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The Madrassah – Modern Issues

The Madrassah – Modern Issues

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The madrassah is an ancient institution and has survived for fourteen hundred years. We have outlined in other chapters how the madrassah has evolved over the centuries. Once a thriving institution which served as the pulsating heart of the Islamic community, it has been neglected, allowed to decay, and is now the object of suspicion on the global stage.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, the madrassah has attracted a great deal of attention. During the days of the Taliban and the prelude to the Afghan war, it was the principal focus of the American media. It was made to appear as if all the goblins in the mountains of Afghanistan were hiding in the madaris between Kabul and Peshawar.

The madrassah is not a monolithic institution with a single structure. It appears in many shapes and forms. It has a variety of structures, and is subject to the same social and political pressures as is the society at large. It defies simplistic packaging for ten second sound bites or TV infomercials. In the context of South and Central Asia, it is at once a source for social stability and a legitimate target for cultural and political reform.

At the outset, a clarification in terminology must be made, and a differentiation established between maktab, madrassah and jami. Amaktab is any school, whether it is secular or religious. Every child who attends school goes to a “maktab”. A madrassah is usually a religious school in which Arabic is taught as part of a religious curriculum. A jami is a university in which advanced religious studies are pursued and graduate degrees are granted. Al Azhar, Deoband, Qum and Nadwa are universities that are classified as “jam””. This chapter focuses specifically on the madrassah.

In its early years, the madrassah was a mosque-based religious school similar to Bible schools attached to churches in America. It is only in recent years that the paradigm has shifted to secular education sanctioned by the government with a heavy emphasis on technical subjects.

No reliable statistics exist on the number of madaris in South Asia. From Kabul to Kerala, the landscape is dotted with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Islamic religious schools. In some areas, such as Afghanistan and the NW Frontier, they are the sole means of education for children. In others, such as the educationally advanced South India belt, they exist side by side with the secular schools. Some are no more than an assembly in the open, under a tree, where poor children sit on bare soil and memorize their lessons. A few are richly endowed, with millions of dollars in property, and modern facilities. All of them call themselves “deeni madaris” to ensure that the attendees, and the donors, know that they are different from the secular schools, and that they cater to “deen” as opposed to “duniya”.

These madaris provide a valuable social service in parts of South Asia. In some villages, notably in the NW frontier province of Pakistan and in Afghanistan, they make the difference between literacy and illiteracy. Themolvi sahib who heads up the madrassah, teaches reading and writing in the local language, introduces the child to elementary Arabic, and facilitates basic memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith. These madarisprovide employment to scores of religious teachers who would otherwise be unemployed. One thing they do not teach, as is commonly alleged in the news media, is terrorism, unless you take the extreme position that teaching the basics of religion is the same as teaching terrorism.

The disservice that the madaris perform is not in what they teach but in what they do not teach. We have shown in another chapter how the syllabus of the madrassah has been marginalized over the centuries. Where it once exposed the student to a broad spectrum of disciplines, the modern madrassah limits a student to the study of a few subjects. Absent is a study of natural science, mathematics, sociology or history. Gone also is tasawwuf, the spiritual dimension of Islam. As a consequence, a typical graduate of a madrassah has little understanding of the modern world, feels marginalized and is alienated from it. This feeling of alienation is the main reason why so many molvis and mullahs taken extreme positions on contemporary issues. Such extreme positions are often transmitted to the captive audiences that the mullahs command at religious and social gatherings.

In this chapter, we briefly examine some of the modern issues facing the madrassah using examples from the South Asian experience. Since the subject involves living history, some aspects of it are bound to be controversial.

The Student Body

The great majority of students who attend the madrassah are from the poorer sections of society. Fathers who cannot afford the cost of a secular education bring their children to the madrassah so that the child gets at least an elementary education in the religious disciplines.

In recent years, the influx of middle class Muslims into the Tableeghi Jamaat has worked to the benefit of the madaris, as many Tableeghi families prefer religious schools to secular ones. The escapist orientation of the Tableeghi Jamaat and the deeni (as opposed to dunawi) orientation of these schools tend to complement each other. Consequently, the economic profile of a typical student in a madrassah has somewhat improved.

In addition to imparting elementary education (taalim), the madrassah performs a secondary function, that of tarbiyat. In practice, this second function is even more important than the first. Tarbiyat means molding of character. In the same sense that a potter molds a pot on a wheel, the teacher in a madrassah molds a pupil into a mold. Discipline tends to be very strict, indeed harsh, in most madaris. The tarbiyat function of a madrassah is what distinguishes a religious school from a secular school. Whether a graduate of a madrassah becomes an extremist or a sufi depends to a large extent on the tarbiyat that the molvi or the shaikh imparts to the student.

The dropout rate in most madaris is high. Sometimes it is as high as 60 percent. This could be attributed in part to the underlying poverty of the families and partly to the harsh discipline imposed on the students. Grinding poverty compels many a promising son to quit school and enter the work force as a teenager and support the family. Those who complete a few years of schooling seek employment as mullahs in small villages where incomes are low and opportunities few. Those who complete their diploma and earn the degree of aalim, move to the larger towns and cities where there is more money and the opportunity to build lucrative personal trusts is much higher.

Some of the graduates go on to do their graduate work at Deoband, Nadvatul Ulema or the University of Medina. The university in Medina, in particular, is a respected center of learning. A degree from Medina offers a far greater guarantee of a lifetime job than does a masters degree in English from any of the well-known secular schools. A large number of students from the subcontinent attend the University and obtain degrees of aalims and faazils. In addition, the University publishes books, which are used in the curricula of the madaris.

The Impact of Colonialism

The colonial period introduced a historical discontinuity into the evolution of the madrassah. 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 during Akbar’s reign (circa 1600) Subjects taught today
Arithmetic Arithmetic
Fiqh Fiqh
Languages Languages (Urdu, Farsi, Arabic)
Literature Literature
Siasat e madan
Qur’an, Hifz, Hadith Qur’an, Hifz, 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 traditional 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. This encouraged the growth of 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 madaris, 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 was marginalized and 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 madrassah to differentiate them from the secular schools which taught subjects related to “duniya”. The bifurcation of education into deeni talim and dunawi talim was now complete. As the prospects of the graduates from madaris finding jobs in the government evaporated, the mullahs drew an ever-tighter circle around the madrassah syllabus so as to guard the religious turf. Even the application of the Shariah did not escape this marginalization. Where once the Shariah embraced all aspects of life, it was now confined to “Muslim personal law”. Any subject that would open the society 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.

The Saudi Influence

While a great majority of the madaris 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 to the largesse from Saudi Arabia, and donations from the Gulf, some madaris 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 madaris 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 madrassah has been a mixed blessing. Money taints the natural growth of culture much in the same way as foreign political dominance. While oil 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 Arabia and 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 Allama Iqbal would lose its lofty grandeur if it were stripped of its spiritual content. That “traditional” Islam has disappeared and has largely been replaced by a “Salafi” Islam wherein rules, regulations and arguments dominate.

This paradigm is beginning to change. The first Gulf War of 1991 drained the resources of Saudi Arabia and 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 madaris. With sources of foreign funds drying up, the madaris have had to fall back on local resources. Notwithstanding the decreasing external financial support, most of themadaris 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 Academic Hierarchy

The religious schools in the Subcontinent show a definite hierarchy. At the top of the academic ladder are the academies 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 19th 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 madaris 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. These schools have led the way for the demolition of traditional Islam and its replacement with a more rigid Islam close to the Wahhabi brand from Najad. On the positive side, there is no question that both of these institutions have produced many scholars of the first rank.

The vast majority of madaris 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 madaris are financially poor often to the point of destitution. They teach elementary Arabic, memorization of a few passage 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 madrassah on a part time basis. The network of these madaris 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. Our research led us to eleven such schools located in Southern India and some patterns emerged from our observations:

  1. The older schools, established in the seventeenth and 18thcenturies 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-madrassah.

Influence of the Nadva

In the subcontinent, the large, industrially 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 Ulema and Devband. 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 Ulema and Deoband have become major centers of orthodoxy, radiating their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. While these academies have produced a large number of outstanding scholars, they have also produced a much larger number 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, Kalamand 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, or Awliya.

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 graduate hundreds of aalims each year. 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 19th 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 madaris 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 madaris.

There is almost always a worldly agenda behind the establishent of madrassahs. The first thing that a mullah does when he moves into a town is to start a deeni madrassah, a product for which there is a ready market. The dissociation of deeni taalim from the dunavi ta’lim 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 rich, 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 madrassah acquires property and is on its way to becoming established, the donors are slowly squeezed out. The Mullah becomes the owner of the trust.

