Thoughts on Mawlānā Tariq Rasheed al-Nadwī’s Interview on Madrasa Reform

I am now posting some thoughts I wrote up about the previous post (Mawlana Tariq Rasheed Sahib’s interview on madrasa reform) after our brother and friend Abdul Sattar (may Allah bless him) asked the following:

“I was wondering if you could offer your thoughts on the ideas he discusses concerning the curriculum itself, and the cultural issues he touches upon and what your disagreements/concerns are?”

In responding to the question, I prefer to mention specifically certain portions of the interview that I particularly would like to highlight and then subsequently provide my own thoughts, while also noting that my tone at the time I wrote the post was relatively defensive given the request to provide my concerns and potential disagreements. I have incredible respect for the Mawlana and I hope that my thoughts are perceived not as a refutation but as a contribution to an important -and hopefully ongoing – discussion.

Mawlana Tariq Rashid mentions:

“It was not like today, when, in a climate of increasing sectarianism and narrow-mindedness, madrasas are associated with one sect or the other, and often play a key role in fanning inter-sectarian conflicts. They are now unwilling to tolerate each other.”

The respected Mawlana made a general and sweeping statement that is not applicable to most of the madrasas which I have personally been involved with. I understand the intent of the Mawlana. I do think, however, that he could have shed some light on the large number of schools that do not fit this stereotype. I do not know if this misconception is a result of his educational background or simply a personal viewpoint, but I find that such statements undermine the efforts of moderate and tolerant madrasas and play into the hands of the all-too numerous madrasaphobes.

Mawlana then states:

“In place of bookish learning, which is characteristic of many madrasas today, Mulla Nizamuddin did not teach entire books to his students. Rather, he taught them only some chapters of each book, and encouraged them to study the rest of these books on their own, so that they could thereby enhance their critical capacities. This was unlike in most madrasas today, where questioning is strongly discouraged.”

It is certainly true that many madrasas have become confined to text-based learning for the wrong purposes, at the cost of losing focus on subject material. The result of such confinement has been in most cases a lack of development of certain critical faculties.

At the same time, it may be simplistic to say that questioning is strongly discouraged in most madrasas. Yes, at the beginning stages of certain courses, questioning is subtly discouraged so that the student is able to concentrate on developing his memory and retentive abilities. If a student is caught up in answering the “why” of every issue before he is able to understand the content of the issue itself, he is often distracted from the real purpose of the text and fails to wait for more advanced study for the development of critical thinking skills.

Also, there is a need in the beginning of studies for a student to develop his academic temperament and disposition. If he is not taught to think and analyze soundly first, he will always ask the wrong questions. Therefore, a student should be well-grounded and studied in the general principles (usul) of Islam. Once this is accomplished, his understanding of more difficult issues will be facilitated.

Personally, I credit my critical thinking skills, research methodology, and creativity of thought not to primarily to my university or high school studies but to my madrasa education and the incredible teachers who not only encouraged inquiry and critique, rather they demanded it.

Mawlana then later states, commenting on those who state that the darse nizami needs no change:

“I strongly disagree with this argument. It reflects a very strange mentality. So rigid are those who argue this way that they easily brand anyone who calls for change as an ‘apostate’ or an ‘agent’ of this or other ‘un-Islamic’ power.”

I think it is prudent when asked a question about the ‘ulama’s viewpoint on curriculum change to first do research on the subject. I have found that most people just assume that the ‘ulama have been averse to change without understanding their positions properly or even why those who truly did disagree with change did so.

First of all, after extensive research on what many senior figures of Darul Ulums have stated regarding changing the curriculum I have found that most of these elders were very much proponents of reform. This surprised me as well, but the more I read into their statements, the more I was convinced that such elders truly supported reform though circumstances did not always permit it. I invite the scholars to read into their statements and judge for themselves.

Also, I would have answered the question: “Some traditionalist ulema argue that the dars-e nizami does not need any change,” by first requesting the names of these ‘ulama. If we understand who they are, we can better understand why they disagreed with change.

From what little I have researched, the ‘ulama have primarily opposed reform for the following reasons:

1. Political issues: Where was the idea of reform originating? Government? How would government-enforced reform affect the sovereignty of privatized religious institutions?

