Traditional institutions of learning like Madrasas are now at a cross road, where they exposed to so called ‘modern influences’. What is the appropriate response? Maulana Shah Muhammad Fazlur Rahim Mujadiddi Nadwi is the Rector of the Jamiat ul-Hidaya, a unique madrasa in Jaipur, Rajasthan, which combines religious, ‘modern’ and technical education. He also heads the Shah Muhammad Abdur Rahim Educational Trust, which runs several educational institutions in Jaipur and elsewhere. In an interview with Yoginder Sikand he shares his views on tradition and modernity and madrasa education in India.
You are considered to be a pioneer in seeking to combine religious and ‘modern’, including technical, education in the madrasas. How did this all start?
The story goes back to my great-grandfather, Hazrat Shah Muhammad Hidayat Ali, a noted Naqshbandi Sufi and scholar. He felt the need for reform in the madrasa system abd introduced ‘modern’ subjects for which purpose he set up the Madrasa talim ul-Islam in Jaipur. This was the period before India’s independence. However, he died in 1951, and his dream was left unfulfilled. Following this, my father, Shah Muhammad Abdur Rahim, seeking to pursue this dream, contacted various large madrasas across India, exhorting them to open departments of ‘modern’ and technical education so that their graduates could be economically self-sufficient instead of depending on others. Yet, his efforts met with almost no response. Some ulema argued that it was impossible to combine religious and other forms of education. Others said that while it might be possible, it would serve no positive purpose. Yet others admitted that it was possible and a good thing but declined to act on my father’s advice on the grounds that this would mean a departure from the tradition set by their predecessors.
Receiving no positive response to his appeals, my father decided to set up a model madrasa providing religious, ‘modern’ as well as technical education so that others could possibly emulate it. This took the form of the Jamiat ul-Hidaya, which began functioning in 1985 under the management of my father till his death in 1994.
What is the course of studies that students at the Jamiat ul-Hidaya undergo?
In contrast to most other madrasas, at the Jamiat ul-Hidaya students study the various Islamic disciplines till the graduation or alimiyat level, but alongside this they also have to study various ‘modern’ subjects, for which we follow the syllabus prescribed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). This year, our students appeared for the tenth grade examinations conducted by the National Institute of Open Schooling, and the results were quite impressive.
Our course of study begins at the 6th grade. After students finish the 10th grade examination, they do four years more of religious education while also learning a particular technical trade or craft, such as computers, automobile repairing, draughtsmanship, accountancy and so on, so that once they finish they would not have to depend on others for their livelihood. In this way we are trying to bridge the enormous gap between madrasas and the ‘regular’ system of education. Several of our students are now studying at regular universities, such as the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University. Some of them are working as ulema, but many others have taken up a range of other occupations, including in banks, offices, business concerns and translation bureaus in India and in West Asia. One of our students even became an aircraft engineer.
In terms of teachers’ background, also, we are quite different from most other madrasas. Roughly half of our teachers are madrasa-trained ulema and the rest have studied in ‘modern’ colleges and universities. Likewise, roughly 700 of our students come from families with different sectarian affiliations, which is in contrast to most madrasas that select only those students whose parents subscribe to their particular school of thought.
Some ulema insist that technical education must not be introduced in madrasas, arguing that this might overburden the students, or divert their attention from their religious studies. How do you, as one of the pioneers of technical education in madrasas respond?
We do not say that all madrasa graduates should become professional ulema or madrasa teachers. Everyone needs to pursue some occupation and people should have career options. Why cannot an alim, a graduate of a madrasa, be a good accountant, government official, journalist or businessman? That way they will be also able to tell people they meet with in their professional capacities about Islam and about Muslims. Of course, our main intention is to train good, pious and committed religious scholars, but they must be able to become economically self-sufficient, which they can be if they know a particular trade or craft.
This is no innovation, I must stress. After all, many leading ulema in the past took up a range of careers, including some that are considered as ‘humble’, but yet made immense contributions to society. For instance, Imam Qudduri worked as a potter, and Imam Abu Hanifa engaged in trade. While being economically self-sufficient they were also able to devote themselves properly to their scholarly pursuits.
Some ulema argue that madrasas must not teach ‘modern’ subjects, claiming that this would be simply too much for the students to bear. How do you react to this view?
I firmly believe that for the ulema and madrasa students to join the ‘mainstream’, they must have at least a basic knowledge of certain ‘modern’ subjects, as well as English and local and regional languages. In the absence of this, Muslims cannot progress and nor can the country as a whole. Increasingly, I think, many ulema are themselves realizing this.
The division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ education that some people make is completely un-Islamic. Islam sees knowledge as a comprehensive whole and positively encourages the acquisition of all forms of socially useful knowledge. If you look at Muslim history, you will see that in the past Muslims produced many scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors and so on. Many of them were pious Muslims and several of them were Islamic scholars at the same time.
What reforms would you suggest in the present system of studies followed in most traditional madrasas?
The syllabus today followed in most South Asian madrasas is some variant or the other of the dars-e nizami, a curriculum developed three hundred years ago by Mulla Nizamuddin of the Firangi Mahal in Lucknow. For its times, the dars-e nizami was very appropriate and relevant. It was also job-oriented, helping train bureaucrats and officials for the royal courts. But today, the dars-e nizami has largely lost its link with employment, and an institution that no longer has that sort of link cannot last long. Hence, I would urge, madrasas need to reform in accordance with modern needs, while still preserving their basic purpose of training would-be ulema.
