The Western Intellectual and Cultural Challenge and the Responsibilities of the Ulema
By Dr. Mahmud Ahmad Ghazi (Former Director, International Islamic University, Islamabad)*
(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)
Today, the world of Islam is passing through a very difficult phase. Perhaps the Muslim ummah has never been faced with such difficulties before. In one sense, the entire history of the Muslim ummah has been a history of crises. From the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) till today no period of our history has been without some great difficulty. But there is one big difference between all the difficulties of the past and those that we face today. In the past the difficulties that we were confronted with were generally restricted to just one or the other aspect of our life. On some occasions, Muslims had to face enemies on the battlefield and accept defeat. The political power of some Muslim governments weakened and Muslims in some places came under the rule of others. And so on. Such types of challenges, which were basically political, economic or military, emerged in almost every age, but yet the institutions of the Muslim family, education, system of nurturing and training—the internal fabric of Muslim society—generally remained untouched by external dangers and assaults.
Today, as indeed has been the case for the last one hundred and fifty years, every new day brings with it new dangers. Now no aspect of Islamic life remains insulated from these challenges—be it the individual’s character and nurturing, the attitudes of women, the system of education, relationships between husbands and wives and between parents and their children and so on. All these are now faced by assaults from the West. This is in contrast to the many challenges that we faced in the past. The invading Tatars probably never inquired as to what was taught at the Jamia al-Azhar, or what was written in our textbooks or in our books of jurisprudence. Likewise, when the British came to India they did not bother about these issues. This is why despite the fact that the British stayed in India for more than one hundred and fifty years the internal fabric of Indian Muslim society remained, by and large, free from Western influences. Consequently, the lives of a vast number of Muslims were untouched by the Western impact.
An elder in our family, Hafiz Muhammad Ismail, a great Islamic scholar, was one such man. He had never seen a single Englishman in his life. He never uttered a single English word and strictly forbade anyone in his household from doing so. Before the British came to India, tomatoes were unknown in the country. When this vegetable was introduced into India, it was given the name tamatar in Urdu, a corruption of the English word ‘tomato’. So fiercely opposed was Hafiz Ismail to the British and their culture that he never once uttered the word tamatar, and if anyone used that word he would express his displeasure. He invented the term ‘red brinjal’ (lal baingan) to refer to the tomato so as to avoid using the word tamatar, because it was derived from the English ‘tomato. My father related to me that once Hafiz Ismail inquired what vegetable had been cooked that day, and when somebody replied ‘Tamatar’ he flew into a rage, saying that Christianity had invaded his house, and demanded to know why the vegetable was not referred to instead as a ‘red brinjal’.
Obviously, this story seems like a joke today, but if a hundred years ago some Muslims had not opposed Western influences so forcefully then Western culture would have swept into people’s homes in the same way as it is doing today. There are probably hundreds of thousands of instances of such Muslims who sought to oppose Western cultural influences and to insulate Muslims from them. Some people say that these people also opposed the good things coming from the West. Yes, it is true that there were some such good things which Muslims were prevented from benefitting from. It is easy today to accuse some people in the past for keeping Muslims away from the positive aspects of the West, but we cannot judge them today. Those who made such decisions in the past were themselves responsible for them. We can talk about the results of these decisions, but to sit on judgement on them is pointless.
The zeal that enthused people like Hafiz Ismail to protect the Muslim ummah from Western influences has today weakened considerably. Today, the windows and doors of every Muslim home are so open to both negative as well as positive influences from the West that they cannot be closed. Many people think that we should allow and accept the positive Western influences and keep out the others. Undoubtedly, this is a correct approach and all Muslims will agree to this. Accepting the good things from other cultures has always been a characteristic of Muslim intellectual history. But many of us do not ask the question if this is truly the agenda of the West—that it should offer us on a platter those things and influences which are beneficial for us and keep the rest shut in a cupboard. The truth is that the West wants to impose its entire agenda on us as a complete package.
