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Scholarly Research in the Madrasas:

A Brief Overview

30 April 2009 04:45:52 PM, Maulana Waris Mazhari, Translated by Yoginder Sikand




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Some days ago, I had the chance to meet a leading Islamic scholar, an author of several books. During our conversation he remarked that the biggest and most influential madrasa in India had, in the last thirty years or so, produced only two well-researched books. This, he said, was evidence of the pathetic state of scholarship characteristic of the vast majority of the Indian madrasas today.


While in the past our madrasas produced numerous scholars, today this is hardly the case at all. Today, most madrasas restrict themselves only to the teaching of what is specified in their curriculum. In most cases, the only extra-curricular activity that they provide for their students is training them to deliver emotion-driven speeches. Not surprisingly, then, almost all madrasa graduates become either teachers or orators. Some of them earn their bread by penning tracts, whose only purpose is to foment sectarian strife. Very few madrasa graduates actually go on to do any serious scholarly research at all. Shockingly, even those men who spend years teaching voluminous tomes on Hadith, Fiqh and Quranic commentary for years on end in the madrasas often only pen a few tracts of a very elementary sort or a commentary on some basic text book and consider this to be a great scholarly contribution! And their sycophantic students and other followers are ever ready to convince them of the supposed great intellectual contributions that they have made thereby!


It is an undeniable fact that expansion of the frontiers of knowledge, even with regard to religion, is now no longer happening in the madrasas. If at all this is happening, it is outside the madrasas—in institutes, universities and private intellectual circles. This is so not just in India alone but throughout the rest of South Asia. The intellectual stagnation in our madrasas can be exemplified with the help of a single instance. Almost all the Sunni ulema groups in South Asia claim to be heirs of the intellectual legacy of Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, the influential eighteenth century Indian scholar, but besides his Hujjat al-Balagha, no other of his many works is taught in the madrasas or has been published by them. And today conferences about Shah Waliullah and his legacy are being held at universities in Delhi and Aligarh, not in the madrasas in Deoband and Lucknow.


Interesting and new, well-researched scholarly Islamic texts are being produced by some Muslim academies in Delhi. But nothing of this sort comes out of the hundreds of publishing houses associated with madrasas across the country. Scores of journals and magazines are published by madrasas throughout India, but most of these are of a very poor standard in terms of intellectual output. They lack originality, focus on hypothetical and theoretical issues as against practical realities, are overly preachy and normative and very often are geared to fanning sectarian conflicts and hatred.


The main reason for this pathetic state of affairs is, undoubtedly, the narrow mindedness of the majority of our ulema and madrasa students. This is related to the fact that they have restricted the work of madrasas to what they see as guiding people on issues of day-to-day concern in matters of ritual, practice and belief and the preservation of what is generally considered to be ‘Islamic’ culture. In this way have cut themselves off from the wider world. But, the question arises, what is the need for students to spend eight long years, studying numerous different subjects, if this is what the madrasas are training them for? A course of a much shorter duration, of say three years or so, would suffice for this purpose.


Another factor for the poor standards of scholarship and research in madrasas today is the almost total lack of any collaboration between madrasas and other academic institutions, which could have helped madrasas improve their scholarly output. In fact, the relationship between the two sets of institutions is charatcerised by considerable mutual hostility and suspicion. It is also a fact that the wrong notion of a divide between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge that is constantly stressed by the madrasas has played a major role in this furthering the division between madrasas and ‘secular’ institutions.


A third factor for this lamentable state of affairs is that the vast majority of madrasas are controlled by certain families. They have become, in essence, family-run affairs. This is the ‘mother of all illnesses’, in my humble opinion. It has resulted in the complete absence of democratic functioning in the madrasas, in their commericalisation and in the exploitation of their employees, all of which have had an extremely deleterious impact on the madrasas and their scholarly environment. The monopoly that certain individuals or families exercise over the madrasas is often reflected in the sort of literature that they bring out—much of it being pure propaganda, in the form of hagiographies, heaping praise on the founders of their respective institutions and the ulema associated with their sects.


A fourth factor for the deplorable state of scholarship and research in the madrasas is their extremely restricted syllabus, which has made for the ulema to remain confined within the four walls of their madrasas and to have little or no knowledge of the rapid changes happening in the world around them. This is reflected in the sort of publications that the madrasas and the ulema churn out, many of which have no social relevance at all or else lack any originality.


