty to forty thousand religious institutions in the country.

According to Home Ministry sources, there are 721 madrasas catering to over 1,20,000 children in Assam, 1,825 madrasas catering to over 1,20,000 children in Gujarat, 961 madrasas catering to 84,864 children in Karnataka, 9,975 madrasas catering to 7,38,000 children in Kerala, 6,000 madrassahs catering to over 4,00,000 children in Madhya Pradesh and some 1,780 madrasas catering to over 25,000 children in Rajasthan. In Uttar Pardesh, the number of maktabs is more than 15000 and the number of madrasas is above 10000. There are over 3,500 madrasas in Bihar, including 1,111 under government control where the Bihar government pays the salary of the teaching and non-teaching staff. There are 507 madrasas affiliated to the West Bengal Madrasa Board in which about 200,000 boys and girls study. Besides, there are many unregistered seminaries.

Modernization of Madrasas in India

The goal of Madarsahs traditionally has been not to produce engineers and doctors or technocrats but to produce scholars who would interpret Islam in relation to the demands of the specific time. For example, what a Muslim scholar needed to know was not quite the same in the early Nineteenth century as it is today. In other words, the Madarsah equips a scholar not for simple scholastic interpretation of the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet of Islam but to cater to the changing needs of the Muslim society [13]. This brings us to the second issue, which is to see how the Madarsahs from the days of early colonial rule have been handling this demand.

Reforms in curricula

Madarsahs in India have been undergoing vigorous reforms in the recent decades to enable their graduates to keep pace with the fast changing world and meet the requirements of the community at all stages [14]. The Islamic seminary Darul-uloom at Deoband introduced computer applications in its curriculum in 1994. Apart from computers, a few other technical courses have also been given included in the curriculum of the seminary [15].

The Darul-uloom Deoband syllabus includes Modern Indian History, Islamic History, Civics, Geography, General Sciences, principles for health care, the Indian Constitution, principles of economics, philosophy, life history of modern philosophers and computer applications [16]. While discussing Darul-uloom Nadwat-ul-ulema at Lucknow, one should not forget that a fair knowledge of the English language has been a special feature of this Islamic seminary. Right from the day one this seminary has adopted English Language and Literature as one of the elementary subjects. In a total of 16 years of study it lays emphasis on English Language and Literature at par with other Islamic disciplines. From the primary level, it teaches various modern disciplines, especially English, Hindi, Science, Indian History, Economics almost up to the graduation level.

Madarsahtul-Ishah, which is the living expression of the dream of Allama Shibli and Allama Hameeduddin Farahi, provides knowledge of modern disciplines. It includes in its curriculum English Language and Literature, history of classical and modern philosophy almost up to the graduation level. Other Madarsahs like Jamiatul-hidaya in Rajasthan which teaches not only the afore-mentioned disciplines but Business Management, Commerce and Agriculture as well, and the Jamia Mohammadia Mansura at Malegaon produces medical practitioners, as medical science is one of the distinguishing features of this Madarsah. Looking at the present curricula of above mentioned Madarsahs one could argue that Madarsahs in India have already been modernising their syllabi. However, this is a far cry from what the modern technology driven market demands.


Many Muslim scholars apprehend that in the name of modernization of Madarsahs, the government may have been trying to deprive them of their independence and autonomy. The core of the Madarsah education must remain religious and, therefore, by definition ‘modernization’ or ‘secularization’ has its measurable limits [17]. Only some elementary courses in languages like Hindi, English, (or the regional language), arithmetic, geography, history and social studies need to be added as the major Madarsahs have been doing by themselves over the last century. The major Madarsahs have also been restructuring their programme of studies in a manner so that if a student wishes to leave the Madarsah in mid-stream and take the middle or high school examination or enter the universities for undergraduate or postgraduate education, he may do so. Some Madarsahs have introduced vocational courses so that their products do not depend solely on serving as teachers or Imams.

The Madarsah Modernization Scheme

The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India, had a series of meetings with representatives of the Madarsahs discussing the desirability of their modernization and clarifying that it would not entail either compulsion or interference by government. After being satisfied with the result of these discussions, the Ministry formulated the scheme of modernization of Madarsahs [18].