2. Staffing issues: Reinstating the “secular” sciences is ideal, but where will sufficient staff be found? Will biology and history teachers be willing to make the same monetary sacrifices as ‘ulama do? Will they be willing to survive on a hundred-dollar monthly salary? Will the same quality education be delivered by madrasas as that of quality English-medium schools? How long will it take madrasas to develop their secular science courses to meet and exceed national standards?

3. The obvious question: Why not reform schools first? Madrasas cater to a small population while schools cater to the vast majority. Why not instill authentic religious education in secular schools before forcing change on these last bastions of religious learning?

4. Who will rate the reform of these madrasas? Who will ensure universal acceptance? Why are callers to reform not taking major ‘ulama and madrasa leaders into confidence? This usually comes off as suspicious and forces even reformist ‘ulama to hesitate to change.

These are just some reasons. There are many others that come to mind, but for the sake of brevity, I will move on.

I would like to add, however, that the question posed by the interviewer seems to indicate that change does not or has not occurred. This is not necessarily his intent, but nevertheless it is important to deal with this indication.

It is a misunderstanding amongst many that darse nizami has not already changed or does not still do so. Darse Nizami did not originally include the study of the Sihah Sittah. It now does. Darse Nizami once included over a dozen books on logic and philosophy. Where are they now? Doesn’t their removal imply change?

Just two years ago, Wifaq al-Madaris in Pakistan removed Diwan al-Mutanabbi and added Shaykh Nadwi’s Al-Mukhtarat to the curriculum. Al-Balaghah al-Wadihah was added. Al-Kafiyah was removed. Sharh al-Jami is no longer taught in many madrasas, in fact not even in Dar al-Ulum Deoband as far as I’m aware. Some have replaced it with Jami’a al-Durus al-‘Arabiyyah.

To sum up, darse nizami has and will continue to change. It is simply not true to think that it hasn’t. It is a completely different issue whether the change has been enough or sufficient.

Mawlana later states:

“But the dars-e nizami is overloaded with books on antiquated Greek logic and philosophy, or what are called ulum-e aqaliya or ‘rational sciences’, much of which is quite irrelevant now.”

I don’t think the Mawlana has checked the curriculum of most madrasas, as this statement is simply not true anymore. Were it even so, one could rightly argue that such subjects are essential to a good liberal arts education and shouldn’t therefore be neglected. Many scholars today lament the loss of such rational sciences and textbooks from the madrasa curricula.

But he then states:

“They should be replaced by modern ‘rational’ subjects, such as English and social sciences, so that would-be ulema know about the present world. Without this knowledge how can they provide appropriate leadership to the community, as ‘heirs of the Prophets’? How will they be able to answer the questions that people in the streets are asking? How will they be able to properly deal with new jurisprudential issues (fiqhi masail) if all they learn are issues that the medieval ulema discussed in the books that are still taught in the madrasas that claim to follow the dars-e nizami?”

I agree with this in principle. The difficulty lies in practicality and logistics. Even with many rational sciences having been removed, most madrasas struggle with fitting the current material in the allotted syllabus duration. Other difficulties, such as staffing, have been discussed above.

At the same time, I strongly agree that this replacement or addition should happen. It is just a matter of how and when.

When Mawlana states:

“So, this argument that the dars-i nizami should not be revised, on the lines that I have suggested, is completely absurd. I think it should be revised every thirty to forty years in accordance with changing conditions if it is to retain its relevance.”

The statement gives credence to those who state that many ‘ulama oppose change, and as I have stated most ‘ulama do not oppose change.

I do like the proposal that every thirty to forty years the curriculum be reviewed and appropriately reformed if necessary.

Later, Mawlana states:

“I think a certain hostility to change is deeply ingrained in the mentality of many of our traditionalist ulema. For instance, when I was a child, loudspeakers had just been introduced in India and Mufti Atiq ur-Rahman Firanghi Mahali issued a fatwa declaring their use to be unlawful. Some other ulema also reacted the same way, but later the ulema were forced to change their position. Many traditionalist ulema somehow automatically assume that anything new is haram or forbidden, but, actually, in Islam the right attitude is that everything is permissible if it is not forbidden.”

