Inside room after room, students wrapped in shawls, their backs hunched against the encroaching chill of winter and wearing crocheted skull caps sit cross-legged on carpets, reading from Qurans that lie open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. This is a typical Islamic seminary, the madrasa. The students are supervised by teachers, with shaved upper lips and heavy beards, many of them dyed with henna. They finger strings of prayer beads while conversing.
Every waking hour of the day is geared to learning called tahfiz ~ memorising the Quran by heart, known as hifz. A Muslim who has memorised all 6,236 verses of the Quran earns the right to be called a hafiz. Historically, Madaris (Madrasa plural) were institutions of higher learning until their importance diminished with the onset of Western education.
They have played an important role in the history of Islamic civilization and have been powerful nodes in the learning system and harbingers of several revolutionary achievements in fields as diverse as jurisprudence, philosophy, astronomy, science, religion, literature, and medicine. It was only when the Golden Age of Islam began to decline that the madrasas lost their academic vitality and relevance, and ceded prime space to western-oriented education.
The reputation of madrasas has taken a battering in recent decades. They have been continually targeted and maligned with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques. Madrasas have been broad-brushed as extremist hotbeds. However, the negative stereotypes presented in some sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of these Islamic schools present an opportunity, not a threat; their teaching certainly does not have the so-called “extremist pitch”.
For young village children, these schools may be the only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrasas provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves victims of forced labour, sex trafficking, or other abuse. They continue to serve parts of developing societies that Governments never reach. For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours with limited breaks, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed, and taught to read and write.
As their graduates go out and take up a range of new careers, and as pressures from within the community as well as from the State and the media for reform grow, these Islamic schools, too, are changing. Far from typifying one end of the polarising spectrum of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular education, the State must continue to use Islamic seminaries as part of the regular educational paradigm.
It must evolve an educational grid that allows constant movement between madrasas and mainstream educational institutions. Madrasa curricula, in most cases, offers courses like “Quran-i-Hafiz” (memorization of the Quran), alim (allowing students to become scholars on Islamic matters), tafsir (Quranic interpretation), sharia (Islamic law), hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), Mantic (logic), and Islamic history (mostly constructed, and invariably avoiding any discussion on weak points of old Muslim leaders).
These subjects are considered theologically mandatory. Several madrasas are now supplementing the traditional curriculum with modern education. This is in response to the growing deeper dissatisfaction and fatigue with a redundant learning system. For centuries Muslim theologians have blended the rigorist teachings of sharia with the insights of mysticism to allow the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law to shine.
But most madrasas have their curriculum patterned around the famous seminary of Deoband, the ultra-orthodox Sunni school of thought which is an acknowledged lodestar for smaller madrasas and which insists upon the letter. Most advocates of madrasa reform argue that the present curriculum cannot instill the necessary values in students to fit in with their notions of “applied Islam”.
It is out of step with the world in which the majority of Muslims live. Once a robust intellectual tradition, today Islamic orthodoxy is in serious need of a makeover. Mainstream theologians who cater to the majority of lay Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, are unable to address several critical moral and theological challenges. Its hallmark is archaism in theology and ethics. That’s because theological education is steeped in ancient texts.
Ordinary clerics are reluctant to replace the medieval rulings on blasphemy, apostasy, and captives with new interpretations of Islamic law based on current realities with little attention to reinterpretation. Efforts to stay “politically correct” have contributed to an absence of structured debate and discussion on how best to make modern education accessible to millions of poor Muslim youth so that they get jobs.
Madrasa custodians are now realizing that cultural isolation would only lead to stagnation. But madrasas are not immune to change. Many of them are trying to forge a Muslim identity that is compatible with modern culture and resistant to the blandishments of radicalisation. These madrasas are a counterpoint to many traditional madrasas that emphasize religious studies at the expense of everything.
Thus, apart from equipping madrasas with tools of modern education, we have to orient the mindset of students to attune these to social realities and sensitise them towards emerging socio-cultural paradigms. This must be the fundamental objective of the modernisation process of madrasas. Religion, for Sir Muhammad Iqbal the great philosopher-poet, was a dynamic and fluid movement, not a closed theology meant for mere imitation.
Islam marked the end of prophecy, not human intelligence. Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned 20th-century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted: “For us, Muslims, mere English (modern) education is not sufficient, nor does the old Arabic madrasa education suffice. Our ailment requires a compound panacea. One portion eastern and the other western.” Madrasas can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. Since the students are schooled in classical and modern science as well as secular and religious thought, they are better able to spot scriptural distortions.
The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-andwhite perception to a more wholesome one. State governments have to be sensitised and co-opted and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to “secular versus non-secular” debates. Madrasas do need a makeover and must keep pace with the imperatives of changing times. They should enlarge their worldview and should have enough resilience and malleability to respond to the fluid and changing world.
Students unfamiliar with the intricacies of their faith can be swayed by arguments that seem to call for jihad when taken out of context. But students coming out of new generation madrasas are grounded in both classical and liberal values. They also tend to be better connected not just to their communities but to the mainstream society as well and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shields them against radicalism. They are allies in India’s fight against extremism.
The right approach would be to temper classical and traditional learning with liberal thought. It can foster a culture that will engender the two streams of learning to nourish each other. This will enable the students of these seminaries to lead lives that are as true to their faith as attuned to modem needs. It will build them into empowered stakeholders in the shaping of their future as well as of their communities. While it is true that most madrasas have outlived their role, they need not be decimated. By all means, they must be made better and broader in what they teach, but to seek their abolition would only be one more blow to the self-esteem and urge for self-betterment of the poor.
What they need is essentially a makeover in a way that respects traditional sensibilities and attempts to synergise classical and modern learning. The present madrasa approach, focused on tradition and piety, along with an infusion of new knowledge, is the best way to revitalize madrasas, and in turn, Islam.
(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He can be reached at [email protected])