Madrasa Reforms MOHD. ZEYAUL HAQUE (JULY 24, 2007)

The unfortunate events of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid have revived the clamour in India for change in madrasa curricula and a comprehensive reorientation of madrasa education as a whole. Such demands are not new and many of the people and groups making such demands and suggestions are not well-wishers of Muslims. The Sangh as a whole, and BJP in particular, have been at the forefront of such campaigns. The Sangh, inspired by malevolence, has also been consistently trying to give madrasas a bad name and get them shut down for ever.

Such malignant campaigns have made Muslims suspicious of all efforts to reform madrasas. Hence suggestions to this effect are resisted. The point here is to remember that all suggestions to reform madrasa education are not necessarily driven by malignant motives. The Union government has mooted a comprehensive programme for madrasa reforms. The proposals made by government should be studied seriously with the clear idea in mind that Manmohan Singh’s government is not Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government.

One of the major packages of ideas being discussed has been forwarded by the eminent educationist Saiyid Hamid contained in the Urdu daily Qaumi Awaz  pleading for reorientation of madrasas and the creation of a Central Madrasa Board on the lines of madrasa boards in several states.

For the uninitiated it should be made clear that most madrasas are run with the contributions of the community alone and get no government support. Thus the people running them are largely free to prepare and teach their own syllabi (which, almost exclusively, contain religious subjects only) and run them the way they fancy. On the other hand there are madrasas which come under the madrasa boards of the states and get government support. To that extent they are under government control, subject to board’s regulations.

The Qaumi Awaz  article  has proposed curricula revamp to include some of the subjects taught in regular schools and an interface with contemporary educational system of schools, colleges and universities. For years he has been pleading for the strengthening of "feeder institutions", meaning primary, secondary and high schools to prepare students for college and university education. He takes pains to explain that Muslim areas do not have enough schools. One of the ways to cope with that is to better utilise the large number of madrasas the community has already got. Inclusion of regular school subjects would facilitate easy transition of madrasa students to colleges and universities and offset the disadvantage of inadequate number of schools. This would also make former madrasa students more employable and solve the problem of livelihood. The proposed Central Madrasa Board would provide funds and useful guidance.

Saiyid Hamid has admitted that it would possibly compromise some of the autonomy, but the reward would be worth the sacrifice. As usual his plea has been heard with respect, but a section of Muslims has tried to shoot it down saying it would dilute the "character" of independent madrasas. This argument has an eerie ring to it: it sounds like the argument of people opposing Sir Syed 150 years ago.

The revamp of madrasa curricula is not a "new-fangled" idea by any stretch of imagination. What he is saying today was already felt and articulated by the founders of Darul Uloom Deoband and Mazahirul Uloom Saharanpur, both of which were established in 1864 with a similar goal and by the same set of people, mainly Maulana Qasim Nanatawi and Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

They were teaching, among Islamic subjects, mathematics, geography, geometry, astronomy, logic and philosophy at the level taught in the best European colleges.

An important educationist of the age Alois Sprenger sat in some of the classes in Deoband and later reported to the government that the maulvi teaching geometry discussed advanced problems of the subject with a degree of confidence and knowledge that made one feel as if the spirit of Euclides had entered his body.

Darul Uloom and Mazahirul Uloom were teaching subjects like chemistry, physics and other "modern" subjects in the early years and decades. However, after the World War I they began to drop these subjects from the curricula one by one, and by the beginning of the second half of the 20th century they had stripped down to religious subjects only. Today there is no trace left of the vision and foresight of the founders. What Saiyid Hamid is proposing amounts to reclamation of the tradition of great learning rather than a break from tradition as many see it.

It would be appropriate to end it on a cautionary note. Emperor Aurangzeb in his mature years was assailed by doubts about the adequacy of his education. In a letter to his teacher he complained that at a time when the princes of Europe were given a comprehensive education consisting of all subjects he (the teacher) had confined his (Aurangzeb’s) education to religious subjects only. That was a legitimate grievance. If we do not pay heed to the advice of sages today, we would have to be prepared to hear similar complaints from our next generation.

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