Ever since its inception, the modern madrasa system has been striving to prove its worth and practicality. Though reform has tended to shun the influence of modern (and Western) social and natural sciences, some modernist proponents of reform advocate that madrasa curriculum should widen its scope in order to accommodate the modern sciences. Because the curriculum tends to exclusively contain classical textbooks on Islamic sciences, and because the instructors teaching in this system tend to lack credentials in modern disciplines, such propositions for reform have hitherto been largely impractical. Recently however, Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, while researching for his seminal work, What is a Madrasa? (2015), developed a potential framework for reform that he termed Madrasa Discourses (MD). Conceived as a reform initiative, MD entailed a new, pragmatic strategy to train young madrasa graduates in the methodology and philosophy of modern sciences. Although madrasa students have a certain level of engagement with classical Islamic texts, they often fail to critically engage with and interpret them in modern contexts. This is because they are not trained in modern sciences. The pedagogy that the MD Project aims to facilitate would help the students to overcome this deficiency. MD Project marked its beginning in January 2017 simultaneously in India and Pakistan. Since then, it continues to attract a number of madrasa graduates and is committed to initiating a new era of reform in the Indo-Pak madrasa system.
“The following essay, written from the perspective of a participant in the Madrasa Discourses Project, briefly highlights key moments in modern history that resulted in madrasa reforms. Next, it offers an account of the Madrasa Discourses along with an analysis of its role as a catalyst for reform in the madrasa system and the challenges it faces in that regard.“
The following essay, written from the perspective of a participant in the Madrasa Discourses Project, briefly highlights key moments in modern history that resulted in madrasa reforms. Next, it offers an account of the Madrasa Discourses along with an analysis of its role as a catalyst for reform in the madrasa system and the challenges it faces in that regard.
An extensive change in a society, culture, or tradition usually occurs when there is a shift of power from one nation to another. This shift signifies a change of societal priorities, which encourages members of that society to adapt to the change. The process of adaptation mitigates disquiet created by changes in political authority, and normalizes even radical changes in the prevailing norms of a society. This is a process that almost every society undergoes, and several watershed events may be identified throughout the course of human history that triggered such change. In the modern history of much of Asia and Africa, European invasion and subsequent colonization marks such an event. In order to consolidate power and exploit local resources, European colonizers attempted to alter the socio-cultural demography of the local societies. They did so by introducing a new education system, as well as reformed political institutions, social norms, technology and the like. Though faced with some resistance, their success rate was remarkably high.
Thus what a country such as India today inherits in terms of culture, tradition, education and even religion has undergone extensive change. This extensive change began during the colonial period. Unlike other religious communities in India, Muslims were perhaps the most opposed to change. Many ulama (religious scholars), who enjoyed a great deal of authority over the Muslim community, saw this change, especially in the schools and curriculum, as a corruption of their religious traditions. Helpless against what they saw as a cultural onslaught, the ulama prioritized the preservation of the intellectual tradition of Islam. Nonetheless, some of the ulama established a madrasa based on modern administrative functions, such as a fixed curriculum, academic calendar, annual exams, among other similar mechanisms. provided by the British school system in Deoband (1866), a town located in the North Indian province, Uttar Pradesh. The first of its kind in modern India, this madrasa served as a model for hundreds of madrasas built after it.
Though the model may be credited as an innovative and efficient reform, it was also responsible for creating a rift between religious and non-religious education and by extension, conceptions of knowledge in Indian-Muslim society. This division of knowledge into two binaries contributed to the emergence of two distinct Muslim communities with markedly different educational backgrounds. It also resulted in the isolation of madrasa communities from the outside world. Since then, several attempts have been made to fill the gap between madrasa education and modern education in the subcontinent. Though these attempts succeeded in creating a discourse on madrasa reform, they have largely failed in bringing about significant change.
