Madrasa Reforms: Some Issues To Consider

Maulana Abu Ammar Zahid ul-Rashdi

(Excerpts taken from the author’s Urdu book Dini Madaris Ka Nisab-o-Nizam [al-Shariah Academy, Gujranwala, 2007] and translated and edited by Yoginder Sikand)

Many people complain about various aspects of the present roles and conditions of the madrasas and I myself raise some questions in this regard. But in raising these concerns, one needs to take a realistic view of the many problems facing the madrasas today.

An oft-heard complaint about the madrasas is that they do not teach their students contemporary subjects, such as English, Mathematics, Science, Engineering and so on. This complaint cannot be fully accepted as valid, but, yet, it cannot be denied altogether. The detailed teaching of various ‘modern’ subjects in madrasas is not possible or necessary or even desirable. It is not possible because in order to train as qualified ulema students need to learn a host of various disciplines, such as Arabic, Persian, Quran, Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the Principles of Fiqh, Logic, Philosophy and Literature. This curriculum is so vast and heavy that it makes it impossible for the detailed teaching of other subjects to be considered. If this curriculum is reduced it will negatively impact on the system of religious education. The detailed teaching of these ‘modern’ subjects is not necessary because this is the age of specialization. Each field requires its own set of specialists, and there is no need for a specialist in one field to specialize in another field as well. For instance, it is not at all necessary for an engineer to have a specialized knowledge of medical science, and nor does a doctor need to study engineering. In the same way, it is certainly not necessary for a religious scholar to have expertise in medical science or engineering or in any other such discipline.

Yet, at the same time, it is important for our ulema to have a basic general understanding of different fields of knowledge. This importance cannot be rejected or denied. Just as we say that it is not necessary for a doctor or an engineer to also be a specialist in religion, but, at the same time, we say that he should at least have a basic understanding of the faith, likewise, I believe, the ulema need not be also trained as doctors or engineers but they should at least have a basic knowledge of their disciplines so that they can provide doctors and engineers or others proper religious guidance in a suitable manner. Today, English has emerged as the language of global communication, including sections of the mass media that are viscerally opposed to Islam and Muslims. Hence, it is very important for the ulema to have a basic understanding of English, in addition to Arabic. I do not seek to advocate any structural or basic change in the existing madrasa curriculum, but at the same time I feel it crucial that the madrasa students be taught basic English and the elements of various ‘modern’ disciplines. Madrasas must pay proper attention to this.

But in this regard one must keep in mind the myriad problems that madrasas face. One major problem is that those of their students who manage to learn some English and other such ‘modern’ subjects generally choose not to work in madrasas and mosques. Rather, they seek government or other private sector employment. Consequently, madrasas and mosques are denied teachers and preachers of good quality. It is obvious that the pay scales and other benefits provided to mosque imams and preachers and madrasa teachers are insufficient and their employment is not secure. This is why as soon as avenues for government employment are opened to them, many madrasa graduates choose that option. This is another serious issue that needs to be properly addressed.

An oft-heard complaint about the madrasas is that they continue to ignore the growing and powerful challenge posed by anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim forces in the global media. This media depicts any effort on the part of Muslims to live by the tenets of their faith and mould their lives and institutions on Islamic lines as ‘obscurantism’ and ‘medievalism’. Madrasas must take up this challenge and respond to these allegations of the media and also counter Western cultural imperialism. This they must do by using a contemporary idiom. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, madrasas continue to be completely oblivious to this urgent task.

Yet another complaint about the madrasas is that they have failed to equip their teachers and students with the skills, idiom and language of the present times, and that, instead, they continue within their traditional framework of fatwas and fierce polemical debates, and this is even reflected in the pulpits of the mosques. For those who watch television and read newspapers, our style and language has now become totally alien, but yet we continue to ignore this. Consequently, the number of educated people who attend our religious gatherings is declining by the day. Today’s language is one of logic, experience, proof and human rights. It demands that issues be seen in their full and proper context. Yet, the majority of madrasa teachers and students are ignorant of this language. And, to make matters worse, the number of good writers and orators, which as it is was limited earlier, is now becoming even less. Let alone those capable of writing well in English and Arabic, the number of our ulema who can pen even short scholarly works in Urdu is declining.

