Title: Madrasas in South Asia: Teaching Terror?
Edited by: Jamal Malik
Publisher: Routledge, New York.
Erfurt (Germany) played host to an international workshop on “Islamic Learning in South Asia” from 19 to 21 May 2005. The under-review volume is an anthology of the revised papers presented on the occasion.
The volume departs from the popular literature on the South Asian madrasas in the sense that it does not allow the securitization point of view to overshadow other vantage-points and concerns with reference to the madrasa-scape of the region. The institution of madrasa has been the ‘master institution of the Muslim society’ (to borrow a term from Clifford Geertz), however, it will be erroneous to assume it the sole channel of the Islamic learning in any Muslim settlement. Informed with this comprehensive understanding of the socialization of a Muslim individual, Jamal Malik, in his illuminating introduction to the volume, situates the madrasas on the timeline of the intellectual history of the Muslim community. Though the division of knowledge into transmitted (naqliyya) and rational (aqliyya) has its precedence in Ibn-e Khaldun’s (1332-1406) “science of the classification of the sciences”, Malik is not sure when and how terms like dini madrasa and ulama-e-din surfaced. Hence, it would be interesting to explore their ‘genealogy and career’ [p 7 and 21].
The introduction further elucidates the trajectory of the politics of the madrasas vis-a- vis the colonial and post-colonial states. The civilizing mission of the colonial state to transform a European Enlightenment tradition into a “global ethic” met stiff resistance on the part of the madrasas in South Asia. This effort to arrest the homogenizing character of the colonialism was instrumental in determining the social location of the madrasas as an antithesis to the ‘domestication’ of Islam through modern education system. Despite the territorial decolonization, this nature of the madrasas continued to be the same till date, as has been discussed by many contributors.
The volume which is comprised of eight papers excluding the introduction and conclusion penned by Malik, exemplifies the employment of two different approaches, namely objective and intersubjective, to study the contemporary realities of the madrasa space. The former’s primary concern lies in the political economy of the madrasas while the latter approach stresses the role of ideas in this respect.
The non-economic aspects of the madrasa economics have a political dimension as well. It will be manifest if one ponders on the relation among the tax, the citizen and the state on the one hand and the religious donation, the believer and the madrasa on the other. While fear and coercion lies at the core of the first, social recognition, belief in an unseen world and compassion for the co-humans categorize the other. With the latter quotient, the political of the madrasa economics turns to be a complex of ethico-political considerations of a non-elite tax-paying citizen of a post-colonial state. A comparison between his/her feelings while paying the tax and those while donating to a madrasa, communicates something. Can it be explained in terms of his/her frustration at the failure of the state to act as the sole arbiter of fate? Does the frustration carry similarity/contradiction to the same when he/she comes to know about the corrupt usage of the donated resources by the madrasa authorities? Papers of Tariq Rahman and Saleem H. Ali seek to engage some of these issues.
Both the contributors correlate the increasing influence of the madrasas to the infrastructural underdevelopment which symbolizes the failure of the post-colonial state in meeting the expectations of the citizens of Pakistan. Though the public angst finds articulation in the idiom of sectarian violence, it should also be seen as the Sunnite proletariat’s crusade against the Shiite bourgeoisie. However, the class-character of such violence does not exclude the role of the larger politics of the madrasas in instigating sectarian outbreaks [p 73 and 93]. It should be borne in the mind that the cooption of the madrasas by the global and local players has resulted in catapulting the ulama in active politics of the country.
Difficulty in providing correct figures of madrasa demography has many reasons. In this regard, Christopher Candland aptly remarks that “establishment-based surveys are more trustworthy than statistical adjustment of household surveys” [p 103]. It is in this context that the discussion regarding the possibilities of numerical errors in the report of International Crisis Group (ICG) on the madrasas of Pakistan assumes importance. It suggests that the attention the scholars pay to the data-collection methods about the madrasas, is on increase.