The worldly agenda of the mullahs should not detract from the social service that they have provided. Many of the madaris 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 madaris.

The Mullah and the Microphone

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 qutba (The Friday sermon) 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 Saudi Arabia and some of the Middle Eastern countries.

Terrorism not in the Curriculum

Hard as you try, you will not find the madaris teaching, even remotely, anything resembling violence or terrorism. Indeed, most of the teachers in the religious schools come from groups such 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 themadaris 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 thetarbiat (training) is there even the slightest hint of violence or terrorism.

Reformation of the Syllabus

The madrassah 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 madrassah. 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 madaris 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 more prosperous madaris 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”.

An attempt at the transformation of the madrassah 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 18th 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 19th century. And the Kemalists had to use coercive methods to ensure that the reforms would succeed.

Another aspect of reform is potential competition with secular schools. The madaris could enjoy an advantage vis-a-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 madaris 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 dunawi domains. To coax the mullahs to emerge from their shell, both financial incentives and external pressures may be required.

Technology and the Madrassah

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 13th 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 15th 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, namely the Qur’an, 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 limped along with hand written manuscripts. It is not uncommon even to this day to find a mullah who stands up before a large gathering of Muslims and harangues them that science is secular and it fosters unbelief.

Notwithstanding the oppositon of some mullahs, the all-reaching embrace of technology cannot be avoided, not even by the most insular madrassah. Technology transforms societies and cultures and the madrassah cannot escape the winds of change. Many a farsighted ulema now realize that the students in the madaris must study science and technology along with the traditional subjects if they are to face the modern world. In slow measures, even the most orthodox ulema have started to bend in the direction of technological education. At madrassah e lateefiya in 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 each other. IT driven technologies have made the teachers and the sheikhs realize the need to upgrade the teaching of science and mathematics. Many a school in Southern India require their students, before they graduate, to acquire the equivalent of a 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 madarisand seminaries until recent times.

9/11 and American pressures- the Issue of Terrorism

It has been alleged time and again that the nineteen men who carried out the 9/11 attack on the world trade center were products of the madrassah. Based on published reports, the perpetrators, most of whom came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt were more secular than religious. If published literature is any guide, no connection has been proven between the perpetrators and the madaris. Nonetheless, the accusation is repeated often times, and most people in America have come to believe, that the attack was connected with students who attend madaris. Indeed the madrassah has been accused to be the breeding ground for “jehadis” and “terrorists”. If perception is reality, it has hurt the image of the madrassah in the global consciousness. And it will affect fundamentally and profoundly, the further evolution of the madrassah 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 several Islamic charities have fostered a sense of fear among potential donors. The madaris now must fend for themselves and depend on local support.

A second side effect has been increased government surveillance of all madaris. Laws have been passed in the United States that make it legal to visit and search places of congregation, including places of worship. Representatives from the police departments and intelligence departments routinely visit the madaris in India and Pakistan and question the teachers and molvis. In Afghanistan, total chaos reigns and the madrassah operates under the perennial fear of violence. The shadow of government surveillance has increased further the difficulty that the madaris 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 madaris in Southern India radiated their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. As early as the 12thcentury, 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 madaris 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 official restrictions following 9/11 and the suspicion that somehow the madrassah 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 madrassah. The scuttling of this process will increase the isolation and alienation of the madrassah from global liberal currents.

The Madrassah – The Seven Lives of a Madrassah

The Madrassah – The Seven Lives of a Madrassah

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The madrassah, an ancient institution founded in the early years of Islamic history, has gone through profound transformations in the last 1400 years. The various dimensions of this transformation have been investigated and documented in other articles in the encyclopedia. In the table given below, we summarize the major changes that the madrassah, as an institution, has undergone and the historical context of those changes. We hope this table will serve as a quick reference for the historical evolution of the madrassah.

Period Archetype Institutional Structure/Teaching Method The Syllabus The Universities
Farsi;Omar bin Abdel Aziz
The halqa;Imam in an open halqain a mosqueor home Knowledge transmitted
by the
and Kufaemerge as centers of learning;Damascusis a


765-847The Early Abbasidperiod The
rationalist (man of the mind);al Mansur;al
The mosque-madrasa complex;A’alim totalib;Open


The Qur’an;The
Prophetic tradition;Arabic

Logic; Mathematics

intellectual capital of
the world.
Hikmah established
in Baghdad
847-1258The late Abbasid
period. Brilliant civilizationin Khorasan and Spain
The integrationist;“al Hakim” (man of
the body,
mind, and
the soul);Ibn Sina
The mosque-madrasa complex;A’alim totalib. Structured discourse Qur’anic sciences;Akhlaq;Languages;Mathematics;





Medicine Tasawwuf

Thriving universities
In Kairaoun,
(Al Azhar), Esfehan,
Herat, Samarqand, Bukhara
1258-1650Political and social disintegration in Asia
and the Maghrib (1212-1500);The
The Safavids and the
Great Moguls
The Sufi;The wali;(man
on the soul);Man of


The zawiyah;Decentralized educational system;Shaykh to murids The Qur’an;Tasawwuf;Trade skills;Basic technology;




Arithmetic; (Neglect
of basic

Samarqand, Tabriz,Qum,Timbaktu,
Kairaoun, Bijapur,

and Pasai
exist side

by side

with the



of scholars

in the



1650- 1850The ascent
of Europe.Science and technology move West.Muslims lose trade routes.

European colonies

The traditionalist;The Mullah;The Mufti;Aurangzeb Isolation
of the
Madrasa. Beginning of “the age of discontinuity”;Mullah totalib
The Qur’an;Hadith
(Neglect ofMathematics, science,history and
the sciences

of the soul)

Universitiesin Egypt and Africasurvive as skeletonsfrom a

bygone era

1880-1920Hey-day of colonialism The “reformer”;The
al Afghani
of “the age of discontinuity”;Complete dissociationof “deeni”

and “dunawi”
or secular education;

Professor to student

science;Some math (Neglect of history and

the sciences
of the soul)

universitiesin Istanbul;Aligarh,

Cairo, and

later in

other major cities
the world

1920-TodayPost colonialperiod.Neo-colonialism The awakening;Mohammed Iqbal Attempts to reconcile western
thought with Islamic teachings;Professor to student
Emphasis on science and technology

The Madrassah – Cultural Archetypes

The Madrassah – Cultural Archetypes

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

There is a one-to-one correspondence between the educational system and the archetypes that a civilization produces. These archetypes capture the functional aspirations of a society much as architecture captures its spiritual longings. The archetype in modern day America is Bill Gates. In 19th century England it was the merchant. In classical Japan it was the Samurai. Each archetype personifies what a civilization is and what it wants to become.

One of the difficulties in formulating a consistent educational reformation of the madrasa is that there is no single archetype that captures the essence of Islamic civilization today. Modern day Muslims live in different ages. Some live in the 7th century, some in the age of the Crusades, some in the age of the Taj Mahal, some in the twenty first century, and some in dreamland. The resulting confusion is all too apparent.

In Islamic history, we may identify at least seven different archetypes in the fourteen hundred years since the Hijra (migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina). Each archetype corresponds to a specific educational structure.

The first century after the Prophet belonged to the visionaries (632-765). The instructional structure was a halqa and the teachers were the Suhaba(the Companions), the Tabiyeen (those who learned from the Companions) and Tab-e-Tabiyeen (the second generation after the Prophet). The teacher and the pupil were both animated by the love of the Prophet and the archetypes were a product of this love. The Companions emulated the Prophet. The obedience was without question in matters of faith. It was with due consultation and wise counsel in social and political matters. The Prophet was the lamp and the Companions received the light from the lamp. The archetypes of this age included Abu Bakr Siddiq, Omar ibn al Khattab, Uthman bin Affan, Ali ibn Abu Talib and Salman Farsi. The generations that followed learned from these stalwarts. The names of Omar bin Abdel Azeez, Ja’afar as Saadiq and Abu Haneefa are in the honor roll of the successor generations. What these luminaries did – and did not do – set the course for Islamic history in the centuries to come.

As the boundaries of the Arab empire expanded, Zoroastrians, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists entered the fold of Islam. They brought with them their cultures, languages, customs and their mode of relating to the mysteries of creation. Of particular interest was the impact of classical Greek thought. The Eastern Mediterranean was a bastion of Greek thought and the Muslims often found themselves engaged in religious debates with Christians who had mastered Greek philosophy. The need to justify their beliefs in rational terms provided an impetus to rational thought. Muslim scholars studied classical Greek philosophy, developed it, and took it to new heights. Foremost among them were Wasil ibn Ata (748), Amr ibn Ubayd (762), an-Nazzam (840) and Abu Hudhayl (849). They applied reason to the solution of philosophical problems and were the founders of the kalamsciences in the madaris. They upheld the preeminence of human free will over predestination and deduced from it man’s responsibility for his own actions. The Muslim rationalists were called the Mu’tazalites.

