Interview With Waris Mazhari on Central Madrasa Board and Madrasa Reforms in India
Posted Sep 4, 2007

Interview: Waris Mazhari on Central Madrasa Board and Madrasa Reforms in India

Waris Mazhari is the editor of the Delhi-based Urdu monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Old Boys’ Association of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the much-debated issue of madrasa reforms in India in the context of the recent proposal of the National Minorities’ Education Commission for the setting up of a Central Madrasa Board.

Q: Recently, Justice Sohail Aijaz Siddiqui, Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Education, suggested the setting up of a Central Madrasa Board. Predictably, this has led to a major controversy, with a large section of the ulema opposing this. How do you view this proposal?

A: There are both negative as well as possible positive aspects of this proposal, some benefits as well as some drawbacks. We will have to wait and see which is more. What is certain, however, is that the Board will have some very negative consequences. The Board would fund the madrasas that affiliate themselves to it, and obviously this would lead to interference by the state. The state would deal with these madrasas on its own terms. Such funding can be used to build and consolidate vote-banks and might lead to the politicization of madrasas, leading to competition for government patronage. This would negatively impact on the teachers’ passion for and commitment to their work. They will become more concerned with raise in their salaries and other such benefits, and would not hesitate to take to demonstrations and strikes for this end as in other educational institutions. It would further increase corruption. It would also lead to a situation like that which prevails in many madrasas affiliated to the Madrasa Board appointed by the Bihar government, where numerous teachers have never even seen the madrasas where they are supposed to be teaching. They sit at home and draw their salaries, like in government-run schools.

Because the salaries of teachers and staff in the affiliated madrasas would be much higher than what is presently given in the independent madrasas, political links and personal contacts will become more important than capability, expertise and experience in staff appointments. The managers of the madrasas will then have to seek to please the ruling party to keep the funds flowing in. So, in all, the setting up of a Central Madrasa Board might seriously impact in a very negative way on the madrasas.

Q: What do you think could be the consequences of the proposed Board in terms of relations between two classes of ulema that would be thereby created—between those working in Board-affiliated madrasas and others in independent madrasas?

A: Yes, that is also a very important issue. Board-affiliated madrasas would give their teachers better salaries and service conditions. So, it is possible that teachers working in independent madrasas, whose salaries are very low, would seek to make a beeline for these madrasas. Till now they have been relying on God and leading a very simple lifestyle. But obviously the opportunity of earning a government salary would impact on the minds of several of them.  So, two classes of ulema would emerge, and there would be a sort of conflict of interests between them. The teachers in the independent madrasas would feel that, despite their better qualifications and experience and their greater commitment, they are paid much less than those in Board-affiliated madrasas.

Q: Presumably, then, at least a section of the ulema, particularly a large number of them who teach in madrasas, would welcome the proposal.

A: Well, many madrasa teachers labour under the arbitrariness and whims of the managers of the madrasas. The Board, if it is established, would certainly lead to greater and more open articulation of this resentment. Teachers would be motivated to ask for higher salaries, threatening that if their demands were not granted they would shift to Board-affiliated madrasas.

Q: Will the Board be able to bring about greater accountability of the madrasas in terms of use of finds?

A: My personal view is that, over the past few decades, many madrasas have become like businesses. A substantial section, but by no means all, of the ulema have made a business out of donations for their madrasas. So, you will see that often their lifestyle is much better than that of the teachers. This has given the government the excuse it needed to seek to intervene in the madrasa system through this talk of establishing a Central Madrasa Board. 

Over the last twenty years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of madrasas in the country, although certainly not on as massive a scale as is often alleged. The basic reason for this is economic. There are now less sincere people among the founders of the madrasas. For many, establishing a madrasa is a means for earning money for themselves. They pay their staff, including teachers, pitiable salaries, while many of them travel in cars, live in fancy flats and send their children to modern schools and colleges. So this has led to a silent, but certainly very obvious, conflict between the managers and teachers in many madrasas. Precisely because of the failings of the madrasa managers, the state has been provided by a ready excuse to interfere in the madrasa system.

