According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in the early Islamic world, “khans” (inns) were established in cities to provide shelter and food for travellers. These Khans have been found in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The first khans were found during the Umayyad period in Syria, providing food and shelter for traders and travelers. Under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, the Khans became an inherent feature of a larger complex that included a mosque, fortress, bath, and other amenities.
The first Madarsas were developed from occasional lectures given in mosques. And, later, Khan’s accommodations were attached to mosques for students who traveled to attend these conferences. Endowments made by the ruling nobility were instrumental in formalizing these centers of learning as permanent institutions.
According to Britannica, Madarsa was therefore a theological seminary and law school with a curriculum centered on the Quran and hadith. In Morocco, Sultan Abul Hasan (1331-1348) founded the Ben Yousuf Madarsa.
In addition to Islamic theology; law, mathematics, logic and natural sciences were taught in the madarsas. Tuition was free, and food, housing, and medical care were also provided. Instruction usually took place in the yard and consisted mainly of memorizing manuals and instructor’s lectures. The lecturer also issued certificates (Ijazat; singular ijazah) to his Madarsas educated students. This constituted permission to repeat and pass on his lessons.
However, over the centuries, some scholars and clergy have identified the learning of the English language and the absorption of scientific knowledge with the so-called “diseases” of British rule in India. Thus, Madarsa Education has moved away from the English language and scientific learning. Against this general backdrop, we the people of India must give benevolent and thoughtful treatment to our educational system of Madarsa.
Currently in 21st century India, Muslims are a dominant minority (180 million according to the 2011 census) comprising 14.2% of the total population and 73% of all minorities. The report of the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee (commonly known as Judge Rajinder Sachar’s Committee) clearly highlights, with supporting documents, the education deprivation experienced by the Muslim community.
According to this report, the national average literacy rate is 65.1%, while the Muslim average is only 59.1%. The initial disparities between Muslims and “everyone else” widened in all four groups: primary, middle, metric, and upper secondary. Enrollment and retention rates are lowest among Muslims. And the problem is more acute for girls. Muslims are doubly disadvantaged with a low level of education combined with low academic quality.
In this context, returning to our basic subject here, we notice that in the 12th century, the Madarsas were flourishing in Muslim societies around the world. In India, the first Madarsa was established in 1192 AD in Ajmer. Even today, one can see remnants of the Madarsa adjoining the tomb of Firoz Shah Tughlaq in Delhi. In modern India, prominent national figures including social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, author Munshi Premchand and India’s first president Dr. Rajendra Prasad were educated at Madarsas.
In context, we must also recap Article 46 of the Constitution of India which reads: The State shall promote with particular care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the population. This should be understood in conjunction with the findings of the Justice Sachar Committee 2006 and the Justice Mishra Commission 2008.
Their reports made important recommendations to improve the low level of education of Muslims. Incidentally, this includes re-evaluating school textbooks to purge them of explicit and implicit content likely to convey inappropriate social values, particularly in the area of religious intolerance.
The Madarsas have certainly educated children in addition to government measures aimed at achieving the generalization of education. For primary learning, the adoption of the mother tongue of the child is in line with the provisions of the National Education Policy of India, 2020. Yet interestingly, according to the Sachar justice committee report, the fact is that only three percent of all Muslim students in the school-age group are enrolled in Madarsas, although their absolute numbers are huge (like other demographic figures in India being a country of continental proportions). Thus, it is important to note that the exceptional capabilities of Madarsas, in fact, should be harnessed benevolently in order to meet the challenges of modern Indian Muslim education.
To this end, a vital initiative taken by the government since 1996 is the “Scheme to Provide Quality Education in Madarsas (SPQEM)”. His contact details are available on the website of the Ministry of HRD union. Simultaneously, it would be equally useful to generalize the use of “equivalence” granted to certificates and diplomas issued by Madarsas for subsequent admissions to higher education institutions.
The National Institute of Open Education (NIOS) offers opportunities for Madarsas students to transition into mainstream education. COBSE is an autonomous legal entity, sponsored by the central government, which is a consortium of all school education boards in India. All provincial madarsa councils must apply for COBSE membership. Needless to mention, there is no need for Madarsas to harbor any misgivings about aligning with COBSE. On the other hand, a decent level of integration and harmonization of Madarsas with the national mainstream is quite necessary.
(The author is Chairman, Zakat Foundation of India, zakatindia.org