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MADRASA EDUCATION IN INDIA- Is it to sustain medieval attitude among Muslims?

Paper No. 730                                      02/07/2003

by R.Upadhyay.

A recent circular of Government of India to keep watch on the anti-national activities of madrassas raised many eyebrows in the country. But if we look back to the historical developments of madrasa in India this Islamic system of education has all along been playing  a prominent role in keeping the movement of Muslim separatism alive in this country.  The British also suspected them.  Contrary to it the Post-colonial India  for reason best known gave special constitutional privilege for the autonomy of madrasas.  But the manner in which the madrasas  promote medieval attitude among the Indian Muslims at the cost of secular education needs to be checked.  Infact, orthodoxy, religious conservatism and obsession to medieval identity remained the main focus of Madrasa education in India. 

Being the lifeline of Muslim society madrasa is the real foundation of Muslim education in India. But in absence of clarity of vision about the present day economic and social needs of Indian Muslims, madrasa managers failed to playa  positive role in the scheme of their education and preferred to keep the community subjugated under medieval psyche for their vested political interests. 

"Madrasa is an institution of learning, where Islamic sciences including literary and philosophical ones are taught" (Encyclopaedia of Islam - Leiden E.J.Brill). Avowed aim of madrasa education is to inculcate the belief and practice of Islam among its followers and guide them to follow Kuran and traditions of the Prophet.  The foundation of Madrasa education is therefore, basically standing on two pillars of Quran (Collection of God's revelations to Prophet Mohammad) and Sunna (Tradition of Prophet Mohammad).  

The history of madrasa, dates back to the establishment of Delhi Sultanate in 1206 A.D. Initially its principal function was to train personnel for government service (Encyclopaedia of Islam) and accordingly curriculum was formulated to cater the administrative needs of Muslim rulers. Gradually with the patronage of these rulers it was extended to different parts of north India. The claim of some Muslim thinkers that religious, rational and natural sciences were also introduced in the curriculum of madrasa in India to meet the educational need of the time appears to be a myth.  "Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because there was within Islam strong rationalist tradition, carried out by a group of Muslim thinkers known as Mutazilites" (Parvez Hoodbhoy quoted in 'The Secularist' in its issue no.191 September-October 2002). This tradition however, collapsed by the 14th century and the Muslim World was "choked in the vice-like grip of orthodoxy" (Ibid).  

The organisation of madrasa in India and its working all along remained religion-centric. Subjects related to Islam continually dominated its curriculum in India ever since its inception. While carrying forward the legacy of Perso-Arabic educational thought Indian madrasa steadily propagated the conservative outlook and attitude of a larger section of Indian Muslims.  Madrasa organisers in India never thought of how far its curriculum would be relevant in  the changing environment. Greater importance on theological aspect of Islam in curriculum of Muslim education largely ignored the rational sciences. The religion-based education in these institutions gave birth to bigotry and became a major source of tension in Indian society. There might have been strong rationalist tradition of Islamic education as claimed by Muslim educationists,  but the madrasas in India failed to keep pace with the fast changing modern social and educational environment.

With the disintegration of Muslim rule particularly after the advent of British, madrasa education gradually lost its shine it had during Muslim rule. It received a major set back and suffered further reversal with the introduction of modern education.  Madrasa teachers therefore, became restive and developed a more rigid attitude towards religion-centric education for Muslims. The historic participation of madrasa leaders in 1857 revolt against British regime proved that the main objective of traditional Islamic education was to attune the Indian Muslims with aspiration for regaining of political power.  With Ulema playing significant role in the revolt, the British started suspecting madrasas as possible centres of disaffection. 

After the failure of 1857revolt Muslim Ulama feared that the Muslim mode of life may got diluted due to western education introduced by British. Their immediate need was to keep a check on the possibility of their community moving towards modern education and ensure to carry forward the Persho-Arab legacy, which was possible only through madrasa education. They launched madrasa movement by establishing an Islamic seminary known as Darul Uloom at Deoband in 1866 with a view to educate Indian Muslims with Islamic system of education.  By the close of nineteenth century madrasas like Farangi Mahal (Lucknow), Dar-al-Ulum (Deoband) and Nadwat-al-Ulama ( Lucknow) emerged as vibrant symbols for Muslim separatist movement in India. 

Contrary to Deoband movement Sir Syed Ahmad a British loyalist launched Aligarh movement and "established Madrastul Ulum  at Aligarh in 1873 for imparting education in modern branches of learning, which later became Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College and then Aligarh Muslim University" (Education and Muslims in India since Independence edited by A.W.B.Qadri and others, 1998, page81). Being more realistic he tried to inspire Muslim society towards modern education. "Sayed Ahmad Khan founder of Aligarh Muslim University, found the madrasa sylabus unsuited to the present age and to the spirit of 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 possibility of original thinking stifled" (Mushirul Hasan in Hindu dated May 21, 2003). Even though both the institutions were anti-thesis of each other, their main objective was to retain the movement of Muslim separatism alive.  

