In contemporary South Asia, however, madrasas have come to be understood as institutions geared specifically to the provision of Islamic religious learning, and which aim at producing religious specialists, such as imams and preachers in mosques and teachers for madrasas and maktabs or mosque schools. Even the roughest estimates for the number of madrasas in India vary considerably, but a figure of over 30,000, including the larger dar ul-ulums and jamias and the smaller madrasas, does not seem quite off the mark.
They play an important role in Muslim education, but yet their importance must not be exaggerated. Contrary to what is often alleged, not all or even most Muslim children study in madrasas. According to the recently-released report of the Sachar Commission, hardly three per cent of Muslim children of school-going age study in full-time madrasas. The rest 97 per cent study in regular schools and/or attend part-time madrasas or else do not study in any institutions, whether schools or madrasas, at all.
In pre-colonial India, madrasas served as major centres for learning, and India's madrasas, some of them richly patronised by ruling elites, were recognised as among the best in the world. True to the strictly Quranic understanding of knowledge ('ilm) as an integrated whole, not recognising any strict division between the 'religious' and the 'secular', a wide range of subjects were taught in these madrasas. These included what are now conventionally understood as 'religious' subjects, such as the Quran, the Hadith (narrations about or attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), Tafsir or Quranic commentary, Fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, and Arabic grammar, but also what were called 'rational' ('aqli) subjects such as mathematics, science, philosophy, engineering, astronomy, history, medicine and so on.
The medium of instruction in these early Indian madrasas, particularly in north India, was mainly Persian, which was also generally the court language. Because of the structure of the curriculum, madrasa graduates, not just in India but elsewhere, too, made impressive contributions to the development of various sciences in the era before the advent of European colonialism. In much of pre-colonial north India India, larger madrasas often catered to the elites, including Muslims as well as many 'upper' caste Hindus, who then went on to man the administrative apparatus of various local rulers.
With the overthrow of the Mughals and the establishment of the British Raj, a sea-change overcame the madrasas of India. Since English was now the court language and Muslim law was replaced by Anglo-Saxon law, the products of the madrasas could no longer aspire for careers in the government services, unlike earlier. The new economy demanded new skills, such as fluency in the English language and in new disciplines introduced by the British. This gave rise to a sharp dualism in Muslim education, and one that continues to persist till this day. Muslim elites began sending their sons to English-medium schools run by Christian missionaries and the government, for this was the major avenue for career advancement in the new system.
Once mainly the preserve of Muslim elites, madrasas now became the bastion of mainly poorer class Muslims who could not afford to send their children to other schools. Today, the vast majority of madrasas cater to the poor Muslims, providing their children free boarding and lodging and charging them no fees. At the same time, the education they provide ensures them of a job, although most often low-paying, as a religious functionary as well as respect and esteem in a society that greatly values religious learning.
The establishment of colonial rule thus brought along with a radical transformation of the class-character of the madrasa students, and this was accompanied by an equally significant change in the focus and curriculum of the madrasas. Since 'worldly' subjects were now taught in regular schools and universities, madrasas no longer felt the need to pay much attention to these, unlike before, and so they restricted themselves essentially to disciplines that came to be seen as strictly 'religious'.
It was not that the ulema or Islamic scholars associated with the madrasas, were opposed to these subjects, as is sometimes alleged, for, as mentioned earlier, in pre-colonial times madrasas had indeed taught these disciplines. They did not insist, as is sometimes alleged, that all Muslims must send their children only to madrasas and train them as maulvis. Rather, what the ulema stressed was that those Muslims who wanted their children to learn these subjects could send them to regular schools instead of to madrasas, while madrasas would focus mainly on 'religious' subjects for those who wanted to become religious specialists. In a sense, therefore, this was a pragmatic division of labour.
There was another reason why madrasas came to specialise almost wholly in disciplines narrowly conceived as 'religious' at this historical juncture, which largely continues even today. As the ulema saw it, British rule and the social, cultural and religious changes that it brought in its wake posed an immense challenge and threat to traditional Muslim culture, beliefs and institutions and to the tradition of Islamic learning. Hence, they argued, in order to protect, preserve and promote these it was essential for a class of religious specialists to be produced through the madrasas whose major task would be to maintain Islamic learning and commitment in their capacity of madrasa teachers and mosque imams and preachers.
Were the students of madrasas to be also taught 'modern' secular subjects along with the traditional 'religious' subjects, it was felt that the burden would be simply too much to bear and that, therefore, they would be good in neither. It was also felt that teaching English and other such 'modern' subjects might cause their students to choose not to become madrasas teachers or mosque preachers but, instead, to seek better-paid employment in the new economy, and this would severely undermine the very purpose of the madrasas.