Some years ago I attended a workshop in Germany, in which a large number of European scholars also participated. I was the lone Muslim participant. The subject of the workshop was, ‘Is Islam a Threat to the West?’. I was asked to speak about the attitudes that Muslims have adopted towards the West. In my presentation, I said that ever since Western influences began making themselves felt among Muslims—some two hundred years ago—the Muslim world had adopted, broadly speaking, three different approaches. Of these, two approaches are now weakening considerably or appear to be, and the third seems to be gaining in strength, especially over the last fifty years.
The first approach, which is now increasingly vanishing to the point of virtually dying out completely, was represented by the story of the tomato and the ‘red brinjal’ that I referred to earlier. Perhaps there are no longer any Muslims in the world who would adopt such a strict approach. Indeed, perhaps no one even believes that this sort of opposition is at all beneficial. If there are indeed some such people left, their influence on society is so little as to be unmentionable. This attitude was once very strong but has now, over the years, completely vanished, as I said.
The second approach, which in the beginning appeared to be gaining strength but still did not appeal to the majority of Muslims, is also increasingly weakening today. Advocates of this approach wanted Muslims to become wholly Westernised, in the belief that in this way they could solve all their problems. This approach was characteristic of several nineteenth and early twentieth Muslim intellectuals and political leaders as well as many others, but today it appears to be declining.
The third approach, which in its inception appeared unpopular, has now firmly established itself in the world of Islam, and today a large number of Muslim scholars represent this perspective. This reflects our tradition of benefitting from the good things of other cultures. It advocates the acceptance of the positive aspects of Western culture, including the West’s science and technology, while avoiding its negative aspects, such as certain notions of morality and culture, secularism and irreligiousness, the free mixing of the sexes and so on. This approach is now gaining increasing strength among Muslims the world over.
When I elaborated on this third approach in the workshop, the Western participants tried to controvert me. They said that the West was not willing to share its science and technology with Muslims under these conditions. This was the first time that this realisation hit me. I had never thought of it before. They said that Western culture comes as an entire package and that others have to accept it in its entirety. Others would not be allowed to pick and choose from it as they liked or accept it with any conditions attached. At that moment I thought that these intellectuals did not represent the Western mainstream and that they did not speak for those in decision-making positions in the West. Perhaps, I thought, they were just being prejudiced and that was why they had so vehemently opposed the third approach that I had discussed and which I felt was the perspectives that Muslims should adopt. However, after that, in the years that followed, I met with numerous other Western scholars and carefully read the writings of many others, and have now come to the conclusion that it is their carefully-planned policy that the West must seek to completely mould the Muslim world in its own image, and that it must make the Muslim world follow the West’s agenda entirely. If the Muslim world refuses to do so, then, the West insists, it must not be allowed to benefit from any positive Western influence or contribution. As time passes, my conviction that it is the unanimous policy of the West to completely impose its agenda on the world of Islam that has become even stronger.
The West’s agenda is all-pervasive, and it includes in its orbit every aspect of life and culture. Some people think that the negative developments in the Muslim world are entirely caused by the fault or mistakes of Muslims themselves. Undoubtedly, there are weaknesses among Muslims and their concern for their religious honour has declined. But, alongside this, there are some powerful external forces that are advancing in accordance with a clear-cut mission to mould the Muslim world in a particular direction. Now, to what extent Muslims will go along with this agenda, to what extent Muslim intellectuals are willing to borrow from the positive aspects of the West and negate those aspects that they consider negative, and as to what will happen in the future, God knows best. But all this depends on the approach, insight and determination of Muslims themselves. For this, what is required first of all is for Muslims to be deeply immersed in and aware of Islamic culture and the various branches of Islamic learning. Without this basic foundation it will not be possible to construct any firm edifice in the future.