The Caliph al Mansur embraced the Mu’tazalite school and founded a school of translation, the Baitul Hikmah (house of wisdom) in Baghdad wherein the works of classical scholars from Greece, Persia and India were translated into Arabic. A galaxy of scholars, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians worked at the Baitul Hikmah. The Mu’tazalites guided the intellectual ship of Islam for almost a hundred years (765-846). The educational system reflected the rational bent of the age, and the syllabus included philosophy and logic in addition to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The archetype of this age was the rationalist philosopher. Included among these were the mathematician al Khwarizmi (d 840) and the noted philosopher al Kindi (d 873).

As rationalists, the Mu’tazilites applied speculative logic to the transcendence of God and revelation, and in the process fell flat on their face. They overlooked the limitations of the rational method and disregarded the assumptions built therein, such as the assumption of before and after, and subject and object. The rational method cannot explain the conditions of heart such as love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and the divine attributes that transcend time and space. Opposition to the rationalist school set in. To preserve their privileged position, the Mu’tazilites used the whip and a great many scholars were brutally punished. Faced with this opposition, the Caliph al Mutawakkil abandoned the Mu’tazilites and embraced the orthodox Asharites. In turn, when the Asharites came to power (846), they whipped the Mu’tazilites and some were expelled.

It must be emphasized that the Mu’tazilites were not the inventors of modern science. A great many writers – both Asian and Western – look back at the age of reason (the Mu’tazilite period) with nostalgia and assert that the decay of science in Islam came about because the rational approach was suppressed, and was finally dealt the death-blow by Al Ghazzali (1111). This betrays a lack of understanding of science and civilization in Islam and the philosophical limitations inherent in the rational approach.

The modern scientific method, which is based on observation, collection of data, interpretation, extrapolation and generalization was developed only after the Mu’tazilites were vanquished and in spite of them. The basis for this empirical approach was the Qur’an. It was not Greek rationalism but Islamic empiricism that was the father of modern science, which is based on the inductive, not the deductive method. Muslim scholars built an edifice of science on a foundation that was laid by the earlier civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. In the 12th century, it was this empirical method that found its way to Christian Europe through Muslim Spain.

The al-Hakims (integrators) emerged when the rationalists lost out. These were the stalwarts who produced the intellectual eruption that is sometimes referred to as the “golden age” of science in Islam. Al-Razi, Al Baruni, Al Masudi, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Sina, and Al Idrisi all belonged to this class of archetypes. The al-Hakims dominated the historical landscape until the devastations of the Mongols (1219-1258) and Crusades (996). It was in this period that the Islamic approach to man and nature found its fullest expression. The syllabus in the madrasa embraced the sciences of man, nature and the soul.

The Awliya emerged out of the ashes of Mongol and Crusader destructions. Focusing more on the esoteric than the exoteric, they developed the sciences of the soul and achieved a cosmopolitan Islamic culture that not even the most liberal Hakim could have dreamed of. Representing the archetypes of the age were Abdel Qader al Jeelani of Iraq, Khwaja Moeenuddin Chisti of India, Shaykh Shadhuli of Egypt, Maulana Rumi of Turkey, Shah Naqshband of Uzbekistan and Shaykh Maqdum of Indonesia. This period is known for its ecstatic poetry, architectural brilliance and development of the sciences of tasawwuf. The madrasa reflected the spiritual quest of the age and the science of tazkiyatun nafs (purification of the soul) found an honorable place alongside religious studies, mathematics, astronomy, technical trades, chivalry and good manners.

The age of tazkiyatun nafs culminated in a culture of akhlaq (good character) personified by the Great Moghuls of India, Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. Some of the “gems” of the Moghul courts, such as Tansen (the composer), Abul Fazal (the writer), and Tulsi Das (the administrator) were its archetypical products. The curriculum of the age, and the composite characters produced by it, reflected the akhlaq color. The Moghuls were not inventors of the akhlaq school. It was proposed as early as the 10th century by Al Farabi (950) and developed by that great man of science, Nasir uddin al Tusi (1276). Imported into India by Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq (1351), it found its fullest expression in the composite, cosmopolitan culture of the Great Moghuls (1526-1707).

As corruption ran amuck in the body politic, the traditionalists, always lurking in the background, asserted themselves (1650-1700). This was the beginning of the age of fatwa. Personifying this archetype were the Great Moghul Aurangzeb, Shaykh Abdul Wahhab of Arabia and Shehu Dan Fuduye of West Africa. In their zeal to purge the society of religious excesses, the traditionalists indulged in their own excesses, and injected rigidity into the educational process. So powerful was the downdraft from the traditionalist movement that even an intellectual giant like Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1762) had to guard his rear against an attack from this quarter.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, with India firmly under the heels of the British and the Indian Ocean trade under European control, that Muslims woke up to the challenge of the West. In the Ottoman Empire, this awakening resulted in a series of reforms, called the Tanzeemat. In South Asia, it produced Syed Ahmed Khan and Jamaluddin Afghani. The university at Aligarh is a product of this reformist thrust. The reformer archetypes sought to revive Islamic life through an educational process inspired by the European educational system. The orientation of the Islamic universities now shifted from the East to the West, from serving the needs of its internal renewal to serving the needs of a colonial age.

In the post-colonial era, one sees the emergence of the secular reformer. It is the secular reformer who has dominated the social and political landscape in the 20th century. Trained in the western tradition and unmindful of his own past, the secular reformer sees the salvation of the Muslim body politic in emulating the western paradigm. Mohammed Abduh of Egypt was perhaps the first in this category. Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia, all fall into this category.

Sometimes there are clear demarcation lines between the disappearance of one archetype and the appearance of another, as happened with the repudiation of the Mu’tazilites and the appearance of the al-Hakims (845). At other times, there is a slow evolution from one archetype to the other, such as between the Sufi and the Salafi (18th century). And on other occasions, old archetypes make their appearance, like unexpected meteors in the sky, past their historical times. Some discontinuities stand out; others are fuzzy. In the modern times all of these archetypes exist side by side and are a primary source of tension in Muslim societies.

Summarily, the seven archetypes that characterize different periods in Islamic history are: the visionaries, the men of reason, the men of science, the Sufis, the Akhlaqis, the Salafis (the traditionalists) and the westernized reformers. In the emergence of these archetypes the madrasa, its structure and its curriculum, played a decisive role. When the syllabus and instruction were comprehensive and balanced including the natural sciences, the sciences of man and the sciences of the soul (I call it the stable Nature-History-Soul tripod), Islamic civilization thrived and contributed to world civilization. When education was marginalized to one discipline or the other, it withered. Where it once produced intellectual giants it now crafted statues without spirit, bodies without soul. Extremism followed and stares us straight in the face today.

The Madrassah – Ancient Madrassahs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

The Madrassah – Ancient Madrassahs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Note: Much of the material presented in the section on the madrassahs of Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan is taken from Maulana Nadvi’s manuscript “Hindustan ki purani darsgahen” (Shibli Academy, 1919). We have augmented the material with our own research on the madrassahs of southern India.

The well known scholar, Maulana Nadvi, in his manuscript on the ancient madrassahs (Islamic religious schools and academies) of Hindustan, observes that Muslim rulers throughout history have considered it a religious as well as secular obligation to build schools, mosques and qanqahs. For instance, the following edict from Emperor Akbar is mentioned in Tareeq Marat e Ahmedi, written by the Diwan (Chief Minister) of Gujarat: “To the maximum extent possible, there must be support for education and training so that the men of learning do not disappear from my realm and their continued presence is secured in the world”.

In bygone years, separate buildings did not exist for education. To the extent possible, the Masjid was used for this purpose. Every great Masjidwas a vast learning center. Such Masjid-madrassah complexes existed in Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Jaunpur, Ahmedabad, Dhaka and the Deccan. Even today, one can see that the courtyards of these masjid are surrounded by small chambers, which at one time were occupied by teachers and students. Some masjid-madrassah complexes still serve the same function.

Secondly, the ancient qanqhas served as madrassahs. The mashaeq and the seekers of sufi knowledge were engaged not just in tazkiya of the individual nafs but they also concerned themselves with teaching theShariah along with Tareeqa and the knowledge of the seen and the unseen (ilm u ghaib and ilm us shahada). For this reason, the lives of mashaeq of the old, show a marked commitment to teaching and learning. Everyqanqah had students who were thirsty not just for esoteric knowledge but also exoteric knowledge. Most of the grants that were given to the qanqhasby the rulers were spent on support for students.

