By Dr. Muhammad Amin (Senior Editor, Dairat ul-Maarif al-Islamiya, University of Punjab, Lahore)*
(Abridged and Translated by Yoginder Sikand)
Today, advocates of madrasa reforms can be divided into broadly two groups. Firstly, external elements and forces and their local agents. Secondly, some people within the madrasa system who genuinely want to improve it and, accordingly, suggest certain measures for reform. The positions of these two groups need to be clearly distinguished from each other. External forces call for changes in the madrasa system in accordance with their anti-religious agenda, while we who call for change in the system do so to make it better serve its religious purposes. Thus, if critics like us may not agree with some aspects of the present madrasa system it is certainly not because we want to harm or undermine it. Rather, the intention is to make the madrasa system more effective in meeting its goals and also so that madrasas can produce ulema who can play a more effective religious role in society.
The Meaning and Importance of Tarbiyat (Training)
What is termed ‘training’ in educational terminology can be equated with the shariah term tazkiya. In Arabic, the root of the term tazkiya has two meanings: firstly, to purify something, and, secondly, to burnish something and make it prosper or develop. The aim of education must be to purify one’s self (nafs) of all impure beliefs, deeds and blemishes of character, and to develop those good qualities that the shariah upholds. In the Quran God says that He has sent all His prophets for precisely this purpose of tazkiya of human beings. Education is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, because that cannot be an end in itself. Rather, the aim of education is righteous actions based on knowledge. This means that education aims at purification of the self. Thus, God says in the Quran, ‘Truly, he succeeds that purifies it, And he fails that corrupts it’ (Surah Ash-Shams, 9-10). In other words, our welfare depends on tazkiya. The concept of welfare in Islam is a comprehensive one. It includes both religious as well as worldly success. By this is meant gaining felicity in the Hereafter and also leading one’s life in this world in obedience to God. Thus, tazkiya denotes the training of one’s self in such a manner that one obeys God easily and willingly and abides by His laws.
God has sent the Quran as a means for the tazkiya of human beings, and it also serves as a source of knowledge. The human personality that the Quran desires can be developed if one’s knowledge and moral training are based on the Quran and if this is done with wisdom. It is the path to the attainment of excellence (ahsan) by abiding, in the best way, by God’s laws.
The question thus arises that if this moral training is so important, why is it ignored in our educational institutions and not given practical importance? There are several reasons for this. Firstly, many parents are not even aware of the importance of proper training of their children. They think that their responsibility is limited to providing them good food and clothes and sending them to schools, colleges and or madrasas, and they have no more concern for their moral development. It is as if they have no other duty than to provide them with external and physical necessities. However, most important from the point of the needs of children is that parents should be concerned about their character development and do what they can to ensure that this happens in the right manner. These days children go to school in the mornings, come back home in the evenings, then go for private tuitions and, after that, sit glued to the television along with their parents. Many parents do not give more time than this to their children. The reason is that parents do not even realise that the proper training of their children is their responsibility.
Another reason is that teachers have also become negligent of the need for the proper training of their students, although this, rather than simply providing information to their students, should be their actual work. And this responsibility of teachers becomes even more crucial today, when television and other such things are playing havoc with morality. There is a pressing need for teachers to give greater stress to the students’ appropriate training in our educational institutions today, particularly in madrasas.
The Types of Tarbiyat
Tarbiyat can be further classified into different types: religious training, intellectual training, administrative training, physical training, and so on.
Islam provides guidance and laws for four broad spheres: beliefs (aqaid), worship (ibadat), morals and manners (ilhlaq-o-adab) and social affairs (muamilat). Beliefs, obviously, provide the foundation; worship is about the relation between the slave and God, the Sustainer; while morals, manners, laws and principles guiding social affairs have to do with relations between and among people. Proper religious training requires that all four of these spheres must be paid attention to, so that students can seek to progress in all of them. Among our religious circles there is considerable misunderstanding in matters concerning religious training. For instance, the institution of Sufism, which emerged for the purpose of tazkiya and tarbiyat, now gives particular stress to recitation of litanies (zikr) and to ritual worship (ibadat), and relatively little attention to morals. I do not belittle the importance of these things, but there is need for a balanced form of religious training. Worship surely is important, but is properly observing the rules and principles related to social affairs unimportant? Is lying unimportant, or going against one’s word or being cruel to one’s wife and children? These are also important issues, about which God and the Prophet have provided rules and laws. So, in the name of religious training to give importance to some things and not to others is an unbalanced approach from the religious point of view.