The Unified Notion of Knowledge in Islam
At one point in history, the basic pillar of Islamic sciences was the Quran. It was from the root of the Quran that various other disciplines flowered. Around a thousand years ago, the famous Quranic commentator and Maliki scholar Qazi Abu Bakr bin Arabi wrote that Muslims possessed some seven hundred branches of learning, and that all these were, directly or indirectly, related to and were an elaboration on the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet. In turn, the Sunnah was an elaboration and commentary on the Quran. This is why the Quran is the foundation on which all the educational, intellectual and cultural developments of Muslims should be built and on the basis of which these should be judged. This was the situation for almost twelve hundred years, and it produced an educational system that was based on the Quran, the Sunnah and various sciences that developed from these. This system fulfilled all the needs of the Muslim community, including their religious as well as worldly requirements. The notion that religious and secular education are separate is not an Islamic one. It is a product of Western secularism. I can say with confidence that as long as the religious and secular systems of education remain separate, secularism will continue to flourish in the Muslim world, for the ideology of secularism is based on the understanding that religion and the secular occupy two separate domains, with no overlap between them.
When political power was snatched by the Western colonial powers from Muslims, they had no choice but to create an exclusively religious system of education to protect the Islamic sciences. This was a defensive approach and was probably the only way then to protect what had remained of their religious heritage and their association with their faith. Prior to this, there had been no such division between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ education among Muslims. Thus, in the Mughal period the same madrasa system produced a great Islamic scholar such as Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, also known as Mujaddid-e Alf-e Thani (‘The Renewer of the Second Millennium’), Nawab Sadullah Khan, Prime Minister at the Mughal court during the reign of Shah Jahan, and the master architect Ahmad Ma’mar, who designed the Taj Mahal. All three of them studied together in the same madrasa and under the same teachers. They were class-fellows and studied the same syllabus.
I believe that re-creating this unified Islamic system of education and doing away with the existing dualism will herald a new beginning for the Muslims of the world. It will be a step towards a new age. I regard this as being even more important than the setting up of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband was. It will be the revival of a lost Islamic tradition. The establishment of the Dar ul-Ulum was a temporary and defensive measure in the face of changed conditions. It was not the ideal situation and nor were the conditions under which it came into being ideal. It lacked resources and government patronage and its graduates were unable to assume positions of authority. Society was not ready to accept their guidance and leadership. Their influence remained limited to mosques and madrasas. May God reward them for what they did, and we must accept that they played a central role in preserving the tradition of Islamic learning. But today the need is to relate whatever remains of this tradition to issues and concerns of daily life, and to enable the ulema to attain a position whereby they can provide positive leadership to the society. For this religious scholars require specialised religious knowledge as well as deep and critical awareness of the world and of the society for which they should provide leadership.
When I make this point, some ulema think that I am advocating that madrasas should be converted into centres of secular knowledge such as medical and engineering colleges. A leading scholar once angrily said to me that just as engineering colleges do not produce maulvis, there is no reason why madrasas should produce engineers. This complaint is not quite justified, because madrasas do not aim at producing engineers or medical doctors, but, rather, ulema. But the ulema that they produce must have an understanding of the world around them, like, for instance, Nawab Sadullah Khan, the Prime Minister of Shah Jahan, whom I mentioned above.
Each age has its own particular idiom and language. The Quran and the Sunnah are valid for all times and so too are their idiom. Their idiom cannot change. But the Islamic jurisprudents, expounders of the Hadith and commentators on the Quran all related the commandments of the Quran to their own times and contexts and employed the idiom of their age to develop various disciplines. These idioms can change according to the times. They changed in the past and will do so in the future as well.
The ulema have access to various religious sciences but because their idiom is different from that of ‘modern’ educated people, the latter cannot benefit from their knowledge. Let me cite an instance in this regard. Some twenty-five years ago Pakistan’s Federal Shariah Court came into being. The late Justice Salahuddin was its first Chief Justice. At my suggestion he appointed some 30 or 35 ulema as advisors to the Court. I suggested that he should call all of them for a meal. During the meal, he sat down with a leading Islamic scholar, who was well-known for his erudition. In the course of their conversation, Justice Salahuddin asked the scholar what the minimum requirement of an Islamic state was. The scholar could not reply to this question. Justice Salahuddin asked him the question again after some changes, thinking that he had not understood him. Still, he could not reply. I was standing close by. I thought that if this leading scholar was unable to answer Justice Salahuddin, the latter would have a negative opinion of the ulema. I interrupted their conversation and said to the scholar, ‘Perhaps Justice Salahuddin wants to ask you the meaning of the concept of dar ul-islam’. At once the scholar replied, and in such a manner as to satisfy Justice Salahuddin. At that moment it struck me that the ulema possess knowledge but not the appropriate idiom that is needed to express it in today’s age.