The main features of the scheme, launched in 1993-94, are as follows [19]:

1. The objective of the scheme is to encourage traditional institutions like maktabs and Madarsahs to introduce teaching of science, maths, social studies, Hindi and English in order to provide opportunities to students to acquire education comparable to the national system of education.

2. The process of modernization is entirely voluntary.

3. In the first phase, primary classes of middle and secondary level Madarsahs were to be covered. In the second phase (during the 9th Pan), the coverage was extended to institutions providing education equivalent to secondary stage.

4. The scheme covered the following items in the first phase:

a. 100 percent assistance for appointment of qualified teachers

b. assistance for book bank and strengthening of libraries

c. provision of Science, maths kits and essential equipment

5. Only registered voluntary organizations, which have been in existence for three years, were considered for assistance.

6. The performance of the scheme was to be reviewed after three year of its operation.

The scheme has been criticized by many Muslim intellectuals for its hidden agenda. The ostensible purpose of the Scheme administered by the Ministry of Human Resource Development was to persuade the Madarsahs to revise their conventional curriculum to add ‘modern’ subjects – English, Hindi, Science, Mathematics and Social Studies including History and Geography. Certainly, there can be no objection to the idea of reforming the Madarsah curriculum. What has made people wonder is “this sudden interest in upgradation of Madarsahs by the authorities which are reluctant to provide modern educational facilities, even at the primary level, in Muslim-concentration areas and which simply refuse to divulge available data on Muslim educational backwardness and which, by carefully manipulating the levers of power, change curricula, particularly related to language, syllabi, school culture and medium of instruction so as to make Muslim parents more and more reluctant to send their children to government schools.” [20]

The scheme failed to interest most Madarsahs as they were ill equipped to deal with the bureaucracy. Thus, the total annual outlay under the scheme has been of the order of a few crores with a few hundred beneficiaries [21]. The National Council of Educational Research and Training undertook a study of existing curriculum in Madarsahs and published a report in the year 2000 based on data collected from some Madarsahs, most of them government-aided, from 3 states UP, MP and Kerala. The recent Report by the Group of Ministers of Reform of Internal Security has linked Madarsah education with national security and this clearly was a cause for concern among people already wary of a state that was seen as being partisan and inimical to minority interests. It didn’t help the government’s image much, when in addition to scrutinising madarsahs closely, a large section of the BJP party workers were demanding the closing down or strict regulation of Christian schools too.

The report says: "Funded by Saudi and Gulf sources, many new Madarsahs have come up all over the country in recent years, especially in large numbers in the coastal areas of the West and in the border areas of West Bengal and the North East…Madarsah education is a part of a Muslim child’s religious tradition. Steps should be taken to encourage these institutions to add inputs on modern education also. Efforts should be made for providing increased facilities for modern education, particularly for the border areas where such facilities are lacking… The Central Sector Scheme for giving financial assistance for modernization of Madarsah education… should be strengthened… A Central Advisory Board may be set up for Madarsah education instead of leaving this critical matter to different State Level Advisory Boards. The Ministry of HRD should take necessary action in this regard."

As Shahabuddin notes, the motive of the government largesse is clearly neither to benefit the Madarsah students to become more employable and more useful to society, nor to upgrade the standard of Madarsah education. It is to penetrate the Madarsah system, to monitor what goes on there, what is taught, whether the students are motivated to become militants and trained in the use of fire arms, whether the Madarsahs serve as shelters for the ISI! This explains the persistent and well-orchestrated propaganda against the Madarsahs (and the masjids) at the official level, with numerous searches and detentions of teachers and students on trumped up charges. None has been convicted so far. The most dangerous proposal that the Group of Ministers has made now is that a Central Advisory Board of Madarsah Education may be set up under the Ministry of HRD. Obviously, the advisory role can be transformed gradually into a regulatory and control role, in the name of upgradation and uniformity of syllabus, standardization of education (e.g., in Bihar). Since the financial bait is there, some Madarsahs – at least some management may fall for and accept official intrusion.

