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Published in the 16-29 Feb 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Madrasahs, reform thyselves

"Madrasah", derived from dars, means a place where dars or teaching is imparted and in the English dictionary it means Mohammedan or Mosque school. So essentially it is a place of learning like college, pathshala, vidyalaya or school. The origin of the word may be Arabic but Urdu is a beautiful language that represents not just Indian culture in all its vibrancy, but possibly it is the only language in the world that represents many languages of the world. So the word Madrasa may have come from some other part of the world, it was amicably absorbed by Urdu. In pre British era when Urdu was the language of the Indian elite, not just the language of Muslims as non-Muslims generally think today, schools were referred to as madrasas. My father’s non-Muslim friends recount proudly incidents and anecdotes of maulvis and madrasas much in the same manner as we remember our school and teachers. The incidents are both interesting and humorous as they should of course be...the only difference being that that school is called madrasa and its teacher is called maulvi. 

However, somewhere down the line while history was taking shape certain facts got entangled with malignant fantasies and came out in a totally different light. Madrasa also came to be associated with extremism and orthodoxy. Undoubtedly today it is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented words.

As development and progress in our world continued and globalisation became the order of the day, our beautiful world also shrank and seemingly became a smaller place. But gradually the eastern part of the world found itself overpowered by western countries. West progressed technically and preserved its culture and heritage too, while the east clinging on to its dogmas shunned western scientific inventions and discoveries far too long. In the churning that was taking place, the eastern world became insecure and unsure of itself. West surged ahead in its march towards development while we in the east continued to live in the glory of past laurels not realising that progress is a continuous process. Stagnant waters gather moss. 

There were other factors too. Europeans who came to easteren countries were fair complexioned, had green and blue eyes and lot of riches and wealth. Natives were in awe of the new visitors and we still continue to look down upon ourselves, living with an inherent inferiority complex.

The stirring that thus continued divided people in broadly two sets: those who chose to sail with the tide and those who clung to the past tightly in a bid to save their traditions. It is every Muslim’s firm belief that Islam is a complete faith and the perfect guide to a worthy lifestyle and the madrasas rightly took upon themselves to save the Islamic spirit in the wake of a rapid decline in values and morals after the arrival of the Europeans. Naturally, the endeavour being noble, it received respect and cooperation from all right-thinking Muslims. Even today the contribution of dedicated madrasas and alims cannot be denied and their presence is essential.

But of late there has been an unchecked and unprecedented mushrooming of such institutions. The fact that they are a source of education to the poor children who cannot afford even subsidised education gives them their place of importance. Most of them provide food and shelter to the inmates and are a source of livelihood for the person running the show. But the students coming out of these madrasas are obviously ill-equipped to face the real world. They realise that employment opportunities for them are not only limited to becoming a muazzin or Imam of a mosque or an Arabic teacher in some other madrasah and these jobs are ill-paid too.

Madrasas are usually run by not so well- educated persons who have limited or no access to the new trends in education and research.

It must be noted that Qur’an Sharif is one of the greatest miracles of Allah and it must be interpreted in the right spirit to see its contemporary relevance. But most of the time any progressive thinking is shunned by madrasah graduates who claim that no change in the text of the Holy Qur’an is possible. They fail to realise that modern Islamic scholars are only trying to present Islam in its real spirit.

In most madrasas Arabic as a language is not taught properly. So how can the Holy Qur’an be well understood? It can only be read or even learnt by heart (which is no less important) but one must bear in mind that understanding is different from memorising by heart. It is therefore in the best interests of the Muslim society to make efforts to regularise madrasas. It is of paramount importance that proper training must be imparted to anyone who wishes to start a madrasa. He should be given thorough knowledge of the Holy Qur’an and the context of its often misrepresented verses. His concepts of Jihad and Tabligh should be clear and unprejudiced. He should be taught to interpret the holy verses in context taking into account the present day developments and progress, because Islam is certainly an ever-modern concept and contemporary as it talks of justice, equality, human rights, women’s rights, peace and other aspects which other people have just about started realising. 

In this context both the Muslim intelligentsia and religious leaders must shun their differences and come together for the sake of a better social order. 

Some people have worked on statistics and come out with the information that only two percent of the Muslim population goes to madrasas. Even if it is true, annually this two percent over several years becomes a large chunk of the Muslim society. As it is, literacy rate among Muslims is hardly encouraging. Is it not the responsibility of the enlightened and broad-minded Muslims to save the coming generations from growing up with maimed Islamic beliefs? Our responsibility does not end with the benevolence that we show by giving donations to these institutions, it is pertinent for us to see that they are rightly utilised. 

Zohra Javed

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