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The Usefulness of Madrasas


by Mawlana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi & glimpses from Muhammad Iqbal’s experiences in Andulusia

Posted April 1, 2009



It is not (necessary) for all the believers to go forth.’; So, why should it not be that a group from every section of them goes forth, so that they may acquire perfect understanding of the Faith, and so that they may warn their people when they return to them, so that they may take due care (of the rules of Sharī‘ah ). [9:122]


‘Were someone to ask me whether the Qur’an mentions Madrasas (institutions of Islamic learning) and their role and responsibilities, the answer would be in the affirmative. For the above verse outlines their assignmentThe Qur’an clarifies that since it is not practically possible for all Muslims to acquire religious education, there should be, at least, a group of dedicated Muslims who do take it up. They should move aboard, gaining a deeper understanding of faith at the feet of ‘Ulama’ in various towns and cities and on their return they should prepare their fellow Muslims better to meet the challenges Islam presents. This is exactly the role of the Madrasa. It should train such graduates who are aware of contemporary issues and challenges and who are ready to take these on.


Although the verse does not pointedly employ the expression Madrasa, what it says is fully applicable to the Madrasa, its need and relevance and duty. At the outset it is acknowledged that all Muslims cannot so go and study. For it is neither easy nor physically possible. It would amount to turning a blind eye to ground realities, if all Muslims were charged with this duty. It would be unnatural to assume Muslims could abandon their hearth and home to pursue religious studies. For it would spell and end to local industry and business. Rather such a move would paralyse life. Hence it is impossible to expect that everyone could join the Madrasa as a student. Furthermore, Allah does not demand of believers something which is impossible or impractical. Allah, being man’s Creator, is fully conversant with his limitations. He has placed some shortcomings as innate in human nature. He knows well the human condition. Therefore, He does not oblige man to do what is beyond him. It is against this backdrop that the Qur’an states that all Muslims cannot enroll in the Madrasa. Allah has not charged each every Muslim with this duty. This is also a pre-emptive strike lest someone plead that he could not do so owing to his circumstances.


However, the Qur’an insists that some Muslims from each town should dedicate themselves to this task of gaining religious knowledge. Some members from each locality, each profession, each town and each country should make the pursuit of religious education their lifelong mission. They should develop a broad and deep understanding of faith.


Gaining insight into faith is a huge task. Included in this is knowledge of divine commands, their rationale and their applications in varying situations. The Qur’an uses an apt word, tafaqquh, in this context. Students are expected to learn faith in depth, have a broad view of faith and be able to relate faith to the changing times. They are also obliged to preach faith and warn fellow Muslims. They should not confine their knowledge to themselves. Rather, they should transmit in on a wide scale. More importantly, they should admonish their community, containing as it does people of all religions, nationalities, and cultures. It is not intended that Arabs should address only Arabs. Rather, they should preach faith to everyone, of every family, locality, town and country.


The verse also lays down the objectives of this exercise. These dedicated persons should master religious knowledge, gain insight into it and spread it far and wide. If Allah intends to do good to someone, He blesses him with insight into faith. Included in this are all religious commands and issues, their rationale, their application and exceptions. Such people should also first mend their own conduct which will ensure their deliverance.


It is the duty of these religious scholars to preach divine guidance in every locality. They should exhort people to take heed and warn them against the dangers and challenges to their faith. They should alert them against such beliefs and deeds which may place them outside the fold of faith. For men are apt to commit such deeds which may be injurious to their faith. They may even lose their faith altogether. The Qur’an therefore charges these religious scholars with the duty do admonish them. They should clarify for them the limits beyond which they should not go. Their role thus consists in advising and warning. For, Allah has clearly spelled out the way of guidance as distinct from the path of rebellion and wickedness. Whoever disbelieves or follows taghut, is accountable for the same. On the contrary, one who believes in Allah achieves His firm support that guides one all along. This fundamental truth is stated in verse 256 of al-baqarah. These religious scholars should identify what is evil and wicked and what constitutes Islam. People are of course free to act as they like, after being told so. Religious scholars are asked to admonish people so that they avoid self-destruction. This statement is based on the principle of cause and effect. Their instruction will help people lead a pious life, for by they will recognize what is lawful and what is not. They will readily know what will help them attain divine forgiveness and salvation and what will land them in eternal punishment. This is the thrust of the verse.


Nonetheless, another point worth noting is that whereas faith is eternal, times are ever-changing. Notwithstanding the change in times and circumstances, the basic principles of faith being eternal do not undergo any alteration. Those equipped with sound religious knowledge gain the ability to provide a link between faith and the ever-changing needs and demands of the times. They perform this duty in addition to preaching faith and warning people.


They see to it that no alteration takes place with regard to the essence and basic duties of faith. They are very particular about the spirit and dictates of faith. Yet they make faith compatible with changing times. They thus guide and lead people notwithstanding the phenomenal advances in knowledge, technology, culture, transport and communication.


