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The Academic Hierarchy

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 religious schools in the Subcontinent show a definite hierarchy. At the top of the academic ladder are the universities at Deoband and Nadwa. In the Islamic landscape of South Asia, Deoband and Nadwa occupy a position similar to Caltech and MIT in the technological landscape of the United States.

Established in the late nineteenth century during the British period, their influence on the social, political and religious landscape on Muslim India is far greater than of Aligarh University which was founded about the same time by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Many of the students who graduate from the madrasas as “aalims” (learned men) go on to study at Deoband and Nadwa for their graduate studies and obtain the diploma of fazil (equivalent of a doctorate).

Both of these academies have a conservative leaning, more so since the Saudi version of Islam hit the subcontinent along with petrodollars. Their influence, through their alumni, radiates all over Asia and beyond. On the positive side, there is no question that both of these institutions have produced many scholars of the first rank. But their products have also led the demolition of traditional Islam and its replacement with a more rigid Islam close to the Wahhabi brand from Najad.

The vast majority of madrasas are located in small villages. Run by a lone teacher or a Molvi, who doubles as the “pesh-imam” of the local mosque, the village madrasas are financially poor often to the point of destitution. They teach elementary Arabic, memorization of a few passages from the Qur’an, and a few basics about religious rites and obligations. They receive local patronage from the subsistence farmers and petty traders. They are valued for their social utility because they help develop the moral character (tarbiat) of the students. Even parents who send their children to government- run secular schools ensure that their children attend a madrasa on a part-time basis. The network of these madrasas is so large and they are so interwoven into the fabric of society that there is very little a government can do to change them, except with a tremendous investment in infrastructure and manpower, or through outright coercion.

At the next higher level are the well-established schools that are run by professional ulema. Some of these schools are old and date back to the Mogul period. Others are new and sprang up as Saudi money became available to the Indo-Pak religious market. This writer examined several schools located in Southern India and some patterns emerge from these observations:

(1) The older schools, established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are run by ancient waqfs. They do not solicit funds from outside sources. They offer a traditional Nisab (curriculum), which includes a study of the Qur’an, Sunnah of the Prophet, early Islamic history, elementary philosophy and arithmetic, and emphasize tazkiyah and purity of heart. They are often attached to a zawiya or a qanqah. An example is Jamia Lateefia in Vanambadi.

(2) The newer schools were established during the late British period. Some sprang up in the nineteen sixties when Saudi money became available to the Indian religious market. These schools actively solicit local as well as international funding. Some are very well off and own substantial properties. The teachers are mostly a product of the schools in Northern India (Nadwa, Devband). Some have studied at Medina University. Their Nisab (curriculum) places a heavy emphasis on Hadith and less so on other aspects of the Sunnah. These schools are popular with the more established jama’ats, such as Jamaat e Islami and the Tableegi Jamaat. The graduates of these schools become Molvis in the masjids in the larger towns. The dropouts settle in the villages and become teachers at the local mosque-madrasa.

The power of the loudspeaker

In the religious culture of Muslims, the Mullah occupies a position, which is the object of envy of any politician. Once a week, during the Friday Qutbah, the Mullah has the control of the pulpit and the microphone from where he can preach, sermonize, lead and coax the worshippers. The faithful are required to listen to him in rapt attention. It is not permitted to interrupt a sermon unless the Mullah says something against the basic tenets of religion such as idolatry or shirk. Thus the mullah has the ear of a captive audience. No politician can dream of a platform like this one which affords a speaker the unflinching attention of an audience. Unless the qutbah is co-opted by a repressive government, the Mullah is free to choose a subject of interest to him and the community. It is this unique access to the microphone that sustains the power of mullah. It can be broken, modified or controlled only at the expense of destroying the freedom of worship and freedom of speech as has been done in most of the Middle Eastern countries. As a result no secular leader can hope to match the power of the mullahs on issues of concern to the community, whether it is education or legislation. The media, in their perpetual quest for readership, respond to this situation by putting forth the religious establishment as the “leadership” of the community. The casualty is an open debate and free discussion of views that is held by the silent majority of the Islamic communities in South Asia.

Terrorism not in the curriculum

Hard as you try, you will not find the madrasas teaching, even remotely, anything resembling violence or terrorism. Indeed, most of the teachers in the religious schools come from groups as the Tableeghi Jamaat, which has turned its back on the affairs of this world and has confined itself to “matters of the other world”. How could one associate such escapist pursuits with violence? The Taliban in Afghanistan are more a product of their culture than of the madrasas they graduate from. It is like blaming the American school system for the divorce rate in the United States. Neither in the syllabus nor in the tarbiat (training) is there even the slightest hint of violence or terrorism. That some graduates of madrasas do engage in violence is no more a reflection of the schools they attended than are the teenage traffic accidents a reflection of the high schools where they first learned to drive. 

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