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Modern Issues in Islamic Education - Part I

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by   )


The madrassa is an ancient institution and has survived for fourteen hundred years. Once a thriving institution which served as the pulsating heart of the Islamic community, it has been neglected, allowed to decay, and is now the object of suspicion on the global stage.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, the madrasa has attracted a great deal of attention. During the days of the Taliban and the prelude to the Afghan war, it was the principal focus of the American media. It was made to appear as if all the goblins in the mountains of Afghanistan were hiding in the madrasas between Kabul and Peshawar.

The madrasa is not a monolithic institution with a single structure. It appears in many shapes and forms. It has a variety of structures, and is subject to the same social and political pressures as is the society at large. It defies simplistic packaging for ten second sound bites or TV infomercials. In the context of South and Central Asia, it is at once a source for social stability and a legitimate target for cultural and political reform.

At the outset, a clarification in terminology must be made, and a differentiation established between maktab, madrasa and jami. A maktab is any school, whether it is secular or religious. Every child who attends school goes to a “maktab”. A madrasa is usually a religious school in which Arabic is taught as part of a religious curriculum. A jami is a university in which advanced religious studies are pursued and graduate degrees are granted. Al Azhar, Deoband, Qum and Nadwa are universities that are classified as “jami”. Here we focus specifically on the madrasa.

In its early years, the madrasa was a mosque based religious school similar to Bible schools attached to churches. It is only in recent years that the paradigm has shifted to secular education sanctioned by government with a heavy emphasis on technical subjects.

No reliable statistics exist on the number of madrasas in South Asia. From Kabul to Kerala, the landscape is dotted with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Islamic religious schools. In some areas, such as Afghanistan and the NW Frontier, they are the sole means of education for children. In others, such as the educationally advanced South India belt, they exist side by side with the secular schools. Some are no more than an assembly in the open, under a tree, where poor children sit on bare soil and memorize their lessons. A few are richly endowed, with millions of dollars in property, and modern facilities. All of them call themselves “deeni madrasas” to ensure that the attendees, and the donors, know that they are different from the secular schools, and that they cater to “deen” as opposed to “duniya”.

These madrasas provide a valuable social service in parts of South Asia. In some villages, notably in the NW Frontier province of Pakistan and in Afghanistan, they make the difference between literacy and illiteracy. The Moulvi sahib who heads up the madrasa, teaches reading and writing in the local language, introduces the child to elementary Arabic, and facilitates basic memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith. These madrasas provide employment to scores of religious teachers who would otherwise be unemployed. One thing they do not teach, as is commonly alleged in the news media, is terrorism, unless you take the extreme position that teaching the basics of religion is the same as teaching terrorism.

The disservice that the madrasas perform is not in what they teach but in what they do not teach. The syllabus of the madrasa has been transformed and has been marginalized over the centuries. Where it once exposed the student to a broad spectrum of disciplines, the modern madrasa limits a student to the study of a few subjects. Absent is a study of natural science, mathematics, sociology or history. Gone also is Tasawwuf, the spiritual dimension of Islam. So the product of a madrasa has little understanding of the modern world, feels marginalized and is alienated from it. This feeling of alienation is the main reason why so many molvis and mullahs have taken extreme positions in juxtaposition to modern currents in global history. Such extreme positions are often transmitted to the captive audiences that the mullahs command at religious and social gatherings.

The student body

The great majority of students who attend the madrasa are usually from the poorer sections of society. They come from families where the culture does not value education. Fathers who cannot afford the cost of a secular education bring their children to the madrasa so that the child gets at least an elementary education in the religious disciplines.

In recent years, the influx of middle-class Muslims into the Tableeghi Jamaat has worked to the benefit of the madrasas, as many Tableeghi families prefer religious schools to secular ones. The escapist orientation of the Tableeghi Jamaat and the deeni (as opposed to dunawi) orientation of these schools tend to complement each other. Consequently, the economic profile of a typical student in a madrasa has somewhat improved.

In addition to imparting elementary education (taalim), the madrasa performs a secondary function, that of tarbiyat. In practice, this second function is even more important than the first. Tarbiyat means molding of character. In the same sense that a potter molds a pot on a wheel, the teacher in a madrasa molds a pupil into a mold. Discipline tends to be very strict, indeed harsh, in most madrasas. The tarbiyat function of a madrasa is what distinguishes a religious school from a secular school. Whether a graduate of a madrasa becomes an extremist or a Sufi depends on the tarbiyat that the molvi or the shaikh imparts to the student.

The dropout rate in most madrasas is high. Sometimes it is as high as 60 percent. This could be attributed in part to the underlying poverty of the families and partly to the harsh discipline imposed on the students. Grinding poverty compels many a promising son to quit school and enter the work force as a teenager and support the family. Those who complete a few years of schooling seek employment as mullahs in small villages where incomes are low and opportunities few. Those who complete their diploma and earn the degree of Aalim, have their horizons on larger and greener pastures in the towns and cities where there is more money and the opportunity to build lucrative trusts is much higher.

Some of the graduates go on to do their graduate work at Deoband, Nadvatul Ulema or the University of Medina. The University of Medina, in particular, is a respected center of learning. A degree from Medina offers a far greater guarantee of a lifetime job than does a masters degree in English from any of the well-known secular schools. A large number of students from the subcontinent attend the University and obtain degrees of Aalims and faazils. In addition, the University publishes books, which are used in the curricula of the madrasas. (To be continued)  

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