They are equipped to demonstrate the relevance of faith. They can lead their society intellectually. They prove how faith can resolve the problems confronting them. So doing, they highlight the life-enriching role of faith. This, in turn, saves mankind from following the path of self-destruction. Faith never becomes outdated no matter what development take place in various fields of human activity. For, by definition and in its effect faith is eternal. It is fallacious to regard faith as an out-of-date entity. Times, no doubt, change. This is something perfectly natural. It does not represent some sort of disaster. Time is not a fossil. Life changes and assumes numerous new visages with the passage of time. In contrast, faith is universal and eternal, unaffected by the vagaries of time.

The main role of Madrasa is to maintain and deliver the above message. They should ensure that faith is preserved in its purity. Faith should be the same as it was professed and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and be upon him), the Rightly- Guided Caliphs and the early Muslims. Faith has been followed consistently. Those actively associated with the Madrasa should not, however, disregard changing time altogether. They should instead critically analyse needs and changes. They should make the most of the new opportunities and make as much allowance as is possible for the new situation.


Faith should be maintained and at the same time it should provide intellectual leadership. Pious scholars should carefully evaluate new developments and appreciate new demands. They should meet these demands while adhering to the spirit of faith and the Shari’ah. In this lies the meaning and scope of tafaqquh. The next stage in this direction is of ijtihad which calls for specialized qualifications.


In establishing, managing and orienting the Madrasa the above points should be taken into account. All praise be to Allah at the beginning and at the end, and both outwardly and inwardly’.


End quote – Taken from ‘Guidance from the Holy Qur’an P. 119. [Islamic Foundation]


The implementation of the madrasa system in the world, especially in the Indian sub- continent and subsequently in many countries of the western world through migration of Muslims to the west, has produced enumerable benefits in educating and culturing the Muslims of their Islamic heritage and culture, not least the preservation of the Islamic identity [iman] in the face of ideological and the intellectual challenges the Muslims in the west, in particular, are facing.


During the past decade or two the U.K has seen a gradual rise of Madrasas and Islamic learning institutions that are catering for the Muslims education in a predominantly secular oriented country. It was the zeal and love for the future of the Muslim in the U.K that motivated and gave the right amount of impetus to the early migrants to set up these Madrasas.


Many have been and are continuing to deride and criticise the very presence and existence of these Madrasas claiming that they have limited use and are in many instances counterproductive to the progressment of the Muslims in the west and that they are confusing the Muslims [especially young] rather than enlightening them. They feel that the darul ulums up and down the country and the maktaba systems in the local communities provide little or no benefit and believe that this is just a conspiracy and a ploy from the Ulema and the religious leaders to control and subjugate learning the way they feel appropriate, which, according to them, would have been suitable in the medieval times but certainly not appropriate in the modern world which seeks growth and progress.


Although I am in congruence with some of the sentiments of these people but to advocate the closure of these institutes is extreme and completely absurd. We only have to read the background of those who advocate such nonsensical ideas to understand the motives of their idiocracy. The madrasa system, in the way they are operating currently is not perfect however; they have and are still instilling in the hearts of many the light of iman and preserving the Islamic identity in the face of the present identity crisis the Muslim youth is encountering.


When the poet Muhammad Iqbal visited Spain and studied the history of the Muslims in Spain, he made a profound and insightful statement which these people should bear in mind. Iqbal was not a scholar in the religious senses of the word but he understood the importance of Islamic educational institutes however decrepit and weak they are. After his return from Spain and his studies of the Muslims in Spain he told the ‘intellectuals’ and ‘academics’ who were fervently against the Madrasas to not to deride and ridicule the ‘maulvis’ and to leave them to do what they are doing, and he said that if the activities of the Ulema and the so called ‘maulvis’ come to a stop, then, not only in Pakistan, but the entire Muslim world will face the same demise that Muslims of Spain went through.


What happened in Spain? Andalusia was ruled by Muslim for about 800 years and in those years Muslim Spain saw great achievements while most of the western countries were still in the dark ages. Scientific, technological, agricultural etc advancements which Muslim Spain saw were the envy of the non Muslim nations. Many non Muslims would come and learn the sciences from the Muslim and return to their countries to teach. How did all this come to an end and the subsequent exodus and flight of the Muslim from Spain? According to Iqbal, it was the closure of Islamic madaris and maktabas and the impediment of the activities of the Ulema which led to the complete destruction of Muslim heritage in Spain and the subsequent expulsion of the Muslims.


Our current situation is not very good. We lack good leadership, resources, political clout etc. To give in to these extremists ideas and close down the very institutions which preserve and teach our young generation the basic of their Islamic heritage would be naïve and wicked. In saying that, I am not saying that these madrasas should not go through a radical change in terms of how they teach and convey knowledge but that is a another topic.


Wallahu ‘alam. April 1, 2009

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