“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”
~ R. Buckminster Fuller
The purpose of this article is to help the graduates of Madaaris (Ulama) to become relevant in modern society and to be able to provide positive leadership to their congregations.
I have tried to define the situation with Madrassa Education in India as I understand it and to propose a solution to the deficiencies and problems that it faces. That these deficiencies and problems are not necessarily recognized or likely to be accepted by those who run Madaaris is to be expected because the first reaction of the patient who is diagnosed with a terminal illness is denial. However, this ‘illness’ though terminal, if left unattended, is curable if addressed. The question is whether those who have the authority – Madrassa administrators and even more importantly, sponsors – are willing to address it and implement the cure. It is my job to share my thoughts. With that, I rest my case before Allahﷻ. For I will not be asked, ‘What did you know?’ I will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ That is what you, my dear reader, will also be asked.
About the issues with the quality of education in our Madrassas in India (subcontinent), I believe we need to look at the syllabus which is based on the Dars-e-Nizami. Dars-e-Nizami or its derivatives are taught in thousands of Madaaris worldwide which draw inspiration, instruction or follow the principles and values of Darul Uloom Deoband, arguably the most respected Madrassa in the subcontinent. I have quoted from Darul Uloom Deoband’s site because Deoband is the bastion of this syllabus and methodology. You can see what they themselves say about what the student gains after eight years of full-time residential ‘education’. (bold type below is mine).
“Its founder was Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi (d. 1748), who was contemporary of Hazrat Shah Waliullah. The curriculum known as “Dars-e Nizami”, which is current today in all the Arabic schools, is a relic from him. Adding something more to the syllabi of the third period, Mulla Nizamuddin prepared a new syllabus. The great peculiarity of this syllabus is that more attention has been paid in it to the creation of depth of insight and power of reading in the student, and although immediately after the completion of this course proficiency is not acquired in any particular subject, this much ability is surely created that, through one’s own independent reading and labor, one may acquire proficiency in any subject of one’s liking. The standard of Hadith and Tafsir in this course too is not much high, and of literature there is included no book at all.
Mulla Nizamuddin created what came to be called Dars-e-Nizami in the 1730’s, more than a century before 1857 and the establishment of British rule in India. He created the syllabus to enable Madrassa graduates to get government jobs in the Moghul administration. Since he was from Lucknow where the influence of Iran was very strong, his course gave far more importance to Ilm Kalam, Greek philosphy, logic (Mantiq), Farsi and not to the Qur’an, Hadith and Seerah. What is amazing is the sincerity with which our Madrassa authorities still cling to this totally outdated syllabus ignoring all the changes in time, space, political situation and realities of the modern world that have happened since the 1730’s. The result is that they are still producing gradautes ideally suited to enter the service of a government that ceased to exist a century and a half ago.
I don’t think there is any doubt in the minds of anyone including those who graduate from Madaaris with at least some residual ability to think still intact, that there is a crying need for change. Not merely cosmetic or incremental change but a total transformation of the curriculum, syllabus and teaching methodology to ensure that those who graduate from there can enter society with confidence.
The reason this is even more important is because according to the Justice Sachar Committee Report (2005) http://bit.ly/2fmNJoY there are two million students in Madaaris in India. That is less than 2% of the population of Indian Muslims but it is significant because of the amount of money that is spent voluntarily on it by the community which the same Report defines as being economically speaking, the weakest in the nation. Yet the Indian Muslim community spends a colossal INR 24 billion (2400 crores) annually on sponsoring Madrassa education. I doubt if there is any other community of Indians who can match this contribution to national development.
I arrived at this figure by assuming a cost/student of INR 1000 per month per student. The actual cost is most likely to be double that or more as most Madaaris provide boarding, lodging and education, totally free. However, for our discussion the amount of INR 24 billion (2400 crores) is sufficient. It is my contention that anyone (person or group) that spends so much money must be concerned about the quality of the output for which the money is being spent. I believe that is where the problem starts because to the best of my knowledge there is no particular purpose or clear objective of Madrassa education.
