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Interview: Maulana Dr Waris Mazhari on Indian Madrasas

Interview: Maulana Dr Waris Mazhari on Indian Madrasas

By Victor Edwin
28 August, 2014

Maulana Dr. Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, and a Ph.D in Islamic Studies from the Jamia Millia Islamia. He presently teaches Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He has written extensively on madrasas and madrasa reforms.

In this interview with Victor Edwin, he reflects on some aspects of madrasa education in contemporary India.

Q: Can you say a few words about yourself—your educational background and so on?

A: Well, briefly—I’m originally from Bihar, which is where I was born and brought up. I studied at the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, which is one of India’s largest and most well-known madrasas. After graduating from there, I studied at the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, which, again, is one of India’s largest madrasas. After that, I did my BA and then a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, as well as an MA in Arabic Literature from the Aligarh Muslim University. I recently completed my Ph.D. from the Department of Islamic Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia. My dissertation was on the question of reform in the structure and curriculum of Indian madrasas. Presently, I teach in the Department of Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.

I love writing—I wish I could have the time and energy to write more than I actually do these days, though! Since 2000 I have been editing the Urdu monthly journal Tarjuman-e Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa’s Graduates Association. I’ve written a couple of books and several articles—mainly on madrasa reforms, inter-community and interfaith dialogue, Islam and peace, Islamic ethics, critiques of extremism in the name of religion and so on. Some of my writings are available online—on these two blogs:

Q: What are the major types of madrasas in India, and what sort of curriculum and system do they follow?

A: There are different types of madrasas in the country, including both ‘traditional’ as well as ‘modern’ ones. The former far outnumber the latter. ‘Traditional’ madrasas follow the general pattern of what is called the Dars-e Nizami. The Dars-e Nizami is a curriculum that was prepared in 18th century India by a scholar called Mulla Nizamuddin, who died in 1748. The Dars-e Nizami derives its name from him. Most madrasas belonging to the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to follow the Dars-e Nizami, albeit perhaps slightly modified, as their curriculum. These madrasas number in the tens of thousands.

‘Modern’ madrasas are relatively less in number—perhaps just a fifth of the total. These include larger madrasas, such as the Jamiat ul-Islah, the Jamiat ul-Falah and the Nadwat ul-Ulema, all in Uttar Pradesh, and several madrasas in southern India, as well as madrasas belonging to the sect that calls itself ‘Ahl-e Hadith’. These madrasas do not follow the Dars-e Nizami. Some of these ‘modern’ madrasas have introduced ‘modern’ subjects, and some even combine the regular ‘secular’ syllabus along with ‘religious’ studies.

Q: What is the reason why so many Muslims send their children to study in madrasas and not to ‘regular’ schools?

A: There could be several reasons. Widespread poverty is one. The majority—perhaps 80%—of madrasa students are from poor or lower middle-class families. Their parents can’t afford the heavy cost of educating them in private schools. And so, they send them to madrasas instead. If you come to think of it, madrasas are actually playing a major role in providing free education to a vast number of Muslim children from very poor families, children who might have been out on the streets were it not for the madrasas.

Another reason for the popularity of madrasas is the fact that many Muslims give great importance to religious education. Many Muslim parents desire that at least one of their children should gain a good knowledge of Islam and so enroll them in a madrasa. Some of them believe that if their son becomes an Islamic scholar, they will receive divine blessings.

Q: You are an advocate of madrasa reform. What exactly do you mean by ‘reform’? Do you mean reform in the madrasa system or in the madrasa curriculum?

A: Both. There is a desperate need for madrasas to reform both their system as well as curriculum. Their overall system is riddled with problems and weaknesses. I believe that for higher religious studies, madrasas should admit only those students who are genuinely capable of becoming scholars and religious leaders. However, what generally happens is that just about everyone is given admission—and that’s one cause of the generally low standards in most madrasas, and of several other problems, too. And so, in the guise of ulema or ‘scholars’ a large number of juhala or ignorant folk are being churned out by the madrasas. Many senior ulema, past and present, have expressed their concern about this. I feel that only a few major madrasas should offer facilities for higher religious studies, leading to the alim and fazil degrees. But today almost every madrasa is giving—or claims to be giving—education from the lowest to the highest level. That’s a major cause for concern and confusion.

