“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 Allah. 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, I believe we need to look at the syllabus which is based on the Dars-eNizami. 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 philosophy, 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 graduates 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 exists with a sense of position though without any skills to lead his life in society.

In brief this is what happens in Dars-e-Nizami. This is not a criticism of this work and may Allahﷻ grant the best reward to the its author. I am mentioning this to you so that you, who live in today’s world, can decide if it is enough as the fundamental education for young people and relevant in our 21st century world. I want you to see this also in the light of Islamic religious education and ask yourself if this is sufficient for someone who is going to emerge at the other end and be called A’alim.

Under Dars-e-Nizami curriculum:

  1. Students only touch the Qur’an as the method is a ‘Dawrah’ (reading, not teaching). Tafsir-i-Jalalayn (which has fewer words than the Qur’an!) is followed and that is done for Barakah only. Usool-ul-Tafsir are not taught. Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and Sunnah, is not taught which means that students never get to touch the original revelation but must be content with the translation. Instead Arabic books are taught in Urdu (translations) and this is not considered either strange or wrong. The teachers themselves don’t know Arabic, so if one wanted to bring about a change, it would not be so easy as to simply tell teachers to teach in the original language of the book, which is Arabic. They can’t because they don’t know it themselves. Yet they are recruited, paid and teach.
  2. Interestingly in every Western university where there is a Faulty of Islamic Studies, fluency in Arabic is a pre-requisite for being recruited as a teacher. Consequently, they have non-Muslim teachers who know Arabic and can quote the Qur’an and Hadith which our graduates from our Darul Ulooms and even their teachers, can’t. It is a matter of shame for us that Islam is the only religion which is taught by non-Muslims in many Western universities because all the Darul Ulooms of the Indian Subcontinent together, can’t produce enough graduates who are fit to be hired into a system that demands the knowledge of the language of the Qur’an to teach the Qur’an. The fact that they don’t know English either doesn’t help and non-Muslims teach Islam to Muslim students, understandably with their biases and prejudices.
  3. The six books on Hadith are also taught in a similar fashion – as a ‘dawrah’ during the last year. Students gain neither knowledge nor understanding. The teacher simply reads, gives a short explanation and goes on to the next Hadith. There is no discussion, no question and answer, no reflection on the Asbaab (circumstances) of the Hadith, no comparison with what Rasoolullahﷺ taught in a given situation and how it compares and contrasts with what we are taught or what we do in our own lives. There is no time to contemplate on any Hadith and think about how to apply the teachings in current times.
  4. History and Seerah are neither taught in detail nor to extract lessons. This is the strangest and most crippling deficiency because Allahﷻ ordered us to learn about the life of His Prophet, Muhammadﷺ and to emulate him and follow his way. If this is not even done in a religious school (Deeni Madrassa) then where will it be done?
  5. There is a total lack of critical thinking for fear of raising questions or disagreeing with the established position of the ‘school’. In our Madaris we teach Madhab, not Islam. For example, in Hanafi Madaris like Deoband and others, a whole course is taught about the ‘mistakes’ of Imam Shafi in his extraction of rulings but no course on the Principles of Fiqh (Usool-ul-Fiqh), Manners of Disagreement (Adaab-ul-Ikhtilaaf) or Principles of Extraction of Rulings (Istambaad-ul-Ahkaam). The result is that instead of appreciating the different approaches of the Fiqhi scholars and Imams, students come out with the impression that one of them was ‘right’ and the others were ‘wrong’. And since they follow the ‘right’ one, they are superior to the other classical scholars who were ‘wrong’. This arrogance creates rigidity and is the root cause behind the inter-denominational hatred, divisiveness and violence. Acceptance of a point of view different from one’s own; accepting that someone else can also be correct, is not something that our Madaaris believe in, teach or practice.
  6. Even this would have been acceptable if they had been open about it. They would still be wrong but at least honest. But instead, they publicly proclaim that all the four (Sunni) Imams of Fiqh are correct, but clandestinely and privately they condemn everyone other than Imam Abu Hanifa. They try to enforce Hanafiyat (‘Hanafeeism’ – my coinage) rather than Islam. This is hypocrisy at its worst.
  7. 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’. The opinions of their own scholars (called Akabireen; The Great Ones) are considered sacrosanct, unquestionable, irrefutable and good for all time. The reality is that only Qur’an 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. An interesting corollary is that there is no evidence that anyone who has been raised to this ‘divine’ status today, ever wanted this to be done or told anyone that he was infallible and must be obeyed without question. Yet this is done in their name today.
  8. It’s noteworthy to mention that Imam Abu Hanifa’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. But his way has been lost today.
  9. Students in Madaris succeed because they focus on memory. Madrassas 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 a particular Madhab. The word ‘Akabireen’ (Great Ones), is used exclusively for scholars of the Madhab only. No Deobandi – Hanafi means Iman Shafi, 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 Raising humans to a semi-divine status is always injurious to reason.
  10. Since students don’t learn Arabic, which is the language of both Qur’an and Sunnah, they are not able to reach the source books and study them directly. They rely on translations which are bound to have their limitations. But this situation is not remedied. Instead it is accepted as inevitable, unchangeable and correct.
  11. The teachings and rulings of Rasoolullahﷺ are treated as if coming from a ‘Mufti’ rather than from the Messenger of Allahﷺ. People don’t take guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead they impose their own understanding from their culture, ideas, philosophy on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead of taking from the Qur’an & Sunnah, people start to give to Qur’an.
  12. Finally, in what is, in reality, a basic primary to secondary or at the most, high school level course, nothing is taught of math or science, history (mentioned earlier) or geography. How someone who never learnt math can even be called ‘educated’ is beyond me, but that is what happens in our Madaris. Yet the student graduates from high school with the title, ‘A’alim’ and its attendant attitude.
  13. Teaching methodology in Madaaris is totally defunct and completely free from 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. Corporal punishment is normal and brutal.