Another major cause of concern is the rapidly crumbling system and environment of moral training in the madrasas. In most madrasas now there is no system worth the name for students’ intellectual, religious and moral training and nurturing. As a result, most madrasa graduates lack missionary spirit or any proper aim in life.

Yet another worrying issue about the madrasas is the fact that they is hardly any co-ordination between or consultation among them. Earlier, there was absolutely no such co-ordination, but, in recent years, in many places madrasas have formed loose federations. Although these are based on sectarian lines, they have brought about some positive changes. But these efforts are hardly enough. Because of lack of sufficient co-ordination, often madrasas are set up in an unplanned manner without looking at local needs and conditions. There is no overseeing authority that can check and regulate their finances and functioning, these being entirely in the hands of a single individual or a small group of selected persons. Among these institutions are many that better deserve to be called ‘religious shops’ rather than religious schools, for their financial irregularities are serious and continue to increase.

With the exception of a few larger madrasas, in general madrasas have taken to methods of collecting donations from the public which are distasteful, causing this to negatively impact on the image of the madrasas and the confidence that they enjoy among people. Their representatives implore people for money in such a way as to make any self-respecting person cringe with shame. Just a few months ago, the London edition of an Urdu newspaper published a letter from a Muslim youth who wrote that the majority of Muslim youth born and brought up in Britain do not go to mosques because they cannot understand the language of the imams and preachers, have no interest in the subjects that these imams and preachers talk about and also because after the prayer a representative of some or the other madrasa stands up to ask for money but not everyone has enough to offer them. This is the condition of mosques in far-off Britain, which few madrasas can reach, and one dreads to imagine what the conditions must be in the mosques in our part of the world.

It is not that the general Muslim public does not want to help the madrasas because of which madrasas are forced to adopt such methods to mobilize funds. I myself know of scores of madrasas that have very large annual budgets but, despite not taking any funds from the government, their representatives do not roam around like this asking for money. Instead, they mobilize funds through well-wishers in a respectful and dignified manner.

Today, madrasas are being wrongly branded as ‘dens of terror’ and every effort is being made to discredit them by Western governments and lobbies. They want, thereby, to quash any challenge to Western civilization and Western cultural imperialism, such as that which the madrasas represent with their commitment to and championing of Islam. This is why they want to ban madrasas, and this aim they are also trying to achieve in the name of ‘reforming’ the madrasas. They are seeking to use the weakness of the present system of madrasa education as a weapon to destroy them or to dilute their character. This is why there is an urgent need for madrasas and madrasa federations to wake up, to deeply introspect and to make earnest efforts to address their weaknesses themselves. Otherwise, these weaknesses will continue to be used by the Western propaganda machine against them and will also provide ammunition to governments in their effort to take madrasas under their control, thus destroying their independent character, which is something that madrasas must seek to preserve.

In this regard, I have the following suggestions to make to those in positions of authority in the madrasas:

a. The madrasa federations of different sects can continue to maintain their separate status but they must form a common board or platform to deal with issues of common concern to all of them.

b. Keeping intact the basic existing framework of madrasa education, madrasas must introduce the teaching of English and basic ‘modern’ subjects.

c. Madrasas must familiarize their students with modern idiom, language and styles of writing, particularly of contemporary English and Urdu journalism.

d. Madrasas must teach their students about other world views so that they can compare the Islamic system with these.

e. The setting up of madrasas in different areas must be done in a proper, organized manner, after studying local needs and conditions and not randomly, as at present.

f. Madrasas should make proper arrangements for the religious, moral and spiritual training of their students and should inspire them with a missionary spirit.

g. Madrasas should adopt proper and dignified methods of fund raising.

h. The salaries and perks of madrasa teachers and the living conditions of their students need to be improved, and quality should be stressed over quantity.

i. Madrasas should seek to have their roles, achievements and contributions highlighted in the mass media, for which they need to adopt a proper and well planned media policy.

I hope that religious leaders associated with the madrasas will lend a willing ear to the suggestions I have made above and will consider taking necessary steps to reform the madrasas on the lines that I have ventured to suggest, so that, in this way, madrasas will in the future play a positive and effective role in protecting the Islamic scholarly tradition and shaping an Islamic society, as they had in the past.


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