A fifth factor is economic. There are undoubtedly many capable students and teachers in the madrasas, who, if given the facilities and necessary support, can engage in fruitful scholarly research. However, madrasas make no arrangement for financing this sort of research work. What generally happens, instead, is that some maulvis take to making money and winning cheap popularity through penning emotionally-driven, and often fiercely sectarian, books of low scholarly standard. They seem to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with certain publishing houses affiliated with their own sects. These publishing houses specialize in producing this sort of literature, which rakes in handsome profits for their owners as well as for those who pen these books.


A sixth factor for the virtual absence of any creative scholarly work in the madrasas is that very few of them have any special departments for research and publications. Most of the few madrasas that do have such departments lack qualified people to staff them. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for creative, independent-minded thinkers and scholars to adjust to the closed and insular environment of the madrasas.


Seventhly, the fact that the vast majority of madrasa graduates have expertise in just one language (Urdu, in north India), with little or no familiarity with English greatly limits their potential as researchers and scholars. Most madrasa graduates do not even know proper Arabic despite having spent many years ostensibly studying that language.


What Should Be Done?

Intellectual work on a large scale cannot depend simply on the efforts and initiative of individual scholars. Rather, community-based organizations have to create funds and provide facilities to encourage scholars. But this is completely lacking in the case of the madrasas. In the past, Muslim rulers and nobles generously patronized madrasa-based scholars. In the West today, huge research foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation provide research projects to scholars. Sadly, there are virtually no Muslim organizations that promote this sort of work. At least the larger and well-funded madrasas ought to arrange for separate budgets for research projects that can be assigned to selected scholars to work on.


Improving the standard of scholarship in the madrasas is inextricably linked to the issue of widening their focus so that they see their task not simply as teaching students a set of texts or expanding their stock of knowledge but also widening their thought and mental horizons. Intellectual development can only happen in an environment that promotes, rather than discourages, curiosity. Sadly, this is totally absent in the madrasas. Further, madrasas make little or no provision for teaching social sciences and various languages, without which the sort of creative research that one hopes for cannot be produced. I think madrasas must include English as a compulsory subject in their curriculum, and, perhaps through open universities or the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, arrange for their students to learn various social sciences. In the absence of this it is doubtful if the madrasas can at all engage in any sort of creative and relevant research and scholarly work.


I would also suggest that all big madrasas set up research centres and academies. Some madrasas already have such institutions, but, sadly, most of these exist just in name and only for show, bringing out literature glorifying their founders or fanning sectarian hatred and strife. Madrasas must also expand their range of extra-curricular activities in order to encourage students to take greater interest in research work. They can arrange for experts in different subjects (and not just those narrowly defined as ‘religious’) to deliver regular lectures to their students. They can organize regular essay-writing competitions and debates for students. They must also arrange for their libraries to stock important journals and books, including on contemporary social issues and developments. They can provide students with training in writing skills and journalism, and arrange for selected students’ essays on issues of contemporary concern to be published in madrasa journals or as edited volumes that can be made available to the public. Final year students must be made to write full-length research-based dissertations. This will help improve their writing and analytical skills besides adding to the scholarly output of the madrasas. Dissertations of good standard, especially if they represent new and creative thinking, can also be published in the form of books so that they can be accessed by the general public. Bigger madrasas can also encourage scholarly work by organizing annual seminars on topics of current interest and contemporary import.


Madrasas can also arrange for their staff and senior students to visit other madrasas, and even institutions of learning run by non-Muslims, so as to benefit from them. In this regard some of the larger madrasas can also consider sending some of their capable students who are firm in their faith to the top institutions of religious learning in the West. These students can play a major and vital role in providing scholarly responses from an Islamic point of view to present-day global challenges.


These are some suggestions for addressing the pathetic state of scholarship that characterizes our madrasas today. In this regard I believe the major hurdle that we face is the misplaced sense that the madrasas have of their supposed self-sufficiency, their reluctance to introspect, their feeling that all is right with them and that there is no room for improvement at all. Obviously, this attitude is hardly conducive to intellectual development and the thirst for broadening and deepening their intellectual horizons.


Since the malaise of poor standards of scholarship in the madrasas is deep-seated and a result of many factors, obviously it cannot be solved at once. For this to change, madrasas need to critically and realistically examine their present curriculum and system. Only then can they become centres of scholarly activity and creative thought and research—as were madrasas centuries ago—and in this way prove beneficial not just to Muslims alone but to humankind in general. Or else, this complaint of the poet Muhammad Iqbal will continue to haunt them:


Neither life, nor love. Neither realization, nor vision


Maulana Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, is the editor of the Delhi-based Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Graduates' Association. He can be contacted on w.mazhari@gmail.com






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