Islamic Perspectives

Origins of Madrasas in India predates Muslim period

In medieval India facility of education was available at least through three means: formal institutions (in the form of maktabs & madrasahs), informal institutions (in the shape of individual centers of teachings) and private teachers and tutors (known as muallim, muaddib or ataliq)

Madrasah education is neither byproduct of any particular historical event or emergent situation, nor does its foundation and functioning solely depend on the state support or patronage of political authorities. This is actually an in-built system of Muslim society which worked for the spread of education among Muslim masses through ages without any break. In case of India, it may be surprising but this is a fact that its origin goes back to pre-Muslim period, as the foundation of the madrasah education was laid by the Arab traders initially in the form of maktab in south India (especially in Malabar) in the last part of 7th century when they had started residing along with their families in their newly established colonies. During the Arab rule in Sind (8 -10th centuries), the madrasah education got formal shape as madrasahs were set up in several towns in this region which had sprung up as centers of Islamic culture and civilization.

After the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in beginning of 13th century, the madrasah education developed much, and with the expansion of the Muslim state series of madrasahs were established in different parts of the country. This tradition got firmly established and further developed during the Mughal rule (1526- 1857). In fact, it had been a popular practice on the part of Muslim rulers to make arrangements for the construction of mosques and setting up centers of religious education (i.e. maktabs and madrasahs) in the territories that came under their control. Moreover, many ulama of the period themselves took up the task of teaching especially the main subjects of Islamic learning in local mosques or at their own houses which had flourished in the form of individual centers of teaching and functioned just like madrasahs. During the Muslim rule in India the rising number of madrasahs may be judged from the fact that according to the author of Subhul A’sha (5/ 69), in the Tughlaq period (14th century) there had been about one thousand madrasas in Delhi itself.

It has become a general practice on the part of modern writers on the madrasah movement or madrasah education in India to trace its origin to the post-1857 deplorable condition of the Indian Muslims or to link it to the degeneration of their religious and social life in that period. But in view of the historical facts it would be unrealistic to say that in India, madaris came to be founded after 1857 mainly to cope with the problems of the Muslim society, particularly to provide safeguard against the onslaught of western culture and civilization and to uplift their socio- cultural status.Of course, it cannot be denied that in the post-1857 period, the madrasah tahrik was revived and was further strengthened, and a section of the Indian ulama devoted themselves fully to this cause and made significant contribution to establish new madrasahs and expand the old ones under the Waliullahi movement.

It should not be overlooked that in medieval India facility of education was available at least through three means: formal institutions (in the form of maktabs & madrasahs), informal institutions (in the shape of individual centers of teachings) and private teachers and tutors (known as muallim, muaddib or ataliq). As a matter of fact, second type of institutions were found in those days in a very large number, under which ulama or learned persons used to impart knowledge or give lecture on different subjects sitting in mosque or at their own houses. This system was in vogue at the primary as well as higher level. It should also not be overlooked that during the Muslim rule in India in big cities and towns there used to be grand and spacious mosques with series of rooms (hujrahs) at least on two sides which were meant mainly for the students and teachers. This showed that these mosques also served as madrasah or educational institution as has been rightly observed by Maulana Abul Hasana Nadvi. (Hindustan ki Qadeem Islami Dargahain, Maktba-i-Maarif, Azamgarh, 1971, p. 15). Many ulama or theologians, as stated above, performed this work voluntarily considering it noble deed (kaar-i-khair) or source of divine reward (baith-i-thawab). Significantly enough, examples are not lacking to show that some of the state officials and sufis also showed keen interest in teaching work and daily spared some times for this purpose at their place of work or residence (i.e., khanqah) respectively. Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani has rightly observed in his famous book – Hindustan mein Musalmanon ka Nizam-i-Talim wa Tarbiyat (Nadwatul Mussanefin, Delhi, 1944, 1/ 13-15) that during Muslim rule in India the conduct of the teaching work did depend on establishment of madrasah or formal institution. Wherever any alim or scholar (interested in teaching) sat and started teaching that became a madrasah and students or seekers of knowledge flocked to him availing of his dars or lecture. It may be a mosque, a house, a khanqah, court, a palace or deorhi of a zamindar. This situation was more vividly depicted by the eminent writer and noted educational thinker Allamah Shibli Nomani in this way: In the old dictum college used to be the name of a person. Wherever he sat down that became a college surrounded by a huge gathering of students or seekers of knowledge. Whatever was uttered by him in day and night that served a lecture and in this way his talking, movement, manners and behavior all formed part of his silent lectures. Gradually, the circle of teachers as well as that of students used to expand, till after some time this living college got developed in the form of university or Jami-i-Azam. In present days, (learned) persons are ascribed to a college or an institution and at that time they were ascribed to a person (teacher). Nowadays, universities or colleges are established only in big cities, but in those days living colleges could be established in each town, village and even in huts (Maqalat-i-Shibli, 3/102-3).