Madrasas, and the Indian Scenario
A historical survey of the curriculum that was classically taught in madrasas reveals that the distinction between the religious and non-religious sciences was not as sharp as it is today. In fact, the non-religious sciences or ma’qulat (rational sciences), were considered useful tools in understanding religious texts in the context of the world the medieval Muslims inhabited. Moreover, the intellectual world of the classical madrasa was heavily influenced by Aristotelian metaphysics and logic, to the extent that the ulama adopted the language and concepts of Greek philosophers in their religious discourses, which later on became the part of the madrasa curriculum. Once the adaptation of Greek sciences was complete, it became difficult for even the upholders of the madrasa tradition to recognize what was ‘Islamic’ and what was not in their tradition—the incorporation of Greek philosophy is therefore an example of pre-modern reform in the madrasa system, demonstrating the potential for comprehensive change and adaptation in madrasa curriculum.
The madrasa system in India was no exception. It too was amenable to large-scale reform given the right impetus. In this case, the reasons that led contemporary Indian madrasas to break away from their own tradition were several. First, the reform movements that began to proliferate in nineteenth century India brought about disenchantment with the traditional madrasa model. In particular, an exclusivist Quran-and-Hadith approach led certain religious communities and ulama to reject the teaching of Greek-based rational sciences in the madrasas and resulted in a reevaluation of madrasa curriculum. As a result, books on logic, philosophy, linguistics and the like lost favor and either were replaced by books on the Quranic and Hadith sciences and Arabic grammar, or were marginalized. ”
“With the colonization of India, the British introduced this European model of education as an advanced and parallel system to the madrasa.This new development posed several challenges to the very existence of the madrasa system:…“
Second, while madrasas for centuries strictly adhered to a form of early medieval Greco-Islamic thought, European philosophers and scholars achieved unprecedented breakthroughs in the fields of science and technology while also breaking away from an Aristotelian worldview. What emerged after this complete shift in their philosophical and ideological system is today referred to in the catch-all term ‘modernity’ and inspired radical reform in the curriculum and education system of schools in Europe. With the colonization of India, the British introduced this European model of education as an advanced and parallel system to the madrasa.
This new development posed several challenges to the very existence of the madrasa system: first, it created doubt among Muslims concerning the utility and viability of the madrasa system in the modern world; second, it widened the gap between traditionalist Muslims and modernist Muslims, as they came to be referred. Alarmed by the colonialist reforms, the ulama of India set out to preserve the religious sciences by focusing on the core texts of Islam – the Quran and Hadith – with the result that they neglected the rational sciences.
It is important to bear in mind that those madrasas that kept the rational sciences in their curriculum did so in a desire to maintain the classical curriculum, known as Dars-i Nizāmī. The decision to preserve or purge the classical rational sciences corresponded to wider ideological positions in the various madrasa administrators. Therefore, for instance, madrasas associated with Salafism and which did not claim to inherit a traditional curriculum did not teach the classical rational sciences at all.
In independent India, madrasas have virtually failed to create a robust intellectual community of ulama. There are many reasons behind this failure, but comparing the Indian system to the Pakistani madrasa system yields some interesting results. In Pakistan, madrasas flourished and from very early on in the modern era, they had an opportunity to engage in energetic discussions on problems arising from the conflux of state, modernist, traditionalist, and Islamist concerns about Islam. Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s recently published book, Islam in Pakistan: A History (2018), gives an impressive account of how madrasas and ulama are the crucial thread of the social fabric of Pakistan. However, madrasas in India were in an opposite situation – they were neither afforded any significant state sponsorship, nor were they considered of any use in broader political and educational institutions. Their utility and function were confined to the Islamic religious sphere, and this has resulted in a stunted process of reform.
Another challenge facing the Indian madrasas has been their inability to access modern discourses on the social sciences and humanities. This again may be contrasted with the state of madrasas in Pakistan, where translations of important books from different source languages, academic journals and periodicals on diverse subjects are easily available for the madrasa students and ulama in their native language. In the absence of such translations, it is difficult for Indian madrasa students to effectively communicate with the wider intellectual world. As a result, what students in madrasa experience is rot learning of prescribed books in an isolated environment, a process that obstructs their education and leaves them isolated from wider intellectual discourses.
