Madrasas and the Importance of Education in Islam

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

In the early period of Islam, wherever Muslims spread through vast parts of the world they set up large centres of learning in the form of madrasas. This opened up a new chapter in the history of humankind, inspired by Islamic teachings, for the Quran stresses education for all. If the Quran is studied with an open mind, it is evident that it places great emphasis on knowledge and education. Without exaggeration it can be claimed that the Quran was the first book to remove restrictions on the acquisition of knowledge beyond a narrow class of priests and make it available to all. It was thus the first to present the concept of mass education.
The first revelation to the Prophet, in the year 610 C.E., was the instruction to ‘read’. It is said that the Angel Gabriel asked him to ‘read’ (iqra), but he replied that he did not know how to do so. The Angel asked him to read a second time and he gave the same reply. When the Angel instructed him the third time, he recited the Quranic verse that the Angel had delivered as the first divine revelation to him.
In this respect, Islamic culture can be termed as a ‘reading culture’ or ‘Iqra culture’. This made education and learning an integral and central part of Islamic culture and of the lives of the followers of the Prophet. This happened in India as well, after Muslims came here and Islam spread in the country.
The Madrasa Movement in Nineteenth Century Colonial India
After the British captured India , for a while Muslim leaders believed that first the British must be ousted from the country and that only after that would they have the opportunity of engaging in any religious work. The revolt of 1857 was a product of this thinking, but it failed in its objectives. This led the ulema to realize that it was pointless to seek to counter the British through military means. The only practical way out, they believed, was to avoid conflict and confrontation and to engage, using peaceful means, in constructive activity, focussing particularly on the education of the community. Consequently, numerous madrasas were established across India in the second half of the nineteenth century, and this soon assumed the form of a mass movement for Muslim educational awakening.
One could say that the madrasas shifted the struggle of the community from violent conflict to peaceful educational activism. This represented the choice of a peaceful option over a violent one. The ulema reviewed their position and, without terming it as such, issued what can, in some sense, be called a ‘fatwa’: that India had become dar ul-talim or an ‘abode of knowledge/learning’, and that now all Muslims must get involved in the field of education. This was an extremely important decision.
After considering India as dar ul-talim, a vast number of madrasas and other educational institutions were set up across the country, the result of the efforts of literally thousands of dedicated ulema. They sacrificed themselves so as to keep the community alive and to maintain the tradition of religious knowledge, surviving on meagre incomes and leading simple lives, without expecting worldly rewards. The madrasas that they established provided free education, which particularly helped the poor. The ulema decided that they would depend on community donations, and not on government funding so that they could thereby retain their autonomy. They thus faced numerous hurdles, including financial, but yet carried on with their work with a sense of mission and dedication.