Most madrasa graduates are totally confused about their future job prospects. They have no idea what sort of work they are going to do. That’s why they can be easily misled. I have met some graduates of the Deoband madrasa who joined the Qadiani sect only out of material interest. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as having said that poverty sometimes leads to disbelief. Islam has been wrongly interpreted as enjoining poverty, as denying this world. Now, the managers of the madrasas do not abide by this teaching, but the teachers and other staff are forced to, being paid very meager salaries.

So, in this context, when madrasa graduates see that all other avenues are closed to them, because they cannot join universities, they are forced to go back into the madrasa system where they came from. And so they establish their own madrasas by collecting donations from the public. For many madrasa graduates their ambition is to have their own madrasa so that they can lead the same comfortable life-style as the managers of the madrasas that they have studied in. And so the number of madrasas goes on increasing. The situation is really quite worrisome.

I don’t know exactly how a Madrasa Board can address this question of improper use of funds. Perhaps it can regulate the salaries of madrasa teachers and staff on the basis of qualification, capability and experience. Today you have a situation wherein a very good teacher who has been working in a madrasa for twenty years gets only two thousand rupees a month, while another teacher, who is not very good but who presses the manager’s feet and teaches his children, gets five thousand. The Board would need to address this sort of exploitation.

Another thing that the Board could do in this regard is to control wasteful expenditure on the part of certain madrasas. It should see how much funds the different madrasas need and arrange for this money to be diverted to them accordingly. It should not be, as now, that a madrasa’s budget is two lakh rupees but it receives fifty lakhs and no one knows where the rest has gone. It should not be that this money is pocketed or is spent on building ostentatious marble mosques and other buildings. This is simply intolerable. After all, the money is given to the madrasas by the community and so it should be properly spent. Some people say that the Board should simply give the madrasas money and let them do what they want with it. I totally disagree, because this will certainly encourage corruption.

Q: Presumably, a section of the teachers and students of madrasas would welcome the establishment of a Central Madrasa Board to check the arbitrariness of the managers?

A: I suppose so. In some states where there are state-appointed madrasa boards, some ulema initially opposed their being set up, but many teachers supported them because through the boards they were able to get better salaries. And so the same will probably happen if a Central Madrasa Board is established.

I guess many madrasa students will also welcome the setting up of the Board if it enables the madrasas to get affiliated to various universities that would recognize their degrees. This is what the Sachar Committee Report also advises. This would create two streams within the madrasa system—one group of students would study in madrasas for a couple of years—say till the middle level—and then would be able to join high schools and universities. Others, who want to spend their life serving the cause of the faith, can carry on with specialised religious education. Unlike the case now, only those students who have genuine interest in serving the faith as ulema, and have not taken to madrasa education out of economic compulsion, would thereby go on for higher Islamic learning in the madrasas. Now, this is by no means an unwarranted innovation. In fact, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, a leading light of the Deoband movement, also suggested that madrasas have this sort of dual system—a short, basic course in Islamic Studies for those who could later go on to take up other professions or enroll in schools, and a longer, specialized course for those who want to serve as ulema. He was of the opinion that not all madrasa students have to become maulvis.

Q: Do you think the setting up of the Board can help the process of reforming the madrasas?

A: Personally, I am of the view that reform has to come from within. There is a pressing need to reform the madrasa curriculum. Much of it is irrelevant and has no relation with contemporary life. However, it is for the ulema of the madrasas, rather than for the state, to initiate and encourage reforms. The ulema should have done this long ago but didn’t and so that has given the government an excuse to seek to intervene in and control the madrasas in the name of ‘reform’. This, of course, would result in unwarranted governmental interference.