Terms of discourse and styles of expression are different in different historical periods and are influenced by intellectual changes. Greek logic had not made itself felt at the time of Imam Shafi, and so there is a considerable difference of style in his writings and that of a later scholar, who was himself a Shafi, Imam Ghazali, who wrote at a time when Greek logic and philosophy had become very influential. The idiom and styles of expression that they used were very different. Likewise, Imam Khatabi wrote a text on Hadith, and so did Shah Waliuallah, considerably after him. The latter was heavily influenced by Greek logic and philosophy, as is evident in his writings. He wrote on the same subject as Imam Khatabi, but had the latter seen what Shah Waliuallah had written perhaps he would not have understood a word of it, because his idiom and style of language were entirely different. That is also why Chief Justice Salahuddin and the traditional scholar could not understand each other, although their subject was the same.
If you have a radio set but it cannot access the wavelength on which radio messages are broadcast, then it is useless for you. Until your radio is adjusted in such a way as to be able to access the correct wave-length you cannot hear the broadcasts. In the same way, it is necessary for the ulema, who possess religious knowledge, and ordinary people who want religious guidance and whom the ulema desire to guide, to have the same wave-length. For this the ulema will have to familiarise themselves with modern idiom and forms of discourse. This is not an argument for madrasas to be turned into secular institutions, as is sometimes claimed. What this actually means is that the ulema must be appropriately aware of those sciences and disciplines that have framed and produced contemporary civilisation and on whose basis the affairs of the world today are conducted, even in Muslim countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the past, Muslims divided the various branches of learning in their own particular way. Some were considered basic or ‘real’ subjects and others had the status of ancillary subjects, being a means for the acquisition of knowledge of the former. But today, in practical terms this division does not exist. The divisions and classifications of the various branches of knowledge are different now. Subjects other than the hard sciences are classified as social sciences and humanities, and each of these is further divided into various subjects and specialisations. So, today when our Muslim youth talk, they do so not from the perspective of the Islamic sciences as those were traditionally classified. They do not use Islamic terminology or the idiom of classical Islamic jurisprudence. Rather, they use the categories of modern Western social sciences. Various modern social and other sciences are tools that aim at improving peoples’ lives and have no direct relationship with religious sciences. It is thus incumbent on the ulema to be familiar, to the required extent, with the modern social sciences and humanities.
If you go through much of the literature produced in the third Islamic century, when Greek works on logic and philosophy began being translated into Arabic, you will notice that Muslims adopted the same three sorts of attitudes towards this development as they presently do in relation to Western knowledge and culture, about which I mentioned earlier. Many ulema considered these Greek disciplines and influences as wholly impure, so much so that some of them even condemned those who advocated these as almost outside the fold of Islam. They even raised the question if it was permissible to wipe one’s private parts after urination or defecation with the pages of books on logic! But, gradually, this vehement oppositional approach softened and a time came when logic and philosophy were incorporated in the system of Islamic education.
Take the case of Shah Waliullah, whom I regard as the leader of Hadith studies in the Indian subcontinent. Unless one has a good understanding of Greek logic and philosophy one will not be able to understand his magnum opus on the secrets (asrar) of Hadith, Hujjat al-Balagha. The Greeks were idol-worshippers and polytheists, and not very refined in terms of morals, but without understanding their thought you cannot understand this very fine book on the secrets of Hadith.
Shah Waliullah was a product of later times. Before him was Imam Ghazali, who wrote al-Mustasfa, a brilliant text on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. If you do not have a good understanding of Greek logic you cannot comprehend this book, too. It is so full of arguments from Greek logic that one can learn this form of logic by carefully studying it. Likewise, Imam Ash-Shatibi’s al-Muafaqat, another fine text on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. I regard this as the best book ever written on the subject. But you can understand it only if you know Greek logic and philosophy. Yet, it is important to note that it was written in Spain and north-west Africa, where the tradition of Greek logic and philosophy among Muslims was relatively weak. Despite this, the book draws heavily from the contemporary rational sciences.
