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Modern Education, Madrasa Modernisation and Muslims’ Contributions to the Nation-Building

In India, Madrasas used to teach subjects as varied as astronomy, literature and mathematics. It was possible for the same institution to produce not just religious specialists but also men who would be architects, chemists and philosophers.

Word For Peace

Dr. Arshad Alam

Almost all communities in India have some arrangement to pass on their religious tradition to the next generation. But nowhere else, it is being done by rejecting modern education. It appears as if the Muslim community has devised a method for self-elimination. Muslims will do well to realize that without reforming madrasas and embracing modern education, they will not be able play a meaningful role in the development of the country………..

One of the important markers of development and maturing of any community is its attitude towards modern education. Modern education not just opens up avenues for social and economic mobility but also starts an engagement with new ideas and ultimately contributes to nation building. The Muslim community in India has been a late starter when it comes to embracing modern education. For a long time before Independence, it viewed modern education with suspicion and some of the Ulama even declared its acquisition antithetical to the Islamic faith. W.W. Hunter’s book ‘The Indian Musalmans’ (1871) argued that Muslim religious antipathy to modern education was the prime reason why they lagged behind other communities.

Nearly 125 years later, the Sachar Committee Report reiterated that Indian Muslims were one of the most educationally backward social groups in India. Although the report did not go into the complex reasons of this backwardness, it needs to be said that one of the important reasons seems to be that Muslims as a whole are still reluctant to embrace modern education completely. This is not to say that Muslims have not made any progress. Indeed, their levels of education at all levels have increased over the many decades after Independence. However, as compared to the remarkable progress made by other ‘weaker sections’ this progress has been markedly slower.

Education, especially higher education, is the only capital through which one can be gainfully employed in the modern opportunity structure. Needless to say, if the social pool of Muslims who are accessing higher education is meagre, then their representation in jobs and services will remain low. Muslims are told that this is because they are discriminated against but the problem is more complex and partly it is the community’s own choices that may be responsible for it.

Consider the system of madrasas in the Muslim community. This institution has been around throughout the Muslim world since Islam became ascendant. Madrasas translate as schools and it was fitting that along with religion, madrasas also taught the sciences of the day. In India, for example, madrasas used to teach subjects as varied as astronomy, literature and mathematics. It was possible for the same institution to produce not just religious specialists but also men who would be architects, chemists and philosophers.

The establishment of the Deoband madrasa in 1864 changed all that. Muslims were told that the only education which was worth pursuing was a religious one. One of its founders, Qasim Nanotvi, argued that there was no merit in learning modern sciences except when it is done with the intention of refuting it. As such, the curriculum adopted at Deoband had no place for philosophy or science but only confined itself to the study of Quran and Hadith. It is important to remember that Deoband became the template after which all other madrasas were established and all of them followed what is known as the Deoband model.

Why is it important to talk about madrasas today in the context of Muslim education? Because there is a sense in which they are inhibiting the growth of modern education among Muslims. The Sachar Committee report tells us that only about 4% Muslim children of school-going age access madrasa education. It is argued that since this is a small number, madrasas do not have the deleterious impact on Muslim education as it is made out to be. This is not correct for the simple reason that 4% figure is a gross underestimation. The methodology adopted by the Committee was faulty and in the absence of an all-India survey of madrasas, one cannot reliably argue how many students study there.

To cite just another example, a different government report (NMCME 2013) stated that 9.7% of Muslim children were accessing madrasa education which in absolute terms is a huge number. The same report alarmingly tells us that there are 68 districts in which 25% Muslim children access madrasa education.

Let us understand that this is an all-India figure and since most madrasas in India are concentrated in the north, the figures for the region are going to be much higher. It should also be kept in mind that majority of madrasas are purely religious seminaries who do not teach any modern education. Since madrasas and schools form parallel systems of the education, a Muslim child going to a madrasa is completely deprived of modern education. Another fact which adds to this predicament is that most of these madrasas are concentrated at the primary level of education. In effect, this will shore up the enrolment levels of Muslims but once the child moves to a regular school, she will find it very hard to adjust to new educational and pedagogical context. This might be one of the reasons why Muslim enrolment has improved over the years and has become at par with other communities but the rate of drop-out remains very high among Muslims. If less Muslim children are passing out of schools, then it is natural that their representation in higher education and consequently in jobs and services will get negatively affected.

Almost all communities in India have some arrangement to pass on their religious tradition to the next generation. But nowhere else, it is being done by rejecting modern education. It appears as if the Muslim community has devised a method for self-elimination. Muslims will do well to realize that without reforming madrasas and embracing modern education, they will not be able play a meaningful role in the development of the country.

Author of this article, Arshad Alam is an independent academic and researcher based in Delhi.

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