The tombs of kings and noblemen had madrassahs and student accommodations attached to them. The tombs of Allauddin Khilji and Humayun are illustrations. Such tomb-madrassah complexes have survived to this day in Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad and Bijapur.

These observations show that the network of madrassahs was extensive in every corner of the vast subcontinent.


By the turn of the first millennium (1000 CE), most of Afghanistan, NW Frontier Province and Western Punjab was ruled by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna. He was a friend of learning and a supporter of the learned. His court was attended by well known scholars and poets. He was keen on building schools and madrassahs in his vast realm. The historian Farishta mentions that the madrassah-masjid complex of Ghazna was built of white marble. Copying their sovereign, the courtiers vied with one another in building madrassah-masjid complexes in the far off provinces.

Shahabuddin Masood succeeded Mahmud. This prince was also a dedicated patron of education and literature. It was during his reign that Kazi Abu Muhammed Nasihi composed the Fiqh Masoodi, and Abu Rayhan Khwarizmi, who was a scholar of Riaziyat, wrote a book on Qanoone Masoodi’. Farisha notes that the number of Masajid and madrassahs established by Masood were too numerous to count.


Multan was one of the earliest centers of Islamic learning in South Asia. Nasiruddin Khabacha, who was the governor (wali) of Multan under Qutbuddin Aibak, built a madrassah and appointed Maulana Qutbuddin Kashani to teach there. Among the later sultans, special mention must be made of Hussain Shah Lanka who sent a delegation to Gujarat to study the buildings housing madrassahs so that similar ones may be constructed in Multan. When the delegation reported that the type of buildings erected on Gujarat soil could not be erected in Multan, the sultan was saddened but he declared that if Gujarat was proud of its buildings, then Multan was proud of its scholars.


Delhi, as the capital city of sultans and emperors was showered with educational endowments and academies. In 1215 Shamsuddin Altimash became the Sultan. The famous Madrasseye Maazi in Delhi was built by this Sultan as was the Mutassil Jami in Badayun. During the reign of Razia Sultana, a large madrassah-masjid complex called Madrase Nasiriyia was built in Delhi.

Next to the Qutub Minar and the ruins of Masjid Quwwatul Islam is the tomb-madrassah complex of Alauddin Khilji. Alauddin embellished the complex and built a grand academy on the site. He also laid the foundation of Hause Khas madrassah in Delhi which was completed during the reign of Feroze Shah.

Sultan Muhammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351) founded the city of Khurram Abad next to old Delhi and built a Masjid-madrassah complex there.

For a long time, Madrase Feroze Shahi was the largest and the best known of the masjid– madrassahs in Delhi. Feroze Shah built it in Feroze Abad in the year 1354. It was headed by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (not to be confused with Mevlana Rumi of Konya, Turkey). It has been mentioned and praised in the writings of Zia Barani.

There was another madrassah built in Delhi at about the same time, Madrase Balaband Aab Seeri. The buildings were built to match the beauty and grandeur of Madrase Feroze Shahi.

Humayun’s reign began in the year 1528. He was a lover of history and geography. His personal collection consisted of over 150,000 books. He carried this collection with him during his wanderings in the desert when he was dethroned by Sher Shah Suri. Humayun was the inventor of an astrolobe, which is commonly referred to as astrolobe Humayuni. In the library of Darul Uloom Nadwa, until recent years, there stood an astrolobe Humayuni donated by Amal Ziauddin Mohammed bin Qasim. The top floor on Humayun’s tomb was in fact a madrassah.

During the reign of Akbar, Mahem Begum, one of the wives of Akbar built amasjid and madrassah in the old city. The madrassah was called khairul manazil.

The Jami Masjid in Delhi was not only one of the most beautiful structures built by Shah Jehan but was indeed an embellishment on the landscape of Delhi. The British traveler Stephen writes that the northern side of themasjid was a royal hospital where the poor and the destitute received free services. It was well equipped with the best facilitates of the age. On the southern side of the masjid was a grand madrassah called Darul Baqawhich was destroyed by the British after the uprising of 1857.

During the reign of Bahadur Shah, Ghaziuddin Khan Feroze Jung, father of Asif Jah, the founder of the Hyderabad dynasty, founded a madrassah. Another madrassah was built by Nawab Sharfuddawla Irawat Khan during the reign of Muhammed Shah.

Yet another well known seminary was madrassah Shah Abdur Rahim Dehlavi. It was here that Shah Waliullah, Kazi Sanaullah Panipati, Maulana Shah Abdul Azeez Dehlavi, Shah Ismail, Shah Ishaq, Shah Abdul Qader and other ulema were trained. The madrassah no longer exists.


Lahore, the capital of Punjab, attracted large endowments in schools and mosques. One of the earliest existing mosques, Wazir Khan ki Masjid has a shopping complex built around it. The income from the complex supports the masjid and a madrassah.

The Badshahi Masjid dating from the late Mogul period is a jewel in the same class as the Jamia Masjid of Delhi. It too had rooms built around the courtyard where students stayed during their study years.


By the reign of Aurangzeb, Sialkot had acquired a reputation for learning. Mullah Abdul Hakim Sialkoti, whose writings are well known from Delhi to Istanbul, taught in this city. Sialkot had a Darul Uloom and Jami Ulema which were well known during the reign of Shah Jehan and his son Aurangzeb. The centers were well known in the subcontinent and students from all over the Muslim world came to study here.


The well known Dargahe Shaikh Chilli was built by Dara Shikwa in 1661. Another madrassah, madrassah’e Noor, was built by Sher Shah Suri in 1545 near the tomb of his grandfather in the Punjab.


Agra became a center for learning during the reign of Emperors Akbar and Jehangir. Akbar invited a renowned scholar of the age, Chalebi Baig from Shiraz to come and teach at Agra. Other scholars also came from Shiraz to teach at the Jami in Agra.

Jahangir writes in his Tazk: “… the population of Agra is filled with a large number of artisans and students. Scholars of many religions live in this city”. It is important to note that Jahangir mentions scholars of other religions, not just Islamic scholars, who were teaching in the madrassahs.

Madras e Khas was built by Maulana Alauddin Lary, author of Sharh Aqaede Nafsi during the reign of Shah Jehan.

Jehan Ara Begum, eldest daughter of Shah Jehan, built a madrassah complex in Agra and endowed it with a large number of shops as waqf to defray the expenses.

Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar built a large number of madrassahs and qanqahs. The jami masjid as well as the tomb of Salim Chishti in Fatehpur Sikri served as a grand madrassah. There was a madrassah after the name of Abul Fazal, which is still functioning.

Sikandar Lodhi (circa 1470) built numerous schools, sarai, madrassahsandmasajid in his reign including a grand masjid and madrassah. It was during his reign that the Hindus started to study Farsi.


In 226, Shamsuddin Altimish built a Jami masjid and an adjacent madrassah in Badayun.

Nawab Faizullah Khan established the madrassah at Rampur. The Nawab invited Maulana Bahrul Uloom to build the madrassah and teach there. Kandan Lal Ashkee writes that three hundred students studied at the school.


When Rahmat Khan occupied Ruhilkhand in 1750, he established a great madrassah at Shahjehanput and invited Maulana Bahrul Uloom to come to Ruhilkhand and teach at the school.


In the waning years of the Mogul empire, Oudh became an important provincial town and a center of learning. The earliest known madrassah was established by Shaikh Nizamuddin Ansari at Sahali during the reign of Akbar. During the reign of Aurangzeb, a madrassah was established by Mullah Qutbuddin.


The earliest madrassahs in Lucknow were established by Shaikh Azam Jaunpuri and Shah Pir Muhammed. However, it was Mullah Qutbuddin Saeed and his son Mullah Nazimuddin who were responsible for making Lucknow a magnet for scholars from all over the world. Other schools sprang up in Khairabad, Belgram and Fatehgadh.


Jaunpur was known as the Shiraz of India. The emperor Sher Shah Suri was educated at Jaunpur. His course of study included Sikandar Nama, Gulistan, Bustan, philosophy, and the biographies of kings and sultans. He often visited madrassahs and qanqhas and made friends with the ulema and the shaikhs.

In the year 1444, Bibi Raja Begum established a madrassah in Jaunpur. However, when Sikandar Lodhi captured Jaunpur, he demolished most of the old madrassahs. Jaunpur was rehabilitated during the Mogul period. Shah Jehan referred to Jaunpur as the Shiraz of the East. He sanctioned grants to the scholars of the town. He made it a matter of policy that whenever there was a madrassah established, he would sanction a grant for it. The rich and the princes stopped in this town to witness the grandeur of its academies and further bestowed grants on them.