This was an instance of a Muslim response to such a culture that did not pose any military threat to Muslims. Nor was it in a position to forcibly overwhelm Muslims if they did not study or understand it. Muslims began to study and translate these disciplines on their own. The Greeks did not rule over the Muslims, nor were they any sort of challenge to them. Muslims, simply out of their own intellectual interest, studied and adopted their sciences and benefitted from them. But today, a powerful, ruling force—the West—has imposed its ways of thinking on all others, including Muslims. In this situation, is it not necessary for Muslims to seek to understand Western thought? The need for this today is a hundred thousand times more urgent than it was for our scholars of the past to study and understand the Greek sciences.
It is true that several Muslim scholars who came under the heavy influence of Greek logic and philosophy expressed views that were not in accordance with Islam. For instance, al-Farabi, who wrote a book titled Mabadi Ara Ahl al-Madinat al-Fadliah. It can be said to be the first Muslim treatise on political thought. It contains several things that are not in line with Islamic teachings, but in one sense it is a unique book. It reflects the author’s close study of Aristotle’s Politica and, possibly, Plato’s Republic. It reflects the author’s attempt to express Greek political thought as harmonious with Islamic teachings. In my view, this was the first effort at what is today called ‘Islamisation of Knowledge’. Why did al-Farabi want to present Greek thought as in conformity with Islam? He must have had some concern or enthusiasm for Islam that he did so. This enthusiasm for Islam prevented him from presenting Aristotle’s views before Muslims without any modification, and to that extent his understanding of Islam is noteworthy. He developed the basis of a form of thought that later provided guidance to people. He outlined and elaborated on Islamic political thought and its constitutional vision in such a way as to conform both to reason as well as to revelation. That is why I greatly respect him, as also Ibn Sina, despite the fact that many of their views were opposed to Islamic beliefs.
Today, those who have the capacity to provide intellectual leadership to the Muslim ummah, or who want to do so, must have a deep and critical understanding of contemporary Western social sciences and humanities. Thus, Islamic jurists today need not also be specialists in Western law, but they should know about the basic philosophy of Western law, and its central concerns and issues. After that, they can analyse these critically, examine their positive as well as negative dimensions, and study those aspects or methods of reasoning of Western law that can be employed in order to express the philosophy of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. As I mentioned earlier, unlike several earlier scholars who wrote on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, Imam Ghazali heavily used Greek philosophy and logic to express Islamic concepts in such an expert manner that no scholar of Greek philosophy and logic could counter his arguments. In this way, he presented the subject of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence in a way that was intelligible to the experts of Greek logic and philosophy, and they, in turn, came under its influence. He accepted that the science of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence was fully in accordance with both reason and revelation. This is the work that we must do today, too.
Today, our ruling class has no idea of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. This class is influenced by British notions of law. There are two ways out of this dilemma. One way is for the ulema to force them to learn the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. But, of course, this is impractical and cannot happen. They will naturally not abandon all their work to spend years studying Islamic literature that uses ancient terminology. This is why resorting to agitations and making forceful demands will not compel our judges to become experts in Islamic law. That can only happen when the ulema teach them what Islamic law is all about. And for that the ulema will have to take into account their mentality and their ways of viewing the world. There can be no short-cut routes here. It cannot be that today some Islamic party or religious organisation organises a demonstration and the next day all the literally thousands of judges and lawyers in the country suddenly become experts in Islamic law. This cannot happen. Instead, one has to think of a long-term plan. And for this it is essential that the principles of Islamic jurisprudence should be presented or expressed in such a way that people whose understandings of jurisprudence are heavily shaped by Western notions can also understand the subject. Muslim scholars thus must have at least a basic understanding of contemporary Western social sciences and humanities so that they can use the methods of reasoning and argumentation of these disciplines to present Islamic beliefs and teachings, just as Imam Ghazali did when he used Greek logic to explain the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. For this we need appropriate experts.