The way ahead

According to Syed Shahabuddin, the community should provide basic Islamic instruction to all boys and girls in maktabs as in Kerala and rationalize the Madarsah system for quality education and for producing the Islamic scholars it needs; this it can do on its own.

The government should, on the other hand:

Establish primary, middle and secondary government schools in villages, Blocks, Mahallas of
Muslim concentration in accordance with national norms.

Modify its policy on medium of instruction (in Urdu-speaking states) and on languages, the contents of the textbooks and the school culture, so that an orthodox Muslim does not apprehend any distortion of or threat to his ward’s religious identity in government schools.
And allow continued freedom to the community to establish and run its Madarsahs.

Dr. Syed Hamid, the former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and a renowned Mulsim educationist, has come up with the following suggestions [22]:

Madarsahs need to revise and update their syllabi; they need to integrate contemporary knoweldge with religious education

The emphasis should be on intellectual learning not on learning by cramming

Madarsahs need to streamline and organize their poor funding structures; teachers should not be underpaid

Madarsahs should be able to attract the best of talents; and not just the residue among the students

Well-educated and trained teachers should be employed

Industrial, technical, and professional training should also be provided

Madarsahs should aim to have three streams: stream of pure religious education; stream of religious and contemporary education; and stream of religious education and technical training. Students should be free to choose any one of these streams.

Case Study

We don’t produce terrorists; we feed and educate poor children by: Amir Ullah Khan and Zafar H. Anjum

On a hot sweltering Sunday afternoon, we stand in front of the Jamia Arabia Shamshul Uloom, opposite the Shahdara Railway Station, in east Delhi. Between the madarsah (seminary) and the asphalt road, runs a nullah, flanked by a series of low buildings, including two houses, a urinal, and a garbage bin. Qari Zubair Ahmed Jamai (Maulana Zubair), the founder of the Madarsah, has confirmed on his cell-phone that we will be escorted inside by one of his colleagues.

Soon the escort spots us. He takes us to the madarsah through an arched gate, made of red bricks. The gate opens into a courtyard, half of which is a cemented platform, forming the verandah of the mosque. The prayer hall, which also acts as the reading room during non-namaz hours, is connected on the three sides to a series of reading rooms. The three hundred students of this madarsah dine, read and sleep in this two storied structure. The third floor is under construction.

On the right hand, adjacent to the main gate sits Maulana Zubair, the director. We leave our shoes at the door, and take our seats on a carpeted floor after shaking hands with him. “Where have you come from and what do you want to know?” asks the maulana. We are curious researchers wanting to know more about the madarsah system of education.

The maulana listens very carefully. He is reclined on a gao-takiya, picking his teeth. When we have finished speaking, he reaches for a spittoon. Two of his assistants sit in a corner, poring over account books.

The maulana is satisfied with our intentions. “The misconceptions about madarsahs are a shame. People don’t know the reality. If they knew, they’d never treat us with any suspicion,” he says. “I am glad that you are here to explore the truth about madarsahs. Our gates are always open to those who want to see how we live and what we do.”

He tells us the history of his madarsah that he established in 1971 with his colleague, Maulana Shoaib Anjum. The seminary earlier operated from a mosque in Old Delhi. Soon the number of students swelled and they had to shift the campus to the present location. Back then, the maulana tells us, this place was a disused mosque. They took over this place, a property of the Delhi Wakf Board, and nurtured it to its present status.

After this brief history, he gives us the statistics. The structure houses three hundred students, 21 teachers and 5 workers. For us it was difficult to imagine how so many people lived in a 2000 square yard structure till we were shown their cramped accommodation. The institute runs on charity. It is a sheer miracle that 300 kids are fed and educated here without any regular supports.

Zubair tells us about the educational pattern and syllabus of the seminary. A nine or ten year old child enters the seminary after passing a written test. He is admitted to the Tehtaniya (primary school). At primary level, the students are taught Arabic, Persian, English, and Hindi. After a study of four years, he is promoted to the Ustania classes (middle school). If a child pursues further studies, he gets certificates such as Maulvi/Munshi (equivalent to Matriculation), Alim (B.A.) and Fazil (M.A.).