But that said, let me also say that there are indeed numerous ulema today who recognize the need for curricular reform. Many of them are writing about this, and some are even calling for fairly radical changes. This, however, is not a recent phenomenon. Talk of curricular reforms within the ulema community goes back to the early years of the past century, and this was further galvanized in the post-1947 period. 50 years ago Maulana Azad came up with a blueprint for very bold reforms in the madrasa curriculum. Three decades ago, Allama Binori, a Pakistani Deobandi scholar, did the same. Maulana Aslam Qasmi, a noted Indian Deobandi scholar, has been advocating similar changes, as has been Maulana Salman Husaini Nadvi of Lucknow.  So there is this introspection taking place within the ulema community and changes are coming, although very slowly. In some madrasas computers and English are being taught, old books are being deleted. But this change is not happening on a large-scale or in a very organized or planned way.

Q: How can that sort of change be brought about?

A: Well, the first thing is to establish a federation of madrasas. If all the madrasas are not willing to come under one wing, then at least there can be separate federations for the different maslaks (schools of thought). But, lamentably, nothing has been done by the ulema in this regard. Some major madrasas, like the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, claim to have established such federations, but these really don’t do much work at all. Getting the ulema of the madrasas to agree to work together is so difficult—they keep fighting among themselves, particularly on sectarian lines. They are not willing to sit together and plan for the welfare of the community. To cite a small instance, even though both the Deobandis and the Nadvis, associated with the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, are Hanafis and both follow roughly the same school of thought, there are such differences between the two that till date not a single Nadvi scholar has been appointed in the Deoband madrasa. Nor do Nadvi graduates go for higher learning there. Likewise, many Deobandis would not like their students to study in the Nadwat ul-Ulama.

So, as I was saying, there are such differences among the ulema themselves that forming a federation or a federations of madrasas, an essential requirement for promoting internal reforms in a planned, large-scale manner by bringing the ulema together on a common platform, has been rendered almost impossible.

Q: Some ulema argue that if ‘modern’ subjects are also introduced into the madrasa curriculum, the burden would be too much for the students to bear, as a result of which they would do well neither in their religious studies nor in ‘secular’ subjects. How do you look at this argument?

A: I don’t agree at all. One is not asking that ‘modern’ subjects be taught in the madrasas till the matriculation or graduation level. But madrasa students must know the basics of various ‘modern’ subjects, as this will help them in their own life, including also in their capacity of would-be ulema. They should know basic Mathematics, Hindi and English and so on. They should at least be able to know where Saudi Arabia or India is. One journalist reported on visiting Deoband that he came across students talking about the United States but when he asked them which continent it is located in, they were unable to identify it on the map. How can such students serve Islam and the Muslim community properly?

There are several books in the present madrasa syllabus, particularly on medieval theology, philosophy and logic, that are unnecessary, irrelevant and a burden on the students. If these are removed they can easily be replaced by books on basic ‘modern’ subjects without further burdening the students.

Q: What exactly did Justice Siddiqui have in mind for his proposed Central madrasa Board in terms of its role and functions?

A: That you have to ask him. He has not spelt out its rationale, nor its limits, scope and tasks. He says that the Board will not impact on the autonomy of the madrasas that affiliate themselves to it, and that their syllabus and administration will be left untouched. He also said that affiliation to the Board will be voluntary, and not compulsory. Only those madrasas who choose to will be affiliated to it. This is why some leading ulema, such as Maulana Asrar ul-Haq Qasmi and Maulana Anzar Shah Kashmiri of Deoband, said that if the Board functioned under these conditions it could be acceptable.

Q: But if Justice Siddiqui has not provided any details about the proposed Board, what do you think its function should be in case it comes into being?

A: It could serve as a bridge to enable madrasa graduates to join universities by getting them to recognize their degrees. Now, this is not a new innovation. One of the founders of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Qasim Nanotvi, is said to have approved of the possibility of graduates of Deoband going on to study in universities. So, the Board can act as a bridge that can help reduce the hiatus that exists between the madrasa and the ‘modern’ systems of education.

This role can be further promoted if the Board can select bright madrasa graduates and arrange for them to go in for short courses in English, Social Sciences and so on, so that they can thereafter join universities. For this it can open a university of its own or else special departments in existing universities.

