“The madrasa is in a bad shape. The ceiling is leaking, making it difficult for devotees to offer prayer….The madrasa has no money to provide its students with blankets or quilts in winters. It does not have enough money to feed its 60 students. It needs urgent help.”
The recent book, ‘Madrasas in the Age of Islamophobia’, begins with these grim words of a madrasa fundraiser, offering a peek into the bleak state of affairs of any archetypal Islamic seminary located in the Hindi heartland of India.
Written by noted literary and social commentator, Ziya Us Salam, and science communicator Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz, and published by SAGE, the book is a comment on the decline of madrasas, from being centres of excellence and learning in the past. While at present they are either seen as archaic centres of Islamic learning or wrongly pictured as dens of extremism, what is often forgotten is that madrasas have had a glorious history in India. Celebrated personalities like the social reformer Raja Ram Mohon Roy, writer Munshi Premchand, and the first president of India Rajendra Prasad received their education in some of the best Madrasas in the country. From providing an easy route to royal employment in Mughal India, to playing a crucial role in the fight against the British during the freedom struggle, madrasas have made several significant contributions to Indian history.
In a telephonic interview with Indianexpress.com, Salam and Parvaiz discussed, at length, several aspects of their book, along with what they think is the present significance and future solutions to the plight of madrasas in the country. Excerpts from the interview.
Why did you decide to begin with such a grim description of a madrasa?
When you go to a typical madrasa, the atmosphere is one of deprivation and discrimination. I decided to begin my book with that kind of a description after my visit to Madrasa Rasheedia on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi. I saw some 50 boys between the age of 8 and 16 staying there and they did not even have a dormitory to themselves. The boys would just sleep in the corridors be it winter or summer. There was no proper educational curriculum being followed. They were just expected to read the Quran in order to memorise it.
The madrasa had no concept of organising a social get together, picnics, a visit to a stadium or a cinema hall. Almost all the students were first-generation learners from very poor families who could not afford to give them two meals a day. So the boys were put into madrasas so that they could be fed and at the end of the day and would be able to read the Quran. It did not strike them that the Quran has to be understood and not just read.
As far as the teachers were concerned, it did not strike them either because they too were products of a similar education system wherein you were encouraged to read the Quran without ever understanding it. It is this atmosphere that prompted me to write the book.
Has it always been the case?
There was a time when madrasas brought out the best of physicians, economists, mathematicians. There were subjects like History, Geography, other languages, and poetry, which were taught there. The madrasas seem to have forgotten their own golden past. Today they are reduced to producing first generation learners.
There was a time when people from across the world would prefer to send their children to madrasas because that was the way to getting the best kind of education.
We have glorious examples like Rajendra Prasad, Raja Ram Mohon Roy, Premchand, who had studied in madrasas. They were not Muslims, but their parents chose to send them to a madrasa because of the quality of education, much like the way many modern Muslims in India today prefer to send their children to convents.
When and how did this change?
Things began to deteriorate from the early 19th century but became truly bad after Independence. When Lord Macaulay came out with the Minutes of Education in 1835 that made a distinction between sacred and secular learning, it was the death knell of the concept of madrasas. madrasas until then were providing both sacred and secular learning. Non-Muslim students who did not want to read the Quran, could read the Vedas, the Hindu epics. But Lord Macaulay wanted a generation of Muslims to come up where the secular, well-read Muslims would not know much about Islam and theologians would not know much about the subjects beyond religion. This was a well thought out division made with a view to weaken the Islamic learning system. The modern Indian madrasas are following the same concepts even today.
Most madrasas in North India are of this kind. Things are slightly different in South India. Many madrasas in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have affiliation or some kind of association with other medical colleges, engineering colleges, management institutes etc., wherein the students who learn the Quran in the morning, can enrol for secular education in the afternoon or evening. Most of these madrasa graduate students are eligible to take examinations in other courses like Management, Journalism, etc.
What kind of role did the madrasas play during the Sultanate and Mughal period in India?
During the Sultanate period, everyone was supposed to be a learner. People who were well off were encouraged to teach their slaves. Not only did many of the slaves know the Quran thoroughly, but were also authorities in secular subjects like Mathematics, or astronomy. Particularly during the rule of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, learning was paramount, and Delhi was considered to be a city of a thousand madrasas.
During the time of the Mughals as well, although Emperor Akbar wanted to add a few more secular subjects to the madrasa curriculum. Under the Mughals, in fact, madrasa education was considered to be an easy route to royal employment, regardless of their religion.
What was the role of Madrasas during the freedom struggle?
They had played a crucial role right from the first war of Independence in 1857, to India’s Independence in 1947. In the run-up to the 1857 mutiny, there were already several groups of ulema — the clerics and intellectuals of the Muslim community — who were rebelling against the British in parts of Bihar and Awadh. So when the revolt began on May 10, 1857, the British came down heavily upon the Muslim community, holding them responsible for the revolt even though separate rebellions from different communities took place across the country.
The Muslim community learned a crucial lesson. They realised that in order to be able to take on the British they had to have a sound system of education. They realised that the British had better arms, discipline and network, which is why they were able to quash the revolt so successfully. Thus started the Deoband school of learning, the biggest Islamic seminary in Asia including West Asia in 1866. From Deoband, we have the Jamiat Ulama i Hind that came up in 1919, and played a crucial role during the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement. Later their luminaries were also involved in the Quit India movement of August 1942.
In fact, the Jamiat played a critical role in keeping Muslims in India during the Partition. It opposed the Muslim League’s two-nation theory and emphasised on the fact that India belongs to everybody who regards it has his or her home.
What is the significance of a madrasa in contemporary times?
The positive thing about madrasas, which is often not taken into account is the fact that they are creating literacy among those who do not have access to other means of education. Even today in West Bengal, we have many non-Muslim students studying in madrasas.
Despite their obvious flaws, madrasas play a critical role in imparting elementary education among first-generation learners. More than 90 per cent of madrasa students are from extremely poor families. The madrasa system of education has given them the ability to read and write, and inculcated in them basic skills such as operating a bank account.
How would you say that madrasas need to reconfigure themselves to meet the requirements of modern times?
They have to strike a balance between the sacred and the secular. The secular cannot be an afterthought when it comes to education. Students need to be introduced to subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science, right from the beginning. An attempt has to be made that when a madrasa student steps out, he should be well educated not just to impart education in Islam, but also to debate about concepts like Triple Talaq or Nikah Halala. At the same time, he should be equipped to pick up a job in any public or private office.
We would suggest that affiliation with the ICSE or CBSE is a step in the right direction. That is how the madrasas will start paying attention to other modes of learning besides the Quran or Hadith.
Also, their methods of teaching are very outdated. At a time like this when during the lockdown, most educational institutes have shifted teaching online, you cannot expect the same from most of the madrasas. It partly has to do with most students being from extremely poor families with no access to laptops, smartphones etc. But in other ways as well, the madrasa mode of teaching is stuck in a time warp.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines