A Serious Look at the Madrasa System in India


Book: Hindustani Madaris ka Taleemi Nizam aur us main Islah ki Zarurat: Ek Jayeza (The Educational System in Indian Madrasas and the Need for Reforms: An Analytical Study)

Author: Waris Mazhari

Publisher: Global Media Publication, New Delhi

Year:2014 Pages: 328 pp.

Price: 176



Muhammad Ali,

Jamia Millia Islamia


Seeking and imparting knowledge is always cherished as something sacred in Islam and, thus, by Muslims. The Quran, since its very first revelation, laid emphasis upon the importance of knowledge and the Prophet Muhammad, behaving in compliance with the Qur’anic precepts, himself set the earliest model of an institution for disseminating knowledge in Muslim societies. This revolutionized the later history of the intellectual endeavours of human beings for education and knowledge was no longer confined to the elites of society.

The early forms of educational institutions which developed in Muslim societies were largely due to the efforts of individual scholars well versed in respective fields and, therefore, diverse in nature. However, they were institutionalised when Muslim governments started building huge edifices across the Muslim world. Among them the madrasas of Cordova, Baghdad, Cairo, Tunis, Qarwiyyin, Samarqand, Herat etc. are still remembered and some still stand today. These institutions were called madrasas- meaning ‘a place where learning takes place’. These madrasas played a very important role in intellectual advancement of Muslims turning them into the torchbearers of knowledge in the medieval period.

As these institutions ceased keeping pace with the on-going time and developments, Muslims lost their vitality and power in modern times. But, unfortunately, they could not realise the fact even after they did lose most of the symbols of power and knowledge in their own lands to foreign powers. It shook them from inside and forced them to find out the causes that led to their disaster. Sure, there were voices holding the educational system of Muslims as responsible for their decline. Some advocated for education based on Western or modern values as the only means for the retrieval of losses, while many others supported, with some changes, the traditional madrasa system-the repository of Islamic intellectual legacy.

Though the madrasa system is still well-established in various countries, there are always voices of discontentment from within and without the system. It has been facing allegations like confining students within the four walls of madrasas, spreading extremism. At the same time, these institutions have received wide-ranging support among Muslims.

The book under review is rich in its content, as a backgrounder. It contains a detailed history of madrasas in general and discusses their nature and the role they played in spreading knowledge throughout the Islamic world. The focus of the book rests mainly on studying the educational system of madrasas in the colonial and post-partition India, particularly in northern India. It contextualises the pressing needs of establishing madrasas and the challenges they faced in protecting the religious identity of Muslims immediately in the aftermath of the fall of the Muslim power in India.

Waris Mazhari, the author, is trained in both traditional and modern educational systems. A graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband, he did his PhD from Jamia Millia Islamia. He, therefore, stands as a researcher qualified to analyse the educational system of madrasas and suggest reforms which could satisfy the current needs.

He argues that the failure of the Indian freedom struggle in 1857 against the British followed by a total reconfiguration of political, economic and educational structures of India. This inevitably harmed the former ruling classes the most, which caused demonization of the British, and everything related to them, in their eyes. The replacement of the existing educational system with the European one was considered tantamount to be anti-Islam. The Christian missionaries devoted to the cause of proselytization swarming to India under the patronage of the colonial power added to this disenchantment. These and the other anti-Muslim policies of the newly formed government were the real causes of Muslims’ fear and anxiety. Having lost sovereignty in their own land, they did not want to lose their religion too. They were afraid of sending their children to the government-controlled schools and Christian convents lest their children converted to Christianity or became atheists. The madrasas, therefore, were entrusted to preserve the Islamic teachings in a traditional manner. The collapsed system of madrasas was restored with a new zeal. But instead of developing a new system, they preferred to adopt the age-old educational system called Dars-e-Nizami which was designed in the 18th century to suit the needs of the Mughal State. This system was popularised at first by Darul Uloom Deoband. It was envisioned that the education, religious in nature, madrasas provide will alone ensure the protection of faith and religious identity of the Muslims. Modern education, European in fact, was held as catastrophic for the faith and considered anti-religious.

The author believes that the notion of duality in knowledge or education, i.e., the segregation between religious and secular, modern and traditional, took place during this time of Muslims’ decline. Muslims were, indeed, ignorant of this concept throughout their history, he asserts,

Currently, the educational system of almost 90 per cent madrasas in the Indian subcontinent is based on Dars-e-Nizami with some modifications. This system relies on books authored in the middle ages and the teaching methodology devised at that time though this system of education has proved incapable of meeting the current challenges Muslims face. The critics of madrasa educational system see the Dars-e-Nizami as the main obstacle in the way of the advancement of madrasa students. The author provides various opinions of Muslim intellectuals of both kinds, positive and negative, regarding the Dars-e Nizami. After putting all the opinions together, he himself critiques the system. 

In the second chapter, Mazhari furnishes a detailed list of the syllabuses prescribed in important madrasas affiliated to different Muslim sects of northern India. It shows that much change has been made to the Dars. However, it is still unsatisfactory.

The third chapters discusses the reform in the syllabus of madrasas and its characteristics, the fourth deals with the religious seminaries and the need of the modern world and offers some important suggestions while the fifth chapter dwells on the current challenges for madrasas and their possible solutions. In these chapters, the author offers an assessment of the nature of the discourse for bringing reforms in the madrasas’ syllabus. It ranges from the ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (d.1898) to those of Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani. Some outrightly reject the system declaring it as incompetent and unsuccessful, while some others, including traditionalists and non-traditionalists, demand some reforms only.

The majority of ulama have a rigid opinion rejecting the introduction of reforms in the educational system of madrasas. They see it as an intrusion and distraction in the way of the complete devotion to the religious learning. Many intellectuals from the ulama group like Maulanas Ashraf Ali Thanwi and Manazir Ahsan Gilani were proponents of reforms, but despite their affiliation with madrasas, they failed to introduce them into the system.

The author also draws his reader’s attention to the inefficiencies of the teaching methodologies of madrasas. A student is not even able to get excellence and competence in the subjects he/she has studied for long years in a madrasa. The author not only criticises the existing educational system of madrasas and the unbending attitude of the ulama, but also provides answers to solve this crisis. There must be some training centres, he suggests, in which madrasa teachers may learn modern teaching methodologies. Among other things, he is of the opinion that the curriculum must accommodate English and local languages such as Hindi. Students in madrasas should study modern subjects that will help in finding jobs and link them with the modern realities. The author also criticises the biased nature of the syllabi prescribed in madrasas of different sects. There are some more valuable suggestions the author offers with the hope that if they are implemented, the educational system of madrasas will be more effective in meeting the modern challenges. He emphasises that the role of madrasas and their graduates should be conceived in the context of the multicultural society of India. He envisages that the madrasa graduates should be capable of providing their services in multiple fields and not only to the religious ones.

The author concludes that whatever changes have occurred, or may take place in the educational system of madrasas are stimulated by self-examination by the administrators of madrasas. These changes cannot be imposed from without.’ (p. 309)

Acting as an optimistic, Mazhari observes that if the people of madrasas unleash themselves from the bonds of traditions, ‘there is a wide scope of possibilities and opportunities for them’. (p. 310)

As a whole, this book is the embodiment of thorough research and sheds light on various issues pertaining to the discourse on madrasas and introduction of reforms into their curriculum.