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Modern Issues in Islamic Education - Part II 

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by   )

The colonial period introduced a historical discontinuity into the evolution of the madrasa. The injection of foreign and alien interference scuttled the natural evolution of this institution. The discontinuity may be illustrated by examining the syllabus followed before and after the colonial period. In the table below we have summarized the syllabus as it was during the period of the Great Mogul Akbar (circa 1600) and as it is today.

Subjects taught circa 1600 Subjects taught today

Akhlaq (Good character)

Arithmetic Arithmetic


Tareeq (History)


Tib (Medicine)

Falahat (public good)

Masahaat (Equality)

Fiqh (jurisprudence) Fiqh

Hindsa (Astronomy)

Languages Languages (Urdu, Farsi, Arabic)

Literature Literature

Tazkiya (Purification of the heart)

Tadbeer (Planning)

Manzil (Goal Setting)

Ramal (Execution)

Siasat e madan (contemporary politics)


Ilahiyat (Religious studies)

Qur’an, Hifz (recitation), Hadith Qur’an, Hifz

(recitation) , Hadith

India was the first great non-Western civilization to fall to Europe and it was here that the colonists perfected the mechanism of dismantling the old educational systems and replacing them with systems that served the colonial administrative machines. The Indian experience illustrates this observation.. Until 1824, the East India Company maintained the pretense that it was ruling in the name of the Mogul emperor in Delhi. In 1828 the company abandoned the use of Farsi in the Indian courts and replaced it with English. With the Anglicization of the judicial system, there was an immediate need for lawyers who could represent Indian clients.

The need arose to introduce English-medium schools. Convents and seminaries initially ran these schools. Gradually, English was introduced into the public school systems. In 1832, the Company abandoned the pretense that it was a proxy for the Mogul emperor, relegated him to a pensioner of the company and took over direct rule of the Subcontinent. The madrasas, which taught Arabic and Farsi, took a direct hit. They were marginalized to teaching Gulistan and Boostan, classics of the Eastern languages, but which had no utilitarian value in the new colonial order.

The Muslims who had lost the power struggle with the British for control of India, had a deep distrust of the foreigners, whom they called Firangees (a derogative term derived from the term Frank). This distrust did not stop at the English language and culture but extended to philosophy, science and mathematics. Isolation set in and the old system of education retreated into a corner. Even the rudimentary exposure to philosophy and mathematics that was offered in the Nizamiya syllabus was abandoned because the Firangees were much better at these subjects than the mullahs. For survival, the mullahs had to introduce product differentiation into religious education and give it new branding. This was done by attaching the label “deen” to the madrasa. The bifurcation of education into deeni talim and dunawi talim was now complete.

As the prospects of the graduates from madrasas finding jobs in the government evaporated, the mullahs drew an ever-tighter circle around the madrasa syllabus so as to guard the religious turf. Any subject that would open them up to Western influences was summarily abandoned. The air was taken out of the educational balloon and where once teachers and students alike would soar high and take in vast vistas, they were now grounded and could only gaze at the dirt below.

Madrasa and oil money

While a great majority of the madrasas in South Asia are poor, and are located in rural or remote areas, there are some that are well endowed with land and money. Thanks largely to the largesse from Saudi Arabia, and donations from the Gulf, some madrasas are opulent even by international standards. While some are literally run from thatched huts, some have vested properties of millions of rupees. The Molvis in these madrasas live in comparative opulence, move about in expensive cars, own mobile phone, and dine on nothing less than the highest quality basmati rice.

The injection of oil money into the madrasa has been a mixed blessing. Money taints the natural growth of culture much in the same way as foreign political dominance. While Gulf money did help build the infrastructure of some schools, the price paid was the abandonment of the spiritual Islam that had grown up in the subcontinent over a thousand years, and its replacement by a largely ritualistic Islam prevalent in the Gulf. Without the spiritual glue to hold the community together, there has been an increase in fragmentation along narrow, legalistic lines. A visible result of this fragmentation is the proliferation of the jama’ats in the subcontinent, each one declaring that it possesses the exclusive map to salvation and the maps owned by the other jama’ats are only partially correct. Up until the time of partition, Islam in India and Pakistan had a strong spiritual content. The eloquence of Mohammed Iqbal would lose its lofty grandeur if it were stripped of its spiritual content. That “old” Islam has disappeared and has largely been replaced by a “new” one wherein rules, regulations and arguments dominate.

This paradigm is beginning to change. The first Gulf War of 1991 drained the resources of the Gulf States. More recently, after 9/11, with “terrorism” becoming a household world, many governments have clamped down on the international transfer of funds. Money transfers from America come under microscopic scrutiny. These developments have placed a financial crunch on the madrasas. With sources of foreign funds drying up, the madrasas have had to fall back on local resources. Notwithstanding the decreasing external financial support, most of the madrasas in the Subcontinent continue to look to the Saudi universities, such as the University of Medina, and to the established academies at Nadva and Deoband, for guidance on their curriculum.

The Influence of the Nadva

In post-partition India, the large, educationally backward state of Uttar Pradesh in the Gangetic plain has served as the nursery for molvis. At one time, this area was the prosperous heart of the Mogul Empire. As such, the local seminaries received royal patronage from Delhi. As the Empire disintegrated, and local centers of power emerged, patronage continued under regional nawabs, noblemen and wealthy landlords.