This can come about in two ways. One way is for experts in modern, Western law to be trained in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The second, much easier, way is for experts in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence to be trained in modern Western law to the required extent. This should be the case not just for the subject of the principles of jurisprudence but also for subjects such as politics, sociology and other such social sciences and humanities. Our ulema must acquire sufficient and critical understanding of these subjects. But, at the same time, they must also have expertise in the corresponding Islamic disciplines. Otherwise, they will not be in a position to decide what is right or wrong, or in conformity with or in opposition to Islam, in the Western sciences that they study. A person who does not have the required expertise in the relevant Islamic discipline and attempts to study Western thought might face the danger of being misled, as has happened in the past and still happens today. This is probably why many ulema are wary of this–because of the several cases of people with little training in the Islamic sciences who studied the Western sciences and, on the basis of this, came up with such interpretations of Islam as were not in accordance with the Islamic tradition. Consequently, they failed to maintain and protect the continuity of the Islamic intellectual tradition. Hence, till our scholars gain a firm foundation in the Islamic sciences they cannot acquire a critical understanding of and perspective on the corresponding contemporary Western sciences.
Re-Thinking the Aims of Madrasa Education: Going Beyond the Dars-i Nizami
What are the aims of our present system of religious education ? We should be clear in our minds about this. When the Dar ul-Ulum was established at Deoband, Muslims were faced with the reality of British imperialism. The onset of British rule badly hit the traditional system of Islamic education. The British confiscated properties endowed to the madrasas, closed down several madrasas, shut down shariah-based courts, replaced Persian with English as the official language, appointed Hindus in place of Muslims in government jobs and reserved top posts for their own people. All this affected the Muslims, particularly the ulema, very severely. These were the harsh conditions in which the founders of the Deoband madrasa felt that they should adopt a curriculum of education that could more easily be accepted at that time. This was the dars-i nizami, which, by then, had become fairly popular in large parts of India. The dars-i nizami is not something that came down from the skies. It is not mentioned in the Quran or the Hadith. Nor does it have any relationship with the present or future of Islam. Admittedly, it is a good and useful thing, and that I do not deny.
When the British established their rule in India, there were some four of five different curricula in use by Muslims in different parts of the country. One curriculum was used in eastern India, in places like Jaunpur, which was known as the ‘Shiraz of India’, because, like the city of Shiraz in Iran, it was a great centre for various ‘rational’ sciences, including logic and philosophy. A second curriculum was influenced by trends in Afghanistan and was popular in the present-day North-West Frontier Province and Punjab. It gave particular stress to the intricacies of Arabic grammar. A curriculum was prevalent in western India and Sindh, and it focussed especially on Hadith. A fourth curriculum, known as the dars-i nizami, associated with the Firanghi Mahal family of Lucknow, combined aspects of the other three curricula. Variants of these four curricula were popular in various other parts of India.
When the English East India Company managed to gain large swathes of territories from the Mughals, they needed judges and officers to man their bureaucracy. For this purpose they relied heavily on scholars who had gone through the dars-i nizami. Prior to 1857, scores of ulema who had studied the dars-i nizami were employed by the East India Company in high posts. As a result, gradually, this curriculum became more popular. So, when Maulana Qasim Nanotawi established the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, he adopted the dars-i nizami as the curriculum for the institution. He himself had studied this curriculum, as had several other pioneers of the Deoband madrasa. He had no choice but to adopt this curriculum. But the dars-i-nizami had just one book on Hadith, and so the founders of the Deoband madrasa added a few more texts in the curriculum and modified it slightly so as to meet the religious needs of the Muslims of India of that time.
But, the question to ask is: Have the demands and needs of the madrasas remained the same after the creation of Pakistan? I do not think so. Following the creation of Pakistan, madrasas have before them three basic demands or objectives. Firstly, we need trained imams for our mosques. This is the first requirement and the most necessary demand of the religious life of Muslims that must be fulfilled. I believe that there is no need for an imam of a mosque to have to study the dars-i nizami. Even if he does not study various books of logic and philosophy that are contained in the dars-i nizami, he can still be a good imam. And if he studies these books it will not help him to become a better imam. Studying these various subjects will make absolutely no difference to the sort of imam he will become. To do so might actually be a waste of time and resources. There are several hundred thousand people who have spent eight to ten years in madrasas learning these various subjects and memorising these texts, and who then spent fifty years as imams in mosques but who have never been approached by people with questions related to the complicated texts that they had studied. On the other hand, while studying in the madrasas they did not learn about those day-to-day issues which people consult them about and for which the people need proper religious guidance. People ask them about share markets and if it is permissible to invest money in them, but most of them do not even know what shares are. This means that the present system cannot produce good imams. What are the actual requirements of a good imam? This issue must be carefully considered.
