Integrating and Expanding all Kinds of Knowledge: A Concept Note

Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam

Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi


Tawhid is a central idea in Islam. Literally, it means oneness, or unity. Under this rubric comes the oneness of God, oneness of nature, oneness of knowledge, oneness of humanity and much else. Historically, in Islam all systems of knowledge and education were united.

Because of this unity, till the early 19th century, madrasas produced both ulema, fuqha and muftian on one hand, and judges, police and army officers, physicians and different kinds of government officials on the other.

The split came about 200 years ago: one set of people were educated in madrasas for deeni (religious) purposes and another set were educated in schools, colleges and universities for dunyawi (worldly) purposes. It is interesting to know that during the lifetime of Darul Uloom Deoband’s founder, Maulana Qasim Nanawtvi, the Darul Uloom also taught several so-called duniyawi subjects at an advanced, university level. Even the nearby Mazahirul Uloom did the same.

However, over the decades madrasas limited themselves completely to religious subjects. Many dropped subjects like Persian and mathematics also. On the other hand, Persian remained part of school, college and university education, and some universities still offer graduate, postgraduate and even doctoral programmes in Arabic, Persian, Islamic theology and Islamic Studies (both being differently structured from each other).

By and large today madrasas have limited themselves primarily to religious instruction even though some of them offer high-school level English and a few other “non-religious” subjects, while there are some madrasas that don’t. If one goes out into the field for research in the subject one finds a wide array of madrasa types and levels of education and pretty diverse syllabi being taught.

Broadly, there are two categories of madrasas (and within those two categories there is a wide variety). One of these broad categories is called Dars-e-Nizamiah and the other is Dars-e-Aaliya. The former is strictly devoted to religious education and the latter includes some subjects taught in schools. The former is supported by the community with its own donations and takes no help from the state. Thus it is largely independent of government oversight, intervention or advice on syllabi, while the latter is government-run, its examinations conducted by a madrasa board on the lines of state school board. Compared to the Dars-e-Nizamiah its graduates find it easier to switch over to normal school and college education.

None of the madrasa-educated students is ever taken into the science stream directly, thus effectively screening them off from modern medicine, engineering, bio-sciences, environmental sciences and a career in scientific research of any kind. This is altogether a different issue, and nothing can be done about it as madrasa education does not prepare students for direct entry into science stream.

The rarest of the rare (if at all) university-educated person wants or needs to go to a madrasa, but most madrasa graduates have to enter college for a modicum of modern education as they are virtually unemployable in the job market without a college degree. Hence the need for making their entry into colleges and universities easier and their years of study at these institutions maximally productive. There is also the need for further extension of this phenomenon to include more and more people.


As late as the sixties of the last century Dars-e-Nizamiah graduates trying to enter the modern educational system by clearing matriculation examination were looked down upon by peers as people who had betrayed their tradition. Dars-e-Aaliya graduates never faced the stigma. Today the resistance among the Dars-e-Nizamiah graduates has also broken down. This is the moment for asserting the unity of all knowledge and recognising the fact that both kinds of knowledge are God-given, and college education is not ungodly as some people would have us believe. The schism at the heart of education must be healed now by closing the artificial division. Both the Word of God (revelation) and Work of God (natural phenomenon, the subject of sciences) are legitimate areas of study.

In fact, educationists in the past have tried to close the gap, although the steps have not been sufficient to address the issue. It cannot be addressed at one go. In the past ulema from Nadwatul Ulema Lucknow, Darul Uloom Deoband and other madaris have come together to interact constructively with professors from Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamia Hamdard. The need is to continue the process.

The Sachar Committee Report came out with the startling revelation that of all the Muslim students in India only four per cent go to madrasas. This finding gave us a clear idea of the size of madrasa-student population. That means this tiny population can relatively easily be integrated with the other 96 percent of Muslim student population.