With a view to fashioning the education policy exclusively for Indian Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmad formed All India Muslim Educational Conference in 1886. It was in fact a part of Aligarh movement.  Its basic aim was to fashion the education policy for Indian Muslims and encourage them towards the mainstream of western education.  Even today it continues to haunt the community with the ghost of alleged Hindu-biased education in government schools.  This attitude of social exclusivism worked as catalyst in fostering Muslim communal consciousness and caused a major damage to Hindu-Muslim unity in the Indian sub-continent. Later it gave birth to two-nation theory. "Arguably, its contribution to ultimate partition of India, although not greatly evident on the surface of affairs, was not much less great than that of its most famous child, the All India Muslim League" (All India Muslim Eucational Conference by Abdul Rasid Khan, 2001, page 251). This shows that a reformist like Sir Syed Ahmad had no vision for India in which both the Hindus and Muslims could have a common education.  

Deriving inspiration from both Deoband and Aligarh, other prominent Islamic seminaries like Nadwatul Ulama and Jamia Millia were later established in Lucknow and Delhi respectively. Nadwa introduced rational sciences and working knowledge of English in its courses of study but its over emphasis on Arabic literature and Islamic History did not bring the desired result for its products in job market.  Jamia Millia tried to combine Deoband and Aligarh in its educational thought but its religious character and obsession to Urdu language as medium of instruction remained a major obstacle for its recognition as a symbol of modern education. 

 Due to deep-rooted medieval attitude in the minds of Indian Muslims, these Islamic institutions also failed to transform the mindset of their students so that they could think independently for developing a critical perspective and analysing the life in a more meaningful manner suited to contemporary global environment.  Accordingly Nadwa also remained as conservative as Deoband.  Jamia however, accepted modern education to a considerable extent but its obsession to Urdu as medium of instruction could not bring its students at par with other modern educational institutions in the country as far as their job opportunity is concerned.  

Though a section of Muslim thinkers supported the Aligarh Movement launched by Sir Syed Ahmad as a positive response to western education, the largest majority of Muslim mass supported Deoband movement, which  favoured Islam centic education. They strongly opposed the Aligarh movement launched by Sir Sayed Ahmad, who tried to inculcate modern and scientific education.

With main objective to propagate Islam, madrasas in India formulated socio-political agenda on Perso-Arabic traditions with a view to keep off the Muslim community from the contemporary modern and scientific world.  Even the contemporary rationalist Muslim thinkers, who talk about Islamic modernism have hardly overcome their medieval attitude of intellectual subjugation. They have in fact ignored the real problem that how far madrasa education would be relevant in contemporary social advancement of the country. Factually, there is hardly any difference between madrasa education and modern education imparted by Muslim institutions like Aligarh Muslim University as far as the medieval attitude of their students is concerned. Madrasa education, which is basically for propagation of Islam therefore, always remained an inspiration for modern Muslim educational institutions. 

Indian Muslims continue to be obsessed to madrasa education and its Perso-Arab legacy as a result it is difficult for them to admit that sound and fruitful knowledge also exists in any other languages than Arabic and Persian. They cannot think of any knowledge that is not stored in Islamic literatures. Carrying forward the legacy of Perso-Arabic system of education and treating them as Indo-Muslim cultural heritage the madrasas in India played vital role in propogating the ideology of two-nation theory. Partition of the country put similar stigma on madrasas in free India because the largest majority of Muslims in British India were in favour of partition on the basis of two-nation theory.  

After partition the largest section of educated Muslims migrated to Pakistan.  But those who stayed back passed through a state of frustration due their apprehension of likely set back in their movement of Muslim separatism. The future of madrasa education in Hindu dominated secular and democratic Indian polity became an issue of primary concern for them. Their leaders in post-colonial India gave them the wrong impression about alleged Hindu-biased education.  In stead of joining hands with Hindus in national reconstruction programmes, Indian Muslims therefore, took up the problem of their separate identity as primary concern and failed to avail the equal opportunity provided to all the Indian citizens under constitution. 

Despite the rising tide of anguish of Hindus against the Muslims after partition, Indian leadership gave constitutional protection to Muslims for managing their educational institutions.  Despite this some who stayed back in India sensed a danger to their cultural identity.

Taking advantage of Indian constitution providing the minorities special privilege for establishing their educational institutions, there was a spurt in expansion of madrasa education in India.  Accordingly Qazi Mohammad Abdul Abbasi, a senior Congress leader with the support of madrasa leaders organised Deeni Talimi Council in Uttar Pradesh in December 1959 with a view to establish maqtab (Primary school) for imparting the fundamentals of Islam to every Muslim student at primary level.  The council was formed "to fight against what was perceived as Hindu-based education being imparted in various government schools" (Madrasa Education in India - Kuldip Kaur, 1990, page 203).  Abbasi while addressing the Deeni Council in Banaras in 1960 said:

"I am of the opinion that we must not seek any government help for this Deeni Talimi Council and must not associate ourselves with the educational department of the government" (Ibid, page 204). Poor response of Muslims to government schools was due to their notion that the education imparted in these schools was against the tradition of Islam. 

