What Yogi Adityanath can do for madrasas
The very first revelation to the Prophet - “Read, in the name of your Lord” - and numerous Hadiths stress the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper and the martyr.
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Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath has instructed his government to "modernise madrasa education". He seeks to introduce new courses, vocational training, modern sciences and secular subjects in the curriculum.
Uttar Pradesh is the key constituency of the madrasa system and if Yogi can engineer some useful changes, his model may turn a new harbinger of madrasa reforms.
The reformists of madrasa education insist that knowledge in Islam is one whole, and that the division between dini (religious) and duniyavi (worldly) knowledge - with the two opposed to each other and which many contemporary ulema seem to have accepted - has no sanction in the Quran.
The very first revelation to the Prophet - “Read, in the name of your Lord” - and the numerous Hadith stressing the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper and the martyr are said to indicate the great emphasis Islam gives to the acquisition of knowledge.
The Quran is quoted as repeatedly exhorting the believers to ponder over the mysteries of creation as signs of the power and mercy of God. Knowledge of the creation is regarded as the means for acquiring knowledge of God.
In the entire Quran, there are about 600 verses directly commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyse God’s magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system, and far from leading to doubt and disbelief, scientific investigation - if conducted within properly defined Islamic bounds - can deepens one’s faith and is, in fact, commanded so by the God.
Madrasas cannot be substitutes for modern schools, but for those who can’t afford to send their children to these schools, madrasas are the only option. In the absence of madrasas, the threat of illiteracy looms large for this section of population.
Madrasas are far from being completely immune to change and reform. Likewise, few ulema could claim to be completely satisfied with the madrasas as they exist today. Indeed, leading ulema are themselves conscious of the need for change in the system.
As their graduates go out and take up a range of new careers, and as pressures from within the community as well as from the state and the media for reform grow, madrasas, too, are changing. Change is, however, gradual, emerging out of sharply contested notions of appropriate Islamic education.
The production of seminary graduates in a greater number than the country’s capacity to offer them proper jobs can create enormous problems. We should be concerned about the future implications for a society in which a large horde of graduates emerging out of madrasas find themselves jobless. The frustration these students will undergo can lead to social, economic and intellectual ferment.
Most of them had undergone the same ritual. Moreover many of the students that have been drawn to madrasas have joined them not out of any fervour for religious knowledge. Perhaps, their economic misery gave them little choice.
Unless attached to a mosque, madrasas depend on voluntary contributions, tuition fees and free meals. The madrasa rectors feel the institutes cannot be seen as gateways for stable employment. One of them told me: “Our job now is propagating Islamic ideology. We give free education, free clothes and books. We even give free accommodation. We are the only people giving the poor education.”
Although madrasas have largely lost relevance in mainstream education, they fulfil a vital function by helping to develop a core of leaders capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters but they provide the poor with a real hope of advancing themselves.
In certain traditional subjects - such as rhetoric, logic, and jurisprudence - the teaching can be excellent. Considering this, isolation of madrasas would not be in the best interests of the community. For example, when madrasas produce leaders rooted in larger perspectives, they also contribute to the strengthening of society as a whole.
Far from typifying one end of the polarising spectrum of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular education, the state must continue to use madrasas as part of the regular educational paradigm. It must evolve an educational grid that allows constant movement between madrasas and mainstream educational institutions.
If policymakers of the state are genuinely committed to the stated aim of mainstreaming madrasa education, they need to pay closer attention to how transitions from madrasa to so-called mainstream spaces can be seamlessly achieved. The state should not interfere in religious instruction, which should be the business of private individuals and associations.
Second, those who carry out the inspections should be properly oriented to the traditions of learning in Muslim communities and the history and status of madrasas in particular so that they can properly appreciate the nuances of madrasa teaching.
In a larger landscape of increasing communalisation, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and development schemes, the government should economically and socially empower the community so that it comes out with its own appropriate solutions not just for overall social reforms but also with a new perspective on education.
The general consensus is that madrasas can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. Since the students are schooled in classical and modern science as well as secular and religious thought, they are better able to spot scriptural distortions.
They also tend to be more connected to their own communities as well as to the mainstream society and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shields them from radicalism. The madrasas are allies in India’s fight against extremism.
But madrasas are not immune to change. Many of them are trying to forge a Muslim identity that is compatible with modern culture and resistant to the blandishments of radicalisation.
The oldest and greatest of all madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, was one of the most sophisticated schools in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. We should strive to make the new madrasas religious seminaries as well as universities, like al-Azhar.
Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense - a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under eminent scholars - is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.
Rather than stressing only on madrasa modernisation, let us take the madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions during the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning the hearts and minds of the custodians of madrasas.