Benares was known for the school established by Maulana Amanullah Benarasi.


Azamgadh was connected with Jaunpur. It produced many scholars. The names of Mullah Muhammed Jaunpuri, Maulana Inayat Rasul, Maulana Shamsul Haq, Molvi Hafiz Noor, Molvi Mohammed Zubair, Maulana Altaf Hussain, Maulana Aleemullah, Maulana Tasaddaq Hussain, Maulana Jamaluddin, and Maulana Farooq is well known.


Bakhtiar Khilji conquered Bihar and Bengal in the 12th century and laid the foundation of Islamic education in that area. Bihar produced many a great scholar including Shaykh Tayyeb Budhen, Mullah Muhibbullah and Ghulam Yahya, Some of the best known towns where madrassahs were located were Mohiuddinpur, Nagar Nahisa, Kohta, Geelani and Isthanuwan.

In Bihar, the town of Sehseram, has the qanqah of Hazrath Kabir. It is one of the great madrassahs and has an old library, which dates from the reign of Shah Alam.

Nawab Asif Khan founded the madrassah ‘e Danapur and the contiguousMasjid, which was completed by Nawab Heebat Jung.

The qanqhah at Phulwari is well known for its madrassah teaching both Ilm ul Gaib and Ilm uz Zahir.

Madrasse Patna, built by Saif Khan was once vast and extensive, but it is now in ruins.


Bakhtiar Khilji was the first one to conquer Bengal. He was well known for establishing masjids, qanqhas and madrassahs. Other early masjids were known to exist in Umarpur, and Isthipur.


Shaesta Khan, uncle of Aurangzeb, built a large madrassah and a masjidinside a fort bearing his name. Close by is the Khan Mohammed MirzaMasjid including lecture halls and dormitories for students. Mohammed Azam, son of Aurangzeb built a Masjid which specialized in ulume batin and the practice of tasawwuf.


Ali Wardi Khan Murshidabadi invited scholars to come to Murshidabad from Azimabad. Included among these scholars were Mir Mohammed Ali, Hussain Khan, Ali Ibrahim Khan and Haji Mohammed Khan. There was a madrassah called Katra madrassah built by Jaafar Khan.


Among the earliest sultans who patronized learning in Kashmir was Sultan Sikandar who is known as a patron of learning and scholarship. Sultan Zainul Abedin (1423) established a department of history in Kashmir and authorized the writing of Kashmiri history known as Raj Tarangi. Hussain Chak Shah established a large madrassah in 1498 and assigned the Zainpur Pargunna to support this school. He evinced keen interest in learning and was a patron of learned people. When Akbar captured Kashmir, Hussain Khan, Waliye Kashmir was appointed the governor of the province and became a patron of a large number of madrassahs.


The sultans of Ahmadabad were second to none in their patronage ofmasajid and madrassahs. Among these sultans, Sultan Muhammed Bekhada is one of the best known. He built schools, academies and masajidthroughout the land. Saif Khan built a beautiful madrassah in 1620, named madrasat’ul ulema near the entrance to the fort of Arak.

Kazi Ikramuddin Khan who was a Shaikh ul Islam, built a grand madrassah in 1687. Maulana Nooruddin Gujarati taught in the school.

In Ahmedabad, Madrase Wajihuddin was well known. The school offered stipends to students. Allama Mamdooh taught here for 26 years.

Other well known madrassahs existed in Sarqeez, Neherwala and Usmanpur.


Haji Zahid Baig built a madrassah in the year 1629.

As directed by Emperor Aurangzeb, three madrassahs were built in Gujarat: one in Ahmedabad, one in Surat and the third in Patan. The emperor was a great supporter of learning and of the learned. The teachers as well as the students were supported by state funds. Alamgir also supported the education of Bohras in Gujarat. Contrary to parochial opinions, Aurangzeb was not anti-Shia. He was a patron of Shia, Sunni and the academies of other madhhabs. The wars he waged on the sultanates of the Deccan were not directed at the Shias; they were a reflection of the Mogul-Safavid rivalry for the domination of South Asia.

Madrassahs of Southern India

Islam has had a presence on the southwestern coast of the Subcontinent (the coast of Kerala and Konkan) since the 8th century. However, the madrassahs dating back to that era are now extant. The consolidation of the subcontinent under Alauddin Khilji (circa 1300) brought Islam to other parts of the south. The old Iddgahs and tombs that dot the landscape of Deccan are a testimony to that presence. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bahmani kingdoms of Bijapur, Bidar, Ahmednagar and Golkunda established themselves. These were supplanted by the Great Moguls in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of the madrassahs that date from the Bahmani kingdoms and the era of the Great Moguls are still functioning in parts of the south.


Jamia Baqiatus Salehat located in Vellore was founded in 1857 by Hazrat Shah Abdul Wahab, who was himself a graduate of madras e Latifiya. As northern India burned during the Sepoy uprising and the British brutally put down the rebellion, Shah Abdul Wahab thought about the condition of Indian Muslims and felt that the salvation of the community lay in education. The school had a humble origin. Shaikh Abdul Wahab started teaching from his home. In 1882, a Majlis e Shura was organized and the institution moved to its present location. In 1896, the institution was registered under the Madras 1860 madrassah Act.

The total enrollment for the Jami for the year 2003-2004 is 224. The current dean is an eminent theologian Shaikh Maulana Mufti Uthman Mohiuddin. Students are admitted at the age of 12. Boarding and lodging for the students are free. Most of the students come from the poorer strata of society. The syllabus includes the study of Urdu, elementary English, local languages, the Qur’an, Hifz, Tafseer, Hadith, fiqh, arithmetic, classical Farsi and Arabic literature. After graduation, many students go on to Nadva, Devband or the University of Medina (Saudi Arabia) for specialized studies. The institution thus maintains a conservative orientation towards learning, more in keeping with the Hadith school than the traditional zawiya school.

The Jami always enjoyed a good rapport with the local governments over the decades. In 1925, the British Governor of Madras, Count Goshen attended a conference at the school and gave a donation of Rs. 10,000. At the present time, the Jami is supported by private trusts in the cities of Chennai and Vellore.

From its humble beginnings Jamia Baqiatus Salehat has grown to radiate its influence all over Southern India as well as Sri Lanka, Maldeep Islands, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of the students are from Southern India although, until the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and its fallout, students from Ceylon, Malaysia, Maldeep Islands and Indonesia also attended.


More than three hundred years before the well known academies at Nadva and Devband were established, the Jami Lateefiyaat Vanambadi in Southern India, was founded by Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub during the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur (circa 1575), just before the armies of the Great Moguls penetrated the Deccan. The tomb of Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub, a Shaikh of the Qadiriya order, is located in the precincts. Shaikh Qutub is one of the well known Awliya of Deccan. It is reported that thousands of people entered the fold of Islam through his teachings. To this day, thousands visit his tomb each year. The ancient seminary is attached to a zawiya and is supported by private waqfs of the murids. A resident Shaikh, a scion of the Qadariya school from Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub run the seminary. The current enrollment is approximately 150 students.

The Jami Lateefiya is a more ancient madrassah than either Devband or Nadvatul Ulema. However, unlike the seminaries in the North, these ancient seminaries in the South do their work away from the public eye. They do not seek publicity nor do they go out soliciting funds. The seminary has radiated its influence far beyond the borders of the Indian subcontinent. It was one of the graduates of this seminary who foundedMadressaye Baqiyiat us Salihat and the graduates of Baqiyat have opened schools in Malaysia, Ceylon, Nepal, South Africa and the Maldeep Islands.

Maqbul ul Uloom, located in Vanambadi was founded in 1888 by Mohammed Ghouse and Hajji Abdul Majeed. Members of these two families have been running this institution until today. It is an independent institution and is managed by a trust.

The admission age for students is 12. A course of study for nine years leads to a degree of aalim. Traditionally, most of the students come from poor families. Of late, thanks to the interest from Tableeghi Jamaat, children from middle class families are also attending. The dropout rate is high and those who drop out become molvis in the villages. Those who graduate migrate to bigger towns and cities.

The institution is known for its dawa work and a large number of people have entered the fold of Islam through the work of its faculty and students. However, the dawa work is not advertised so as not to attract unwanted attention. The schools in Southern India are well integrated into the largely Hindu milieu. They teach peace, togetherness and brotherhood.

There is an association called Majlis ul madaris ul Arabia, which provides a forum for consultation between various madrassahs on issues of common interest. Unity between the madrassahs is not possible because of masalikbut such differences have not prevented them from working together.