No Madrassa teacher or director has ever been able to answer me clearly when I asked them to describe what their final product, the graduate of the Madrassa, was supposed to be. Educators teach what they have been mandated to teach according to the syllabus. Sponsors sponsor the education considering it to be a ‘good deed’ for which Allahﷻ will reward them. Students who come mostly from the poorest strata of Muslim society and their parents, have no voice at all in deciding what is taught, how it is taught or what the result is. The fact that the graduate is called A’alim is a bonus and he exits with a sense of position though without any skills to lead his life in society.
Trying to diagnose the problem I referred to the views of Sh. Mohammed Akram Nadwi. He has written more than twenty-five books on Fiqh and other Islamic sciences and is an authority on Islamic education. His greatest contribution to Islamic research and literature is his 53-volume biographical compendium Al Muhaddithaat which lists short biographies of the female teachers of Hadith. This is a work of such power and significance that it should be listed with the greatest works of Islamic scholarship in the history of Islamic research and publication.
It is interesting to note that he started this research to respond to a challenge from an Orientalist scholar at Oxford University where Shaikh Akram Nadwi was also a professor and teacher, who challenged him to find five women teachers of Islam. Shaikh Akram found so many that he decided to narrow his research to only the female teachers of Hadith and discovered 9000. Here are a few points that I picked up from Shaikh Akram Nadwi’s classes about Dars-e-Nizami and what needs to be changed in view of our modern society and its issues.
“- Students don’t learn to take guidance from the Quran. They only touch the Quran in Darsi-Nizami curriculum as the method is a ‘Dawrah’ (not teaching). Tafsir-i-Jalalayn (which has less words than the Quran!) is followed and that is done for Barakah only.
– The six books on hadith are also taught in a similar fashion – as a ‘dawrah’ during the last year. Neither the students gain any knowledge nor does the teacher, for there is no time to contemplate on any hadith and think about the applicability to current times.
– History and Seerah are neither taught in detail nor to extract lessons.
– Lack of critical thinking for fear of raising questions or disagreeing with the established position of the ‘school’.
– Darsi-Nizami was the most secular curriculum of its times. Most of the focus is on Greek ‘falsafa’ and ‘ilm-i-kalam’ and on the Fiqh of one’s own madhab. As a result, when graduates start to interpret the Quran and Hadith, they interpret from the lenses of either philosophy or ‘madhab’ (their own ‘school’ of Fiqh) or their own culture. Quran becomes like a book of either coded language or mystical interpretations that’s far from the reality of life. While every word of Prophet is treated as if coming from a ‘Mufti’ rather than a Messenger of Allah. People don’t take guidance from the Quran and Sunnah. Instead they impose their own understanding from their culture, ideas, philosophy on the Quran and Sunnah. Instead of taking from the Quran & Sunnah, people start to give to Qur’an.
– One of the reasons why critical thinking and questioning is discouraged is that people consider the human understanding and interpretation of the revelation by their predecessors as divine. However, the reality is that only Quran and authentic Sunnah is divine. Rest of the sciences of religion are human understanding of the revelation and as such are bound to have differences.
What should be done?
To quote from Shaikh Akram Nadwi once again:
“- the end result of a madrasah should be Ulama who are thinkers and can derive solutions to the current issues of believers directly from the two sources viz. – Quran and authentic Sunnah.
– to achieve this goal, the key is that students are able to understand the Quran and understand its first application i.e. how the Prophetﷺ understood and applied it in his context.
– once people are able to understand the Quran and its first application, their responsibility is to apply the revelation to their own context to help the believers fulfill the purpose of their creation.
– it’s noteworthy to mention that Imam Abu Hanifah’s main students (Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad) differ from him in one-third of his madhab. It shows that he trained his students to think rather than copy him and if they differed from his opinion he didn’t throw them out of his class.
