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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Madrasa Curriculum and System and Modern Demands

The Madrasa Curriculum and System and Modern Demands
By Maulana Rizwan ul-Qasmi (Administrator, Dar ul-Ulum Sabil us-Salam, Hyderabad, India)
(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

The Quran is the last Divine revelation, and has been sent by God for all humanity. It will remain without any change or modification whatsoever till the Day of Judgment, for the Prophet Muhammad is the last of the prophets. The religion as represented in the Quran is eternal, and so are the Quran’s laws, its shariah, its knowledge and the need and the value of this knowledge.
But this does not at all mean that time has stopped forever and that conditions will never change. Rather, change is permanent. The demands of the age were subject to change in the past, and this applies even today. And just as in the past considerations were made to suit the then prevailing conditions, so, too, today in our interpretation of what God has entrusted to us those aspects that are subject to change must be kept in mind. Hence, madrasas must be mindful of contemporary conditions, needs and demands and keep the torch of the knowledge of the Faith burning in the light of all these factors. This, in fact, was the aim behind the founding of one of the first and, in many senses, unique madrasas in India following the collapse of Muslim rule in the country—the Dar ul Ulum at Deoband. This madrasa was not established simply to teach a few subjects. If its historical context is carefully studied, it appears that it aimed at addressing contemporary challenges as well, and that it had taken upon itself the task of the interpretation and expression of the Faith in the context of the changed conditions of the times in order to keep alive the torch of Islam in the face of fierce storm of Western atheism and materialism. Several other madrasas also soon emerged at this time that carried on with this mission.

There can be no doubt that these madrasas managed, with considerable success, to fulfill their duty of testifying to the Truth and communicating the teachings of the Faith. Many of the vestiges of religion that remain among the Muslims of the country today are a result of the dedicated work of these institutions. It is these signs of religious commitment that have become an eye-sore to Westernised, anti-religious forces. Madrasas need to carry on in this wise path of our elders and continue with the task, mandated by God and the Prophet, of demonstrating and witnessing to the Truth. For this, they must keep themselves in harmony with the changing needs and conditions of the times. They must seek to answer the new problems that the new times produce and to effectively face new challenges. When madrasa students step out of their institutions, which are sealed off from the outside world, they should not feel out of place and be led to think that they had spent much of their lives closed in a fortress that has nothing to do with the rest of the world. Rather, they should be in a position to guide society on the lines of the Faith, for today materialism and atheism are rife, and knowledge is framed and used in such a way as to take people away, rather than towards, God. Madrasas must provide their students with knowledge of contemporary developments so as to enable them to understand the objections against and criticisms of Islam and to effectively respond to them. Further, they must also train and inspire their students to effectively communicate the truths of Islam to others.

In advocating that madrasas be able to respond to modern challenges and suitably relate to contemporary demands I am certainly not arguing, as do some self-styled ‘progressives’, that Islam should be moulded according to the times, rather than the other way round, and that it be interpreted in the way the West wants it to be. It is absolutely erroneous to imagine that since the times and conditions have changed and so have many social and economic aspects of life, the Islam based on the 1400 year-old tradition of the Quran and Sunnah needs to be revised. It certainly does not mean that when we call for an Islamic Renaissance, for a new religious interpretation and for reforming madrasa education by taking into account the demands of the present age we are suggesting that Islam should be modified according to our own whims. Islam is the religion of nature and in its laws and commandments it has taken into account human nature. This, indeed, is the actual soul of Islamic law and the basis of Islam’s teachings. All the revolutions that the world has witnessed have had to do simply with external means and causes, while human nature and its basic demands and human feelings and emotions have remained the same and will always do so.

The Madrasa System of Education: Aspects in Need of Change and the Limits of Change

There is no doubt that the basic aims and objectives of madrasas have always been the same in the past, and shall remain so in the future, too. If Islam is an eternal religion and a guide for humanity till the Day of Judgment—as it indeed is—then the basic aim of the madrasas—that the path that God and the Prophet have prescribed for humanity, and which is the way to success, be taught and made known—cannot be altered. However, this certainly does not mean that the entire system and structure of madrasa education is beyond change, as if these are meant simply to serve as relics from the past, an archaeological curiosity for an age that has vastly changed. Study the history of the ulema, the renewers of the faith, the guides to the path, the history of people like Imam Malik and Ibn Shihab Zahri and down to Shah Waliullah, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotawi, Maulana Muhammad Ali Mungeri etc.. You will discover that the real spirit running through their work and their writings was the same—the protection of the Faith and its propagation and revival in the light of contemporary thought. But yet, for this same purpose the methods that these leaders used differed from each other, each suited to their own age and context.

In this regard, then, we must examine our madrasa education system and allow for necessary changes. In addition, we must also recognise that the general level of the graduates that the madrasas are today churning out is, unfortunately, not very satisfactory, and that their contribution and benefit to society is limited, and, indeed, quite disheartening. Certain aspects of the present system of madrasa education are in need of reform in order to make it more effective and more in accordance with contemporary demands. In this respect one can point to such troubling issues as stagnation in the syllabus, excessive attention being paid to certain subjects and the corresponding lack of adequate attention to certain modern subjects, the focus on mastery of certain specified books rather than certain disciplines, shortcomings in teaching methods, the absence of teaching important languages and the lack of co-ordination and co-operation between various madrasas.