Jami Darul Islam at Umarabad is an institution partly supported by grants from Saudi Arabia and partly from the Government of Tamil Nadu. The Saudi leanings of the school are apparent in the strict discipline that is imposed on the students. Students are sometimes starved for a day if they violate disciplinary rules. Thanks to generous grants from abroad, it is located in very modern, beautiful buildings. The total student body stands at 650. Maulana Riyazu is the Principal. Until the attack 9/11 in New York, there was emphasis on tableegh. During the year 2001, 25 students entered the fold of Islam. But because of the political climate, tableegh has now stopped. The age of admission for students is twelve and the institution gives out degrees of Aalim. Six of the faculty members were trained in Saudi Arabia, which reinforces the Saudi orientation in the syllabus. The school does not accept tasawwuf as a legitimate subject nor is it taught to the students.


Madresay e Arabiya, in Kambipur, Bangalore was founded in 1956 by Shaikul Hadith Syed Muhammed Ismail. Its stated goal is to awaken a love for Islam in the neighboring villages and to mold the character of a Daee(inviter to Islam). Generous donations from Saudi Arabia have enabled this school to build a modern campus and infrastructure. The library has well over 1000 volumes, many of them donated by Medina University. It is currently run jointly by Tableeghi Jamaat and Jamaat e Islami. Seventy percent of the students are from the villages, the rest are from the towns and cities.

The syllabus of this school is responsive to the needs of the day and the needs of the state. The influence of Nadva is obvious from the fact that before a book is used in the syllabus it has to be approved by the academy at Nadva. High school courses are offered. English, Arabic and Kannada (the local language) are also taught. The study of Urdu is compulsory. Arabic language classes are geared to make the student understand theQur’an. Courses in classical Islamic history as well as modern Indian history are included with emphasis on the role of the ulema in the independence movement of India. A course in philosophy, including Al Ghazzali’s Repudiation of the Philosophers as well as Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Aristotle are available for study. The students are taught a trade, such as carpentry or tailoring, before graduation. Tazkiya is accepted. The role of the awliya is respected although tasawwuf is not included in the syllabus. The students are encouraged to engage in khidmate khalq and follow the example of the awliya in this respect. The Hanafi school of fiqh is followed. Interfaith dialogues are held with a neighboring Christian seminary.


The old madrassah in Bidar occupies a place of honor among the learned circles in India. It was built by Mahmoud Tawan (circa 1450) who was the vizier to Mohammed Shah Bahmani. It occupied an area of 75 by 55 meters, had two minarets 100 feet tall, one of which is still standing. There is a masjid in the courtyard. Situated around the courtyard are chambers which serve as residence for the teachers and the students. Mohammed Gawan established a library, which had 35,000 volumes.


Ahmed Shah Bahmani built a madrassah for his Shaykh, Hazrath Gaysu Daraz in the year 1422. It was a qanqhah where the exoteric as well as the esoteric sciences were taught.

Golkunda (modern ‘Hyderabad’)

Molvi Zakaulla writes in his Tareeq e Hind that Qutub Shah who was the sultan of Golkunda built many madrassahs in his capital city.

Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah of Golkunda built the Char Minar in the year 1591 and established a madrassah next to it. Qutub Shah was a patron of learning and the arts. The European writer Sheryl writes in his book that Qutub Shah established many basic madrassahs in southern India. The students sat on benches in these schools and wrote on paper which was smooth but was of a lower quality than that available in Europe.

Mahmoud Shah, who was one of the rulers of Golkunda was a well known scholar himself and had students learn philosophy and hikmat (integrative knowledge, systems) and carried the title of “Aristotle”. He built madrassahs in Gulbarga, Bidar, Ulajpur and Daulatabad.

Mohammed Adil Shah established madrassahs for the study of Farsi and Arabic as well as Qur’anic studies in the Jami Masjid at Bijapur. The students received free boarding and lodging as well as a stipend. Upon graduation, they were offered government jobs.


Burhan Nizam Shah accepted the Shi’a faith. He built an Ithna Ashari madrassah in Ahmednagar and an attached Langar Khana. For the maintenance of this complex, he established a waqf to which the tax income from Jaunpur, Sawar and Siapur was earmarked. He also built another madrassah called Madrass e Baghdad.


Nawab Wala Jah of Madras invited Maulana Behrul Uloom to Madras, built a large madrassah next to his own palace and endowed it with generous land and buildings.

In summary, Islamic education in India was widespread and was patronized by the local rulers. It was also integrative and was responsive to the needs of Muslims in a largely Hindu matrix.

The Madrassah – Historical Evolution of the Syllabus

The Madrassah – Historical Evolution of the Syllabus

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

In the year 1080, Malik Shah, Abbasid sultan of Baghdad appointed Nizamul Mulk as his Grand Vizier. It was a period when the Islamic world was divided between the Fatimids in Cairo and the Abbasids in Baghdad. There was an intense military, political and ideological rivalry between these two camps. . The rivalry was ideological, political and military. The Fatimids were Shiite Seveners and believed that the head of the Islamic community was most properly an Imam in the lineage of Ali (r). The Abbasids, on the other hand, were Sunnis and believed in the Khilafat as established by the first four Caliphs. The Fatimids controlled all of North Africa, Egypt and Syria while the Abbasids held on to the Islamic domains East of the river Euphrates. The control of Egypt gave an immense advantage to the Fatimids. They controlled the trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Cairo prospered while Baghdad withered.

The ideological rivalry extended to patronage of learning and the trades. The Fatimids started the Al Azhar University in Cairo in 969 CE. Other centers of learning dotted the landscape of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt. The Abbasids were not far behind the Fatimids in this competition.

Nizamul Mulk was perhaps the best administrator the Islamic world has known after the Caliph Omar bin al Khattab (r). He streamlined the Abbasid administration, rationalized the tax collection system and stimulated the economy that had been battered by the loss of trade with the Mediterranean. But the Nizam is best remembered for starting and patronizing a string of universities in the Abbasid domains. The best known of these was the Nizamiya college in Baghdad which attracted the renowned scholars of the age. The celebrated Al Gazzali was a Professor at Nizamiya college in 1090. The syllabus developed at Nizamiya college is known as the Nizamiya syllabus.

It is a tribute to the wisdom and far sightedness of the great vizier that his syllabus has survived almost a thousand years. And it is a sad reflection on the contemporary madaris that the same syllabus, more correctly a regressed version of it, is still followed. The world went through the Crusades, the Mongol devastations, the discovery of America, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Industrial Revolution, the consolidation and disappearance of the British empire, the two World Wars, several moon landings and yet a shrunken version of the “Nizamiya Nisab” is taught in our schools!

The shift from a comprehensive syllabus to a parochial one focusing purely on “deen” took place gradually over a period of three hundred years. In South Asia, we find the impact of three different influences shaping themadaris. First, the internal evolution of religious thought in the subcontinent. Second, the impact of the British Raj. And third, the influence of Saudi institutions and oil money.

The first indication of this shift is noticeable in the early 18th century, immediately after the period of Aurangzeb. Largely as a result of the forceful and compelling writings of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi of the Punjab, the study of fiqh and fatwa gained ascendancy over tasawwuf. The syllabus shifted in favor of the exoteric over the esoteric. Fatwa e Alamgiri, compiled under the direction of the Emperor, became a part of the syllabus. As the Mogul empire disintegrated and political and military initiative passed on to the Europeans, the disciplines that dealt with statecraft and civics were also dropped. Living under British Raj meant that the Indians had to learn to live as loyal subjects of the British crown. As European culture sank roots on Indian soil, the study of philosophy and mathematics was also dropped from the Madaris, in part because these subjects were considered “tainted” from their contact with the firangees.

A further shrinking of the deeni syllabus took place largely as a result of the contact of Indian ulema with Arabia. The syllabus in the schools of Mecca and Madina was always strong in Hadith (relate the story of the scholar who went back because India was weak in the science of Hadith). After World War I, the Saudis gained ascendancy in the Arabian peninsula and imposed their strict, Wahhabi brand of Islam on the Arabs. The ulema from the subcontinent who went to study at Mecca and Medina came into contact with a stripped down version of Islam, focused solely on the external observations of the Shariah. The sciences of Hadith took preponderance over the sciences of the Fiqh.

