Travels of a political pilgrim: How bridging religious, worldly knowledge gap can reform Muslim education

Editor's note: Uttar Pradesh is home to India's sixth largest Muslim population according to the 2011 Census, a figure whose magnitude is amplified when viewed in the context of the sheer expanse of the state and its Byzantine linkages of identities and communities. Such an examination is rendered all the more urgent considering Uttar Pradesh is now in the thick of a tumultuous election. To understand the mind of its Muslim community — its anxieties, aspirations and animating impulses — political commentator and journalist Tufail Ahmed set off on the road, sending us dispatches from its far corners. Firstpost will chronicle his travels in a multi-part series. The following is the fifth part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.

One of the fundamental causes of Muslim backwardness in India is rooted in the division of knowledge between deeni (religious) and duniyavi (worldly) taleem (education). The system of deeni taleem – known as Dars-e-Nizami – was first implemented during the era of Aurangzeb (1658–1707 CE) and accelerated during the British rule.

So, I am struck when Islamic cleric Maulana Tahir Qasmi, during an interview at Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, stresses the need for eliminating the gap between religious and worldly education in order to revolutionise the educational empowerment of Indian Muslims.

"Those who have drawn a line between religious and worldly education do not understand religion (Islam). I am not in agreement with this line," Tahir Qasmi says, reminding that Prophet Muhammad had urged Muslims to go to China to gain knowledge, which obviously did not mean religious education alone.

Representational image of a madrassa (Muslim education) in New Delhi. Reuters

Representational image of a madrassa in New Delhi. Reuters

Qasmi is the Imam (prayer leader) at Masjid Ratheri Wali and Nazim (chief executive) of Markaz Bait-ul-Hikma Taleemi Al-Islami madrassa, both in Muzaffarnagar. He also serves as the general secretary of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind for Muzaffarnagar city. His argument could also mean that there is no difference between religious and non-religious spheres of life in Islam, and therefore could invite criticism from other clerics.

Qasmi's diagnosis takes us to the root of Dars-e-Nizami, a system of textbooks which imparts only religious education to Muslim children at madrassas through the school-age years, ultimately making them jobless and unprepared for day-to-day life. Muslim youth emerge from this education system, unable to even fill a form for railway reservation.

He says that madrassas should teach foreign languages such as English and Chinese as well as engineering, mathematics and medical sciences, which he says will be within what Islam conceives as education. The cleric stresses that Muslim girls must study engineering, medical and other sciences. He rejects arguments by orthodox clerics that such a widening of curriculum will weaken dawah, the work of propagating Islam.

The educational empowerment of Indian Muslims will undergo a revolution within just five years if the division between religious and worldly education is eliminated, Qasmi says, adding that Nadwatul Ulama of Lucknow, the Darul Uloom Deoband and the Barelvi leadership at Bareilly must work out a joint action plan for eliminating this division in education.

Islamic cleric Maulana Tahir Qasmi speaks on Muslim education. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

Islamic cleric Maulana Tahir Qasmi. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

He also offers a practical solution: As an example, the seven-year Alamiat course at major madrassas must include a two-year component of sciences, mathematics and English before the degree can be awarded. The Alamiat course makes students eligible for admission to BA courses.

This realisation also exists among many Ulama (Islamic scholars). Maulana Mumshad Ali Qasmi, who founded the Falah-e-Darain Islamia Inter-College at Bilaspur, on the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar, has written a book, Tareekh Dars-e-Nizami (The History of Dars-e-Nizami). In it, he notes that during the Mughal rule, madrassas were teaching all religious and worldly subjects; and it was from these madrassas that officials, policemen, judges, clerks and others were recruited by the governments of the day all through the Muslim rule in India.

Sultan Shahin, the editor of reformist website NewAgeIslam, says it was on the format of madrassas that Europe established its universities. Even now, at least at the secondary level, madrassas in the Arab world teach both religious and scientific education as part of their curriculum.

The Dars-e-Nizami is named after Mullah Nizamuddin (died 1748), an Islamic scholar under whose supervision this system of textbooks was supposedly prepared. Nizamuddin was born at Firangi Mahal of Lucknow into a family of educated people, perhaps the lone family in India which had nurtured a tradition of learning continuously for over two centuries, according to Mumshad's book. The work begun by Nizamuddin was accelerated during the British era by Islamic clerics who viewed the colonial rulers as enemies of Islam and Muslims, observes Mumshad, adding that there was strong enmity against the British on this subject.