When discussing religious training, the proper manner of conducting one’s day-to-day affairs also needs to be stressed. For instance, the issue of punctuality. I have noted that this is not respected in religious functions, whereas this is the first thing that we learn about our daily worship. As soon as it is time for congregational prayers, people look at their watches. Praise be to God, this shows that we are punctual at least as far as prayers are concerned. But the question is: Why does this not become our habit in other matters as well? If punctuality is commanded by the shariah in matters of prayer, why not in other matters also? In the congregational prayers, worshippers should pray in straight lines. This means that God wants us to inculcate in ourselves a sense of unity, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with each other. Why, then, is this virtue that the shariah wants to promote through prayer ignored in other spheres of life?
Intellectual training includes several things, such as freedom of thought, developing oratory and writing skills, use of library facilities, exposure through educational tours and so on. Take the question of the freedom of thought first. This is also a basic religious foundation. This is evident from several episodes of the life of the Prophet, who is a model for us all. He himself encouraged his companions to think for themselves. Thus, for instance, during the battle of Badr, Hazrat Habab bin Manzar, a companion of the Prophet, asked him if he had decided that his army should halt at a particular place on the basis of Divine revelation. The Prophet replied in the negative. The companion then suggested that the place was not appropriate. A similar incident took place during the battle of Ahzab. The Prophet thought that the matter could be solved by entering into some sort of give-and-take with the Jews. When the leaders of the Ansars of Medina heard of this, they said to him that if this was a commandment based on Divine revelation they would willingly accept it, but that if this was just a proposal on the part of the Prophet they did not agree with it. The Prophet accepted then their suggestion. Take the case of the woman Hazrat Burairah, whose husband Mughith used to roam around like a mad man. He followed her, crying profusely, desiring that their marriage should remain intact because since Hazrat Burairah had been freed from slavery her marriage had been dissolved. When the companions of the Prophet approached the Prophet about this, he called Hazrat Burairah and advised her to maintain her marriage with Mughith. She asked the Prophet if this was command, to which he answered that it was not an order but a request. In response, Hazrat Burairah asked for forgiveness, but said that she did not want to remain married to the man.
So, undoubtedly the shariah envisages the highest form of obedience. But this does not contradict freedom of thought, and this the Prophet explained to his companions on different occasions. The companions rendered unconditional obedience to the Prophet and, in that, present a model for us to seek to emulate. At the same time, our religion stands for the freedom of thought. This does not go against the unconditional obedience of God and the Prophet. We should obey [God and the Prophet] without any reservations and with full zeal, but Islam does not teach us to close tightly shut the doors of our hearts and minds and to stop thinking.
In relating this question of freedom of thought to the system of madrasa education, three issues are of particular concern and need to be urgently addressed. The first relates to the aim of madrasa education, the second to the madrasa curriculum and the third to the status of sect or school of thought in Islam.
The Aim of Madrasa Education
Today, most people associated with madrasas think that the aim of these institutions is simply to produce maulvis to staff mosques and madrasas. I think this is a limited approach. The classical Islamic tradition of learning did not know any dualism, any strict division between the ‘religious’ and the ‘worldly’. The distinction between the two, with madrasas coming to specialise only in the former, was a product of the changes bought about by the British conquest. Before that, the dars-i nizami curriculum, which is today used in most madrasas, provided the basis of the educational system that also produced government officials, such as administrators and judges, as well as doctors. When the British captured power and put an end to Muslim rule, the madrasa system was badly hit. Many ulema who opposed the British were brutally killed and the endowed properties through which the madrasas used to finance themselves were confiscated. English replaced Persian as the official language, and so those who had been trained in Persian and Arabic through the madrasas were rendered unemployed. This explains the popular saying that emerged at this time: ‘Study Persian and you will be good only for selling oil’.
At this critical juncture, some ulema decided to set up a chain of madrasas in order to save whatever they could of the Islamic tradition of learning, and to enable people to follow the rules of Islam at least in their private sphere. But the British are no longer here, and so there is no reason why madrasas should not expand beyond simply producing ulema for mosques and madrasas, although, of course, that is also necessary.
