By YOGINDER SIKAND
Madrassas, or Islamic schools, serve an important function in the lives of many Muslims in India today. No reliable figures exist for the number of madrassas in India, but there are estimated to be several thousand. Many of them are just mosque schools (maktabs) where Muslim children are taught to read the Quran and memorize parts of it and are also taught Urdu and the basics of the faith. Several large madrassas also exist, with smaller ones loosely affiliated to them. Some of these have exercised, and continue to exercise, an important influence on Muslims in other countries, especially (but not only) among the South Asian diaspora.
This paper deals with the question of reforms in the Indian madrassas, looking at how the demands for reform are being articulated by Muslims in India today, both ulema as well as others. It focuses on the rationale for reform, the forms that these reforms should take and the impact of these suggested measures, concluding with a brief reflection on the debate in India today about the alleged links of some madrassas with outside radical Islamist movements, examining how this debate has impacted efforts to reform the madrassas. As Zaman writes in his study of madrassas in Pakistan, the significance of contemporary initiatives at reforming the madrassas has not been properly appreciated. The issue of madrassa reform has crucial implications for Muslim education in India, the nature of Muslim leadership, and for community agendas. Because of the links, in terms of shared traditions that some of the leading Indian madrassas have with madrassas elsewhere—particularly in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal—and the influence that Indian ulema have, since the last century, had on Muslims in other countries, reforms in the Indian madrassa system have a broader relevance than in the Indian Muslim community alone.
Traditional Madrassa Education in India
ACQUISITION OF ISLAMIC KNOWLEDGE is said to be a fundamental duty binding on all Muslims. From the time of the Prophet until the eleventh century, education, principally the study of the Quran, and later the hadith (Prophetic Traditions), was provided in the mosques and was, at least in theory, open to all Muslims free of cost.
With the development of Sufism from the third Islamic century onward, education was also imparted in Sufi lodges by Sufi masters. Islamic education was seen as not merely the transmission of knowledge but, above all, as aimed at the molding of the character of the student, who was expected to follow as closely as possible the pattern of the Prophet and his companions. Although the early Muslim community lacked a class of priests— for the Quran sternly forbids intermediaries between the individual believer and God—by the eleventh century, with the establishment of large Muslim empires, a class of clerics, specializing in the minutiae of Islamic law, gradually developed. This went hand-in-hand with the emergence of a specialized institution for Islamic learning separate from the mosque, the madrassa.
Although there is evidence of smaller madrassas having existed earlier, the first state-sponsored madrassa in the Muslim world, which was to set the pattern for madrassas elsewhere, is said to have been the Nizamia Madrassa at Baghdad, founded by the eleventh century Seljuq Vizier Nizam-ul Mulk Hasan ibn ‘Ali, and called the Nizamia Madrassa after him. Nizam-ul Mulk later established several other such madrassas, such as the one in Nishapur. These institutions aimed at the training of a class of experts in Islamic law, ulema, who would go on to staff the bureaucracy of the state as judges (qazis) and muftis as well as administrators.
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