Thoughts on Rigid Adherence to Texts in Text-Based Curricula

In reading through the history of Islamic education, it has become quite clear that there is no hard and fast rule about the reliance on specific texts for the study of all the Islamic sciences. It can be safely said that some subjects require more dependency on texts than others.

Interestingly enough, the types of subjects in which there is heavy reliance on texts today did not have the same level of reliance in the past. This applies especially to the science of fiqh, in which for a long period of time the head lecturer/professor of fiqh would simply lecture on a topic and have students dictate the notes. Notes were then compiled into ta’liqat and amali.

The fact that short mutun defined the syllabus of study for so long along with the fact that fiqh was normally taught (without divulging into khilaf) itself is indication enough of the dependency on the professor’s notes and commentary.

Moreover, students typically did not have access or the capability to purchase large texts and therefore depended largely upon short, memorizable mutun.

What this means for us is a reevaluation of the need to specify the texts of study and instead concentrate on the level that is intended to be acheived.

If a professor chooses to teach one book in place of another, or even to simply rely on his notes and personal research, should there be room to allow for it? If this is the case, then it would be wiser, it seems, to identify courses not by the text that is taught in it but by the subject and content.

Personally, I feel this flexibility should especially exist in the field of Qur’anic commentary. One may notice that simply terming a course Tafsir al-Jalalayn gives little indication of how the class is taught or in how much detail. Some teachers stick to the text while many others expound upon it heavily and rely, therefore, more upon their individual study and understanding. Students, therefore, are not studying Jalalayn as much as they are noting down the teacher’s own exegesis. This is not a fault in any way. In fact, in many ways and in many institutions, this is highly commendable. Complete reliance on Jalalayn and Baydawi is a grave injustice to the science of tafsir and the abilities of the teachers and students.

Similarly, it is more important that a student gains a taste for law as well as true faqahah than simpy complete the study of a particular text. If a student, therefore, is not capable of understanding the cryptic language of Hidayah, then the utilization of other legal texts that can facilitate his understanding and get him to think like a jurisconsult should be strongly considered.


11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Rigid Adherence to Texts in Text-Based Curricula

  1. Waleed says:

    Mawlana Do you think this also applies to hadith and its usool, bearing in mind that nuzhatun nazar is the last book (which wouldnt seem like so much on paper)?

      • Waleed says:

        Sorry to be a bother what with Ramadan approaching but I had a question. Which madaris do you know that teach hadeeth in such a way, with usool and jarh and tadeel being taught practically in dawrah? I can’t think of a lot and was wondering if you knew many like this. I can only think of Saharanpur, deoband, Azaadville and the madaris in karachi. Do you know many more? I realise this is a personal experience thing.

  2. Al-Asiri says:

    This is an interesting observation. The earlier centuries had curriculum texts that remained in vogue for a century or so before being replaced with a more contemporary work that incorporated developments and met the needs of students. Yet, after 800 AH, the curriculum in many places has remained the same, whilst the needs of students has changed dramatically.

    One often finds that students have preconceived notions about classical texts to study and are reluctant to study a text that is not famous. In Egypt, many teachers prefer modern texts or even their own texts and notes, especially in nahw and usul al-fiqh, yet students still want to study Sharh Ibn Aqil and the commentaries on al-Baydawi’s al-Minhaj. This, even in the presence of an easy contemporary text or teacher that will take you to the heart of the matter much more efficiently. It is almost as if bragging rights back home will be affected if you say you studied al-Nahw al-Tatbiqi instead of Sharh Shudhur al-Dhahab, or al-Wajiz instead of Jam’ al-Jawami’.

    There are difficiencies in focusing on the text rather than the subject, and sometimes one is hindered by trying to understand a cryptic phrase rather than comprehending the issue at hand. This is especially true in usul al-fiqh and even some later fiqh texts. The fluidity of the earlier period needs to be looked into again.

    • Bilal Ali says:

      Shaykh al-Asiri,

      Some wonderful points. If you would allow, I will summarize them below:

      1. Curricula have always been somewhat flexible. Modern needs demand utilization of such flexibility to better engage today’s students without compromising on content.

      2. The rigid adherence to particular texts often sacrifices comprehension and the heart of the subject’s content. Similar to your experiences in Egypt, the Hasanayn program I studied at was the target of criticism for teaching Jami’ al-Durūs al-‘Arabiyyah instead of a Sharḥ Mullā al-Jāmī and the entirety of Hidāyat al-Naḥw. We covered sections of the latter two works and even a good part of Ibn ʿAqīl and other works, yet we were still generally regarded as having experienced a watered-down syllabus. The truth could not have been more different.

      3. The fluidity of the early period of Islamic literature should be revisited. I have felt strongly about this since I discovered the early fiqh and hadith works of Tahawi, Bazdawi, Jassas, Samarqandi, etc…

      It’s interesting how few Hanafi students will notice the divergent strains of writing between the Iraqis and the Samarqandis. The Hidayah is considered the only representation of legal writing in its time and few recognize that Kasani’s Bada’i’ is from the same era and yet arranged radically differently.

      As you mention, there would be less hesitation to “modernize” texts if one realized that the fluidity of modern works is actually precedented.

      That said, I am sure you would agree that the utilization of more modern works doesn’t necessitate the exclusion of the limited study of some cryptic works. In the Dars Nizami, a foundational principle of the curriculum was to:

      1. Cover, in its entirety, one short work in each subject for the purpose of retention and a basic understanding of the science.

      2. Exposure to the most challenging text in the field, in order to make every work on the subject accessible (and not to use such cryptic works as the basis of study alone).


