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Reformation of the Syllabus

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 madrasa has become the repository of vested interests just like any other institution in modern life. There is money on the line. Sometimes, it is big money. The molvis and mullahs stand to lose by modernizing the madrasa. First, it would blur the line between deeni talim and dunawi talim. Second, it would deny the mullahs their claim for exclusive control over deen. Third, it would dry up their source of funding. In other words, the madrasas would then become just like any other school. The mullahs would no longer head up the list of invitees whenever a poor villager slaughters a chicken for a feast. Most importantly, their exclusive claim to God and heaven would be compromised.

The prosperous madrasas would have the most to lose from a modernization of their curriculum. These schools cannot compete with the secular schools in subjects dealing with science and technology. Opening up their curriculum to modern education would be like inviting “duniya” into their closeted “deen”. The owners of these schools, or of the trusts that run these schools, would lose their market niche. Therefore, they jealously guard their current market position as the guardians of “deeni taalim”.

Islam is a civilization. It includes both deen and duniya. Islamic education must cater to the needs of a global civilization. It must include the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences and religious studies. It cannot just be deeni taalim or dunawi taalim. This bifurcation is a product of history, not of religion. Anything less than instruction about Islam as a civilization is cheating generations to come.

An attempt at the transformation of the madrasa must therefore be gradual, preserving the stability that this institution provides while enhancing its social usefulness. The changes must also come from within the community rather than imposed from the top. A first step in this direction is the reintroduction into this syllabus a study of the mathematical, natural and historical sciences as well as Qur’anic spirituality (tazkiya). These subjects were a part of the Nizamiya Nisab as late as the eighteenth century. Once mathematics is mastered, science, philosophy and the natural sciences will follow. Gradually, the Nizamiya Nisab will be transformed into an Islamic Nisab embracing the Qur’anic sciences, mathematics, the natural sciences, philosophy and technology.

The probability of a successful reformation of the syllabus would increase substantially if the molvis are trained to see the benefits of a liberalized syllabus, which includes a study of the languages, mathematics, history and spirituality. A top-down approach offers several advantages: It trains the teachers and has the highest potential for student reach. It offers the highest benefit-to-cost ratio. It exposes the vast majority of mullahs to the beauty and majesty of the natural and historical sciences in an Islamic framework.

If history is any guide, a reform process, which is strongly opposed by the mullahs is likely to fail, or cause a major social upheaval. Kemalist Turkey achieved such reforms but the Kemalist revolution was the tail-end of a long series of reformations starting with the Tanzeemat in the first half of the nineteenth century. And the Kemalists had to use coercive methods to ensure that the reforms would succeed.

Another aspect of the reformation is the competition with secular schools. The madrasas could enjoy an advantage vis-à-vis secular schools if they offered quality instruction in secular as well as religious subjects. There is hunger among the people of South Asia for both secular and religious knowledge. Unfortunately, the madrasas are neither competent to teach the secular subjects nor can they compete in secular fields. The inability to compete has pushed the molvis into a corner. To preserve their turf and protect their employment, they take a hard position on the division of instruction into deeni and dunyawi domains. To coax the mullahs to emerge from their shell, both financial incentives and external pressures may be required.

Technology and the Madrasa

Science and technology have had a checkered history among Muslim people. The scientific method was cultivated by Muslim scholars in Spain and Central Asia in the Middle Ages. But it withered after the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. In succeeding centuries, Muslim scholars, while paying lip service to the need for mastering science and technology, looked with deep suspicion on anything that disturbed their partitioning of the sacred and the profane. The introduction of the printing press into Muslim societies is a case in point. While the printing press was introduced into Europe in the fifteenth century, it was not until 1728 that it found acceptance in the Ottoman Empire. It was introduced into Mogul India even later. The reason was the determined opposition of the ulema who felt that the Word of God would be defiled if it touched a wooden or iron press. While the printing press made possible the wide diffusion of books in Europe, the Muslim world remained far behind. It is not uncommon even to this day to find a mullah who stands up before a large gathering of Muslims and harangue them that science is secular and it fosters unbelief.

But the pervasive effects of technology cannot be avoided, not even by the most insular madrasa. Technology transforms societies and cultures and the madrasa cannot escape the winds of change. As early as the first part of the twentieth century, many a farsighted ulema realized that the students in the madrasas must study science and technology along with the traditional subjects if they are to face the modern world.

In slow measured, even the most orthodox ulema have started to bend in the direction of technological education. At Madrasa e Baqi us Salehat near Bangalore, the students learn to use computers along with memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith. Mobile phones are used by molvis to talk to one another. IT driven technologies have made the principals and the sheikhs realize the need to upgrade the teaching of science and mathematics. Many a school in Southern India require their students, before their graduate, acquire the state-sponsored high school diploma. These may not seem like much from a global perspective, but constitute a fundamental and welcome departure from the rigidity that characterized the syllabus in most madrasas and seminaries.

9/11 and American pressures

It has been alleged time and again that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack on the world trade center were products of madrasas. Whether it is factual or not, the accusation is repeated often times, and most people in America have come to believe, that the attack was connected with students who attend madrasas. Indeed the madrasa has been accused to be the breeding ground for “jehadis” and “terrorists”. If perception is reality, it has hurt the image of the madrasa in the global consciousness. And it will affect fundamentally and profoundly, the further evolution of the madrasa as we go forward into the twenty first century.

There have been several consequences of this xenophobia. Money, which used to flow freely from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries has decreased to a trickle. Donations from America and other Western nations have just about stopped. Even small donations are questioned. The allegations against some Islamic charities have fostered a sense of fear among potential donors. The madrasas now must fend for themselves and depend on local support.

A second side-effect has been increased government surveillance of all madrasas. Representatives from the police departments routinely visit the madrasas in India and Pakistan and question the cognizant principals and molvis who teach there. In Afghanistan, total chaos reigns and the madrasa operates under the perennial fear of violence. The shadow of government surveillance has increased further the difficulty that the madrasas face in raising funds or recruiting students.

A much more disastrous result of 9/11 and the injection of the term “terrorism” into politics is the destruction of educational links that have existed between religious schools and seminaries in different parts of the world. For almost a millennium, the madrasas in Southern India radiated their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. As early as the twelfth century, it was the migration of Awliya from the trading communities of Southern India and Gujarat that introduced Islam into the Indonesian and Malaysian Archipelago. Until recently, the madrasas in the South attracted students from Sri Lanka, Maldiv Islands, Malaysia and Indonesia. Alumni from the schools of Vanambadi and Salem are scattered all over South-East Asia.

Because of government restrictions following 9/11 and the suspicion that somehow the madrasa is a breeding ground for terrorists, that link has been cut. Now, these students come no more and an age-old connection between India and SE Asia has been broken. The movement of scholars and students and the cross-fertilization of ideas and cultures that it fostered for a thousand years has been scuttled. Student exchanges foster international understanding and are a major element in the liberalization of the madrasa. The scuttling of this process will increase the isolation and alienation of the madrasa from liberal global currents.


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