The Madrasa Curriculum
Once the aims of madrasa education expand, the madrasa curriculum will broaden on its own. In colleges and universities, before every semester, professors meet and discuss and then decide what they will be teaching. This is left to them, and they are not forced to teach anything against their will. The curriculum is not, or at least should not be, something static. At the time of the Prophet, the course of learning was only the Quran. After his demise, Hadith also began being taught. After that, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) was added, and, a century later, the teaching of the principles of fiqh (usul al-fiqh) was introduced. In the face of the challenge of Greek philosophy, logic later came to be added to the curriculum. So, in other words, the curriculum is no holy cow. It always changes in accordance with the needs of the times and of society. Some parts of the madrasa curriculum, such as the Quran and Hadith, will obviously never change, as also the Arabic language since our religious scriptures are in that language. But Persian, which continues to be taught in the madrasas, does not have any sanctity. It was important at one time, when it was the official or court language and a key to employment. But today Persian is not the medium of communication in the country. So, there are some things in the curriculum which must be seen from this angle. To repeat, by itself the curriculum does not have sanctity. The only aim of the curriculum is to produce such learned and effective ulema who can serve the religious needs of society and mould peoples’ character and life in accordance with the demands of the faith.
If one looks at the madrasa curriculum with all these issues in mind, a number of drawbacks or limitations are evident. Leave aside the agenda of the West when it talks of madrasa reforms. Is it not necessary for us to understand this world? Imam Ghazali felt compelled to study Greek philosophy so as to rebut it. Then, why don’t we understand that today we should study Western philosophy in order to combat it? If you do not understand the philosophy of the West, how can you rebut it? That is why we ourselves need to study other prevailing philosophies. Just as in the medieval ages, Greek philosophy posed itself as a major challenge, today the challenge and the source of strife is Western philosophy. How, then, can the ulema say that it is useless to study English? If you do not study English, how will you know what your opponent thinks and how that thought should be combated?
Another drawback of the present madrasa curriculum is that the Quran does not have the central place in it that it should enjoy. Madrasas offer specialisation in Hadith, but why not in the Quran? Is the Quran less important than Hadith? And then, madrasas generally teach the Quran and Hadith from a jurisprudential angle, and give very little importance to the message and philosophy of the Quran and Hadith. Even in the teaching of fiqh a wrong or tendentious approach is adopted, simply in order to defend a particular school of jurisprudence. Further, most madrasa students do not know how to write and read Arabic properly. All these aspects of the curriculum are in urgent need of reform.
The Status of Sect or School of Thought
Unfortunately, many of us equate one’s school of thought (maslak) with religion (din) itself. I am not advocating that people should stop adhering to a particular school of thought. In matters of jurisprudence and theology, everyone follows some school or the other. This is not something strange. But a school of thought is not religion itself; it is simply something based on ijtihad or human reflection on the primary sources of religion. Its status is that of an opinion. Divisions based on school of thought have become unnecessarily acute in our society, and, in some circles, have even become the excuse for bloodshed. Scores of people have been killed as a result of this, although the real cause might be something else. In this regard, the ulema need to adopt a more mature approach.
Madrasas need to engage in research, including specialised research, in matters of religion. It is pointless simply repeating what has been written before. Once, a young friend of mine who teaches in a madrasa in Lahore told me that he had starting doing some writing and research. He asked me to pray for his success. I told him that this was good news, and asked him what he was writing about. He replied that he was preparing a book of supplications. I asked him what he planned to do after that. His answer was that he would later work on a book about prayer. I don’t say that this is not a form of service of the faith, but the question is: Is it an appropriate use of one’s capacities and time to repeatedly write about the same sorts of issues?
In this regard, let me cite a personal experience. I once wrote to a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, telling him that I wanted to work on a doctoral thesis. He asked me to send him a list of topics on which I wanted to research. I said that I wanted to work on a comparative study of ijtihad in Islam and law-making in the West. The professor wanted to know what new aspect of ijtihad I could work on because, he said, already much work had been done on the subject. When I insisted that I wanted to work on precisely this issue, he replied asking me what I knew about Western law. He also requested me to send him a four-page note on the scope of ijtihad. I worked on this note and sent it to him. He responded by saying that my knowledge of Western law was not deep enough for me to do a Ph.D. on the subject, and that my elaboration of the scope of ijtihad did not appeal to him. What new thing, he asked me, could I do or bring out with my proposed research on the subject?
So, what I mean to say is that we are simply reproducing things. Take any of our literature and see. It contains nothing new. It does not discuss new issues. So, until madrasas change their approach to research and come up with new things, the lacunae in the field of Islamic scholarly research cannot be addressed.