There are many other shortcomings in the madrasas that need to be addressed. For instance, their libraries are woefully inadequate. They don’t offer many extra-curricular activities, other than training their students in delivering speeches. They do not allow their students to gain anything but a very skewed understanding of what’s happening in the outside world. As far as hygiene is concerned, their conditions are dismal, especially in many north Indian madrasas, and so is the quality of the food that their students are given.

Needless to say, the madrasa curriculum is also in urgent need of reform. The fact of the matter is that even as regards imparting knowledge of the shariah (which the madrasas see as one of their principle functions), madrasas in general do not come up to the mark. Of course, I don’t need to mention that as far as ‘modern’ subjects are concerned, madrasas are way, way behind. Even the teaching of Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet) and Quranic commentary in most madrasas leaves much to be desired—these are generally taught from a sectarian perspective. Most madrasa students are not able to understand the Quran on their own. They aren’t free to think about social issues and how to respond to them.

Madrasas give a great deal of stress to teaching fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, but very little attention is given to contemporary social issues. In teaching fiqh they focus a great deal on issues such as the rules of bodily purity and ritual prayers and minute details of how these should be done. That’s what a lot of fiqh-related discussion is about in the madrasas. Moreover, a great deal of time and energy is spent in trying to defend and insist on the supremacy of one’s own school of fiqh and in denouncing other Muslim schools of thought and jurisprudence.

I feel that madrasas must definitely introduce the teaching of the Humanities. The situation today is such that leave alone Maths and Geography, Science and Civics, many madrasas don’t even teach subjects like Indian History, Muslim History and the Life of the Prophet. Some madrasas claim to teach English, but in almost all cases, the standard of English, even of their English teachers, is woefully poor. The same is the case with Hindi, our national language. But that’s not all! Even after studying for 8-10 years in a madrasa, hardly any madrasa students is capable of speaking and writing Arabic properly!

If you ask me, I think 90% of the Dars-e Nizami needs to be changed!

Q: Why is it that many madrasa administrators do not want any substantial changes in what you describe as the 300-odd year-old Dars-e Nizami curriculum?

A: This curriculum was devised three centuries ago, during the Mughal period, in order, particularly, to train administrators for the Muslim courts in India, especially lawyers and judges. That’s why it focused particularly onfiqh and logic, and relatively very less on the Quran. It gave ancient Greek philosophy—which is completely unnecessary today—great importance.

Now, there could be several reasons as to why many madrasa administrators do not want to change this curriculum. Perhaps they feel that in the name of curricular reform some people will get an excuse to completely secularize the madrasas. You must understand that, by and large, the ulema cling to tradition and glorify it. They think that every ancient, traditional thing is golden! Their logic in defending the Dars-e Nizami as it is that their forebears studied this very curriculum and became great heroes, and so there can certainly be no lacuna or shortcoming in it. That’s what they argue!

Q: But isn’t that argument quite odd?

A: It certainly is! It is really absurd! The fact is that following the intellectual downfall of Muslims generally, beginning in the 16th century, you could say that intellectual evolution among Muslims generally has greatly slowed down or even that it has come to a complete halt. This is particularly the case among the ulema, who exercise such a powerful influence on the Muslim masses. Instead of focusing on contemporary issues and problems and learning things of value from other communities and introspecting as to why they have met this downfall, all they do is beat their breasts or revel in the memory of the presumed glory of their ancestors. ‘Our forefathers were mighty Sultans!’ they boast, but that does nothing to help extricate them from the conditions they find themselves in today. And so, you’ll find in the mosques and in other religious gatherings and programmes very little talk about issues such as service of humanity or contemporary social concerns, but a lot of talk about the past.