It is quite interesting to note here that some works of medieval India themselves were not free from misconception about the madrasahs. Surprisingly, it is recorded in Babur Namah (compiled in 1530 A.D.) that (this country) “has no madrasah and no hammam” (bathroom) (Babur Namah, Bombay Edition, p.204) . On the other hand, the famous French traveler Bernier who visited India during 1656- 1668 observed (after giving details about social conditions of those days), “A profound and universal ignorance is the natural consequence of such a state of society as I have endeavoured to desire. Is it possible to establish in Hindustan academies and colleges properly endowed? Where shall we seek for founders? or should they be found where are scholars? Where are the individuals whose property is sufficient to support their children at college? or if such individuals exist, who would venture to display so clear proof of wealth? (Travels in the Mogul Empire, p. 229). How these statements are to be accepted in view of the fact that thousands of madrasahs were established in pre-Mughal period as confirmed by the historical sources. Secondly, under the Mughals this tradition got further strengthened (rather than weakened) with the development of the state resources, expansion of the Muslim territories and rising number of ulama and scholars.

Another very serious misunderstanding about the madaris of medieval India is that it is often assumed that these institutions were intended only to serve the elite or the wards of the upper strata of society and that there was no scope for common people to be benefited from them. Most probably, under the same wrong impression a Muslim scholar and social activist recently observed in a popular Urdu daily, “that during Muslim rule in India facility of education was confined to elite or upper class of society (khawass), as there were no large number of madrasahs in those days and that it goes to the credit of Macaulay that he opened the door for general or mass education in India.” First of all, it is not right to say that in those days madrasahs were in a very limited number and these were reserved for the wards of upper class family. In fact, the network of madrasah and maktab was available in all the cities and towns, even rural areas were not bereft of such institutions. Secondly, even if it is accepted that there were only few madrasahs and that their scope was limited, it cannot be overlooked that there were other well-established means of education available to common people, particularly numerous informal centers of learning run by individual teachers at their houses or public places. What is more important to point out in this regard is that these informal institutions very well served the purpose of madaris as the details of their working show. Besides, we are informed by the contemporary historians that some of the Sultans had made special arrangement for the education of male and female slaves. In the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388), thousands of slaves got education and training at the state’s expenses not only in traditional sciences (ulum-i-naqliyyah) , but also in crafts and mechanical works (Afif, Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi pp.339-340). In the same way Sultan Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Khalji (1469-1500), an independent ruler of Malwa, took special care of providing religious education to female slaves and for this purpose he appointed a number of teachers in the royal haram (Tarikh-i-Farishta, 2/255).Such examples suggest that the Muslim rulers of medieval India had interest in the education of different sections of society and further dispel the misgiving that they were only concerned with the education of the elite.

In brief, the madrasah education is very deeply rooted in the Muslim civilization and in India this noble tradition originated in the pre-Muslim period and was firmly established during the Muslim rule. As a matter of fact, series of madrasas flourished in modern India are continuation of the same well established practice for which the significant contribution of ulama, scholars and rulers of medieval India cannot be forgotten.

The author teaches Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2010 on page no. 28

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