The area also benefited from the fact that it was the home of the Urdu language, which became the language of instruction of Muslim India during the British period.. Today, a large proportion of mullahs who lead the prayers in local mosques across the width and breadth of India come from Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh is also home to some of the well-known higher institutions of Islamic learning, including Aligarh University, Nadvatul Ulama and Deoband. These institutions have had a major impact on Islamic thinking in the subcontinent. Whereas, Aligarh University founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the 1880s as a school for westernized education has thrived as a secular institution after partition, Nadvatul Ulama and Deoband have become major centers of orthodoxy, radiating their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. While Nadvatul Ulama and Devband have each produced a large number of outstanding scholars, they have also produced a much larger of molvis with a constricted vision of Islamic learning. Their approach is didactic. They do not teach the inductive method as applied to nature, history or the human soul. While the syllabus of these institutions is outstanding in the disciplines of tafseer, fiqh, Kalam and hadith, it is pitifully inadequate in the natural, mathematical or historical sciences. And noticeably, it is weak in the sciences of the soul, commonly referred to as sufism. It is for these reasons that while Deoband and Nadva have produced a large number of Maulanas, they have not produced a single noteworthy mathematician, logician, historian, man or woman of science.

Nadwa and Deoband have exercised an influence on the social and religious fabric of Muslim India far greater than Aligarh Muslim University. In the hierarchy of religious schools, Deoband and Nadwa occupy the same place as Caltech and MIT do for technical education in the United States. Graduates from lesser-known schools across South Asia attend Nadva and Deoband for advanced education and research and carry back with them the stamp and the orientation of these two academies. Conservative to the core, they focus on the exoteric religious disciplines disregarding both the esoteric aspects of religion as well as the inductive sciences of science, sociology and history. Both were orthodox institutions to begin with, but under Saudi influence, they have moved even further to the right. Both schools mint aalims by the dozen. Trained only in the traditional disciplines, these aalims are ill equipped to handle questions posed by the modern global materialist civilization, or relating to the rapidly changing South Asian political landscape. Indeed, their chief contribution has been to destroy and decimate the traditional Islamic culture in the subcontinent and replace the spiritual Islam that had developed on Indian soil for a thousand years with a dried version manufactured in Saudi Arabia.

Much of the influence of the molvis from Uttar Pradesh has been due to their fluency in Urdu. Urdu has been the language of qutbas in many parts of India since the demise of Farsi in the early part of nineteenth century. However, this situation is changing in more recent years. In post-partition India, Urdu has steadily lost its importance and has ceased to be the lingua franca of Muslims. Many madrasas in the North have adopted themselves to Hindi and those in other areas are offering instruction in the regional languages. Thus Bangla is the medium of instruction for Bengalis, Marathi is taught in Maharashtra, and Tamil in Tamil Nadu. Even in the Gulf, where there is a large concentration of migrants from Kerala, and several well-to-do Kerala Muslims have established schools, Malayalese rather than Urdu is the preferred medium of religious instruction for expatriate Muslim children. These changes are bound to reduce the influence of the Urdu-speaking belt on the further development of the madrasas.

The first thing that a mullah does when he moves into a town is to start a deeni madrasa. There is almost always a ready market for this product. The dissociation of deeni taalim from the dunavi talim has been sold to the South Asian market for over three hundred years. The process is a predictable one. First, the mullah looks for and befriends the local people of means, those who are capable of donating land and money. The legal framework in India allows the packaging of this not-so-selfless effort as a religious and charitable trust, owned by the Molvi, into which the local landlords and merchants are inducted. As the madrasa acquires property and is on its way to becoming established, the donors are slowly squeezed out. The Mullah becomes the raja of the trust.

The worldly agenda of some of the mullahs should not detract from the social service that they have provided and the enormous public good that they have fostered. Many of the madrasas offer free education, boarding and lodging for orphans and the destitute. Sometimes, they offer the only opportunity for the children of the poor to learn to read and write. The illiteracy rate in the Muslim third of South Asia would be higher were it not for the service provided by the madrasas.

Education of women

From the earliest times, separate schools have existed for the education of women. The celebrated ninth century Sufi master, Rabia al Badawiya of Basrah is known to have taught both men and women. As Islam found a home in the Indian Subcontinent, the tradition of providing education to women continued. This has been a valuable service performed by religious schools in a part of the world where illiteracy among women is more than 50%. In Kashmir, for instance, illiteracy among women runs over seventy percent. If there is any doubt as to what it means, a majority of women do not know how to sign their own name on a legal document, let alone read it. In the face of such widespread illiteracy, how can one talk about the rights of women?

One of the better-known schools for women, the madras e nuswan established by Abdul Qader of Mysore in Vanambadi, Southern India, provides education to over 500 girls. Many poverty stricken parents bring their girls to the madrasa and leave them in the care of the school for several years. Here the girls are taught the same subjects as the boys, namely, the Qur’an, Hadith, Tafsir, reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. In addition, girls are given exposure to housekeeping, hygiene and childcare. This most elemental education stands between literacy and illiteracy in many parts of the Islamic world.

Notwithstanding some noteworthy efforts made in this direction, the education of Muslim women lags far behind that of Muslim men. Grinding poverty, social inertia, outmoded values, family pressures for the girls to marry young, all stand in the way of the education of women. A great deal remains to be done in this venue. (To be continued )


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