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Madrasas in a morass: between medievalism and Muslimophobia - i
By Yoginder Sikand

With the march of modernity and secularisation, western-style development planners in much of the post-colonial Muslim world had hoped that traditional Islamic centres of education—the madrasas—would be rapidly replaced by western schools, training a new generation of educated Muslims who, while rooted in their own cultural traditions, would imbibe the best that the West had to offer. Madrasas were seen as centres of obscurantism and superstition, and as one of the principal causes of Muslim decline at the hands of the West. In different Muslim countries the attack on the madrasa system took different forms. In Turkey, for instance, a government decree in 1925, 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. This policy was followed in several Muslim countries that had come under communist rule in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917, such as Albania and the vast Muslim belt in Central Asia. In other countries, such as Morocco and Algeria, while the state continued to base its legitimacy on Islamic appeals, Islamic education was sought to be ‘modernised’, with departments of Islamic studies in modern universities taking the place of traditional madrasas. In 1961, the socialist and Arab nationalist Jamal Abdul Nasser, in his impatience with the traditional Muslim ‘ulama, whom he saw as a major challenge to his modernisation efforts, transformed the world-renowned Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest, largest and most respected madrasa in the world, into a modern university. South Asia, where over half of the world’s Muslim population lives, followed a slightly different course. While the madrasas were left largely untouched, the effective delinking of madrasa-education from the job market led to the declining popularity of traditional Islamic schools.

The 1980s witnessed a rapid revival of the madrasas in much of South Asia, in terms of numbers as well as power and influence. In India, the number of madrasas is now estimated at some thirty to forty thousand, with a similar figure in Pakistan and probably a slightly smaller number in Bangladesh. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, madrasas today play a crucial role in national politics. Pakistan has several ‘ulama-based political parties with millions of supporters. The Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan is entirely ulama-based, products of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. In India, the ulama and their madrasas wield less direct political influence. While there are few ulama active in Indian politics, they, however, exercise an enormous influence on Muslim public opinion. The massive agitations that India witnessed against what was seen to be an attack on Muslim Personal Law in the 1980s were led principally by the ulama. The Muslim Personal Law Board, which sees itself as the key spokesman of the Indian Muslims, is also largely in the hands of madrasa leaders.

Although the power of the ‘ulama among the Muslims of South Asia is today substantial, it is interesting to note that early Muslim history knew no such separate class of clerics as the ‘ulama or of an institution of specialised religious training as the madrasa. Islam is probably unique among the world’s religions in its radical disavowal of any intermediaries between God and ordinary believers. The Qur’anic assertion that Muslims could approach God directly obviated the need for a professional class of priests. Every Muslim was seen as, in a sense, his own priest. Prayers could be led by any believer, for God was believed to be equally accessible to all Muslims. Further undermining the institution of priesthood, acquiring knowledge of the scriptural tradition was seen as a duty binding on all Muslims, men as well as women, and not as the prerogative of a special class. While some people were recognised as more learned or pious than others, early Islamic history saw no professional class of ‘ulama as religious specialists. Islamic knowledge could be had by all, generally provided freely in mosques and, later, in Sufi lodges.

The emergence of the institution of the madrasa and the ‘ulama as a class of religious specialists coincided with the spread of Islam outside the Arabian peninsula, in the years after the death of the Prophet. By the eighth century, large parts of West and Central Asia, in addition to almost the whole of North Africa, had been brought under Muslim rule. A de facto division between political and religious power, foreign to pristine Islam, now came into being. Under the Umayyad, and, then later, the Abbasid rulers, while political power rested with the Caliphs, religious authority gradually began being exercised by a special class of men—the ‘ulama—set apart from the general body of Muslims as experts in Islamic theology and law. The two classes worked in tandem with each other, the Caliphs providing the ulama with protection and official patronage, and the ulama seeking to interpret the Islamic tradition in order to legitimise the rule of the Caliphs, which, as the historical records tell us, rarely, if ever, accorded with the principles of Islam.

It was in this period that madrasas as specialised institutions for the training of ‘ulama emerged, first in West Asia, and then, as Muslim rule spread, in Africa, southern Europe and South Asia. Madrasas were subsidised with permanent sources of income, such as land grants by the state or by endowments (awqaf) by rich Muslims. Although madrasas, as distinct from mosque-schools, were known before the tenth century, the first major madrasa dates to 1065, when Nizam-ul Mulk ordered the construction of the grand Nizamiah madrasa in Baghdad. The Nizamiah school, like the madrasas which, following it, were set up in other parts of the Muslim world, was intended to train bureaucrats for the royal courts and the administration, as well as judges (qazis, muftis), who were appointed by the state. Typically, teachers as well as students were drawn from the elite, while there seems to have been little provision for the education of children from the poorer classes. Since one of the primary aims of the madrasas was to produce a class of bureaucrats and, particularly, judges, as employees of the state, the teaching of Islamic law (fiqh) came to occupy a major position in the madrasa curriculum. Among the Sunnis, who now account for some ninety per cent of the world’s Muslim population, four schools of jurisprudence developed—the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shaf’i, and each of these schools had its own chain of madrasas, wherein its own system of jurisprudence was taught. In addition to law, Arabic grammar and prose, logic and philosophy, subjects that a prospective bureaucrat would find indispensable, were also taught. Theology (deeniyat) and mysticism (tasawuf), subjects that one would have expected religious seminaries to specialise in, received little attention.

In South Asia, Muslim rulers made elaborate arrangements for the setting up of madrasas to train a class of ‘ulama attached to their courts. In addition, most mosques had schools (maktab) attached to them wherein children were taught to recite and memorise the Qur’an, a pattern that continues till this day. No standardised syllabus was employed in the madrasas, however, and each school was free to teach its own set of books.
These consisted, largely, of commentaries on classical works on Islamic law. With the general consensus of the ‘ulama that the ‘gates of ijtihad’, or creative understanding of the law in the light of changing conditions, had been ’closed’ following the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate in the late thirteenth century, the madrasa curriculum lost its earlier dynamism, degenerating into a seemingly timeless warp. New books, attuned to the very different context in which Muslims found themselves in India, ceased to be written and read, and a blind conformity to the classical works was sought to be rigidly enforced.

Signs of change emerged in the late seventeenth century, when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir commissioned a team of ‘ulama to prepare a compendium of Islamic law, named after him as the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri. The Emperor granted one of the ‘ulama associated with this project, 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’. The focus of the Dars was on what were called the ‘rational sciences’ (ma’qulat), subjects such as law, philosophy and grammar that would befit prospective bureaucrats. Three centuries later, the Dars-i-Nizami continues to be the syllabus of most madrasas in South Asia today, although an increasing number of books on the ‘revealed sciences’ (manqulat), such as theology and the traditions of the Prophet (hadith) have been added.

While in Mughal times the madrasas served the purpose of training an intellectual and bureaucratic elite, leaving the poorer classes largely out of their purview, things began to change with the onset of British rule. By the early nineteenth century, the British had replaced Persian with English as the language of officialdom and Muslim qazis and muftis with lawyers and judges trained in English law. The eclipse of Muslim political power in the region now meant that the ‘ulama and their madrasas were now bereft of sources of political support and patronage. In many cases, the vast grants that Muslim rulers had provided the madrasas were resumed by the British. In this rapidly changing context, the ‘ulama now began to turn to ordinary Muslims for support.

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