The media might portray them as vehemently opposed to change, but that is not quite an apt description of the Indian ulema as a class. Here, as elsewhere, such banal generalizations are quite unwarranted. In recent years, in fact, a number of ulema associated with leading Indian madrasas have been advocating reform, both in the madrasa system as well as in the relations between the ulema and the wider society. And, slowly but steadily, such changes are being noticed.
One such Islamic scholar, regarded as among the leading contemporary Indian ulema, is the Hyderabad-based Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani. Senior member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and General Secretary of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, he is a prolific writer, with several books to his credit. One of his most recent books deals precisely with the question of reforms in Muslim education. Titled ‘Dini wa Asri Talim: Masail wa Hal’ (‘Religious and Contemporary Education: Problems and Solutions’), the book provides interesting insights into the problems of Muslim, particularly madrasa, education, and spells out an ambitious set of proposals to encourage the ulema to be more socially engaged.
Rahmani argues that Islam adopts a holistic approach to knowledge, not making any rigid division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge. Rather, it divides knowledge into ‘useful knowledge’ (ilm-e nafi) and ‘useless knowledge’ (ilm-e ghayr nafi), with ‘usefulness’ being determined by the capacity of a certain body knowledge to promote individual and social welfare in this world and in the life after death, as described in Islam. Hence, he says, socially useful sciences like medicine, engineering and so on, are positively allowed for in Islam. The Quran, he notes, also refers to numerous issues that are related to a range of scientific disciplines, including astronomy, physics, biology, history, languages etc.. This implies that Muslims are not forbidden from learning these subjects. ‘The Quran’, Rahmani says, ‘encourages us to acquire knowledge of the sciences that can reveal the secrets of the world’, and these include the human and the natural sciences. Accordingly, he says, early Muslims excelled in these sciences, building upon the legacy that they inherited from the Greeks.
Using this argument, Rahmani insists that madrasas should include a modicum of ‘modern’ subjects in their curriculum, enough to enable their students, as would-be ulema, to function in the world outside and to be aware of ‘the demands of the present age’. This would also, he says, provide them with better skills to communicate with ‘modern’ educated Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It is wrong to say, he argues, that the ulema ever condemned the learning of English and other ‘modern’ subjects, for all languages ‘are from God’. Rather, what they opposed was the ‘Western culture’ that advocates of English education championed. Just as the founder of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Qasim Nanotavi, introduced Sanskrit in the madrasa’s syllabus, today’s madrasas must teach English, he advises. Besides, he says, they should also familiarize their students with the basics of Economics, Political Science, History, Geography and Mathematics. These subjects, he writes, are also important for understanding and interpreting Islam according to the demands of the times.
It is entirely possible, Rahmani says, to learn ‘modern’ subjects by keeping one’s Islamic faith and culture intact. In this regard, he adduces the example of the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, in whose establishment leading Deobandi ulama played an important role. He also refers to the increasing number of madrasas in India today that have incorporated the government-approved curriculum till the primary level. This shows that the ulema are not vociferously opposed to ‘modern’ education, as their critics allege.
In order to incorporate ‘modern’ subjects into the madrasa curriculum, Rahmani suggests that the time devoted in madrasas to such subjects as antiquated Greek philosophy and logic be accordingly reduced. A second alternative is to arrange for madrasas to teach the government-approved syllabus till the seventh grade, along with basic Islamic Studies, and focus thereafter only on religious subjects. Or, a better alternative, he says, is to induct students into madrasas only after they have completed their matriculation along with a basic course in Islamic Studies.
Yet, Rahmani says, the inclusion of ‘modern’ subjects in the madrasa curriculum must be facilitated in such a way that the students are not over-burdened. As it is, he says, they have to study 21 disciplines in the course of eight years of study, and so they should be taught only a basic level of ‘modern’ subjects. Else, he says, they would turn out to be good neither in religious nor in contemporary subjects. Further, he adds, the inclusion of ‘modern’ subjects must not impact on the basic aim of the madrasasÃ¢â‚¬â€to produce religious scholars, and not simply clerks for the market, as modern schools do. For the same reason, he also opposes the inclusion of technical education in the madrasas, arguing that the solution to the economic problems of the ulema is for the community to ensure that they enjoy a good standard of living, like Christian priests, so that they can devote all their attention to religious and community work.
Rahmani also advocates certain changes in the teaching of religious subjects in the madrasas. Students must be familiarised, he says, with all the various Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and not, as at present, only the one with which their madrasa is associated. They should also be encouraged, he advises, to ‘critically apply their minds to reflect on the principles of jurisprudence in different and new contexts and with regard to new issues’, something that they are not encouraged to do presently. For this purpose, too, he says, students would need to have a basic understanding of various ‘modern’ subjects. In addition, he suggests, madrasa should teach their students not just the details of Islamic jurisprudence, but also the ‘principles of jurisprudence’ (usul al-fiqh), the ‘aims of the shariah’ (maqasid-e shariah) and the ‘secrets of the shariah’ (asrar-e shariah), which, he writes, are presently not given sufficient attention.
Rahmani advocates that the ulema be far more socially engaged than at present. They should, he advises, establish closer links with their non-Muslim neighbours and interact with them so as to clear mutual misunderstandings and help establish communal harmony. They must invite non-Muslims to their programmes and also attend their functions. They must establish good quality schools and hospitals that cater, besides to Muslims, to non-Muslims as well. In this regard, he cites the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who, he says, sent money to the drought-stricken non-Muslim Meccans even though they fiercely opposed him. Madrasas, he says, should also seek to combat fierce inter-Muslim sectarian rivalries that are fanned by sections of the ulema associated with the madrasas. They must also work with ‘modern’ educated Muslims for community causes, and not shun them on the grounds that they are allegedly not being religious enough.
Madrasas, Rahmani concludes, are a crucial need for the Muslim community, for they are the bastions of the tradition of Islamic learning. Yet, he adds, this certainly does not mean that all Muslim children must study in madrasas and train to become ulema. Only a few will do so, he says. Other Muslim children must go in for ‘modern’ education, and for this purpose Muslim organizations must set up appropriate institutions such as schools and colleges. However, he says, they should not work as ‘commercial and profit-making institutions’, as many of them presently do. Instead, they should cater to the poor as well, including the non-Muslim poor, for whom they can institute various scholarships. They must improve their dismal standards, he warns, and stop exploiting their staff. Instead of setting up high-level specialized institutions, that involve considerable investment and attract relatively few Muslim students because of their high fees and the low levels of higher education among the Muslims, they should concentrate more on establishing primary schools that have an ‘Islamic character’.