      • Al-Asiri says:

        Shaykh Bilal,

        Again, you highlighted some important points. The objectives of the curriculum should always be at the forefront, part of which should be instilling a lifelong love of learning as well as equipping one with the tools for further study. As such, studying some of the difficult references in part of whole does indeed have a place. In Arab universities, they still teach parts of the classics in usul al-fiqh in tandem with modern textbooks, often written by the tutor. Here is an interesting paper on this:

        Whilst the curriculum cannot cover everything, it should, keeping the objectives in mind, raise questions or tickle interests for further independent investigation. You raised the excellent point about differences between intra-madhab schools such as the Iraqis and Samarqandis in the Hanafi madhab, whilst the Shafi’i’s had the Iraqis and Khurasanis and the Malikis had at least six schools (in my view, though most books say four). Why aren’t we teaching students to look at an issue from the different angles so that they can see for themselves the differences in approach?

        One way of approaching this in the Shafi’i madhab, for example, is to critically analyse al-Nawawi’s characterisation of the Iraqis being generally more inclined towards preservation and scriptural evidence and the Khurasanis being more inclined to development and rationale (ta’lil). The best way to do this would be to take a selection of the various commentaries, based on Mukhtasar al-Muzani from both schools and look up several issues. My own picks are first Imam al-Haramayn’s Nihayat al-Matlab for the Khurasanis and al-Mawardi’s al-Hawi al-Kabir for the Iraqis. At first glance, these two works fit al-Nawawi’s characterisation. One could say they are the paradigms for such a characterisation. But then when one adds al-Tahdhib by al-Baghawi, Bahr al-Madhab by al-Ruyani, and Ma’rifat al-Sunan by al-Bayhaqi (all Khurasanis), the picture becomes a lot more subtle. One thus learns not to take a statement at face value, even by as great a figure as al-Nawawi, by critically engaging with the issue and forming one’s own independent conclusions. This is a great way of training in tafaqquh and tahqiq, but is rarely, if ever, taught. Why? Few graduates will look investigate such issues on their own. Why aren’t we encouraging inquiry through raising questions that challenge assumptions and then researching further?

        I once had the great fortune to bump into Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a man I greatly admire, in Granada with his family. His golden advice was to read and research extensively, as most of what he knows he has learnt himself through reading and research, with some consultation with scholars, having gained the tools to do so. He has obtained the objectives of learning. We need to do so too.

        Al-salamu ‘alaykum!

        Abu Ihsan

  3. Bilal Ali says:

    Brother Waleed,

    As you mentioned, to answer your question I would have to speak primarily from my personal experiences. I am actually not aware of a dawrah program in the subcontinent that teaches sanad-study, jarh and ta’dil, and applied usul, but that doesn’t mean such a program doesn’t exist.

    The Madrasat al-Hasanayn program in Faisalabad, Pakistan does teach dawrah in two years and used to teach a good amount of usul when I was there over a decade ago. I can’t speak to what is taught and how it is taught right now.

    Unless the dawrah is reimagined, extended to two years, or taught differently, I don’t think dawrah is a time when such usul can be taught effectively.

    All the more reason for serious students to not suffice with dawrah and to enter into takhassus level studies in hadith.


    • Waleed says:

      Where do you think is good for takhassus? I am aware of your alma mater Binnori Town, Saharanpur, deoband and Mufti Abdul Malik, though I was really hoping to get more info on the final one and how it differs, due to his history with Both Sh Numani and Sh Abdul Fattah.

      I found this on the two Indian madrasahs and it also sheds light on another college named after Ml Abul Kalam azad.

      I was wondering about the fadeelah programs in Nadwah since it seems they teach one or two misc subjects as well, as Sh akram mentioned Hujah ALLAH al balighah in his book, but couldn’t find much syllabus-wise on nadwah aside from an arabic booklet by Ml Rabi on its outlook and fikr and the urdu syllabus of alimiyyah.

      Also, last question (I understand it is Ramadan. I am in no hurry and don’t wish to bother you. I would understand if you answered questions after eid or later, please forgive me). Do you know of any takhassus fi al Tafseer classes in the subcontinent or any affiliated madaris? I am awae that Mufti Ebrahim desai’s Darul Iftaa has one and i heard about Mufti Zarwali sb, but was hoping to find more about this. How can I find more on this?

      • Bilal Ali says:

        I know very little if anything about Mawlana ‘Abd al-Malik’s program, but I can imagine it must be very good. Most of these programs are highly dependent on the involvement and skill of the supervising instructor, just like in PhD programs. You go for the faculty more than for the institution or curriculum.

        I can’t really comment on the schools that I have not attended nor studied. I can say that with Chishti Sahib in Binnori Town we would have had the chance to study the Hujjah had the students been up to it. Chishti Sahib only teaches it to students he thinks are worthy.

        I can’t really suggest any takhassus in tafsir programs as I have no knowledge of them or their quality. I also can’t give you any specific suggestions about where to do takhassus, and would suggest you consult with your teachers.

        Lastly, the file you shared does a very cursory analysis. It is hardly sufficient to make any judgement on any of the discussed programs. A better approach for you would be to ask students currently studying or graduates of the programs in question.


  4. Waleed says:

    JazakaLLAH Mawlana. You and sh Asiri literally have my favourite websites and works to read online. May ALLAH let us benefit more. By the way, Who has published your books, as I am eager to read Imam Dihlawi’s muqaddimah with your fawaid as well.


    • Bilal Ali says:

      I appreciate the comments. I haven’t found a confirmed publisher yet. I hope to publish it this year though with some interesting appendices.

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