In the 19th century, as the colonial authorities pushed secular education, defeatism and isolation overtook the Muslim educational establishment. No longer enjoying the patronage of the rulers, the madaris retreated into thedeeni corner, partly to preserve themselves and partly to safeguard, as they saw it, the religious heritage of the believers in the face of the onslaught from the unbelieving firangees. Whatever philosophy and mathematics was taught in the religious schools was gradually abandoned because the Europeans knew far more about these subjects than did the natives and the madrassah could not compete with the Westernized secular school in these subjects. This bifurcation of education into deeniand dunawi (religious versus secular) has persisted to this day. Indeed, it has become embedded into the structure of the madrassah. Any attempt to “reform” the madrassah must take into consideration this deep seated distrust of the secular sciences which are perceived to spread atheism and are construed to be the vanguard of a decadent Western culture which allows free mixing of boys and girls, liquor, dancing, premarital sex and the destruction of the family.

After World War II there was a large infusion of oil money and the Saudi influence on the curriculum in the madaris accelerated. The science ofhadith became the central focus along with a literal interpretation of theQur’an. The sciences of the soul and the sciences of the heart were dropped from the syllabus, and the madrassah became a deeni replica of the secular schools, which catered to duniya. This was the flip side of secularism wherein the study of religious sciences is dropped in favor of science, technology and secular sociology.

In the more recent past, modern influences have exerted an enormous influence on the evolution of Islamic education. As the global secular materialist civilizations sweeps the planet, local cultures and local religions come under increasing pressure. Disciplines that do not command the interest of the market place are dropped in favor of those that have a need in the market place. For instance, computer science replaces philosophy and accounting replaces arts. “Deeni Taleem” has been further pushed into a corner and has become but a caricature of the comprehensive, cosmopolitan self that it once was.

The Evolution of Syllabus in the Madrassahs of India and Pakistan – A Case Study

During the Middle Ages, the vast subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was a border state in the mosaic of the Islamic world extending from Spain to Indonesia. Borders were porous. Sultans and potentates vied d with each other to attract and hold men of learning. Tradesman traveled freely. There was a constant flux of ideas from one part of the Islamic world to the other. Geography dictated to a large extent the interaction of the Indo-Pak landmass with Central Asia, Iran and the Arab world.

Islam appeared on the southwestern coast of Kerala in the eighth and 9thcenturies through trade and commerce. The southwest monsoons brought Arab traders from Yemen and Arabia to Indian shores. They brought with them incense and gold and took back spices and ivory. They married Indian women and a thriving Islamic community evolved over the centuries. This community was part of the trading network in the Indian ocean which was dominated by Muslim traders until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Trade brought with it the religion, customs and educational systems of the Middle East. The traders established madaris all along the Caromandal coast where the syllabus and the mode of instruction were similar to those in the coastal areas of the Arabian peninsula. However, very little historical information about these madaris has survived today.

At the other end of the subcontinent, in the northwest, Islam was introduced through Omayyad invasions in the 8th century. Mohammed bin Qasim captured Sindh and Multan and made them a part of the Arab empire. Multan became a thriving educational and cultural center and many a fine madrassah graced its landscape. The curriculum, method of teaching and the structure of the madrassah were similar to those in Central Asia and the Persian heartland. The evolution of the madrassah in this region followed the general historical trends in the broader Islamic world.

Islam made its inroads into the heart of the subcontinent when the renowned Sufi sheikh Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti moved to Ajmer from Multan (1190). Soon thereafter, the victory of Mohammed Ghori at the first of battle of Panipet (1192) solidified the political hold of Muslims on the Gangetic plains. The infant sultanate of Delhi was still struggling to consolidate itself when Gengiz Khan, after laying waste Samarqand, Merv and Bukhara, appeared on the Indus (1219-22). For forty years thereafter, the primary contribution of the Delhi sultans to Indian history to hold off the Mongol hordes and protect India from the devastations suffered by Central Asia and Iran.

It was not until a hundred years later, during the reign of Alauddin Khilji (d1302), that the Delhi sultanate succeeded in consolidating its hold on the subcontinent. The conquests of the Khilji general Malik Kafur brought southern India into the orbit of Delhi. The Tughlaq dynasty inherited the vast Indian empire and under Mohammed bin Tughlaq projected its influence as far away as China.

The spirituality of the Sufi shaikhs attracted a large number of Buddhists and Hindus to Islam. A growing Muslim community required the services of a large cadre of ulema and kazis to teach the basics of the Shariah and to man the judicial arm of the state. The local madaris were not equipped to produce the ulema and the kazis in such large numbers. The sultans therefore sought out well known scholars and kazis from around the world to come to India and help with the judicial work.

The experience of the celebrated world traveler Ibn Batuta at the court of Mohammed bin Tughlaq in Delhi provides an illustration. Ibn Batuta, a resident of Tangier in Morocco, was trained in the Maliki Fiqh. Mohammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351), the emperor of India desired to embellish his court with scholars schooled in Fiqh. When Ibn Batuta arrived at the court of the emperor, he was received with great honor and was appointed a judge of Delhi. Ibn Batuta served more than year at the Delhi court before he tired of the idiosyncrasies of the emperor and escaped to the Caromandal coast of India on his way to Malaya and China.

The character of the madrassah and its structure reflected the political and social context of India in the thirteenth and 14th centuries. Since judges were in great demand, the study of akhlaq was emphasized in the schools. The emphasis on the study of akhlaq differentiated the madaris of India from those in Arab-Persian heartland of Islam wherein a study of Hadith was emphasized. Zia Barani writes in his book on history about an event during thereign of Alauddin Khilji. An Egyptian scholar, Maulana Shamsuddin Turk, came to India to encourage the study of Hadith, but returned after visiting Multan. Before he left, he wrote to the Emperor admonishing him that the ulema in India were heedless in the study of Hadith. The mullahs of Hindustan, sensing that a shift in emphasis from akhlaq to Hadith would jeopardize their jobs, saw to it that the letter did not even reach the Emperor. Indian Islam at that time was more legalistic than kitabi.

Maulana Abul Hasan Nadvi, in his manuscript, Hindustan ki khadeem darsgahen (Shibli Academy, 1919), states that the syllabus of the madaris in the subcontinent during the 13th and 14th centuries included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq and its principles
  • Akhlaq
  • Grammar
  • Eloquence
  • Hadith and its sciences
  • Arithmetic and astronomy
  • Tasawwuf
  • Kalam

India was not immune from the intellectual turmoil raging in the post-Mongol Islamic world. The ulema who migrated to India from other parts of the Muslim world brought with not only their knowledge but also their intellectual predispositions. The rise of tasawwuf as the governing paradigm of Islamic life brought about a reaction from the more conservative quarters concerned that the liberal outlook of the Sufis would dilute the discipline of the Shariah. Ibn Taymiah (d 1325) of Damascus waged a life long battle against the esoteric Islam of the Sufis, emphasizing the importance of adhering to the Islam as practiced by the earliest Companions. His movement is generally referred to as Salafi Islam.

A second source of tension was the presence of Mu’tazalites in the Delhi court. The study of philosophy received a boost when some of the Delhi sultans openly espoused its study and practice. The emperor Mohammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351) was one of them. Sultan Mohammed invited some of the leading Muta’zalites of the day to Delhi where they were received with honor and given important positions at the court.

The simultaneous presence of Salafi ulema, Mu’tazalite philosophers and Sufi Shaikhs was sure to result in a showdown. Indian Islam was at cross roads. The sultans of Delhi found themselves as arbitrators of the disputes between the Sufis, the Salafis and the Mu’tazalites. The historian Farishta documents in his book, Tazkiraye Nizamuddin Awliya that a debate took place in the court of Ghyasuddin Tughlaq (d 1236) on the issue of sama’a, the ecstatic dance performed by the Sufis accompanied by music. On one side was Shaikh Nizamuddin Awliya, the reigning Shaikh of the Chishtiya silsilah, considered by many to be one of the greatest of the awliya to grace Indian soil. Shaikh Nizamuddin was a hafiz, a scholar of hadith and a master of akhlaq. Arrayed against him were Kadi Jalaluddin, chief kadi of Delhi and Shaikh Ilmuddin, who was a Mu’tazalite and had traveled extensively through Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Persia. Farishta relates that whenever Nizamuddin Awliya offered evidence a Hadith in favor of sama’a, the opposition would declare that in Delhi the sciences of akhlaq had preponderance over sciences of the hadith. Kadi Jalaluddin and Shaikh Ilmuddin asked the emperor to ban the practice of sama’a. The emperor, not willing to be drawn into the controversies, ruled that the sama’a was legitimate for the Chishtiya order but not legitimate for the Qalandariya order, knowing full well that the Qalandariya order had not yet entered the heartland of India. The Sufis triumphed and tasawwuf continued to be the governing paradigm of Indian Islam well into the zenith of the Mogul period in the 17th century.