Managers of madrasas while remaining  inflexible  maintaining Islamic traditions and culture, never gave any thought to job opportunities to the products of madrasa education. Even Islamic institutions like Deoband and Nadwa, which had maintained strategic opposition to partition of the country hardly, made any change in their courses of study and method of teaching even after Independence. They have produced thousands of graduates and established a large number of Madrasas over the years but did not provide them an opportunity for the material progress of their products. They are therefore, equally responsible for the material plight of the Indian Muslims and for their economic, social and educational backwardness as we see today.

Contrary to the secular education system formulated in India after Independence madrasas were promoted as major obstacles for Indian Muslims in taking the benefit of utilitarian concept of education, which is basically for the material progress of Indian society. They inculcated among Indian Muslims  an obsession to education in purely Islamic environment, which kept them off from government schools. Thus, growth of maqtab and madrasas in different parts of the country also served as nucleus for sustaining a full-fledged movement  in retaining a separate Muslim identity.

"Today there are lakhs of Madrasas spread all over the country" (Indian Muslims by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, page 88) which however, could not enlighten Indian Muslims to develop a positive outlook."  Though, a section of Muslim elite entered into the field of modern education, they could not inspire the common Muslims, who remained under the subjugation of the fundamentalists within the community. They are still obsessed to Islamic interpretation of education by conservative Muslims. "The ultimate aim of Muslim education lies in the realisation of complete submission to Allah on the level of the individual, the community and humanity at large" (New Horizons in Muslim Education by S.A.Asraf, 1985, page 4). 

One can understand the reaction of Indian Muslims against Western system of education introduced by British after the collapse of Muslim rule in India because they were deprived of political power. But after Independence if the Muslims who stayed back in India voluntarily remained obsessed to their traditional Islamic education system, they cannot blame anyone except their own leadership for their educational backwardness. If they still enjoy remaining under the subjugation of radical Islamists no one can stop them from slipping rapidly down the educational and economic scale. 


Whether Madrasa education has led to the decline of educational or economic position of Indian Muslims in present environment may be a debatable issue, but that its Islam-centic teaching is not friendly to the job market in the contemporary world is the ground reality. In the absence of modern knowledge the graduates produced by madrasas are neither able to improve their own material prosperity nor they provide leadership to the Muslim community to face the challenge of modern world. Their job opportunity is restricted to mosques and madrasas.  Even for higher Islamic studies the degrees awarded by madrasas are not recognised by Indian universities except in the theological department of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia. Similarly such degrees are not recognised for administrative jobs in the government.  Since these degrees are not market friendly, they do not have any practical value.  

Without any concern for the material progress of Indian Muslims madrsas are only producing Islamic zealots so that they could remain loyal to Islam and to the political interest of Muslim community.  Emphasis on Islamic education at the cost of secular education is detrimental to national interest.

In view of the on going changes in the social, cultural, economic, and political environment drastic change is requied in madrasa system of education so that Indian Muslims could come to terms with the changing needs of contemporary Indian society. The Feeling among the Indian Muslims that government and public schools are loaded with learning related to Hindu culture is to be changed so that Muslim parents could send their children in those schools without hesitation. But the Muslim leaders and thinkers except a couple of exceptions are so much bogged  down with the political problems of their community that they are not found assertive on their modern educational problem, which is the real issue.  

A section of Muslim thinkers are in favour of modernisation of madrasa education and transforming them according to the present day need.  But they hardly the oppose the of radical Islamists, who suggest that " in stead of turning Islamic madrasas into English or modern institutions, the modern educational institutions be made Muslim" (Education and Muslims in India since Independence - Edited by A.W.B.Qadri, 1998, page85).  

Memorisation of Islamic scriptures without any rational understanding befitting to the contemporary cultural and social environment may not serve the real purpose of education. Concerned with the economic backwardness of their community Muslim rationalists might have a genuine desire to the free the community from the academic bondage of madrasa education but the task is very difficult due to the firm grip of fundamentalist forces over the community. It is a fact that Indian madrasas have produced a number of world famous Islamic scholars, but lakhs of Muslim educated from theses madrasas are deprived of the job opportunities because of their ignorance of modern knowledge.  

Madrasa managers might have their own arguments in support of their theological command but keeping off the Muslims with the realities of contemporary world has caused immense harm to the community as far as its economic development is concerned. Curriculum of madrasa ignored the sociology of religion and did not allow any independent thinking on the plea that Islam is a comprehensive, perfect and complete way of life for all the times.  In absence of the clarity of  vision about the contemporary social environment in India madrasa education failed to secularise the behaviour of the Muslim society with social enlightenment. 

Madrasa system of edcation was basically meant for preparing the people for Islamic way of life and Islamisation of all the branches of knowledge even though contemporary world does not accept it as sole criteria of education. Theological education, which is a specialised subject needs segregation from the education for the contemporary worldly need.  But ironically, Indian Muslims are not ready to accept it because their orthodox religious obsession and fear of losing cultural identity pushed them to isolation.

Educational backwardness of Indian Muslims is a national problem.  But so long they do not respond to the remedial measures it is difficult to be resolved.  The Country should  be ready for their rescue provided they come forward and make a conscious endeavour to transform their madrasas into modern educational institutions with Islamic subjects as optional courses.

 (E-mail <ramashray60>)