Presently, little is being done from within to change this situation. The ulama in India are, for the most part, preaching, engaging in politics, dealing with issues of minority status and life in India and writing polemics instead of asking serious questions about the Islamic intellectual tradition and its role in a rapidly changing modern world. Nonetheless, the potential for reform is present. Like any minority living in a multicultural society, the Indian ulama are more able than their counterparts in Pakistan to engage in intellectual discussions about multiculturalism, secularism, social, religious, and educational reforms. Ebrahim Moosa and his peers in the Madrasa Discourses program have recognized that potential for open discourse, and have attempted to make good use of it in their reformed madrasa program.
As mentioned above, Ebrahim Moosa envisioned the idea of Madrasa Discourses as a profound opportunity for a younger generation of ulama in India and Pakistan to attain literacy in various secular fields of knowledge and thereby supplement their classical education. Himself a madrasa graduate, Moosa’s intellectual career straddles the two streams of classical Islamic and modern Western traditions. Moosa has exhibited his deep engagement with the classical and modern knowledge system of Islamic thought throughout a series of academic talks and works. As one example, pointing out one of the generic problems in the current system, he noted how the ulama’s methodology of dealing with serious intellectual questions such as evolution is based on emotion, not reason. In this case, the ulama do not attempt to understand the problem and its philosophical underpinnings, rather, they proclaim that Quran or Islam has already solved all issues, now everything is clearand there is no need for further academic investigation.
“Ebrahim Moosa envisioned the idea of Madrasa Discourses as a profound opportunity for a younger generation of ulama in India and Pakistan to attain literacy in various secular fields of knowledge and thereby supplement their classical education.“
Moosa also criticizes a “Quran-only” approach to addressing modern issues. For many of the ulama, the Quran has clear answers for every issue encountered in modernity. Moosa sarcastically calls this way of engaging with modern issues ‘the fast-food version of Islam’ or ‘a quick-made Islam.’ Studying Islam in an atomistic way would cause problems rather than provide solutions. Islam is a living religion that must be read in the context of wider social realities. Another problem is the ulama’s understanding of tradition, or riwāyat in Urdu. To them, the authenticity of a tradition lies in its exact transmission from one generation to another. However, Moosa points to classical scholars such as Ghazali to argue that an authentic and exhilarating tradition always interacts with the current realities and absorbs from it what is necessary to redefine itself. Tradition is like a rope, Moosa argues, and with every shift in time, it needs new threads to continue its advancement. Islamic tradition is not pure in the sense of ‘purely Islamic’ and fixed throughout the course of history, as ulama think today, but it is pure because of its openness to new ideas.
Unlike many modern scholars who are critical of the madrasa system and demand its abolishment altogether, Moosa recognizes the ability of the conventional madrasa curriculum (Dars-I Nizāmī) to train students in the classical Islamic tradition, if implemented appropriately. However, such training requires a disciplined and vigorous interaction with modern epistemology and science. Along with the classical texts, madrasa students should be well-educated in disciplines like the natural sciences and modern philosophy, while also possessing intellectual tools such as critical reading and problem-solving skills in order to understand the multi-dimensionality of the intellectual problems they face today. Moosa believes that if such a fusion of classical and modern approaches is materialized, there is no doubt that ulama would serve as a crucial means to lead the Muslim community, especially in South Asia, through a transition into the modern world.
“In January 2017, Ebrahim Moosa with his colleagues Professor Mahan Mirza, USA, Maulana Ammar Khan Nasir, Pakistan, and Dr Waris Mazhari, India, launched the MD program in India and Pakistan. From India alone, Dr Waris received over 280 applications for only fifteen seats…“
In January 2017, Ebrahim Moosa with his colleagues Professor Mahan Mirza, USA, Maulana Ammar Khan Nasir, Pakistan, and Dr Waris Mazhari, India, launched the MD program in India and Pakistan. From India alone, Dr Waris received over 280 applications for only fifteen seats (later increased to twenty seats in to accommodate a higher number of students in the program). The number of applications was unexpectedly high, and this was encouraging for the faculty, demonstrating that there are individuals among the ulama who are keen to learn the modern sciences. This January, MD has completed two successful years, affording us the opportunity to look back and analyze the ways in which the program has benefitted its students so far.