With regard to the application of the intersubjective approach, contributions of Nita Kumar and Arshad Alam stand out as they are marked with thick description of the space and subject they studied. Through ethnography of three madrasa-going children from the Ansari/julaha community of Madanpura, Varanasi, Kumar demonstrates the actual share of the madrasa within their ‘total learning experience’. She regards the madrasas as a microcosm of the larger problem of schooling in India. Any strategy which aims at overcoming the problem has to ‘fore-front’ the interests of the child, not those of the state/society, defined in terms of pro/against an imagined modernity. According to Kumar, Umahatullah Ulum is the name of the madrasa Sabina, one of her case-studies, attends. Writing elsewhere on “History at the Madrasas”[i], she mentions a madrasa with identical name: Umahatul Uloom. Are they two different madrasas or the same madrasa which she has given two different names in two of her papers? To the best of my knowledge, the correct name of the madrasa is Ummahatul Mominin.
Alam’s paper on Jamia Ashrafiyya, Mubarakpur, the biggest Barelwi madrasa in India, successfully navigates the madrasa space and allows the reader to observe there the interplay of dars-e-nizami, pedagogy, non-dars (also known as kharji kitaben–books which are not part of the curriculum– in the madrasa lingo), and the performance of the knowledge by talaba in making of a Barelwi identity. He finds out that the debate inside the madrasa is ‘an internal one’ which is more concerned with teaching the difference between the ‘true’ and ‘false’ Islam, rather than ‘othering’ of non-Muslims. Related to the Barelwi denomination is Usha Sanyal’s contribution which makes a study of the historical evolution of Madrasa Manzar-e Islam, Bareilly (established by Ahmad Raza Khan, the founder/reformer of the Barelwi tradition in 1904)and Jamia Ashrafiyya, Mubarakpur.
Sanyal’s exploration of the career-trajectory of Yasin Akhtar Misbahi, one of the Ashrafiyya graduates, is marked by a sort of linearity. Had she compared his biographical details to those of other graduates of the same madrasa who rose to fame, it would have been added more to the scholarship on the subject. For example, Obaidullah Khan Azmi was nominated to Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament of India, thanks to Arshadul Qadri who encouraged Azmi to join active politics. As a fiery and eloquent public speaker, he made his presence felt during the agitation against the Shah Bano Case. It would be interesting to explore how his location as an Ashraffiyya graduate and a Member of the Parliament has negotiated to shape Azmi’s political behavior and career. Sanyal’s uncritical reproduction of Misbahi’s claim that the ‘jagir’ system was unique to Mubarakpur, is problematic (p 34). The reality is that irrespective of denomination, it was prevalent in almost every locality which had a residential madrasa.
The saga of resistance against the homogenizing nature of colonialism, post-colonial state, language and religion in the context of Bangladesh constitutes the core of Zakir Hossain Raju’s paper. Unlike other contributors to the volume, he explores cinematic texts, including Tareque Masud’s The Clay Bird (Matir Moina, 2002) to analyze how, according to Bangladeshi art cinema films, Islamic learning contributes to the process of the identity formation of a Bangladeshi Muslim. Interestingly enough, Masud finds the madrasa as a special place where “…you unlearn all the notions of homogeneity and prejudice that life otherwise teaches you…” [p 138].
Irfan Ahmad’s paper on the educational ideology of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79) argues against the dominant mode of understanding of Islamism that the latter is a revolt against modernity. Though he brilliantly situates Maududi’s philosophy on education within the ideational framework of the fermentation brought about by colonialism, it is not clear why the latter was in favor of an Islamic state ruled by ulama [p145]. It runs contrary to the Maududi’s image as a bitter critic of the traditional ulama. Moreover, absence of any reference to Jameatul Falah, Bileria Ganj, UP, from Ahmad’ narrative is conspicuous. The madrasa is the prime institution established by the Jama’at-e Islami, India to translate Maududi’s educational philosophy into reality.
In short, providing balanced accounts about the madrasas of South Asia, the volume strongly contests the popular understanding of the madrasa politics. Moreover, its role in stimulating further interest in the encounter of global and local forces at the madrasa space and thus expanding the horizon of the scholarship on the subject, is commendable.
(The review-article has been published in Third Frame, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jan-March, 2009, pp 162-165. Third Frame: Literature, Culture and Society is a quarterly journal devoted to concerns in literature, culture and society. This issue of the journal is a thematic issue devoted to Islam as observed in a local or particular context.)
[i] Kumar, Nita (2003), History at the Madrasas, in Seminar ( on Rewriting History), February 2003
( visited on 14 January 2009)