Regarding the declaration about loudspeakers, many ‘ulama opposed their usage for salat because they were told by engineers that the speakers reflected the sound and didn’t just amplify it. This implied that the sound of the imam was not the actual sound of the imam when carried through a loudspeaker. Later, the ‘ulama were informed that the speaker simply amplifies and carries the voice, which changed the ruling.

I don’t know exactly what Mufti Atiq al-Rahman meant by his fatwa, but it is also important to keep in mind that ‘ulama will always be hesitant to change and that is a good thing. When Islam and Muslims are being assaulted from every corner by modernism and new cultures, it is always safest to think well before change and reconsider “necessary” reform. Of course, at the same time ‘ulama should not be stagnant.

I would suggest that people read “Custodians of Change: Ulama in Contemporary Islam” by Muhammad Qasim Zaman. It is a good read and discusses this issue in depth. It particularly highlights the discussion that ‘ulama have not tried to meet the demands of the day and removes many misconceptions about their works.

Mawlana also states:

“The hostility of some ulema to any significant change in the dars-e nizami has also to do with a fixation with a certain understanding of what Muslim culture is. So, even in North America, many madrasas that have come up insist on keeping Urdu, rather than English, as the medium of instruction, although few young North American Muslims know Urdu, their language now being English. As if Urdu has some special sanctity attached to it! The ulema who run these madrasas might fear that if they were to use English instead, the students would lose their Islamic identity or be secularised, but this attitude is wrong because, needless to say, all languages, including both Urdu and English, are ultimately from God.”

I don’t think that fixation with a certain culture is the only reason. There are many more, and I am aware that many ‘ulama would certainly be willing to change to English had they the ability to do so. At the same time, there is much truth to Mawlana’s statement.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that much of the legacy of subcontinental madrasas comes through the urdu language. I myself sometimes fear that my students will not be able to read about their elders in knowledge because of a lack of understanding of urdu. This deprives them of access to vast treasures.

I think that madrasas in the West should not use urdu as a medium language of education, but should certainly offer it as a second language in a separate class.

Mawlana also later states:

“I think vocational training is very important. Ideally, although this is not always the case, one should choose to become an alim not for the sake of a job but as a religious calling. In other words, ideally, imamat in a mosque or delivering sermons should not be a paid profession. It should be an honorary, voluntary thing. This is how it was in the distant past. For instance, Imam Abu Hanifa, whose school of law most South Asian Sunni Muslims follow, was not a professional alim; he earned his livelihood as a businessman. Today, however, the general feeling is that large sections of the ulema live off the donations of others. If one is dependent on others how will one earn the respect due to him? The ulema can gain proper respect only when they are seen as providing benefits, in terms of proper leadership and guidance, to others, rather than, as now, benefiting from them. And, for that, financial independence of the ulema is a must, and hence the need for introducing vocational training in the madrasas.”

This is a gross simplification of the matter. I understand that this was an interview, thus the brevity, but there are many issues that need to be discussed here. Maybe at a later time.

Mawlana states:

“I think this is pure hypocrisy.”

I don’t think so. This statement is stronger than necessary and again, very generalized. Many Muslims when they say that “America is an enemy to Islam”, they also mean “foreign policy” or “the general government” and not the people.

These were just some thoughts. I obviously didn’t cover most of what I wanted to. I do hope, however, that my comments got some people thinking. Of course, Allah knows best.

By the way, I have the utmost respect for Mawlana Tariq Rashid Sahab. I have met him (though I doubt he will remember this undeserving servant) and admire the work he has so wonderfully done in his local community in Orlando. He has been able to do what few ‘ulama in the West have been able to do (especially the immigrant imams): he has connected with the populace and more importantly the youth.

I agree generally with what Mawlana said in his interview and that is why I posted it. I think that it is necessary that students of knowledge and ‘ulama consider his viewpoints and take it as a wake-up call.

May Allah forgive me if I was disrespectful to the Mawlana. I have nothing but love and respect for his knowledge and status in my heart. I pray that he will overlook my criticisms and consider them to be constructive and not malicious. I only hope that discussions like this continue so that they catalyze organized thought and healthy reform. May Allah guide us all.

Bilal Ali

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