– the foundation and key to understanding Quran and Sunnah is proficiency in the Arabic language of Prophetic era (and up to 150 AH). Arabic should be taught as a living language not through the medium of Urdu. Instead of learning from later books, students should be taught grammar from the earliest works like Imam Zamakshari’s Al-Mufassal, etc. Arabic poetry of the Jahili period should be taught as a staple subject.
– For Quran, students should go through the earliest works available like the Tafsir of Tabari, Al-Kashaf of Imam Zamakshari. From the latest period, Maulana Farahi’s works would help. In addition to understand and appreciate how Quran is a guidance for action, tafsirs of Syed Qutb Shaheed and Maulana Maududi should be studied.
– for Usul at Tafsir, Fawzul-Kabir of Shah Waliullah and Muqadimmah Usul at Tafsir of Imam Ibn Taymiyah are a must.
– in order to understand the context of the revelation and what was the outcome of the application of revelation and the effort of its recipient and teacher (salallahu alaihi wassalam), students should be grounded in Seerah and the life histories of Sahaba and their followers. works of Imam Dhahabi, Ibn Qayim, Ibn Hisham etc. should be covered. Amongst the recent works, Maulana Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi’s Seerah an Nabawiyyah is a must. To understand historiography, Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun should taught.
– For hadith sciences it’s important to properly understand the development of the field and the contribution of the various Imams, particularly Imam Malik, Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim.
– For Fiqh and Usul al Fiqh, instead of relying on the latest works, students should study the earliest texts available to understand the development of the field as well as appreciate how the Imams understood and interpreted the revelation in their times. For Usul-al-Fiqh, Imam Shafi’s Ar Risalah should be studied. Imam Malik’s Muwatta, Imam Muhummad’s works should be studied. For comparative fiqh, Ibn Rushd’s Bidayatul Mujtahid and Imam Ibn Qudamah’s Al Mughni should be covered.
– studying Greek philosophy and Ilm Kalam are a waste of time and effort. These should no more be core subjects. However, works of Imam Ghazalli and Imam Ibn Taymiyah are useful to understand the field. Questions of philosophy are no more relevant in today’s world for intellectuals and commons alike. Instead the need is to understand current challenges and questions posed by the orientalists, atheists, feminists and ex-muslims (a new phenomenon) and prepare appropriate responses. This could be considered as ilm kalam of our times.”
For those sponsors of Madaaris reading this I would like to respectfully ask, ‘How many of you even heard the names of the books and scholars that are mentioned above? If you haven’t then ask yourself, ‘Why not?’ How and why are you so disinterested in what you are sponsoring that you don’t take any trouble to ask what is taught, why it is taught, how it is taught and what is sought to be achieved as a result of the teaching. Then ask if that result is possible.’
Readers may differ about which books should be taught and so on but I don’t think that anyone will differ about the need to have a clear focus on the purpose of Islamic education and to bring Islamic education on par with secular education in terms of teaching curricula and methods.
Teaching methodology in Madaaris is also totally defunct and completely free of all the latest developments in teaching technology and methods. Madrassa education in the Indian subcontinent is the only system in which teacher training is unheard of. So is understanding of child psychology, class plans, teacher assessment, standardized exams or any of the teaching aids that are commonplace in every other school. Just ask a normal Madrassa teacher about any of these things and you will see what I mean. Yet there seems to be no concern in our community and no anguish except in my heart. No effort to change anything except from very few people who are so few that they will not register on any radar. Assuming that there is such a thing as a radar in the Muslim community.
In short Madrassa education as it is practiced, doesn’t prepare the student for anything in particular, doesn’t make him proficient in anything and so is in effect an exercise in futility. Please refer to the quote from the website of Darul Uloom Deoband which I quoted above to see that the words I have used are not mine but their’s.
Students, by and large, graduate without a connection with the Qur’an or Hadith as they are not fluent in Arabic. There is no education system in the world where someone can study a language for eight years without fluency in speaking or understanding it; except in Indian Madaaris. I am not sure that is a differentiator that I would care to mention except as a cry of anguish for the need to change. Arabic teaching focuses on grammar instead of speaking and comprehension so even though they ‘learn’ Arabic for eight years, they don’t know the language. They have no connection with Allahﷻ as they have not done any work in Tazkiyya wa Tarbiyya. They don’t study the Seerah at all. All that they know is the Fiqh of their Madhab which they hold onto with both hands, totally rigidly as that is all they have. This explains the Madhab/Maslak conflicts that many cause in the society they live in.