We are then taken around the campus. We come out of the small dingy room. We start from the primary classes, and are led into bigger classes which are faculty rooms. Students, mostly teenagers inching towards manhood, sit cross-legged rocking on their haunches as a teacher takes them through an interpretation of a religious text. All students and teachers sit on straw mats on the floor. Surprisingly, none of them carry any writing material. It is entirely oral education.

The rooms are darkly lit. They are the same rooms where students and faculty sleep. The working hours start from daybreak. Studies begin after the morning Prayer, and continue till the night prayers. The only let up is the lunch break and the evening break.

The library is a small room lined with a few books. Most of them are religious texts. There are no reading desks there. We are then taken to the kitchen where two cooks are busy preparing the dinner. We see a heap of kneaded flour on a big tray and a cauldron simmering on a brick-layed stove. There are a couple of LPG cylinders sitting in a corner. What’s cooking in there, we ask. Dal, we are told. Dal and roti is the staple diet here. “Seldom have we had a generous donor. Then we have some variety” the maulana tells us. “We have the best food during ramazan. That is when people send us other delicacies,” he says.

Thursdays are half working days. Friday is the only off day of the week. The seminary provides a summer break. But the students are so poor, mostly belonging to Bihar, Bengal, and Assam, that they don’t have the money to visit their homes. “The railway ministry has withdrawn concessions to our students,” says the maulana.

Under Jaffer Sharif and Paswan, the railways would not differentiate between students, and madarsah students would get the standard 50% rate cut. But under the new government, madarsah kids are suddenly not eligible. It is indeed a sign of our times that on the one hand a Shahnawaz Husain doles out subsides to the rich adults going for Haj, while Nitish Kumar withdraws concessions to the poor child. This is another example of the familiar issue of subsidies reaching the better off, and good intentions resulting in gross misuse.

We reach the rooftop. Some laborers are busy constructing the walls of a new room. We look down. “We are situated in a Hindu mohalla but we never give a reason for complaint,” the maulana says. He points to the minaret of a mosque at a distance. “There, you have some Muslim families.” Now we understand why there are no day scholars in this seminary.

Finally, we come down to the director’s room. We are served tea. Maulana Zubair sends for one of his erudite scholars to give us the history of madarsahs in India. He soon comes, an old, bearded man, his neck half titled to one side. He briefly tells us the history of madarsahs. “If you are writing a research paper, I can dictate the same along with the relevant sources,” he days. The director is visibly proud of the scholarship of his employee.

Soon it is time for the afternoon prayer. After the prayer we take leave. “You must tell others that we do not produce terrorists here. We are trying to produce angels,” the maulana beseeches. “And if they have any doubts, ask them to visit us anytime.”

We assure Maulana Zubair and come out of the seminary. He escorts us till we finally depart from the place. We have the feeling that we have come out of an orphanage. We wonder: If these people had a little more money, they would eat better food and perhaps buy some more books, and surely some notebooks too. If you don’t believe this, go see for yourself.

(We visited the Jamia Arabia Shamsul Uloom on Sunday, April 6, 2003)

Madrasas: A Brief Timeline

830 The establishment of Bait-ul-Hikma (House of Wisdom) set up by Al- Mamun
925-975 Reign of the fourth Caliph of Fatmid dynasty, Al-Muizz, the founder of Al Azhar of Cairo, the first Islamic institution which enjoys a wide reputation though out the world even today
1065 The first major madrasa was set up, when Nizam-ul Mulk ordered the construction of the grand Nizamiah Madrasa in Baghdad
1748 Death of Mulla Nizamuddin; Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir had granted one of the ‘ulama, Mulla Nizamuddin, an old mansion owned by a French trader, the Firanghi Mahal, in Lucknow, where he set up a madrasa, which soon emerged as the leading centre of Islamic studies in north India. Mulla Nizamuddin prepared a fresh curriculum for study here, which came to be known after him as the Dars-i-Nizami or the ‘Syllabus of Nizami’.
1781 Warren Hastings established the Calcutta Madrasah College for Muhammedans for the study of "Muhammedan law and such other sciences as were taught in Muhammedan schools".
1866 Darul Uloom, Deoband and Mazaheral Uloom, Shaharanpur were established.
1894 Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow, was established.
1925 In Turkey, a government decree, soon after the Republicans under the staunchly secular Kemal Attaturk took power deposing the last Muslim Caliph, ordered the closing down of all madrasas in the country with a single stroke of the pen.
1961 The socialist and Arab nationalist Jamal Abdul Nasser, in his impatience with the traditional Muslim ‘ulama, transformed Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest, largest and most respected madrasa in the world, into a modern university.
1980 The 1980s witnessed a rapid revival of the madrasas in much of South Asia, in terms of numbers as well as power and influence