The Muslim religious class—including the ulema—is, I have to say with regret, characterized by an extreme idealism and an equally lamentable lack of realism.

Q: What measures would you advise to make madrasa education more effective and meaningful?

A: There’s an enormous gap between madrasas, on the one hand, and ‘modern’ educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities), on the other. This hiatus needs to be ended. I think that all children studying in madrasas must also study the necessary subjects that are part of the matriculation course in ‘modern’ schools. Another thing is that the shariah (which is a major focus of the madrasa curriculum) must not be taught from a sectarian point of view (which is the case at present), because otherwise the immense problem of intra-Muslim sectarianism will continue unaddressed. Also, madrasa students must be encouraged to think independently and reflect on their own on contemporary issues. Further, efforts should be made to bring madrasas as close as possible to regular universities, as has been done in parts of south India with considerable success.

Q: Do you feel some ulema might not be very enthusiastic about this suggestion because they might think it would lead to mixing ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ knowledge?

A: There is actually no such division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge in Islam. The biggest weakness of the present-day madrasas is precisely this—the artificial division they make between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge. Never before in the whole of Islamic history has there been any such division. Islam considers knowledge to be a single unit. It has a holistic understanding of knowledge. Hence, this sort of artificial division—between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge—is not proper. You cannot provide proof or sanction for this from the Quran or the Hadith. From a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad we learn that the real basis of division between forms of knowledge is between ‘useful’ and ‘non-useful’ knowledge. The very first verse that was revealed to the Prophet says: ‘Read: In the name of thy Lord’. It does not say what to read. From this it appears that one should read in the name of God—that is to say, it is necessary to read with the right intention and right purpose.

According to a hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad used to seek refuge in God from knowledge that does not provide benefit. Accordingly, it is clear that all forms of knowledge that provides true benefit to humanity are ‘Islamic’. All such forms of knowledge are ‘religious’, and not ‘worldly’.

In this context, it must also be noted that if what is conventionally regarded as ‘religious’ knowledge is pursued simply in order to earn money or to fill one’s belly, it is not a religious act. In his magnum opus, Ihya Ulum al-Din, the noted 12th century Muslim scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali sharply critiqued those who studied fiqh in order to earn wealth and to use it to secure senior government posts—because that is precisely what many ulema in his times did!

Q: Many Indian ulema are not enthusiastic about efforts on the part of the Government to ‘reform’ madrasas. Why is this so?

A: They feel that this will open the doors to governmental interference in the madrasas—and this is not a totally misplaced belief. Such governmental involvement can indeed turn madrasas into political tools and drag them into the politics of votes and vote-banks. That’s why it is important for the madrasas to feel assured that the Government does not intend to take away their freedom. I feel that if the Government respects the full autonomy of the madrasas and is still able to extend help, many madrasas will be open to the idea. I think that’s a good way to help madrasas and that the madrasas should respond positively.

There’s another reason why many ulema are opposed to governmental involvement in the madrasas. They feel that it might erode their control over these institutions. They fear that it would harm their interests, because they treat the madrasas as their own property. After all, most madrasas are completely controlled by a single family.

In any case, the issue of whether madrasas should receive help from the Government and how is far from being a simple one. It requires great wisdom and caution.

Q: How, if at all, do you think Christians could help in the reforms that you are seeking to promote?

A: The Indian Christian community is very advanced in terms of modern education. Muslims should try to benefit from the experiences of their Christian brethren in this field. On the other hand, the best thing about madrasas is the great stress that they give to ethics and moral education. Christian institutions can learn much from their example in this regard.

One thing that Christian educational institutions can do is to help bright and capable madrasa graduates acquire higher modern education. They can also help highlight the efforts being made to reform the madrasas in the media to which they have access.


Victor Edwin, a Delhi-based Jesuit priest, is a student of Islam and is actively engaged in trying to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue.

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