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Traditional institutions of learning like Madrasas are now at a cross road, where they exposed to so called ‘modern  influences’. What is the appropriate response? Maulana Shah Muhammad Fazlur Rahim Mujadiddi Nadwi is the Rector of the Jamiat ul-Hidaya, a unique madrasa in Jaipur, Rajasthan, which combines religious, ‘modern’ and technical education. He also heads the Shah Muhammad Abdur Rahim Educational Trust, which runs several educational institutions in Jaipur and elsewhere. In an interview with Yoginder Sikand he shares his views on tradition and modernity and madrasa education in India.

You are considered to be a pioneer in seeking to combine religious and ‘modern’, including technical, education in the madrasas. How did this all start?
The story goes back to my great-grandfather, Hazrat Shah Muhammad Hidayat Ali, a noted Naqshbandi Sufi and scholar. He felt the need for reform in the madrasa system abd introduced ‘modern’ subjects for which purpose he set up the Madrasa talim ul-Islam in Jaipur. This was the period before India’s independence. However, he died in 1951, and his dream was left unfulfilled. Following this, my father, Shah Muhammad Abdur Rahim, seeking to pursue this dream, contacted various large madrasas across India, exhorting them to open departments of ‘modern’ and technical education so that their graduates could be economically self-sufficient instead of depending on others. Yet, his efforts met with almost no response. Some ulema argued that it was impossible to combine religious and other forms of education. Others said that while it might be possible, it would serve no positive purpose. Yet others admitted that it was possible and a good thing but declined to act on my father’s advice on the grounds that this would mean a departure from the tradition set by their predecessors.

Receiving no positive response to his appeals, my father decided to set up a model madrasa providing religious, ‘modern’ as well as technical education so that others could possibly emulate it. This took the form of the Jamiat ul-Hidaya, which began functioning in 1985 under the management of my father till his death in 1994.

What is the course of studies that students at the Jamiat ul-Hidaya undergo?
In contrast to most other madrasas, at the Jamiat ul-Hidaya students study the various Islamic disciplines till the graduation or alimiyat level, but alongside this they also have to study various ‘modern’ subjects, for which we follow the syllabus prescribed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). This year, our students appeared for the tenth grade examinations conducted by the National Institute of Open Schooling, and the results were quite impressive.

Our course of study begins at the 6th grade. After students finish the 10th grade examination, they do four years more of religious education while also learning a particular technical trade or craft, such as computers, automobile repairing, draughtsmanship, accountancy and so on, so that once they finish they would not have to depend on others for their livelihood. In this way we are trying to bridge the enormous gap between madrasas and the ‘regular’ system of education. Several of our students are now studying at regular universities, such as the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University. Some of them are working as ulema, but many others have taken up a range of other occupations, including in banks, offices, business concerns and translation bureaus in India and in West Asia. One of our students even became an aircraft engineer.

In terms of teachers’ background, also, we are quite different from most other madrasas. Roughly half of our teachers are madrasa-trained ulema and the rest have studied in ‘modern’ colleges and universities. Likewise, roughly 700 of our students come from families with different sectarian affiliations, which is in contrast to most madrasas that select only those students whose parents subscribe to their particular school of thought.

Some ulema insist that technical education must not be introduced in madrasas, arguing that this might overburden the students, or divert their attention from their religious studies. How do you, as one of the pioneers of technical education in madrasas respond?
We do not say that all madrasa graduates should become professional ulema or madrasa teachers. Everyone needs to pursue some occupation and people should have career options. Why cannot an alim, a graduate of a madrasa, be a good accountant, government official, journalist or businessman? That way they will be also able to tell people they meet with in their professional capacities about Islam and about Muslims. Of course, our main intention is to train good, pious and committed religious scholars, but they must be able to become economically self-sufficient, which they can be if they know a particular trade or craft.

This is no innovation, I must stress. After all, many leading ulema in the past took up a range of careers, including some that are considered as ‘humble’, but yet made immense contributions to society. For instance, Imam Qudduri worked as a potter, and Imam Abu Hanifa engaged in trade. While being economically self-sufficient they were also able to devote themselves properly to their scholarly pursuits.

Some ulema argue that madrasas must not teach ‘modern’ subjects, claiming that this would be simply too much for the students to bear. How do you react to this view?
I firmly believe that for the ulema and madrasa students to join the ‘mainstream’, they must have at least a basic knowledge of certain ‘modern’ subjects, as well as English and local and regional languages. In the absence of this, Muslims cannot progress and nor can the country as a whole. Increasingly, I think, many ulema are themselves realizing this.

The division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ education that some people make is completely un-Islamic. Islam sees knowledge as a comprehensive whole and positively encourages the acquisition of all forms of socially useful knowledge. If you look at Muslim history, you will see that in the past Muslims produced many scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors and so on. Many of them were pious Muslims and several of them were Islamic scholars at the same time.

What reforms would you suggest in the present system of studies followed in most traditional madrasas?
The syllabus today followed in most South Asian madrasas is some variant or the other of the dars-e nizami, a curriculum developed three hundred years ago by Mulla Nizamuddin of the Firangi Mahal in Lucknow. For its times, the dars-e nizami was very appropriate and relevant. It was also job-oriented, helping train bureaucrats and officials for the royal courts. But today, the dars-e nizami has largely lost its link with employment, and an institution that no longer has that sort of link cannot last long. Hence, I would urge, madrasas need to reform in accordance with modern needs, while still preserving their basic purpose of training would-be ulema.

I think the only way this can happen is to incorporate and give a respectful place to basic ‘modern’ subjects in the madrasa curriculum, as we have done in the Jamiat ul-Hidaya. In this way, students after gaining a basic grounding in religious and ‘modern’ subjects can later decide for themselves if they want to go on specialize in Islamic Studies or in one or the other ‘modern’ subject.

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