India was a border state in the vast tapestry of Muslim states and the reformist currents in the Islamic world invariably had an impact on the madaris in India. During the resign of Sikandar Lodhi, towards the end of the 15th century, two well known scholars, Shaikh Abdullah and Shaikh Azeezullah migrated to Delhi from Multan. Shaikh Abdullah settled in Delhi and Shaikh Azeezullah settled in Sanbhal (UP).

Partly because of the scholarship of the sages and partly because of the patronage of the Emperor, the fame of these two scholars spread all over India. These savants enlarged the syllabus and introduced the study of commentaries on earlier works of kalam and tasawwuf. Attempts were also made to reinforce the study of hadith. Shaikh Abdul Haq, Muhaddith, Dehlavi went to Arabia, learned the Hadith from the scholars in Mecca and Madina and published it. But the social and political context in India was different from that in Mecca and Madina. The marginal presence of Muslims in India was as yet in a consolidation phase. Indian madaris remained focused more a study of akhlaq and the graduation of kadis than the ulema who specialized in a study of hadith.

The onset of Mogul rule in India was a benchmark in global history. The Moguls extended the fold of Islam to its limits and yet still stayed within the realm of their faith. While the sultanate of Delhi struggled to hold its sway over Northern India for brief periods, the Moguls embarked on laying the foundation of an Indian nation. At its height the Mogul empire extending over the entire south Asian region embracing the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It was during the reign of Akbar (d 1605) that the Mogul reach embraced all the diverse religions, cultures and regions of India. Akbar married Rajput princesses, abolished the jizya, and opened up his administration and his army to the Hindus. In extending familial ties to the Hindus, he accorded them the same status as that enjoyed by the people of the book. He invited Jesuit priests from Goa to discuss religion with them, bestowed endowments upon the Sikhs and made land grants to mosques and temples alike.

The cosmopolitan culture of Mogul India included the Moguls, the Afghans, the Rajputs, the Persians, the Hindus and the Muslims. He even started a Sufi tareeqa with himself at his head, called Deen e Ilahi which was misunderstood by the Muslims as a new religion. Through his policy of sulhe kul (peace between all groups) he sought to unify all the cultures of India under the Mogul banner.

The cosmopolitan character of the Moguls was reflected in the madaris of the age. Gone was the narrow focus on the study of akhlaq and hadith. The moguls instituted a broad based curriculum which included not only the religious sciences but also advanced mathematics, engineering, sociology and history. According to Nadvi, the Mogul madrassah curriculum included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq and its principles
  • Literature and grammar
  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Mathematics
  • Astronomy
  • Medicine
  • Hadith
  • Akhlaq
  • Theology
  • Tasawwuf
  • The life of the Naqshbandi Shaikhs

Along with the religious madaris, there existed more secular schools run by the state. These schools trained the engineers, artisans, doctors and administrators for the state. The curriculum of these schools included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq (good character, humility, respect for elders, etiquette). The text books used included Akhlaq e Nasiri and Akhlaq e Jalali)
  • Arithmetic
  • Astronomy
  • Astrology
  • Mathematics
  • Geometry
  • History (Shahname Firdowsi, Zafar Nama of Sharfuddin Ali Tarmizi, Futuhat e Timuri, Akbar Nama, Iqbal Nama e Jahangeeri, Tareeq Feroqe Shahi, Warzam Nama, Mahabharata)
  • Oration
  • Medicine
  • Economics
  • Sociology
  • Literature (prose, poetry, fiction)
  • Tazkiya Nafs (Maktubat of Syed Shah Ashrafuddin Yahya Ahmed Muneeri, Nazhatul Arwah, Mathnawi Molvi Manavi, Hadeeqa Hakim Sinai)
  • Planning
  • Goal setting
  • Operations Management
  • Politics
  • Health Maintenance
  • Mathematics
  • Religious Studies

The reforms introduced during the early Mogul period lasted well into the 18th century. Akbar, in particular, was a patron of scholars. He invited Shah Fatehulla Shirazi, Mir Sadruddin, Mir Ghiyasuddin Mansur, and Mirza Jan Mir to come and settle in India India. He conferred honorific titles and supported them with generous grants. For instance, Fatehulla Shirazi received the title of Asnul Mulk. Similar titles were conferred upon other scholars.

The Mogul schools had a high standard of excellence. It was these schools that produced the engineers and architects who built the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Jami Masjid and the Agra Fort. It was also these same schools that trained the astronomers who built the observatories in Delhi and Jaipur in the 18th century.

In addition to the madaris and the state schools, there were the zawiyas wherein young men received a religious education as well as training in the arts. The graduates from the zawiyas were absorbed into different guilds such as metal working, wood working, weaving, embroidery, leather work, masonry, carpet making and ivory inlay work. The workmanship of the Mogul artisans was superb which attests to the quality of education and training they received in the madaris and the zawiyas.

There were military academies as well. Attached to these academies were armament manufacturing centers wherein students learned the art of metal casting, forging, smithy, siege engine and cannon manufacture. Some of the instructors in these schools came from as far away as Istanbul and Ottoman influence in Mogul armaments was noticeable. The land-based Mogul artillery was a match for those of the Europeans well into the 16th century. It was only in the latter part of the 17th century that European gun-making caught on and overtook the armaments of Mogul and Ottoman dynasties.

In the waning years of the Mogul empire, Islamic orthodoxy displaced the cosmopolitan culture of the empire. Correspondingly, the study of textbooks on Akhlaq was replaced by the study of legal rulings such as Fatwa e Alamgiri.

In the 18th century the Mogul empire declined. It was a period of general social and cultural disintegration. There was a need to reform the educational structure of the madaris as well as the syllabus as a way to reform the society and arrest social decline. One of the most influential educational reformers of the era was Mullah Nazimuddin who was a contemporary of Shah Waliullah (d 1762). Mullah Nazimuddin enlarged the syllabus and added several books to the study of grammar and attempted to lay the foundation of a broad based educational system so that the graduate could continue his studies on his own after completing school. The study of hadith was reinforced. The courses of study in this period were based on the Nizamiya syllabus and included:

  • Sarf (accounting)
  • Nahau (grammar)
  • Balagat (oration)
  • Literature
  • Mantiq
  • Hikmat (wisdom, integrative knowledge)
  • Riyazi (astronomy)
  • Principles of fiqh (jurisprudence)
  • Kalam (theology)
  • Hadith (authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammed)
  • Faraez (religious obligations)
  • Manazira (debate)
  • Tafseer(commentaries on the Quran)
  • Principles of Hadith

The limitations of this syllabus were:

  1. It had very little history, geography or sciences of nature.
  2. Philosophy was de-emphasized.
  3. It offered very little exposure to Hadith, Tafseer or Ilm Ijazul Quran.
  4. There was overemphasis on Mantiq.

The madaris did not use the division of classes, as it is done in modern schools. Each student was allowed to learn at his own pace. When a student finished the introductory books, he moved on to the more advanced books. Three degrees were awarded: qabil, alim and fazil.

There were also specialized schools in the Punjab, Delhi, Rampur and Lucknow. Punjab specialized in sarf and Nahau, Delhi in hadith and tafseer, Rampur in mantiq and hikmat and Lucknow in fiqh and its principles.

As the British gained ascendancy in India, the education and instructional institutions correspondingly went into decline. The new rulers replaced Farsi with English, first in the court systems, then in the educational systems. Their requirements were for lower echelons administrative personnel to run the vast bureaucracy of the sprawling subcontinent. The study of science, technology and history was discouraged. The madrassah was marginalized. It could not compete with the European system in science and philosophy. These subjects in which the Islamic world once dominated, had gone west, and had returned to the east with a heavy dosage of western flavor. The Muslims considered these subjects to alien, a product of a secular Europe. The curriculum was marginalized and retracted unto itself. The syllabus evolved during this period was a poor imitation of the old Nizamiya syllabus.

The next period brings us to the modern age. After the collapse of political power in the 19th century, political and social stagnation set in. Education in the madaris reflects this stagnation. The syllabus has gone through a further contraction. Unable to innovate and cope with the challenge of Western education, Islamic education has fallen back to the basics. The Nizamiya syllabus has been resurrected with major deletions. Unlike the Nizamiya college of Nizamul Mulk in the 11th century the curriculum of the modern madrassah does not include a study of history, science or philosophy. Mathematics has been reduced to elementary arithmetic and tasawwuf has been eliminated. Remaining in the curriculum are hifz (memorization of Quran), hadith, elementary Arabic, Urdu, akhlaq, recitation of the Quran and tafseer (Quranic interpretations).Only recently has there been a realization that in order to survive in the modern world, the syllabus of the madrassah must be expanded to include a study of the modern languages, Islamic and global history, science, mathematics and computer science.