I think the only way this can happen is to incorporate and give a respectful place to basic ‘modern’ subjects in the madrasa curriculum, as we have done in the Jamiat ul-Hidaya. In this way, students after gaining a basic grounding in religious and ‘modern’ subjects can later decide for themselves if they want to go on specialize in Islamic Studies or in one or the other ‘modern’ subject.
Some ulema dismiss talk of introducing basic ‘modern’ education in the madrasas as an alleged ‘anti-Islamic conspiracy’. How do you look at this claim?
I think some people are apprehensive that changes in the madrasa curriculum, even on the lines that I have suggested, might damage or destroy the religious identity of the madrasas. I, however, beg to differ. I think this fear is baseless. It is wrong to see even the most sincere suggestions for reform as a ‘conspiracy’. People who think like this need to open their minds and seriously look at reality.
At the same time, however, I must state that when certain dominant Western powers or anti-Muslim ideologues talk of the need for madrasa ‘reforms’, their intentions are certainly suspected. There is a hidden motive behind their urgings. They are often motivated by the intention to control, damage or destroy madrasas, Islamic identity and commitment to diminish the influence of the ulema.
What do you feel about the functioning of madrasas that are linked to government-appointed madrasa boards in certain states? How do you think the state should seek to relate to madrasas?
With a few exceptions, I think the general experience of such madrasas has been that once they come under such boards their standards decline and teachers do not take their teaching work very seriously, being assured of a regular salary from the government. I have not heard of a single madrasa whose standards have improved after coming under a government-appointed madrasa board. So, personally I think that rather than taking the task of changing existing madrasas or of constituting madrasa boards in more states or of setting up a National Madrasa Board, as is now being talked about, the state should open its own model madrasas that combine both religious as well as ‘modern’ education. It is much better if the managers of the madrasas themselves take up the task of madrasa reforms than to let the state do so.
Why cannot an alim, a graduate of a madrasa, be a good accountant, government official, journalist or businessman?
How do you see the ongoing propaganda offensive against madrasas in India, targeting them alleged ‘dens of terror’?
This propaganda is completely wrong and baseless. It is a sinister ploy to defame madrasas, the ulema and Muslims in general. Now, if some anti-social character secretly takes refuge in a madrasa without revealing his real identity, how can you blame madrasa or all madrasas for that matter? The same is true if such a person hides in a college, a church or a temple. Madrasas in our country do not preach hatred towards other communities or engage in or encourage any illegal or unconstitutional activity. Anyone is welcome to visit madrasas to see things himself. From time to time, Indian Muslim leaders have been declaring that if a single madrasa is proved to be engaged in training terrorists we Muslims would be the first to demand that it be shut down. However, despite all sorts of wild allegations against madrasas, no evidence of a single Indian madrasa being engaged in terrorism has been discovered.
Besides those who are willfully engaged in seeking to defame the madrasas, there are others who think of madrasas in stereotypically negative terms primarily because they have had no association with the ulema or even with ‘ordinary’ Muslims. I think this is an issue that the ulema desperately need to address. Most ulema have very little interaction with people of other faiths. I think we must seek to build good relations with them. The lack of communication is responsible to a large extent in promoting misunderstandings on both sides. In this regard, I would also suggest that the ulema and the non-Muslim media should increasingly interact on a positive basis, and not, as is often the case, only in the context of some sensational issue, real or imaginary. The ulema should seek to write in languages other than Urdu, such as English, Hindi and the various regional languages, to communicate their views and concerns to non-Muslims who cannot read Urdu. For this they need to learn other languages, and not consider that any language belongs to or is associated with only a particular community or that Urdu is a somehow ‘Muslim’ language, which is not quite the case.
Further, I strongly believe, not just for the Indian Muslims, but for our country as a whole to progress, Hindus, Muslims and others must closely interact, considering each others’ problems as their own and as of the country as a whole. They must seek to solve them jointly. Madrasas should organize regular programmes, to which they can invite non-Muslims as speakers and as members of the audience. In this way, non-Muslims can also learn what madrasas are actually all about.
Can you briefly describe the other educational projects that you have recently launched?
A decade ago, we started the Imam Rabbani Public School in Jaipur. We began with 5 lady teachers and 35 students. Today, it is a Hindi-medium school till the 12th standard, following the Rajasthan state school curriculum. It is now one of the biggest Muslim-run schools in Rajasthan, with some 3,000 students. Girls and boys are roughly equal in number. Many of our teachers are Hindus.
Besides this, we are also running three civil service coaching centres, one each in New Delhi, Lucknow and Aligarh, to train Muslim students for various civil service examinations and to assist them to get admission into Muslim-run institutions of higher learning without paying hefty donation fees. When we set up these centres, some people felt it was pointless. They argued that in any case Muslims would not be admitted into civil services due to anti-Muslim discrimination. But my argument was that we should understand that we are a minority, and that the many rights that our country’s Constitution gives us can only be actually secured when we have adequate representation in the government services. Only in this way can we effectively put forward our views and articulate our voices to the government, the bureaucracy and society at large. Anti-Muslim discrimination can be addressed only when we join the ‘mainstream’ through the democratic process. So, my answer to our critics was that Muslim students can indeed get into the civil services if they are competently trained. And I must say that our civil services’ training centres have met with fairly good success.