Proper library facilities are indispensible for proper research, but most madrasas lack libraries. In those few madrasas that do have libraries, students generally do not use their facilities. Few madrasas subscribe to learned journals and even newspapers. This has to change. Madrasas must have a compulsory library period for all students. In addition, so that they may learn more about their environment, they should be taken on educational tours. We have to widen their intellectual horizons. It is an essential condition for a mufti and a mujtahid, people well-versed in Islamic law, to be aware of contemporary developments in the world so that they can relate Islam and the shariah to them. After all, it is not possible for anyone who does not know about the conditions around him and in the world at large to engage in ijtihad.
Oratory and Writing Skills
Promoting the oratory and writing skills of students is necessary for them to be able to invite people to the faith and provide them proper guidance. Unfortunately, almost nothing is done in the madrasas to encourage the students’ writing skills. Many madrasa students stop reading books after they graduate. Our students must be encouraged to write for newspapers so that they can get their views across to a wide readership.
At a meeting of ulema I once made a point which everyone agreed with. I said that I had heard Friday sermons in mosques in various localities in Lahore and found that 90 per cent of the people enter the mosque after the second call to prayer (azan), that is after the sermon is delivered. This is to say that they come only to pray, not to hear the sermons. Why is it that people do not want to listen to the sermons of the ulema? The truth is that it is the duty of the ulema to guide society along the lines of religion, and if they do not do so they have failed. To be effective, it cannot be that the ulema and ‘modern’ educated people operate on different wave-lengths and think in entirely different ways.
Madrasas should restructure their administrative affairs in such a way as to encourage students to develop leadership qualities. For this they should entrust students with certain administrative tasks. This will help them become more self-reliant, confident, disciplined and capable. Madrasas should also provide facilities for the physical development of their students in the form of games and sports.
Practical Framework for Training
For the sort of wide-ranging reforms that I have suggested above, the managers and teachers of the madrasas have a crucial role to play. In turn, for this the managers and teachers themselves have to be suitably trained. They should realise that they are not just teachers but also guides for the students and that they have the duty to provide proper training to them and develop their character. Students look upon their teachers as models to emulate, and they follow their teachers’ example. They think as their teachers’ do. Hence, there is an urgent need for training the teachers, both in teaching methods as well as in terms of their thinking so that they themselves follow religion in the right way and inspire their students to do so, too. They must be inspired by sincerity and concern for the welfare of their students. The students must feel that the teachers relate to them with love and concern. No one can be taught through the force of a stick. Nor can force inspire students to develop those capacities that can be nurtured through love and care. Unfortunately, however, students are routinely punished in some madrasas, particularly in the classes devoted to the memorisation of the Quran. This is a wrong method. Teachers must relate to the students through softness, care and love so that they are inspired to learn, and that they do so not because they are commanded to but, rather, because they themselves want to.
Another distressing issue is that no specified time is apportioned in the madrasas for the proper moral training of their students. Madrasas should have separate periods for this, and it should be taught as a separate, compulsory subject for the students. Madrasas need to develop a separate curriculum for the subject. Some Sufi texts are already included in the madrasa curriculum, and this can be supplemented with selections from the writings of Sufi scholars like Imam Ghazali and Shah Waliullah. Some popular Sufi writings contain certain errors, and so more appropriate Sufi texts can be chosen.
Madrasas should set up committees whose concern should be the moral training of their students. These should be headed by madrasa rectors or senior teachers and should also include some students as well as teachers. The committee can develop appropriate programmes and events for the entire academic year to encourage the proper moral training of students. Students who excel in terms of moral behaviour can be given prizes or given extra marks.
In conclusion, I wish to state that religion does not lie simply in books. It takes the form of a living fact in society. With God’s grace, Islamic society has retained its continuity over fourteen hundred years and more. To maintain and strengthen this continuity society must continue to be linked to the faith. The ulema have an important task to play in this regard. Thus, they must have a harmonious relationship with the wider society. For this, they should understand the intellectual, physical and material demands of society.
· This is an abridged translation of Dr. Muhammad Amin’s paper titled Madaris Ka Nizam-e Tarbiyat: Chand Islah Talab Pahlu, in Shabbir Ahmad Khan Mewati (ed.) Dini Madaris Aur Asr-e Hazir (al-Shariah Academy, Gujranwala, 2007), pp.77-98.