I personally feel that students should be admitted to the madrasas only after completing at least a basic minimum level of regular education, say till the matriculation level. I also feel that all madrasa students must be made to memorise the entire Quran. Following this, madrasas should have a three year course, in which students should learn enough Arabic as would enable them to read and comprehend commentaries on the Quran, and books of Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. Alongside this, students should be trained in oratory and in properly reciting the Quran. Those who complete this course would be considered capable of becoming imams in mosques. Those who wish to study only till this level should be encouraged to become imams at this stage. By not going on for higher learning, they would save the precious resources of the madrasas.
It is a bitter truth, but till we accept reality we cannot build our future. Today, many of our imams, when exposed to the wider society, begin to think that whatever they had learnt in the madrasas is irrelevant, and that they have no answers to the questions that people ask them. So, in order to make the things they have studied in the madrasas appear as relevant to the public they project and impose their own problems as those of the wider society. So, when these are made to become peoples’ problems, people will approach them for answers which they can supply. What are these problems? These are sectarian problems. So, for those innocent people who have no knowledge of sectarian polemics, who have never debated about whether the Prophet was an ordinary mortal (bashr) or ‘light’ (nur)—issues that are hotly debated between the religious scholars of different sects—the imams introduce and present these issues as the peoples’ problems. The imams seek to draw their followers behind them by raking these sectarian differences and, in this way, secure their jobs, from which now no one can remove them. This is a very unfortunate development which requires careful analysis and consideration. It should not be seen simply as a critcism. Till the disease is diagnosed properly you cannot cure it. This is why imams have to be trained to address issues that are actually relevant to society. And when they are made aware of these issues they will not rake up unnecessary controversies.
After this three year basic course for mosque imams that I suggest a second stage of madrasa education that would be geared to those who wish to work as teachers of Religious Studies. Today, in Pakistan Islamic Studies is compulsory in all schools, and teachers are needed for this. However, much of what students learn in madrasas is of no use for this, particularly many texts on Greek logic and philosophy. Unfortunately, the madrasas do not meet with the basic requirements needed for Islamic Studies teachers in schools. Hence, I would suggest, madrasas should have a separate course for training would-be teachers in Islamic Studies in regular schools and colleges.
We also require specialists in various branches of religious learning to teach at the higher levels. We need good scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, Hadith and Quranic commentary, and we also need well-trained muftis. For this purpose madrasas should arrange for a separate course of four or five years.
Making the Quran the Centre of Madrasa Education
Unfortunately, the most neglected subject in the dars-i nizami is the Quran itself. It receives the least attention. Recently, some madrasas have introduced the teaching of the translation of the Quran. They teach the translation from beginning to end, but this is no different from ordinary religious instruction as given in mosques and which is attended by worshippers. In such religious instructional circles, a scholar gives a lesson, and people listen to it out of reverence. They remember a bit of it and forget the rest. In the same way, most students in madrasas do not remember what they have learnt in their lessons.
For Quranic commentary, most madrasas teach al-Baidhawi’s commentary on the Surah al-Baqarah. I do not regard al-Baidhawi’s commentary as a good one. I say this with full respect to Imam Baidhawi. It is not a good representative of Quranic commentary. Why did Imam Baidhawi write this commentary? He was actually a theologian and a scholar of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. As a theologian, he noted that the Quranic commentary of al-Zamakhshari, who had some Mutazilite views, was becoming increasingly popular. So what he did was to take the fine points of rhetoric from al-Zamakshari and replace his Mutazilite views with Ashari beliefs and prepared a commentary in this way. And all those points on which he wanted to refute al-Zamakshari he included in his commentary on the Surah al-Baqarah, because of which this portion became very lengthy. The rest of his Quranic commentary consists mainly of marginal notes (hawashi) which nobody reads. Consequently, in actual practice madrasa students are not really taught Quranic commentary. I know many senior ulema who are not well-versed in Quranic commentary and who are unaware of the contributions of Muslims to the Quranic sciences. Many madrasa teachers do not know even the names of the larger Quranic commentaries.