The point here is to facilitate the interface between madrasas and colleges and to integrate and expand the two streams. These issues have always concerned us. The IOS brought out a series of books in 2005 on Empowerment of Indian Muslims. An important book of the series was Prof. M. Akhtar Siddiqui’s Empowerment of Muslims Through Education. This work traces a thousand years of Muslim education in India. Naturally, for most of that period Muslim education meant madrasah education. In this must-read book he has discussed current problems of education as well, including madrasa education. We will come back to that in a while, but I must make the point here that this book is a key resource for people interested in Indian Muslims’ education.


In Islam, diversity is often taken as a blessing, like the well-known position on diversity of opinion within Islam. In terms of curricula, teaching arrangements, level of education and compatibility with university education there is an amazing array of madrasa models available in India and different Muslim countries.

We have the example of the 1000 year old Jamia al-Azhar in Cairo, which began as a Shia seminary before turning into a Sunni religious university.

Over the centuries al-Azhar has evolved into an institution with a purely theological focus, but around it have developed, general colleges, colleges of medicine and engineering allied to it. This could be a model for future development in other countries. Somewhat on similar lines, but not quite the same, ulema of Nadwatul Ulema Lucknow have established the Integral university under the chancellorship of one of the leading lights of Nadwa, Maulana Saeedur Rehman Aazmi. This could be a model for some large institutions to extend laterally, without altering their character. However, it must be clarified here that unlike al-Azhar, the Integral University is not even loosely confederated to Nadwa.

Muslim universities like Jamia Millia and AMU have contributed meaningfully to the mainstreaming of madrasas, albeit in different ways. As Jamia takes in madrasa graduates at intermediate level in some courses, the AMU takes them in at PG Level. By and large, most colleges and universities take in madrasa graduates after they clear school board examinations.

By going into such detail, I intend to suggest that madrasas and their students are a great resource for the community. They provide cultural continuity and have to be nurtured as such. One of the ways of making them viable is through making madrasa graduates employable via modern education.

A related issue to be dealt with here is the much-hyped government scheme of madrasa modernisation, a phenomenon that is not clearly understood. For some years, the community elder and educationist Saiyid Hamid supported it saying that it would bring the resources of the state to cash-strapped madrasas to help them function more smoothly and fruitfully. However, later he backed off saying the scheme could destroy the character of madrasas and lead them away from their primary goal.

In his book Prof. Akhtar Siddiqui cities the case of a centrally-sponsored scheme of modernisation of madrasa curriculum. When it was circulated to state governments by the department of education madrasas in the states generally responded to it with enthusiasm. Some were for its implementation through state madrasa education board (which means with government help) and others wanted to implement it without board assistance (that is, without government help).

“The response of the scheme varies from state to state, depending on both existence of a Madrasa Education Board in the state and the interest taken by the state administration in its implementation,” wrote Prof. Siddiqui. When the scheme was launched in some of the madrasas in Delhi, it could not continue in most of them because of the lack of administration’s support. In the remaining few madrasas teachers were harassed so much by government officials that they had to quit.

This instance shows the difficulties in the way of mainstreaming of madrasas. This does not call for stopping the effort, but for a more careful and consistent attempt. Of course, such “modernisation” is not relevant to larger seminaries like Darul Uloom Deoband or Nadwatul Ulema, but for the lower and mid-level and government-aided madrasas.


From the preceding discussion it is obvious that it is a joint responsibility of both the state and the community and the failures have often been on both ends. It is interesting to note, however, that in the past community-based initiative have been of great help and continue to be so.

Community-based initiatives like free maktabs run by philanthropic, relatively well off Muslims run from mosques or from the spacious male quarters (mardana) of well-to-do Muslims in the country side have provided some elements of madrasa education to all kinds of education. This system has been functioning since well before Independence.

Community-based initiatives in Kerala and Lakshadweep have a system of early morning religious education in maktabs followed by regular education in schools later in the day. There are so many other innovative community-based initiatives in the country that are doing very well. One such is UP Deeni Taleemi Council which has over a relatively short period established over 20,000 religious-cum-secular educational institutions in the state.

The idea is to explore, innovate and find newer ways of integrating and expanding both kinds of education at different levels and establishing new interfaces between the two streams with government help and community initiatives.

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