Friday, November 30

Madrasa Reforms and the Deobandi Ulema's Response

Another very interesting article from that doughty Yoginder Sikand. Sorry, no url.

Madrasa Reforms and the Deobandi Ulema's Response

Yoginder Sikand

Recent years have witnessed heated debates on the
question of reforms in the system of madrasa education
in South Asia. Spurred principally by a chain of
political developments, governments, policy making
institutions, think tanks, journalists, public
intellectuals, social activists as well as the ulema
of the madrasas themselves have been discussing the
issue, often speaking past each other rather than
seeking to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Madrasas owing allegiance to the Deobandi school of
thought have received the most attention in
journalistic reportage, principally because the
Taliban in Afghanistan and certain hardliner Sunni
parties in Pakistan are associated with this school.
Newspaper accounts of the Deobandis generally present
them as 'obscurantists', even potential 'terrorists'
and as being viscerally hostile to reform or change.
These writings often betray a lack a proper
understanding of the subject. Typically, they ignore
how the Deobandi ulema themselves understand the
question of curricular reform, and, equally crucially,
their responses to the charges that are leveled
against them. It is in this context that a recent Urdu
book, "Rabita al-Madaris al-Islamia al-Arabia" ('The
Federation of Islamic and Arabic Schools'), published
by the Dar ul-Ulum madrasa at Deoband, referred to by
Deobandis as 'Umm ul-Madaris' ('The Mother of all
Madrasas') assumes particular salience. It provides an
official account of the views of Indian Deobandi
leaders on a host of issues that are central to the
ongoing debates about South Asia's madrasas.

The book is a report of the activities of the
Federation of Deobandi madrasas across India, which
was set up in 1994. Each year, the Federation
organizes a conference at Deoband, which is attended
by large numbers of ulema associated with Deobandi
madrasas from different parts of the country. Since
its inception, these conferences have been chaired by
rector of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Marghub
ur-Rahman. As is evident from the contents of this
book, the resolutions passed in these meetings have
consistently repeated much the same arguments year
after year, seeking to reinforce a particular stance
on a number of issues that the Deobandi madrasas now
see themselves confronted with.

Given the relentless pressure of the media and
governments on the madrasas, demanding that they
should 'modernise' their syllabus, it is hardly
surprising that, as the book reveals, the question of
curricular reform is being hotly debated in Deobandi
circles today. Clearly, a new generation of Deobandi
scholars, some of whom have also had the benefit of
university education and advocate considerable changes
in the syllabus, are yet to become effective enough to
make their presence felt in the Federation's circles.
The consensus of the bosses of the Federation, mostly
older generation ulema, the book indicates, appears to
be that the present syllabus needs no major change at
all. Thus, the book quotes the rector of the Deoband
madrasa declares that the syllabus is 'complete in all
respects'. Although he hints that 'minor changes can
be thought about in the initial stages in order to
make the syllabus more useful', he does not provide
details about this. He insists that madrasas should
specialize only in what he describes as 'religious'
subjects, for they aim at producing religious
specialists, not scientists or engineers. To those who
argue that they should also include 'modern' subjects,
he says that while the community does indeed need
specialists in these disciplines, those who want
'modern' education should go to regular schools
instead. Further, he says, madrasa students are free
to join universities and study 'modern' subjects after
they graduate from the madrasas, ignoring, of course,
the obvious difficulties involved in doing so,
particularly with regard to subjects other than
Arabic, Urdu and Islamic Studies. If 'modern' subjects
are taught in the madrasas along with 'Islamic'
subjects, he claims, the additional burden would be
too much for the students to bear, as a result of
which they would be good in neither.

This same line is repeated in several annual
resolutions of the Federation. Ignoring the fact that
desperate poverty forces many Muslim parents to enroll
their children in madrasas instead of regular schools,
and that many madrasa graduates feel frustrated in the
face of their very limited job opportunities, the
Federation insists that madrasas do not aim at helping
their students' improve their future economic
prospects, but simply to transmit the Islamic
scholarly tradition and to defend it from 'false
sects' and the 'conspiracies' of the 'enemies of
Islam'. Hence, it is argues, there is no need for more
attention to be paid to 'modern' subjects than at
present. If this were done, it says, it would 'have a
very negative impact on the madrasas' and would
'destroy their spirit'. It insists that the limited
exposure that Deobandi madrasas provide to their
students at the elementary stage to various 'modern'
subjects is quite sufficient for them. Not
surprisingly, there is no talk of the fact that, in
practice, this exposure is quite insufficient, owing,
among other factors, to the lack of qualified teachers
to teach these subjects.