Peaceful Methods of Educational Activism
This world runs on the basis of certain fixed laws. One of these is that non-violence is more powerful than violence. This is illustrated in a tradition attributed to the Prophet, according to which he is said to have declared that God blesses softness with that which he does not give to harshness. This relates, in fact, to all actions, including the sphere of social or collective action. The Quran says that problems always come along with opportunities. The correct approach is to ignore or not be intimidated by the hurdles in one’ s path, and, through peaceful means, to make use of the opportunities that are available.
This wise strategy was also adopted by the madrasa movement. The nineteenth century ulema who led this movement could have thought of first removing the major hurdle that they faced—British rule—by seeking to militarily destroy it and to uproot the British system of education, in the belief that only after this could they establish a system of education of their choice. Had our ulema thought in this way, the movement that they launched would have died out shortly after it was spawned, and it would have produced no positive results for the community, just as in the case of numerous violent movements before it. However, God provided the ulema with the vision to adopt the right course. They avoided the useless path of destruction and focused all their energies on constructive activities, using entirely peaceful means, mainly by setting up madrasas and other related institutions. These institutions were able to sustain themselves in the long-run and expand vastly in number. They had a very positive impact on society, which could not have been produced by short-lived violent movements.
The Missionary Role of the Madrasas
Ideally, Islamic madrasas should prepare scholars who, once they graduate, should communicate the message of God to others, besides providing religious guidance to Muslims. This is what madrasas used to do in the past. However, over time this missionary approach of the madrasas was overtaken by an approach that is based on polemics. Because of this, madrasas have become ineffective in doing any practical work with regard to Islamic mission. Every year our madrasas produce thousands of graduates but they are not in a position to fulfil our missionary needs. Students in the madrasas are trained to engage in some sort of missionary work, but this training is entirely on polemical lines, and not on the lines of dawah or ‘invitation to the faith’, as correctly understood. Consequently, madrasa students can become good polemicists but not good missionaries.
The past was an age of polemics, a product of the ‘age of the sword’, which was based on the principle of victory and defeat. He who won on the battlefield was regarded as successful, and he who was defeated was regarded as having failed. It was in that particular milieu that religious polemics emerged. Such fiery polemics were a common phenomenon in the past but no longer so today. This is the age of scientific exploration and investigation, not of the war of words. Hence, the place of polemics has been taken by serious dialogue. This shift demands that madrasas also suitably modify their approach and system of education. They must prepare their students for scientific discussions, instead of heated polemics.
The crucial difference between polemics and dialogue is that in the former the opposite party is regarded as an enemy. There is no concern for the welfare of contender in the polemicist’s heart. He seeks to defeat him more than to improve or reform him. And this is why polemics generally become a sort of battle, characterised by hard-hitting arguments, bereft of softness and gentleness. Indeed, often the polemicist is not concerned with what is right and what is wrong: his only concern, like that of a skilled lawyer, becomes to defeat his opponent. This, however, is not in accordance with the practice of the prophets. In contrast to the polemicist, the aim of the ideal Muslim dai, or one who engages in inviting others to the faith of Islam, is to appeal to the heart of man. Hence, it is very necessary to institute necessary changes in the madrasas in this regard, so that their approach comes to be based on the Quranic principle of dawah instead of polemics.
Madrasas and the Transmission of Islamic Learning
Through the medium of madrasas, the tradition of Islamic learning is carried on and transmitted to future generations. This is one of the major contributions of the madrasa system, and this is indispensable for the community to stay alive.
In 1994, I travelled to Spain. It is often thought that in 1492 C.E., when the 800 year-old Muslim political rule in Spain came to an end, the Muslims of the country were also wiped out, and that they were all killed or forced to flee. But, during my visit to Spain, I realized that this was not quite true. In actual fact, even after Muslim rule came to an end in Spain, several thousand Muslims remained in the country. What happened was not that Muslims suddenly disappeared from Spain but, rather, that the tradition of Islamic learning and its transmission to the future generations was destroyed. It is a matter of common knowledge that education was actively promoted in Muslim Spain, but this was done under the patronage of the Muslim rulers. Hence, when Muslim rule came to an end so, too, did the educational system that the Muslim rulers had supported. Because of this, the future generations of Muslims were cut off from the tradition of Islamic education, and, over the years, they gradually lost their identity so much so that they even forgot that their ancestors had once been Muslim.
In the nineteenth century, when Muslim political power in India collapsed, the Indian Muslims were faced with the same danger. Here, too, the educational system had been under the direction and patronage of the rulers. Fortunately, at this delicate juncture the ulema stood up and decided to establish a system of religious education for Muslims that would not depend on government assistance but, instead, would be funded by the community. With the grace of God, this project was successful, so much so that in a few years a large number of madrasas were set up across the country. It was because of this that India was saved from meeting the same fate as Spain. It was due to the creation and expansion of madrasas that today Muslims in India can be said to have a vast and strong non-political religious and communitarian foundation, which is more important, useful and meaningful than political power was in the past.
All this happened through the use of peaceful and constructive means that focused on institution-building. Modernity made this possible, because modern developments have relegated political power to a secondary status. Today, the real concentration of power is in institutions, and through them much more can be done than was possible in the past through political power. Political empires are formed on the basis of military power, while non-political empires are based on institutions and organizations. While political empires serve the interests of individuals or small groups, such non-political empires can serve the entire community. Political empires are based on subjugation of others, while non-political empires can, through community-based institutions, work for the welfare of the whole of humankind.