[1] There are more than 8000 madarasahs, big and small, in India from where hundreds of students graduate every year (M. Shoeb Ansari) According to other estimates, including the Home Ministry, in India, the number of Madarsahs is now between thirty to forty thousand.

[2] Since Madarsahs run on charity, they are often looked down upon by the Muslim elite. Affluent Muslims do not send their children to Madarsahs. As a result Madarsahs have become veritable orphanages. Syed Shahabuddin says, "Hunger for education is increasing and even poor families are investing in education. In Muslim areas, one sees private schools sprouting as also private Madarsahs. They compete with each other. Naturally the well-to-do go to schools; Madarsahs care for the poor" (Muslim India, October 2001).

[3] This mistrust goes back to the days of the British and more particularly the Wardha scheme of education. The latter probably ensured that Muslims would not trust government backed schools and their curricula. The Wardha scheme was taken as a rigid framework to propagate the ideas of a political party. The fact that the Wardha scheme also replaced Urdu with Hindustani made a number of people uneasy.

[4] When the Afghan Taliban emerged into the international spotlight at the end of the twentieth century, no image was more central than what seemed to be their rigid and repressive control of individual behavior justified in the name of Islam. They set standards of dress and public behavior that were particularly extreme in relation to women, limiting their movement in public space and their employment outside the home. They enforced their decrees through public corporal punishment. Their image was further damaged, particularly after the bombings of the East African American embassies in 1998, when they emerged as the "hosts" of Osama Bin Laden and other "Arab Afghans" associated with him. (“Traditionalist” Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis, and Talibs, Barbara D. Metcalf, Professor of History, University of California, Davis)

[5] The Taliban emerged as a local power in Afghanistan starting in 1994 because they were able to provide protection and stability in a context of warlordism, raping, and corruption. They found ready support from elements within the Pakistani state, which welcomed an ally likely to protect trade routes to Central Asia and to provide a friendly buffer on the frontier. Similarly, the Taliban also appeared in the mid 1990s to serve a range of U.S. interests, above all in securing a route for an oil pipeline to the Central Asian oilfields outside Iranian control. The United States' interest in the Taliban shifted away, however, first, because of what were seen as human rights abuses in relation to women, and second, because the East African embassy bombings in August 1998 were linked to the presence of terrorist activists within Taliban controlled areas, with Osama bin Laden as their most visible supporter. That alliance would, after the World Trade Center bombing of 11 September 2001, be the Taliban's undoing. (Barbara D. Metcalf, Op. Cit.)

[6] The word Madarsah is an Arabic word, which has originated from another Arabic word Mudarris, and this comes from another Arabic word Dars. Dars means “to tell something or “to teach something. So the word Madris means the “one who tells Dars i.e., the one who tells or teaches something. Therefore, the word Madarsah means “the place where something is taught.” The word school in English also carries the similar meaning, so the word Madarsah actually means “school.” The Madarsah is similar to the church school. In both places religious education is taught and people go there for prayers and for studying religion. Madarsahs can also be referred to as Deeni madaris (religious schools).

[7] Historically Madarsahs have contributed to the national cause. Graduates from the Madarsahs as well as the founders of some of the leading Muslim seminaries in India played an important role in the struggle against the British. Prominent ulema led uprisings against the British in the 1857 revolt, and, for decades after, the reformist ulama kept aloft the banner of defiance in the Pathan borderlands till the British forcibly put them down. Madarsah teachers and students, such as Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi and Maulana Barkatullah Khan Bhopali were among the first Indians to demand complete freedom for India, at a time when Hindu and Muslim communalist groups were supporting the British. It is a fact, lost to those in the Hindutva crusade as well as the larger populace, that most Madarsahs vehemently opposed the Muslim League and its two-nation theory, insisting on a united India where people of different faiths could live in harmony.