Q: Do you think that the opposition of some ulema to the proposed Board might also have to do with the fear that it might result in a dilution of their authority and control?

A: Yes, I think so. They fear that even if their authority isn’t fully taken away it would certainly be diminished, even though this might benefit many teachers and students. It would possibly curtail the arbitrary way in which many of them run the madrasas. Today, you have madrasas that spend a crore or five crores on building fancy marble mosques, while their students don’t have proper food, no fans in their rooms, being forced to sleep on the terrace, and so on. Now, the money that is given to the madrasas is like a trust from the community. How can you so arbitrarily decide to spend the money on opulent buildings and ignore students like that? Managers of Madrasas that are dependent on the donations of the community must not behave as if they are their own business concern that they can spend the money just as they like. At least in such companies you have workers’ unions, but in madrasas there is nothing of the sort to check the arbitrariness of the management. Students cannot demonstrate or make demands. They cannot ask why they are made to stand two hours in a queue for food, as happens in some madrasas.

Neither they nor the community really knows how the money that is received by the managers for the madrasas is actually used. They cannot ask how some managers use this money to lead comfortable lives while they are forced to suffer. But certainly that must be made clear, since the money comes for the sake of the students. So, obviously, when they see no way out some of them might think that the proposed Board might help remedy things, although I don’t necessarily agree.

Personally, I find this sudden display of apparent concern for reform of the madrasas on the part of the government somewhat disconcerting. If the state is really interested in solving the manifold educational problems of the Muslims, why is it talking only about the less than 3% Muslim children who study in madrasas, while at the same time ignoring the 97% who do not? It is as if these 3% children are a major hurdle to the overall progress of the Muslim community, which is, of course, not really the case. However, it is true that after 1947 the only big network of Muslim institutions that impacts on Muslims all over the country are the madrasas, and it is obvious that by ignoring them one cannot succeed in promoting any major overall change in Indian Muslim society.

Q: Some ulema believe that behind this rhetoric of madrasa ‘reform’ being articulated by the state is directed by possible American or Western pressure. Do you agree?

A: It is certainly the case that the West, for its own motives, is seeking to target the madrasas because they know that madrasas exercise an important influence on Muslim society. So, when the West talks about the need for ‘modernisation’ of madrasas, there can be no doubt that it is motivated by its own vested interests and sinister objectives, which reflect a particularly skewed way of viewing the world post-9/11. Western powers see madrasas as centres for the transmission of Islamic ideology, and they want to curb or control such ideologies that might challenge their hegemony.

Q: In Pakistan, the state, under American urging, has been seeking to impose curricular reforms in the madrasas in the name of ‘modernisation’ in order to dampen anti-US sentiments. Do you think this is the case in India, too?

A: As I said, the conditions prevailing in the madrasas has provided the excuse to various forces to seek to interfere in the madrasas under various guises. Undoubtedly, the post-9/11 global political context has shaped the way in which the West views madrasas.  And that has had its impact on India as well. So, it is now claimed that madrasas are ‘dens of terrorism’, although it has been proven that in India this is not true at all. It is precisely because of this sort of discourse that the state thinks it should intervene in the madrasa system, and this it seeks to do in the name of ‘modernisation’ or ‘reform’.

Although there may not be any substantial proof that the Government of India is doing this under US pressure, the possibility cannot be denied. After all, the Americans have done this in many Muslim countries, too, although I don’t think that blaming America alone for all our woes is the way out. Further, one must also remember that talk of reform began much earlier, both among the ulema themselves as well as in government circles, as is evidenced by the setting up of State-funded madrasa boards in several states in India over the last few decades. That said, one also has to see the politics behind talk of ‘reforms’ by the state. After all, this got a major boost during BJP rule, when the Group of Ministers’ report called for control of and reforms in the madrasas by linking it to the context of national security and wrongly insinuating that madrasas were engaged in promoting ‘terrorism’. But this way of approaching the madrasas is wrong. There is no proof at all for the charge that Indian madrasas are engaged in promoting terrorism of any sort.