Yet there seems to be no concern in our community and no anguish except in my heart. No effort to change anything because of our innate laziness and blind following of the ‘Ulama’. This elevation of status of ‘Ulama’ (Madrassa graduates) to a level of semi-divinity, is the masterstroke which the ‘Ulama’ have played which shuts down all legitimate criticism which could have resulted in improvement.  Instead, anyone who dares to criticize with sincerity and concern is deemed a rebel with his status liable to be promoted to ‘apostate’, if he doesn’t cease and desist and refuses to toe the line.

For those sponsors of Madaaris reading this I would like to respectfully ask, ‘How many of you have taken the trouble to go and see what is taught and how, in the institutions you support? 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 because of the teaching. Do you have any idea what you want to achieve apart from getting Thawaab?  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. Then why don’t you do it?

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 A’alim and an inflated sense of their own importance combined with an inferiority complex. 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 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 a pre-university course from where he will enter university and go on to post graduate studies and so on. His self-concept and attitude are 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. That this is the result of 8 – 12 years of so-called education on which a colossal amount is spent by the community which can least afford this luxury, shows how little we care about our own community and its most critical asset; the youth and education.

Quality is the outcome of measurement

How can you have quality in a system where there are neither standards nor metrics? In India, you don’t need any accreditation or certification to start a Madrassa. There are no minimum standards for 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 need 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 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. I remind myself of two things: people with limited resources must be very clear and selective about where to spend them to get the maximum benefit. And one day we will be questioned about what we did or failed to do by the One who knows and sees all.

All change must begin with clarifying the goal. Madrassa educators must arrive at a consensus on what they and their Madaris really are; basic primary and secondary schools or higher institutions of specialized theology? As it stands they are neither. Once that is settled, the rest can all be tailored, and standards defined accordingly. 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.

Madrassa sponsors must articulate their 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 and brutal corporal punishment.

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 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 be done?

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 and Muslims.

A Central Madrassa Board must be created to ensure the following:

  1. All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach and have a degree in education
  2. Infrastructure must conform to a standard and must be inspected periodically
  3. Corporal punishment must be banned and severely punishable if practiced
  4. Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system
  5. Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board
  6. 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 and to define their goal. Currently they don’t have any goal apart from getting donations. 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.

Despite all of the above, if donors decide that it is time to question what happens to their donations and if they are getting value for them; and if they are willing to take the pain to bring about change, it can be done.

I believe it is essential to change ourselves before change is forced upon us from outside.