So, if the Quran is the foundation of all our sciences and branches of learning, it should also be the foundation of our madrasa education system. But madrasas today teach their students various subjects and mould their minds in a particular way, and then they teach them the Quran in a manner calculated to suit a particular mould. I feel that this is an injustice to the Quran. The Quran is the real mould. The other branches of learning must be judged according to the mould that is the Quran. It should not be the other way round—that the Quran be judged according to the mould of the other disciplines. The Quran is the criterion, the standard, on the basis of which jurisprudence, the principles of jurisprudence, beliefs and all other matters should be inspected. But, sadly, what we presently do is that we first teach our students about the beliefs and juridical opinions (fatawa) of the later ulema (mutakhirin) and frame their minds in a particular way, and then seek to adjust the words of the Quran accordingly to fit this mental framework. I feel this is a misuse of the Quran. This is why I personally feel that a new system for the teaching of the Quranic sciences should be developed. It is clear that specialisation in the Quranic sciences is not possible through the existing dars-i nizami. If some scholars who are studying this curriculum manage to gain such a specialised understanding on their own, inspired by their own personal interest, it is a different matter, but as such the system does not facilitate this.
The same holds true for Hadith studies. Some individual scholars who are studying, or have studied, the dars-i nizami might acquire specialised knowledge of the Hadith on their own. But, as such, the dars-i nizami does not itself provide for this. Students of the dars-i nizami are merely made to memorise some Hadith reports related to certain juridical issues. Madrasas waste enormous time on teaching minor issues. They are often concerned not with what the Prophet said but, instead, with seeking to prove the views of their religious leaders on the basis of some sayings of the Prophet. And then several months are spent on Hadith reports relating to issues on which the different sects are at odds with each other, such as whether or not one should recite the opening verse of the Quran behind the imam at the time of congregational prayers (fatiha khalf al-imam) or whether or not one should lift one’s hands up while praying (rafa’a yadain). After this, the teacher asks the brightest student in the class to read out forty pages a day. The teacher does not discuss what the student reads, and nor do the students understand anything of it.
So, as I mentioned earlier, madrasas, as they presently are, cannot produce specialists in Hadith. The same is true as concerns Islamic jurisprudence. That is why I suggest that new syllabi should be devised for specialisation in the Quranic sciences and Hadith. The syllabi can include all the books that are part of the dars-i nizami and should be supplemented with several others so that such specialists in these disciplines can be produced as would later go on to become expert teachers.
Beyond this, I would suggest another level of teaching in the madrasas. This would focus on the teaching of Western sciences and disciplines from a critical perspective so as to sift out from them what is useful and in accordance with Islam. At this level, for instance, specialists in Islamic jurisprudence would engage in critical study of Western law. Experts in Islamic jurisprudence related to social issues would critically examine Western economics. And so on.
How long all this will take God knows best. But till this is done the future of the Muslim ummah cannot be moulded in the direction that we desire.
*This is an abridged translation of a speech delivered by Dr. Mahmud Ahmad Ghazi at a seminar on ‘The Need for and Importance of Teaching Civilisational Sciences in Madrasas’ organised by al-Shariah Academy, Gujranwala (2nd January, 2005) and published under the title ‘Maghrib Ka Fikri-o-Tehzibi Challenge Aur Ulema Ki Zimmedariyan’ (‘The Western Intellectual and Cultural Challenge and the Responsibilities of the Ulema’) in Shabbir Ahmad Mewati (ed.) Dini Madaris Aur Asr-e Hazir (‘Madrasas and the Present Age’), al-Shariah Academy, Gujranwala, 2007 (pp.137-70).