The present syllabus is totally inadequate both theologically and in a worldly sense. Add to that the fact that graduates come out with the title of Aalim and an inflated sense of their own importance combined with an inferiority complex. Sounds crazy but it’s their reality. This happens when their Madrassa inflated egos meet the real world and realize their inadequacy. So, they go into a shell because they’re helpless and don’t know how to handle it.
In short what is being stated here is that at the end of eight years of fulltime study the students of our Madaaris graduate with the title of A’alim but without proficiency in anything. You may ask how this is different in the case of a Matric student who also graduates without proficiency in anything. The answer is that he is not called an A’alim and passing Matric is not his final goal. He passed Matric as a step to enter pre-university course from where he will enter university and go on to post graduate studies and so on. His self-concept and attitude is completely different and society treats him accordingly.
The vast majority of those who graduate with the degree of A’alim however, go nowhere. They become Imams and spend the rest of their lives leading Salah in a masjid and start their own Madrassa or teach in another Madrassa albeit without any qualification to teach. A few go on to do some post graduate study of this or that branch of Islamic sciences but that is a very small number.
Quality is the outcome of measurement
This absence of quality is completely understandable in a system where you don’t need any accreditation or certification to start a Madrassa. There are no minimum standards of anything at all; infrastructure, teacher quality, teaching material or any of the normal standards that you would have to satisfy to be certified and permitted to start a basic elementary school. There are no metrics to measure anything in the Madrassa system, so how can you have quality which is the outcome of measurement? Teachers have no qualification to teach nor do they or you feel the need for this. Students come from the poorest and therefore the least powerful or vocal section of society. Students and their parents have low or no aspirations and no voice at all to implement any change, even if they knew what they wanted to be changed. The curriculum has no benchmark to compare with any curriculum today, is not comparable to any other educational system and to top it all is given the patina and glow of the sacred and holy which is meant to throttle any change initiative in the cradle.
To close the loop from where I started, the biggest hurdle to change in the existing Madrassa education system is the fear that any mention of change inspires in those who own and run it. That is entirely understandable because for one thing the Madaaris are the means of their own livelihood. For another, change in the way that is needed is not merely incremental, evolutionary or even less, cosmetic but revolutionary, transformative and metamorphic. What is needed is a completely new system. Resistance arises from the real fear in the teachers and Madrassa owners of becoming redundant and thereby losing their livelihood. This is a real fear because expecting current teachers to learn a completely new body of knowledge and teaching methodology is unrealistic. Add to it the fact that included in the re-learning is to learn two new languages, Arabic and English, and the water gets even murkier. That is why I began with Buckminster Fuller’s quote. What is needed is to create a new model which will be proof of concept to inspire change and give people the reassurance that success always does.
All change must begin with clarifying the goal. Madrassa educators must arrive at a consensus on the goal of Islamic education in today’s world. We need to articulate our vision for the training of Ulama. What do we expect them to achieve once they graduate? The goal of learning is something that is not even questioned in any other branch of education because it is clear from the beginning. You don’t need to ask someone running a medical college or a flying school or a Judo dojo or a dance academy, what they expect from the students who graduate. But with respect to our Madaaris and those who graduate from them and those who teach them, their purpose, their life goal, what they are aspiring to become and achieve are all enigmatic and mysterious. That is why there is low motivation which is sought to be countered by rote learning.