MD began its first semester with creation stories, studying how several ancient civilizations responded to the question of existence, and also how philosophy, especially Greek philosophy, came into being and was later on incorporated into Islamic philosophy, theology and jurisprudence. The students were taught all of this in order to remind them that the intellectual tradition that they inherited and that they call Islamic is a collective legacy of people who preceded them in time, and was pluralistic in nature. Important questions that the students struggled with in the first year included: in what ways is the Islamic cosmology unique and in what ways is it similar to existing cosmologies? Why is the classical Islamic worldview considered to be compatible with the Aristotelian worldview but not with the modern worldview? That the Islamic tradition has a history of tolerance regarding differing ideas and interpretations of the scriptural texts served as an incentive for many students to try to consider anew the canonical texts and their standard interpretations in the light of changed circumstances.
In subsequent semesters, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, and human history were the main subjects of discussion. As modern approaches to history and modern science minimize the role of God’s intervention into cosmic affairs, they come directly in contradiction with the classical worldview of Islam. For many students, scientific evidence is viewed with doubt partially because it is not universal, it is changeable and refutable, and partially because it carries a Western and non-Islamic connotation, and is seen as injurious to the faith. Some students argued that the source of religion is divine and infinite while that of science is material and limited, so how could it be fair to evaluate the former by the letter? Moreover, some students maintained that religion and science both have different operational applications with different underpinning premises; therefore, it would be mistaken to understand religion in a framework designed for the philosophy of science. Though convincing for many ulama, this sort of reasoning tends to neglect the fact that historically, many Muslim scholars experimented with contemporary material realities in order to elucidate Islamic metaphysics.
“During a class, students were assigned an article by a Pakistani scholar, M. Akram Wirk, attempting to explain popular scientific contradictions with Prophetic hadīth. Professor Mahan Mirza exposed the fragility of Wirk’s arguments, which demonstrated the inadequacy of the author’s grasp of the scientific topics at hand.“
During a class, students were assigned an article by a Pakistani scholar, M. Akram Wirk, attempting to explain popular scientific contradictions with Prophetic hadīth. Professor Mahan Mirza exposed the fragility of Wirk’s arguments, which demonstrated the inadequacy of the author’s grasp of the scientific topics at hand. Likewise, in spite of the fact that many Indo-Pakistani Muslim scholars criticized and wrote extensive refutations of the theory of evolution, a startlingly small number of then attempted to understand the theory itself. Dealing with a subject, theory, or discipline necessitates its thorough understanding, however, contemporary ulama have been neglecting this basic principle for years in their treatment of modern science and philosophy.
As an academic exercise, MD can be defined as a program designed to teach madrasa graduates how to connect dots, or draw ‘knowledge maps’ in the words of Moosa; how is Islam connected to other knowledge traditions in the past and present, and what would it look like in the future? As a major world religion, what kind of role would Islam play in future societies? This was one of the major questions with which the students grappled at the end of the second year of the program. In an age of rapid scientific advancement, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial exploration, what would it mean to be a Muslim theologian or a jurist? Relying solely on the classical texts to maintain a dignified survival in a new world seems increasingly impossible. Such ‘future of Islam’ discussions were enough to convince the participating ulama that it has become imperative now to revisit and redefine their tradition and engage with modern science and technology.
Spending a lifetime in the precincts of the madrasa and having debates and discussions with individuals of the same background obstructs the overall development of a student. Unfortunately, conducting seminars, symposiums, or inviting experts from different academic fields and faiths for discussions is not a part of madrasa curriculum. As a result, madrasa students cannot easily engage in discussion with non-madrasa students and scholars; moreover, they generally are not outspoken and suffer from an inferiority complex. MD has done a great deal in the overall development of its students by providing them opportunities to participate in international seminars, meet renowned intellectuals and scholars, and engage with students from the US and other parts of the world. These intensive programs were scheduled to keep the students busy in readings, discussions, and other activities with scholars and other students. They were occasions for learning research techniques, experiencing different cultures and traditions, and above all, building confidence.