[8] The dichotomy between Deen and Duniya is stark and clear where the madarsah vision is concerned. Deen stands for religious discourse, while Duniya is in the political power domain. The madarsah teacher or the student goes to a madarsah to reinforce his Deen and to pick up tools to work for his religion, he has little interest in the Duniya when he is at the Madarsah.

[9] Most critics of the Madarsahs have probably never visited a Madarsah, and so much of what is said is pure hearsay. Yet, it may indeed be true that in some Madarsahs, students are taught to see all non-Muslims as kafirs, rebels against God doomed to perdition in Hell and so on. This understanding of the ‘other’ is actually something that they share with Hindutva militants, whose image of Muslims is no less lurid.

[10] A study commissioned by the British government after the ethnic riots of Oldham and Burnby in March 2001 came out with some startling findings. It said Hindus in Britain are four times less likely to be unemployed than Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. Muslim men of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background are disproportionately unemployed as compared to Hindus in Britain. This 220-page report says, "among south Asians Indian Muslims do better than Muslims from Pakistani or Bangladeshi background". Though the report warns against concluding that religion necessarily causes economic disadvantage, it notes "odds of being unemployed do vary significantly with religion". Religion, including the influence of Islam, seems to be one of the "unidentified factors which need to be considered" by the British government in dealing with race relations (quoted from The Times, London, by The Statesman, Calcutta, February 21, 2002).

[11] Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf addressing the Science and Technology Conference at Karachi on February 18, 2002 said: "Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most unenlightened, the most deprived and the weakest of all human race. The time has come for Islamic nations to take part in self-criticism".

[12] “There were rival Islamic reformist schools in the quest for true Islamic practice. One group, the Ahl-i Hadith, for example, in their extreme opposition to such practices as visiting the Prophet's grave, rivaled that of the Arabians typically labeled "Wahhabi. " The "Wahhabis" were followers of an iconoclastic late l8th century reform movement associated with tribal unification who were to find renewed vigor in internal political competition within Arabia in the l920s. From colonial times until today, it is worth noting, the label "Wahhabi" is often used to discredit any reformist or politically active Islamic group. Another group that emerged in these same years was popularly known as "Barelvi," and although engaged in the same process of measuring current practice against hadith, was more open to many customary practices. They called the others "Wahhabi." These orientations --"Deobandi," "Barelvi" or "Ahl-i Hadith" -- would come to define sectarian divisions among Sunni Muslims of South Asian background to the present. Thus, ’ulama, mosques, and a wide range of political, educational, and missionary movements were known by these labels at the end of the twentieth century, both within the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as in places like Britain where South Asian populations settled.” (Barbara D. Metcalf, Op. Cit.)

[13] Syed Shahabuddin on Madarsah reforms: “I personally feel that the question of reforms in the Madarsahs should be left to them. I would not like to inflict two systems of education —the Madarsah and the school syllabus—on them. That has been done in Bihar with fatal results—the product of those Madarsahs are neither good maulvis nor good graduates. They are neither here nor there. I feel that every mosque should have a Madarsah attached to it where essential Islamic education is provided to every Muslim child till the age of five to seven. The children of a locality should attend this Madarsah as well as the regular school. But the community also needs some people who are experts in the Quran, the Traditions of the Prophet [hadith] and Islamic law [fiqh]. And so, some students should go in for higher Islamic education as well in order to become ulema. I would prefer it if the number of Madarsahs could be restricted to certain standardised institutions all over the country which would provide students with education right up to the research level. There should not be a glut in the market. Today, we have graduates of Deoband, the largest Madarsah in India, with no place to go. Not all of them can become imams in mosques, so many of them are forced to set up their own little shops or petty businesses to make a living.”