Around the mid-19th century, when the Mughal rule was nearing its end, four students were studying under Islamic scholar Maulana Mamluk Ali of Delhi: Maulana Qasim Nanautwi, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Nanautwi established Darul Uloom Deoband to impart religious education and since it is among the oldest madrassas, most madrassas follow it and implement its Dars-e-Nizami syllabus. Sir Syed disagreed with Nanautwi and stressed the need for modern education along with religious education, founding a madrassa that became the Aligarh Muslim University. Barelvi established the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, in sharp theological difference with Nanautwi's Deobandi Islam. Ghulam Ahmad founded the Ahmadiyya Movement, whose followers are known as Ahmadis now.


Mumshad feels that when Nanautwi established Darul Uloom Deoband, not many clerics understood the need for teaching English. Their outstanding fear was that the British will eliminate Islam, and therefore Dars-e-Nizami was seen as a defence of Islam.

"However, Muslims in India suffered a lot due to the distinction introduced by Dars-e-Nizami (which effectively removed sciences and mathematics from curriculum)," Mumshad says, adding that madrassas should teach sciences and mathematics as part of their syllabi. His views are accepted by many Islamic clerics, but no steps have been taken to implement this. But, there are exceptions, as big madrassas like Darul Uloom Deoband have introduced courses in English and computer science.

However, real progress cannot occur in the educational life of Muslims until small madrassas in villages adopt sciences and English as part of their syllabi.

While the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum practically eliminated modern education from the lives of Muslim children over the past two centuries or more, there is a new realisation now in favour of change.

Safiya Begum, the principal of Nawab Azmat Ali Khan Muslim Girls Inter-College in Muzaffarnagar, notes that this new awareness for change is limited to achieving "100 percent literacy", not towards gaining quality education. This new understanding among Muslims, that literacy is the basic minimum, is a shift from the tyranny of Dars-e-Nizami lasting over two centuries.

However, the parents' mindset continues to be that girls should get a certificate and some education to be eligible for marriage, Safiya says, adding that Muslim parents also do not want to send girls to co-ed institutions.


Almost every Muslim elder now agrees that Muslims are progressing when compared to their own journey over the past two decades, but concede that they are far behind when compared with non-Muslims in the field of education. Dr Abdul Waheed, a professor of sociology at the Aligarh Muslim University, agrees with this view but adds that a new middle class began emerging among Muslims due to the economic liberalisation in India from 1990 onwards.

As a result of privatisation, "economically rising families" among Muslims began sending their children to private schools and colleges, he says, adding that Muslims are establishing private educational institutions now, but these are fewer in number.

However, it's not just the issue of education that affects the progress of Muslims; at issue are a host of orthodox ideas that emerge from the madrassa curriculum system. Madrassas, where mostly poor Muslims are sent to study, are doorkeepers to the Muslim mind, an achievement of Dars-e-Nizami.

Both Tahir Qasmi and Mumshad agree that there is a need for a united initiative by Islamic scholars at the central level to eliminate the difference between religious and temporal education. Since most Muslims are divided between various sects, such a united initiative appears unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Muslim children will keep emerging from madrassas handicapped for modern-day living but exerting disproportionate religious influence on the lives of all other Muslims.

Part One: Separatism and integration among Muslims in the time of Uttar Pradesh elections

Part Two: Secularism versus communalism at election time

Part Three: Is rise of religiosity on AMU campus a precursor to another 'Partition'?

Part Four:Should taxpayers be funding AMU’s imams, muezzins, theology department?

Part Six: Be it Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh, India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'

Part Seven: Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Part Eight:Farangi Mahal, once a bastion of Islamic education, looks to regain lost glory

Part Nine:Understanding the Shia-Sunni Muslim divide in the country

Part Ten: Government must address 'minority' syndrome which causes social conflict

Part Eleven: Mubarakpur sits at the junction of Islamic doctrinal sects divided by Taqleed

Part Twelve: Madrassas play key role in inducing orthodoxy among Azamgarh's Muslims

The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif


Published Date: Feb 20, 2017 10:53 am | Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 04:58 pm


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