Challenges and Reflections
One of the biggest challenges for the faculty has been teaching modern philosophy and science to madrasa graduates who lack any prior training in comparable subjects, and most of whom are unable to read and write in English, the dominant language of instruction in the program. Furthermore, students had difficulty grasping certain advanced philosophical questions and engaging with complex texts. However, the faculty did their best to overcome these obstacles. For instance, the lead faculty member Professor Mirza, who holds degrees in Engineering and in Islamic Studies, taught the first batch of students and worked hard to clearly communicate the ideas under discussion. Even so, it was difficult for students to process such ideas as Anthropocene or indulge in debates related to evolution. The latter in particular was a challenge for many students, and occasionally caused deviation from the fundamental objective of the course and disenchantment with the program itself. It would perhaps have yielded better results if emphasis had been on teaching disciplines of modern philosophy and scientific ideas in a systematic way and demonstrating their application in the Islamic sciences, which would connect to concepts that the students already understood.
“One of the biggest challenges for the faculty has been teaching modern philosophy and science to madrasa graduates who lack any prior training in comparable subjects, and most of whom are unable to read and write in English, the dominant language of instruction in the program. Furthermore, students had difficulty grasping certain advanced philosophical questions and engaging with complex texts.“
Change often comes at the cost of losing old customs and patterns of thinking, and this causes disquiet and fear—fear of consequences and of an unknown future. Mitigating this fear and keeping students motivated was another challenge in the program. In attempting to assuage these misgivings, Professor Mirza repeatedly explained that studying Western philosophy or science was not synonymous with rejecting an Islamic worldview or cosmology, that it was simply an exercise in understanding the Islamic intellectual traditions in the context of modern systems of thought, and as the world has changed a lot, these traditions should also be accommodated and adjusted accordingly. Nonetheless, a sense of disquiet remained. In the rough terrains of Indian and Pakistani religious discourse, philosophers like Kant, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, or Gadamer have little room to stand. The confluence of their philosophy with the Islamic sciences is considered sacrilegious, and the practical use of their ideas seemed unthinkable to the students.
“…in the context of the wary and traditional Indo-Pakistani madrasa system, introducing a program that is housed in an American-Christian university and funded by a Christian organization was bound to be a difficult task….“
Finally, in the context of the wary and traditional Indo-Pakistani madrasa system, introducing a program that is housed in an American-Christian university and funded by a Christian organization was bound to be a difficult task. Words like modernity, reform, science, philosophy and America carry a pejorative meaning among the orthodox ulama, and those scholars who are associated in some way with these terms are often considered unworthy of esteem in religious matters. Ulama feel vulnerable when it comes to the question of reform and modern sciences. Their suspicion towards such initiatives force them to withdraw from the mainstream intellectual world. MD’s affiliation with America and the University of Notre Dame provides a strong pretext for some ulama to reject the program outright. Despite the fact that those who are leading the program are themselves madrasa graduates and have succeeded in recruiting many young ulama, the threat of large-scale opposition on the part of the orthodox ulama is still looming over the program’s future. This has been more of an issue in Pakistan relative to India. On social media such as Facebook, and in local newspapers, ulama and orthodox Muslims have started registering their suspicion regarding MD through short posts, blogs and articles, usually posing the following questions: why would a Christian organization donate an immense sum of money to an Islamic cause? What are their motives behind this exercise? Some people have accused MD of trying to mislead young ulama. Wary of unwanted controversy and knowing that many modernist or reformist scholars have already had to leave Pakistan, the leaders of MD are still reluctant to involve traditionalist ulama in the program. Furthermore, though in India, there is still no recorded opposition against MD, the chances are slim that the Indian ulama will prove to be much more tolerant than their Pakistani counterparts.
The challenges to MD are clear and many. However, there is no denying that for creative and pragmatic programs like MD there is huge potential for reform in the madrasa system. Presently, MD is trying to connect with respectable members of the community of traditional ulama. Learning from previous experiences, the program is also becoming more organized. Though the efforts of Moosa and his colleagues are significant in this regard, the students can play a crucial role in demonstrating to their peers the program’s value and effectiveness. Whatever may happen, there is no doubt that MD is a bold initiative that is well-poised to shape the contemporary discourse on madrasa education and reform in the modern Islamic world.