[14] After going through the curricula in vogue in important Madarsahs like Darul-uloom Deoband, Darul-uloom Nadwat-ul-ulema, Lucknow, Jamiatul-falah, Balaria Gunj, Jamiatul-Islah at Saraimeer and Jamia salafiah at Varanasi, all in Uttar Pradesh, one has to confess that the charges of stagnation and statusquoism against Madarsahs in India are primarily a result of the sad state of education in the country as a whole. Madarsahs by and large follow the same pattern followed by government run primary schools and teach using the same old syllabi and outdated texts.

[15] In contrast to this kind of reform, a Pakistani scholar has a different line of reform as a suggestion; “In Pakistan even the modern educational system is like the Madarsahs as far as the curriculum is concerned. The only way out is to radically change and reform the curriculum and introduce the teaching of social sciences. Instead of doing this, our government is focusing on the introduction of the natural sciences in the Madarsah syllabus and is also providing them computers. I think this is a useless exercise. It is the social sciences that make people to think and helps them open their minds, not the natural sciences.” (Mubarak Ali is a leading Pakistani scholar and activist; he said this in an interview to Yogendra Sikand)

[16] Asghar Ali Engineer’s views on curricular reforms are as follows: “I have been critical of the dars-i-nizami, the syllabus which is used in most of the Indian Madarsahs. This syllabus is, in my view, outdated and needs to be revised. Madarsahs 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' (ma'qulat), modern social and natural sciences and humanities should be taught, as well as comparative religions. In this way, the graduates of the Madarsahs would be better informed about the conditions of the modern world and hence would be in a better position to give their legal opinions (fatawa) on matters related to Islamic jurisprudence. Christian seminaries are doing this today. Catholic priests are studying, besides their own religion, subjects like history, economics, sociology, political science and comparative religions, and so are better equipped to handle the challenges that modernity places before us all. In medieval times, leading Muslim 'ulama did likewise. Faced with the challenge of Greek philosophy, they mastered it, and medieval Madarsahs 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. Instead of blindly opposing the Madarsahs, I feel one should think of ways to creatively work with them for reform. After all, for many Muslims, especially the poor, Madarsahs serve a valuable function of providing free education and literacy.”

[17] “I don't know what the international community can do except encourage national governments to change the system of education. There is a lot of change which is taking place in many countries around the world in the old system of Madarsah education. In our own country, in India I am aware of the fact that now Madarsahs are taking to information technology, they are using computers to train their students in a totally different kind of environment, and I think that is a kind of sustained effort which we need to pursue not only with regard to Madarsah education but with regard to all education which is based on religion.” India’s Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha in an interview,

[18] Syed Shabuddin sees it in a different light: “In India, there has been a systematic campaign to vilify the Madarsahs as dens of the ISI and as shelters for the terrorists and the militants over the last few years. Out of this distrust and suspicion, came the Central Scheme for the Modernization of Madarsahs Education.”

[19] For further details, see Evaluation Report on Modernization of the Madarsah Education Scheme(UP), Hamdard Education Society, New Delhi, 2003.

[20] See Syed Shahabuddin’s article “Throttling the Madarsahs in the name of security” (

[21] It is learnt that the relevant Working Group for the Ninth Five Year Plan had recommended a provision of Rs. 91.65 crores for the Modernization scheme. The amount actually provided was Rs. 48 crore. The total amount released does not exceed Rs. 16 crore. (Hamdard Education Society Report, 2000)

[22] Syed Hamid, “Deeni Madaris aur Asri Uloom,” in the book, Deeni Madaris aur unke masayal, Seminar papers, February 1988, Idara-e Ilmia, Jamiat ul Falah, Azamgarh.

Footnote: The title of this feature is inspired by Harper Lee’s timeless classic, To kill the mockingbird. The novel has become a metaphor for a misunderstanding of the ‘other.’ Madarsahs too, not only in India but also over the world, have been victims of misunderstanding and hate. Legend has it that the mockingbird was the giver of language; it taught other birds how to sing. Madarsahs have played a vital role in the field of education, so much so that, in the 10th century in Spain, talented young Christians were reading books in Arabic and were reported to “despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention.” Most scholars concur on the idea that it was the Muslim influence on Europe, through their seminaries, which brought about the Renaissance. (R. W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

This is part of a larger paper which can be read online at


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