To come back to your question about Pakistani madrasas, I must say that whatever Musharraf is trying to do in this regard is under US pressure. First, the US encouraged Pakistan to set up militant bases in madrasas in their war against the Russians in Afghanistan and now the Pakistanis are targeting madrasas at the behest of the Americans. It is also part of a larger concern on the part of the Pakistani ruling class, so closely tied to the West, to ward off any challenge to its hegemony.

I must add here that Indian politicians who harangue against the madrasas or else keep harping on the need for them to ‘modernise’ have been strengthened by what the Pakistani rulers are doing in their country vis-à-vis the madrasas, where there are even more stringent controls now in place. So, Hindutva ideologues have got the chance to argue their case that madrasas in India must be tightly controlled because the Pakistani government, too, is doing so.

I must repeat here that the equation that some people draw between the Pakistani and Indian madrasas is wholly accurate. Unlike in Pakistan, not a single Indian madrasa has been involved in promoting any sort of militancy. So, here, obviously, the agenda of reform has to be viewed differently—not to counter ‘terrorism’, because it does not exist, but, instead, to further enhance the socialization of the ulema so as to help promote better relations between Muslims and others and to enable madrasa students to have at least a basic understanding of a range of ‘modern’ subjects.

Q: Perhaps skewed state policies vis-à-vis madrasas also have to do with the image of the madrasas in the media, which has made them appear as ‘suspicious’.

A: In India some political parties and large sections of the media wrongly equate Indian madrasas with certain madrasas in Pakistan that are engaged in indiscriminate violence. Thereby, they have created a scare about them in the minds of ordinary people. But even though this propaganda isn’t true, the madrasas are also to blame, in part, for their image problem. They are completely divided, with nothing to bring them on a common platform. And with some obscure fatwas being issued by some maulvis, their entire image has got spoilt. Madrasa students generally do not come up to the standards expected of them. There is also corruption in matters of collection of donations in the case of some madrasas. So, in this way they have contributed in no small way in producing the negative images of themselves that the media broadcasts, so much so that many ‘modern’ educated Muslims, too, have come to see madrasas in a similar light.

Q: So what do you think madrasas could do to improve their media image?

A: I think they must go out of their way to reach out to the wider society. For instance, they could invite non-Muslims, including social and political activists and media persons, to the madrasas to see and study the madrasa system themselves. They need to produce literature in languages other than just Urdu to tell others what exactly they are all about. Some madrasas claim to have now established media cells for this purpose, but most of these are actually non-functional.

It is a fact that, by and large, the ulema of the madrasas have yet to develop the consciousness of the need to advocate their case in an organized way. The mentality of many ulema has become so insular that they think that the whole world is against the madrasas or even against Islam, so they just don’t feel the need to reach out to others. Some of them think that all non-Muslims, by definition, are against Islam. So they might believe some stupid rabble-rousing Muslim but would ignore a sympathetic and well-meaning Hindu, doubting his sincerity and motives. This is really lamentable, because there are many non-Muslim activists and media personnel and even just ‘ordinary’ people who are not anti-Muslim in any way, and who are committed to truth, social justice and democracy. Madrasas need to contact them, instead of, as now, expecting them to contact the madrasas. After all, it is the madrasas that need them and their assistance.

But let me also add that we should not expect the madrasas alone to do all this. ‘Modern’ educated middle-class Muslims also have a valuable role to play here, to act as a bridge between the madrasas and the wider, including non-Muslim Indian society. However, few such people actually take any interest in Muslim community issues, including that of the madrasas. One reason for this could be that many ulema suffer from an unfounded inflated superiority complex which makes them feel that they must lord it above others. But it is also the case that that many ‘modern’ educated Muslims generally only engage in criticism but not in any constructive activity. They typically see the ulema as cut off from the world and as opposed to ‘progress’, which, while not true, effectively reduces to the minimum the contact that they want to maintain with the ulema, and, thereby, the possibility for them to act as a bridge between the ulema and the wider society.