Another thing to be taken into consideration by those well-meaning souls running short courses for Ulama is the principle of lack of alignment between training and organization culture which is the reason 85% of corporate training worldwide, fails to be implemented. The reason is that the culture back home is not conducive to implementation. For example, one of the most frequently conducted courses worldwide is team building. But it doesn’t stick (which is why it is run so many times). The reason is that organization cultures and compensation structures support individual competition, not collaboration and team work. So, when our newly trained individual returns and wants to collaborate, the system ‘punishes’ him. So, after being punished a few times (depending on the level of his intelligence and idealism) he falls in line and discards his training because what he was taught doesn’t work in the organization. His old destructively competitive ways helped him to get ahead. The new collaboration training which was taught to him as being better for him and the organization, failed him and got him punished. How long do you imagine he would stick to it despite failure and punishment? So, no matter how much he enjoyed the course and thought he learned valuable lessons, he drops the training because it doesn’t work in his system. That is why we insist that organizations which are serious about encouraging team work, must re-design their compensation structures to support team work and discourage individual competition. Alignment is critical.
Take this example to the teaching methods in Madaaris; people succeed because they focus on memory. They deliberately discourage, even punish, critical thinking. The most powerful way to do this is to make everything sacred and therefore unquestionable. There is no difference in approach to the Word of Allahﷻ, the teachings of His Messengerﷺ and the teachings of (especially and almost exclusively) the scholars of the Madhab. The word ‘Akabireen’ (Elders), is used exclusively for scholars of the Madhab only. No Deobandi – Hanafi means Iman Shafee, Imam Ahmad or Imam Malik when he says, ‘Akabireen’ with the appropriate intonation of respectful reference. He means not only Imam Abu Hanifa exclusively but he means the Ustaadhs of Darul Uloom Deoband only. So, where is the question of questioning anything that was ruled by any of them when to do so would be to literally put your life and reputation on the line. “To question is not to deny” – is not something that our traditionalists believe in. Our way is to hear and obey, even though that is something that applies only to the Word and Orders of Allahﷻ alone. Raising humans to a semi-divine status is always injurious to reason.
We must therefore begin with defining the goal; the end result that we would like to achieve. Once that is clear and agreed upon, one can work on the curriculum, syllabus, course material (books etc.), testing, teaching methodology, teaching tools and technology, infrastructure and teacher training. One final matter which all aspiring instigators of change need to keep in mind is that all this needs serious capital investment. Less than what we spend for ostentatious weddings but still significant. Without that we can’t hope to create the infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, courseware and myriad other things that are necessary to ensure that the new institutions can deliver the results we hope to achieve. This is also necessary to make Madaaris aspirational. To test if our Madaaris are aspirational (in case you have any doubts) ask one of your children if they would like to leave their school and join any Madrassa in India and you will have the answer. This must change. The image problem that Madaaris have reflects also on their graduates and explains the lack of respect that Madrassa graduates have in Muslim society.
The big question is, ‘How much longer do we want to continue with this?’ This question must be answered first and most importantly by those who fund Madrassas. It is they who must drive the change. It is only they who can and they who will be questioned by Allahﷻ and recorded in history for what they did or failed to do. Change is the result of the actions of those who pay for it. It is time that we focused on what happens to our donations and seek to make that most beneficial for the community because it is only quality that pleases Allahﷻ.
What must happen? I have tried to list some broad changes that need to be introduced urgently if we are interested in ensuring that our money is spent in a beneficial manner to achieve our aims of serving the needs of Islam.
• A Central Madrassa Board must be created to ensure the following:
• All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach and have a degree in education
• Corporal punishment to be banned and punishable if practiced
• Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system.
• Present curriculum and syllabi to be redesigned to make them current, relevant and effective
• Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board
• Transparency in all matters and merit the only consideration
I have not attempted to suggest a complete curriculum and syllabus for Madaaris because before anything can be suggested it is essential for the institutions to feel the need. Currently they don’t. The fact that their graduates emerge in society, unfit and incapable of dealing with it, much less provide leadership, leaves them unmoved. Until that changes and until they feel the need to change, no change is possible.
What would be far more profitable is a grass roots project to create a teaching institution which teaches Islam, science and sociology in a holistic integrated manner with a focus on leadership development.
Ah! I am talking about the SBA of course. But then we land in the realm of dreams.