Stagnation in the Madrasas Curriculum:

When I say that the madrasa curriculum has stagnated, I certainly do not mean to argue that all the books that are presently taught in madrasas should be discarded or that they are unable to provide proper religious and intellectual guidance and understanding or that teaching them is wholly useless. Not at all. But, yet, it is an undeniable fact that from the point of view of what the aims and objectives of a proper madrasa syllabus should be, the majority of texts currently used in the madrasas deserve to be re-looked at. Many of them can be removed from the list of prescribed books that are part of the syllabus and, instead, be made for the students to read on their own.

In order to counter the powerful waves of materialism and atheism flooding in from the West and the accompanying criticisms of Islam’s system and way of life, madrasas ought to have included the causes or the basic purposes of Islamic rules or what are called the ‘secrets of the shariah’ (asrar-e shariah) as a separate subject in their curriculum. For this purpose, madrasas could have used Shah Waliullah’s well-known book Hujjat Ullah al-Balagha, and sections of some books by Imam Ibn Qayyim and Imam Ghazali and so on. However, because the dars-i nizami syllabus as formulated by Mulla Nizamuddin Sihalawi, which is still used by most Indian madrasas, did not give any importance to this subject, it was neglected in most Indian madrasas. Recently, some madrasas have included this subject in their syllabus but even in these institutions it does not get the importance that it deserves.

Today, as a result of new inventions as well as a product of the present global socio-political system, new legal issues have emerged. It is necessary for Islamic law to address these issues. For this purpose, Islamic scholars require a deep understanding of the sources, principles and methods of reasoning of Islamic jurisprudence. Madrasas must give greater stress to these than at present. Unfortunately, only two or three books on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence are included in the present madrasa syllabus. And even these have their limitations, being, for the most part, limited just to the Quran as a source of jurisprudence, and not dealing with other sources of Islamic jurisprudence, such as the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet, ijma or the consensus of the scholars and qiyas or analogy. Several suitable books for these are available and they should be included in the curriculum. Furthermore, madrasa students should also be familiarized with texts on the principles of jurisprudence written by scholars belonging to schools of Islamic jurisprudence other than their own.

Likewise, the present madrasa curriculum does not do justice to such subjects as the principles of Hadith and the principles of Quranic commentary. In some madrasas, no books on these subjects are taught at all or else some small booklets are used, and that too in a very cursory manner. Further, it would not be wrong to say that madrasas have not given the Quran its due. Generally, in our madrasas only two Quranic commentaries are taught: the Tafsir-e Baidhawi and Jalalayn. The former is clearly insufficient for expressing the actual spirit of the Quran, and it only entangles the reader in verbal puzzles. Further, it does not deal with the entire Quran, being restricted just till the Surah al-Baqarah. As for the Jalalayn, it is like a rendering of the Quran in a different form of Arabic. So, this is all that is taught in the madrasas about the Quran, although there are numerous books dealing with the meaning of and commentaries on the Quran that can be incorporated in the curriculum.

Madrasas give no importance at all to the teaching of history and to the books abut the life of the Prophet, although this was once a major area of specialization of the ulema. It is a subject that can never lose its relevance and importance. One of the reasons why much of the fiercely anti-Islamic propaganda coming out of the West has gone uncontested is because the ulema have ignored and are ignorant of the history of Islam, and so cannot counter the wrong allegations being made about it. Leave alone the history of non-Muslims or of recent global developments, about which they know almost nothing, madrasa students have an extremely superficial knowledge of even the early history of Islam and the Muslims. It is absolutely necessary that books on the history of Islam, of India and of the world be included in the madrasa curriculum.

Today, subjects need to be studied in depth and from their original sources. Critics of Islam have established specialized Islamic research centres, and they have a deep knowledge of our history, our beliefs, our theology and our laws, which they use to seek to distort the image of Islam. Islamic scholars should also study other religions, and for this, certain books can be included in the madrasa curriculum that provide an introduction to the various religions, their basic beliefs, their social and economic principles and the lives of their leaders, drawing upon their original and reliable texts and sources. Further, madrasa students must also be made aware of modern social and economic systems and philosophies and theories. They must have at least a basic idea of the thought of such key modern thinkers as Karl Marx, Lenin, Freud, Darwin and so on. While studying Islamic jurisprudence, they must be familiarised with the position of modern international law on key issues in a comparative perspective. Without this, modern challenges cannot be effectively answered and met.

Finally, it should be remembered that all these suggested measures of reform in the madrasas can be successful only if what are regarded as the ‘mothers of the madrasas’ (umm ul-madaris)—the larger ones that have spawned many others that follow their system—take the initiative first.

*This is an abridged translation of an article by the author titled Dini Madaris Ka Nisab-o-Nizam Aur Jadid Taqaze, which appeared in the January 2003 issue of the New Delhi-based Urdu monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum (vol. 10, no.8, p.23-32)


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