Ulema didn’t forbid modern education in madrasa

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 1 Years ago
Students receiving vocational training at Darul Uloom, Deoband seminary
Students receiving vocational training at Darul Uloom, Deoband seminary


Saquib Salim


Many readers may not believe it, but the fact remains that Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of Darul Uloom at Deoband, favoured the idea of learning English and modern sciences. Again, it may be against the popular perception to know that Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, one of the most revered Ulema from Deoband, and Shah Abdul Aziz, one of the father figures for Deobandi Ulema, had expressed a desire that Muslims should learn English and modern Education. Most of the Ulema who started the present Madrasa system around 150 years back held similar views. 

Here the question arises: Why, as we feel the Ulema are opposed to modern English education? Muhamadullah Khalili Qasmi of Darul Uloom has answered this in his book Madrasa Education: Its Strength and Weakness. He writes,


“There is a very famous idiom ‘bad news travels fast. It befits the propaganda that Ulama have prohibited learning English and modern sciences. Like Gobbles’ saying ‘repeat lie so much that it becomes true, some people have floated this idea into the air and it became undeniable. Many people still believe and quote now and then in public that Ulama asked Muslims to shun English and modern sciences….Ulama who issued a fatwa of Jihad against the English never prohibited people from learning English.”

The present system of Madrasa education though undoubtedly has its foundations in the early Islam propagated by Prophet Muhammad but its present form owes a lot to the rise of the British Colonial Empire in India. The Madrasa system as we understand it today was established by Ulema after the defeat of the Indian revolutionaries during the First War of National Independence of 1857. Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, and others who fought the British in West Uttar Pradesh in 1857 founded Darul Uloom in Deoband. 


Students at Darul Uloom, Deoband (Image Courtesy: Darul Uloom web)


In years to come thousands of Madrasas were established on the same model with affiliations from Deoband. The objective was to create a class of educated Indian Muslims free from the pollution of the education designed by Thomas Macaulay to create loyal servants of the Empire. One of the earliest students at Darul Uloom, its illustrious teacher, and freedom fighter, Maulana Mahmood Hasan said, “Did Maulana (Qasim Nanautavi) build this Madrasa just to learn and teach? The Madrasa was established before my eyes. As I know the institution was established after the defeat of 1857 to prepare some people to recover from the loss of 1857."


The idea was to impart religious and cultural knowledge which was being threatened by Christian Missionaries being promoted by the British Government in India in the garb of modernization. 


Did Darul Uloom teach only Islamic texts and banned modern education? For the answer, let us turn to an English officer’s testimony. In 1875, within a decade of the establishment of Darul Uloom, the Lt. Governor of United Province (now, Uttar Pradesh) sent John Palmer, an English official, to inspect the madrasa. Palmer later wrote that the Lt. Governor had ordered him, “the Muslims here, at Deoband, have started a madrasa against the government. Go there incognito and find out what is taught there and what Muslims are after.” 


In his report, Plamer noted that students at madrasa were being taught Persian, Arabic, and Urdu literature. In one classroom he witnessed students studying ‘difficult theorems’ of trigonometry while in another he saw a teacher, Maulana Sayyid Ahmad Dehalvi, teaching Euclid with such an authority “that it appeared as though Euclid’s soul had entered his body”. He was amazed to see that young students were able to solve equations from Todhunter’s Algebra books. At another place, he noticed blind students solving problems of physics while Hadith and Quran were being taught as well. 

In fact, Dars-e-Nizami, the standard curriculum prepared by Mullah Nizamuddin, of Lucknow, in the 18th century included a book on engineering for madrasa students along with mathematics and astronomy. Coming back to Darul Uloom, introduced medical sciences as one of the subjects in 1878. 


Its annual report read, “we, trusting in Allah, have now started instruction in Tibb (medicines)……. arrangements will be made in future to train students in clinical method, the art of surgery and pharmacology.” 


Two decades later in another ambitious move, the management asked people to donate for a fund to fix “stipends for those students who after finishing their courses in the Dar al-Uloom, wished to acquire English education”. But the scheme couldn’t take off for a paucity of funds. 


The Ulema never shied away from adopting subjects other than theology in madrasa. Their only concern was to produce specialized Islamic scholars like other professionals. It is common knowledge that Jamia Millia Islamia was established by Maulana Mahmood Hasan, one of the most respected scholars from Deoband, to teach modern sciences and English education. Another respected scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi told that English and Hindi both should be studied as languages are “the boon from Allah the Almighty”. 


Maulana Nanautavi, according to Muhammadullah Khalili, “expressed his intention to learn English” during the Haj pilgrimage.


During the 1940s, Ulema realized that times had changed and all students at madrasas could not be employed as teachers. Skill development and vocational training were introduced at Madrasa. Initially, bookbinding, weaving, sewing, and leather works were introduced which have now extended to computer courses as well. 


However, it must be accepted that madrasas are not keeping pace with the time but on the other hand we modern educated have also failed to understand their perspectives and accommodate them accordingly. Ulema should introspect why the system which produced doctors, engineers, architects, writers, etc. is now unable to do so. We should see to it that if a madrasa student wants to acquire modern education the transition should be smooth. Religious scholars are needed but thousands of Islamic scholars cannot be employed in every city, so madrasa students have to be trained for other vocations as well. 


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The present generation of Ulema should reflect upon the vision of Nanautavi who believed that madrasa education would make it easier for the students to understand modern sciences as well. He said, in 1872, “The alumni here, provided they complete the curriculum, can easily acquire the remaining ancient and modern sciences by dint of the power of their aptitudes”.