Numerous resolutions passed at the Federation's annual
meetings also roundly condemn reported efforts on the
part of the Government to regulate the madrasas
through the setting up of a Central Madrasa Board or
funding them provided they follow certain norms. These
efforts are described as 'anti-Constitutional', as the
Indian Constitution allows all communities to
establish and manage educational institutions of their
choice. Recent events, the Federation resolves, have
shown that the Government is not sincere in its
intentions and wrongly sees the madrasas as 'dens of
terror and anti-nationalism'. Hence, it argues, the
Government's offers of aid actually aims to rob
madrasas of their independence, destroy their
religious character and bring them under close
governmental control.

'By offering material aid to the madrasas' in the name
of reform, announces Maulana Marghub ur-Rahman,
Deoband's rector in one of his Presidential addresses,
'the Government wants to put madrasas to sleep',
because such aid would inevitably lead to a change in
the present madrasa curriculum. The fact that the aim
of madrasa education should be (even though it may not
actually be so for many madrasa students) a means to
'acquire the willingness of God', rather than being
motivated by worldly aims, is another reason why
government aid should be shunned, he stresses.

Allegations of madrasas being involved in promoting
'terrorism' are repeatedly rebutted by the Federation.
It insists that madrasas are being thus wrongly
defamed by 'Jewish and Christian forces that are bent
on destroying Islam'. Included among forces that are
singled out as being engaged in this campaign are
'materialistic, anti-Islamic and Westernised people'.
Going even further, the late Sayyed Asad Madani, head
of the pro-Congress Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind and member
of the Deoband madrasa's Central Committee, declares
that 'The whole world is against Islam and has always
been so'. 'All the powers of the world are unanimous
about this'. 'They might differ among themselves on
other matters but there is no difference among the
enemies of Islam about their desire to destroy Islam',
he says. Consequently, he goes on, they are conspiring
to lead Muslims away from Islam, and their moves
against the madrasas being a major step in that

Since madrasas are 'the fountainhead of Islamic
knowledge', these forces, which find madrasas to be
'the major hurdle in the American and Zionist quest
for global hegemony' have launched a campaign to
discredit them, the Federation announces. Their talk
of the need for madrasa curricular reform and their
offers of money for this purpose are said to be 'a
dangerous part of this conspiracy'.

Far from promoting 'terrorism', the Federation
announces, the madrasas are 'missionaries of peace,
love and communal harmony'. Besides, they played a
leading role in the struggle for Indian independence.
They are contrasted with America and Israel, which are
condemned as engaged in 'brutal terrorism'. Citing
America's aggression against Iraq and Palestine, the
Federation declares, 'Today the greatest danger to
humankind is America'.

Although no loud, dissenting voices among the Deobandi
ulema are recorded in this book (they do exist,
though!), it is clear that several leading Deobandis
also feel the pressing need for the ulema to
introspect. Thus, Mufti Manzur Ahmad Kanpuri, member
of the Deoband madrasa's Central Committee, complains
that madrasas today 'give less attention to teaching
than to constructing fancy buildings, like grand
palaces, in order to impress people so as to garner
more donations'. Consequently, he says, 'the real work
that they should be engaged in is almost wholly
neglected'. He adds that not enough attention is paid
to the students' moral training. In a similar vein,
the authors of a Syllabus Committee set up by the
Federation lament that 'Most madrasa students want
degrees and jobs, and their moral standards are low'.

Overall, then, the focus is on moral, as opposed to
curricular, reform, and it is argued that if the
madrasas could produce great scholars and pious
Muslims in the past, they can do so today without
having to modify what they teach.

Interestingly, the anti-madrasa propaganda has had the
unintended effect of making the ulema more open to
possibilities of dialogue and interaction with others.
Thus, the Federation has passed resolutions exhorting
madrasas to invite non-Muslim journalists, scholars
and political leaders to visit them and see for
themselves that they do not have any links to
'terrorism'. Similarly, the book quotes Deoband's
rector as appealing to madrasas to 'stay away from
unknown elements, maintain proper accounts, promote
inter-communal harmony, inform local government
officials about the services rendered by them and
interact with the media'.

As emerges from the resolutions passed by the
Federation, the senior ulema of Deoband are opposed to
government intervention in the field of madrasa
education. They are also averse to suggestions for any
structural modification in the existing madrasa
curriculum. At the same time, they are increasingly
open to interacting with others, including
non-Muslims, even if this is simply to help counter
charges of 'terrorism'. However, these ulema do not
speak for all Deobandis, there being a number of
graduates of Deobandi madrasas who are indeed in
favour of a limited 'modernisation' of the curriculum,
claiming that Islam stands for a holistic
understanding of knowledge, including what is defined
by some ulema as 'worldly'. Unfortunately, these
voices are not heard in this book. Standing between
advocates of complete secularization of the madrasas
and those who are vociferously opposed to any
'modernisation', these voices represent the
possibility of the emergence of a creative Deobandi
response to the myriad challenges that South Asia's
madrasas are today confronted with.

Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye

The world is 'happy', eating and sleeping
The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!!!

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