Related to this was the understanding that religious education was to be pursued solely for the sake of winning God's pleasure, of communicating His message to others and of hope for comfort in the eternal life to come after death. It was not for the sake of training students for worldly success. Hence, a general consensus seemed to prevail that 'modern', 'secular' subjects should be kept out of the madrasa system wholly or else be accommodated only to a strict minimum. This constituted a radical break from past precedent, where, as has been noted, pre-colonial madrasas did include such disciplines in their curriculum.
Today, many madrasas continue to remain focussed almost wholly on subjects thus narrowly inscribed as 'religious', and their rationale remains the same as in the colonial period. At the same time, though, there are signs of considerable change in ulema circles, a fact that is often not noticed or appreciated by critics. The ulema continue to stress that the primary purpose of the madrasas is to train religious specialists and that, hence, the focus of their curriculum should remain what are described as 'religious' subjects. This argument has considerable merit and is an adequate reply to those who question why madrasas do not fully secularise their syllabus. Since, the ulema rightly argue, the madrasas aim at preparing Islamic scholars, not, say, doctors or engineers, there is no reason why they should teach their students science or other such 'secular' or 'modern' disciplines beyond a point.
Yet, and this is evident in the writings of numerous ulema, they are also recognising the need for their students to have at least a modicum of knowledge of and familiarity with 'secular' subjects, such as English, Hindi, various regional languages, science, mathematics, history, geography and so on. This, they argue, would enable their students to adjust to the wider world and not feel as aliens therein at the same time as it would make them more efficient and effective in their future role of religious specialists.
Accordingly, a number of madrasas have started making arrangements for teaching such subjects to their students at the junior level, without this being allowed to negatively impact on the 'religious' component of the syllabus. Other madrasas have introduced a rule allowing admission to only those students who have completed a basic 'secular' education, and yet others allow for their senior students to simultaneously pursue degrees in regular universities.
In Kerala, the madrasa system has been adjusted in such a way as to allow Muslim children to attend them early in the mornings or late in the evenings and regular school for the rest of the day. A small number of madrasas are working with NGOs, including non-Muslim organisations, to incorporate some 'secular' education in their curriculum, while some others have also introduced some sorts of technical education as well.
For vast numbers of Muslim children from desperately poor families madrasas thus serve as the only available avenue of education and of upward social mobility, and an increasing number of them are also providing them some sort of 'secular' education as well. As the ulema often point out, the voluntary services of the madrasas, generally provided completely free of cost, saves the public exchequer a huge amount of money, but yet their services in this regard, far from being appreciated, are generally reviled by those who have little or no understanding of the madrasa system.
This, is of course, not to argue that all is well with the madrasas and that there is no room for introspection or reform. Indeed, among the most vocal advocates of madrasa reform (defined variously) today are leading ulema themselves.
Today, through a concerted propaganda campaign certain forces are desperately seeking to run down the madrasas, brand them as centres of 'obscurantism' and even as 'dens of terror'. Indeed, so pervasive has this logic become that public discussions of the madrasas are now largely located within the discursive framework of alleged security implications of the madrasas. Madrasas, in the non-Muslim mass media, are now viewed mainly through 'security' lens, and, in this way, their positive contributions -- their role in providing free mass education, particularly to the poor, their central role of preserving, protecting and transmitting the Islamic religious and cultural tradition and even the key role of numerous madrasas and their ulema in India's anti-colonial struggle -- are being deliberately sought to be denied and invisiblised.
Hounded in this way by the media, anti-Muslim political forces and even by powerful elements within the State apparatus, the madrasas, like other Muslim institutions, are being increasingly forced on the defensive. This is further driving them into the ghettos into which they have been confined, making hopes of and prospects for reform even more remote and the voices of progressive ulema, many of whom, contrary to media depictions, do exist, even less appealing to their colleagues than they otherwise would have been.
Instead of deliberately targeting and alienating the ulema of the madrasas, who continue to exercise an important role in influencing Muslim public opinion, wisdom demands that concerted efforts be made, by the State, NGOs and the media, to dialogue with them on a host of issues of common concern. This is hardly impossible, contrary to what might be imagined, as the major role of numerous ulema of the madrasas (even of such 'conservative' ones like the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, India's largest Islamic seminary) in the anti-colonial struggle and the struggle for a united India clearly illustrates.
Dr Yoginder Sikand is the editor of Qalandar, an electronic magazine on Islam-related issues, and also an author of several books on the subject