Author : Rasheed Kidwai

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 09, 2019
Madrasas and the need to move with the times

There is an urgent need to de-stigmatise madrasas as breeding grounds for terrorism, argues a new book that scrutinizes the problems plaguing Islamic seminaries in the country.

This critical issue is addressed in the seminal text ‘Madrasas in the Age of Islamophobia’, where authors Ziya Us Salam and Dr M Aslam Parvaiz point out how madrasas, the cradle of Islamic learning in India are going through challenging times and desperately need reforms and modernization. The Islamophobic wave is alienating Indian madrasas further and a tendency to brand students from madrasas as terrorists for instance are alienating these institutions further.

Take for instance the case of Abdul Wahid Sheikh who was accused of being involved in Mumbai train blasts, but was acquitted nine years later. Or that of Salman Farsi earlier. Farsi, a hafiz, was said to have been involved in the Malegaon blasts. When he was acquitted some eight years later, he had nothing to fall back upon. A qualified doctor, he even took to rearing goats to meet his needs. These kinds of outcomes can be easily avoided. The media instead of calling every accused a terrorist perhaps could restrict itself to calling them only an accused, and refrain from splashing their pictures as if they have been convicted. However, that is only part of the solution. For a complete reality check, media personnel should visit an Islamic seminary of their choice to discover that no madrasa is a centre for keeping arms and ammunition or teaching students to use arms, suggests co-author Ziya Us Salam.

After thoroughly examining curriculums, the authors say reliance on classical books of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), their style, language and examples are all caught up in a time warp. “They (curriculum) promote more enmity than debate and dialogue. They induce ennui rather than informed debate. Most commentaries taught to students are actually commentaries on commentaries! Certainly, not the ideal form for evoking interest,” the study says. Some notable exceptions are in southern India, particularly Kerala and even in the east in Bengal, where mathematics, English and science are taught.

Ziya and Parvaiz, after carrying out in-depth study of thousands of madarsas across the country, lament that aalim (scholar) of Islam coming from local madrasas is often synonymous with being ignorant of the world. "A community which made landmark contributions to science has become tied down to blind imitation and hidebound traditionalism," they conclude in the book.

Most madrasas teach Hanafi doctrine leaving out Islamic interpretation by other notable schools of thought such as Shafi’i, Maliki or Hanbali.  “Almost all Sunni madrasas follow Dars-e-Nizami framed some 300 years ago. Very few modern-day additions have been made. Some Shia ones do the same too. But hardly any have space for Shia pattern of teaching with increasing emphasis on the so-called material subjects”, the authors remark, pointing how, in effect, most madrasas do not teach about Islam and teach only one interpretation of Islam to youngsters. “It is just assumed that a person will not need knowledge of these sects simply because they are in a small minority in India. Or that it is their interpretation of Islam is the only correct one, rest are all misguided.” This, according to Ziya and Parvaiz, is contrary to Quranic directive that prohibits running down other faiths.

The scholars discovered that curriculum of most madrasas in 2019 or 2020 could be easily replaced with the syllabus of a madrasa in 1920, or even 1870. “There is a timelessness to the whole affair which defies the message of the Quran. The Holy book asks mankind to think, explore and introspect. The madrasas ask the students to concentrate on memorizing the Quran and ask no questions. Any attempt to ask questions is met with a rebuke; a student is supposed to toe the line.”

Education, as we understand, is an evolutionary process. However, in Indian madrasas, time stands still. Many seminaries still consult 14th-century work of Ibn Kathir while looking for commentary of Quran. For them, 20th century works of Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (also known as Ali Mian, Abul A’la Maududi), Dr Israr Ahmed and Wahiduddin Khan merit no space. “In the timeless world of Indian madrasas the  students are supposed to read and memorize the Quran with a finger on the book, a cap on the head, little inside; it is not unusual to find a hafiz-e-Quran who does not know the meaning of a single surah of the Quran,” the authors highlight.

Muslims, according to the authors, until the 12th century were in the forefront of scientific scholarship, discoveries and inventions producing many great philosophers, mathematicians, doctors and historians who relied on experimental method, which is integral to modern science even today. In contrast, most madrasas in India do not provide their students any access to computers or the internet.

Another major problem most Indian madrasas are facing relates to funds. Most Islamic seminaries are dependent upon charity money. In most residential schools, the students sleep on the floor in both the harshness of summers and winters. The authors found that in most classes, over 40 students sat crouched over the sacred book while two fans with twin blades providing them relief from temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.  In winters, the students are asked to stir-clean a worn-out rug and spread it across the room. At night, the boys lie down, one after the other, on the same rug. There is no sense of private space in their residential area. A majority of madrasa students hail from poor families.

Most madrasas run without registration, even those with proper documentation and enviable history seem to be at the crossroads. According to Ziya and Parvaiz, only four per cent of the current Muslim population in India has studied in a madrasa at some point.

The government’s role and intervention is crucial, as bulk of madrasa graduates cannot find jobs other than starting a new madrasa or taking up role of a mosque imam or muezzin . If teachers, books, internet and computer are made available, madrasas could become modern and mainstream.

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Rasheed Kidwai

Rasheed Kidwai

Rasheed Kidwai is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He tracks politics and governance in India. Rasheed was formerly associate editor at The Telegraph, Calcutta. He ...

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