Traditionalist ulema lead educational revolution in Kerala

Traditionalist ulema lead educational revolution in Kerala


By Yoginder Sikand

Kerala’s Muslims are unique among their co-religionists in India in fashioning a system of education that enables their children to attend both religious as well as regular schools at the same time. Muslims account for around a fourth of Kerala’s population, and the state’s Muslims, known as Mapillas, are among the most literate of the various Muslim communities in the country. Madrasas and schools run by literally hundreds of Muslim religious organizations in the state have made this possible. A recent study by Zubair Hudawi, himself a madrasa graduate from Kerala and presently a doctoral candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, titled ‘Development and Modernisation of Religious Education in Kerala: The Role of the Samastha Kerala Jameyyat ul-Ulama’, discusses this contribution in great detail.

The Samastha Kerala Jameyyat ul-Ulama (SKJU) represents a traditionalist theological position, quite opposed to Islamic modernists on numerous points. Yet, as Hudawi argues, it has not hesitated from championing modern education. Hudawi, who spent several years studying at the Dar ul-Huda Islamic Academy, the SKJU’s leading centre for higher Islamic education, seeks to explain this enigma through an in-depth analysis of the organisation’s evolution and development, arguing against the notion that the traditionalist ulema are necessarily and wholly opposed to ‘modernity’. He argues that the SKJU is an excellent example of a traditionalist Muslim religious organization that, rather than opposing ‘modernity’ outright, actually facilitates it, albeit selectively. Thus, today, he writes, the SKJU runs not just several thousand madrasas but also numerous English- and Malayalam-medium schools, and scores of women’s and technical colleges.

The proactive role played by the SKJU, Hudawi argues, must be seen, in part, as a response to the emergence of new Muslim religious organizations promoting mass education in the early decades of the twentieth century, when reformist Kerala Muslim scholars set up institutions that combined both traditional Islamic as well as modern education and championed modernist interpretations of Islam. The Mapilla Revolt of 1921, crushed brutally by the British, proved a major turning point in this regard. It was similar in its impact to the suppression of the 1857 revolt for the Muslims of north India, creating a climate for reformers, concerned with the plight of the community, to emerge. They argued that the Mapillas had deviated from the ‘original’ Islam by incorporating a host of ‘un-Islamic’ customs, many of which the traditionalists upheld but which the modernists condemned as wrongful innovations. They saw Islam as positively encouraging, rather than, as some traditionalists argued, opposing, modern education, and called for a radical overhaul of the traditional system of madrasa education.

Because they insisted that the Islamic scriptural resources could be accessed without the traditional ulema as intermediaries, the reformists were sharply condemned by the latter. Some of them were even condemned as apostates. Yet, they continued their work, setting up educational institutions that represented a major shift in the structure of religious authority from that represented by the earlier individual scholars or musaliyars. In place of traditional mosque schools (called othupallis in Malayalam) that focused on the memorization and recitation of texts but ignored writing skills, they set up modern schools that taught reading and writing and provided education in both religious and secular subjects. Several of these organizations, set up in the pre-1947 period, still exist today, running literally thousands of madrasas-cum-schools in the state, such as the Jamaat-e Islami and the two branches of the Kerala Nadwat ul-Mujahideen.

Faced with the growing challenge of the reformists, which they saw as not only articulating what they regarded as ‘un-Islamic’ views but also as challenging their authority as interpreters of Islam, Kerala’s traditionalist ulema first reacted by issuing fatwas against them and appealing to their followers to boycott them. However, witnessing the expansion of alternate Muslim religious groups at their expense, they soon decided to follow their path. In 1926, a group of traditionalist ulema, many of them also Sufi shaikhs, got together and established the SKJU in Calicut, the centre of the Mapillas of Malabar. Although its principal aim was to defend religious practices and beliefs which the modernists condemned as ‘innovations’, particularly those related to the cults of the Sufi saints, the SKJU also called for the promotion of modern education compatible with Islam and inter-communal harmony.

The primary focus of the reformists who challenged the traditionalist ulema was on religious education, but, in contrast to many of their counterparts in northern India, they also sought to promote modern education, Muslims then being (as now) relatively marginalized compared to the other communities in the state on this front. After 1947, when Kerala was still part of the Madras state, the Government of Madras banned religious education in state-supported schools. This forced Muslim organizations in the region to set up educational boards that established literally thousands of part-time madrasas, enabling Muslim children to attend these as well as regular schools at the same time. In this way, most Muslim children in Kerala were able to receive madrasa education for a minimum of five years’ public schooling. Separate madrasa education boards were set up by the main Muslim sectarian organizations, each of which prepared their own textbooks for madrasa students, appointed teachers and school inspectors and granted certificates.

In 1951, the SKJU established its own religious educational committee, the Samastha Kerala Islam Matha Vidhyabhyasa Board, under which it set up a number of madrasas, for which it prepared a uniform set of graded texts, organized examinations, trained teachers and provided scholarships to needy students. Till the early 1970s, Hudawi writes, the SKJU remained aloof from the field of modern education, running, instead, a vast number of full-time madrasas in the traditional fashion. However, faced with the growing demand for modern education even among its followers, commonly known as ‘Sunnis’, it began to adopt the pattern of education of its reformist rivals. Today, the SKJU has almost 9000 part-time madrasas across Kerala, whose timings are adjusted in such a way as to enable their students to study in regular schools as well. Until 2005, the SKJU’s educational board had issued certificates to over 19,00,000 students who had passed the fifth grade. It has prepared a series of textbooks in English for children from the upper kindergarten grade till high school that are used in its part-time madrasas, and is working on a similar set of texts in Urdu to cater to Muslims in north India, where it now has some branches. It has even expanded abroad, where it runs educational centres in several Gulf States where Malayali Muslims live.

Besides its thousands of madrasas, today the SKJU runs a madrasa teachers’ training centre, several shariah colleges that combine religious and secular education, scores of co-educational and women’s schools and colleges, a committee to provide financial help to poor madrasa teachers, with almost 400 branches throughout Kerala, a madrasa teachers’ pension scheme and separate magazines for children, women and madrasa teachers. It also runs a number of orphanages, some of which receive state funding. Some of these orphanages run schools, polytechnics, industrial training centres, presses, computer centres and dispensaries, besides madrasas.

As Hudawi’s study brilliantly demonstrates, stereotypical notions about the traditionalist ulema being wholly opposed to change need to be revised. The SKJU case demonstrates that, far from being fiercely hostile to modernity, many of them may be said to be creatively responding to the demands of modernity by attempting to fashion their own Islamic version of it.


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