When I first came to Jamia Millia
Islamia to teach, some 30 years ago, the madrassa in my mind was a
quaint holdover from the past. In the course of studying colonial
Indian history I had read about the Darul Uloom at Deoband and the
Nadwa in Lucknow, but I didn't think of them as living
institutions; they belonged to the past as firmly as Humayun's
I knew, as a historian, that the Darul Uloom at Deoband and the
Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College at Aligarh, the precursor
of the Aligarh Muslim University, had been founded inside ten
years of each other in the late 19th century; despite that
knowledge, the madrasah at Deoband was, for me, a medieval
seminary, while AMU was a great modern university.
There was, of course, a reason for the stereotypes in my head. The
Darul Uloom, as Barbara Metcalf had shown us in her authoritative
book ("Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900") was
established to preserve a style of traditional Muslim education
and learning threatened by colonial modernity, whereas MAO College
was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as a model of modern,
western-style education for Indian Muslims. So for those like me
with a superficial understanding of these institutions, the former
belonged firmly to the past while the latter didn't merely have a
glorious history, it had a future.
So in 1983, complacent in the 'correctness' of my knowledge of the
world, I came to teach at the Department of History in Jamia.
Jamia wasn't a Central University in those days; it was a Deemed
University, just one notch higher than the degree-giving college
it once had been. It was a much smaller place than it is now and
the B.A. Honours class in the history department had all of five
students. The brightest of them, by far, was a student called
Mohammad Ishaq, now Dr. Mohammad Ishaq and a distinguished member
of Jamia's faculty in the Department of Islamic Studies.
Ishaq was from a madrassa, and he wasn't just a brilliant student,
he was brilliant in an engaged and argumentative way. While his
classmates deferred to my views as a teacher, Ishaq had
strongly-held views of his own and we had long arguments inside
and outside of class about history, modernity, community and the
nature of nationhood. What struck me as particularly impressive,
even formidable, was the way in which his arguments combined
rhetorical rigour with remarkable language skills.
Ishaq was the first student I encountered who had been educated in
a madrassa and while he was exceptional in every sense of that
term, I discovered, in the course of the years that followed, that
he was also in many ways representative of a madrassa education.
For example, while correcting tutorials I discovered that students
from madrassas often wrote the more cogent and consistent essays.
This was for two main reasons. First of all, their essays were
generally written in Urdu. Since their readings were mainly in
English, this meant that they had to paraphrase and translate
their understanding of these texts before they could incorporate
them in their essays. As a result these essays were, perforce,
written in their own words. They didn't have the option, which my
English-medium students had and sometimes exercised, of cutting
and pasting whole paragraphs from the articles and books that they
read and joining them together in a kind of collage to confect a
Secondly, madrassa students had been taught rhetoric as part of
their curriculum. Rhetoric is the art of argumentation, of
discourse. From Aristotle onwards, rhetoric was a central part of
classical education both in the West and the Muslim world. It was
no coincidence that essays written by madrassa students were
cogently and forcefully argued: they had been given a first-rate
training in the skills of persuasion.
Over the years, it has become clear to me that while there are
many short-comings to the quality of education provided in the
run-of-the-mill madrassa (as there are in the average 'modern'
school), their strengths, that is, their emphasis on teaching
rhetoric, logic and grammar, their success in teaching students
from underprivileged backgrounds, and languages, both classical
and modern, were considerable. And not only were they
considerable, these were also strengths that contemporary schools
in Delhi and other metropolitan cities in India could learn from.
So when we talk about 'modernising' or 'mainstreaming' madrassa
teaching, we should also remember that there is a great deal that
modern schools and colleges can learn from the pedagogical
practice of madrassas.
I don't want to gloss over the problems of madrassa education, but
it is useful to remember that most of them are problems with all
educational institutions in India: an absence of resources and
infrastructure, a shortage of skilled and specialised teachers and
the challenge of systematically renewing a syllabus and a school
system so that it responds to the challenges of modernity and the
At a time when policy makers are increasingly concerned with
drawing into the process of development those who live outside the
charmed circle of big cities and large to medium-sized towns,
madrassa are one way in which 'mofussil' India is drawn into the
metropolis. The story of Ikramul Haque is instructive. He studied
in Azamgarh, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh at Madrassa-al-Islah.
From there he travelled to Lucknow to study Arabic at a more
celebrated seminary, the Nadwat-ul-Ulama. From there he made the
journey to Delhi when he applied to Jamia for the B.A. Honours
degree in History and was accepted.
By his own account, Ikram has found his educational journey
various and fulfilling. "I had an interest in Urdu literature and
had read a lot. I wanted to connect those stories to history,
because behind every story, there is history."
We see here not a rejection of traditional education, but a
self-conscious drive to build upon it, to test it against a modern
curriculum and to look for more expansive horizons. There is a
seriousness to Ikram that has something to do, I think, with his
madrassa training, the almost solemn sense that education is meant
to help you make sense of the world.
Mukul Kesavan is a well-known historian. He teaches
at the Department of History, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.