Madrasa tradition in the subcontinent -II-

Following the unsuccessful mutiny of 1857, the British Raj decided to uproot the madāris of India and hence Shāh Waliyullāh’s madrasa in Delhi too became a victim of their tyranny...

Madrasa tradition in the subcontinent -II-

Hamid Mahmood

Dawr-e-sawm, the third stage, saw the polymath, Emperor Akbar’s vizier Mīr Fatḥ-Allāh Shirāzī (d. 1582), introduce‘ma’qūlāt’ the logical and philosophical sciences to India. The courts of the Mughal emperors were significantly influenced by Iran especially the courts of Humāyūń (r. 1530 / IIr. 1555)[14] and Akbar (r. 1556).[15] However, towards the end of this third period Shāh Waliyullāh (1702-1762 C.E.), following his 14 year stay in the Ḥijāz, introduced the teaching of the ṣiḥāḥ sittah[16] into the curriculum of India (dars-e-niẓāmī) – which overlaps into the fourth period. Qāsmī further suggests that Shāh Waliyullāh had also devised a new syllabus but because the centre of Islamic knowledge at the time had shifted from Delhi to Lukhnow and because of the influence of the Mughal ‘ulamā’ his syllabus did not reach fruition.[17]

Dawr-e-chahārum, the fourth period is the most significant in fully understanding contemporary madāris as it is the stage when Mullāń Niẓām al-Dīn Sahālwī Lukhnawī (d. 1748 C.E.) laid the foundations to the dars-e-niẓāmī prevalent throughout madrasas originating from the Subcontinent. The set of texts chosen by Mullāń Niẓām al-Dīn were selected for the ṭālibs of Firangī Maḥal.[18] The dars-e-niẓāmī, which was named after him was in fact heavily influenced byma’qūlāt (rational sciences) as opposed the manqūlat (traditional sciences). This syllabus reserved ‘fifteen books on logic, and several books on Greek philosophy, mathematics, history, medicine, and engineering, and also texts on Persian literature and Arabic grammar, rhetoric and literature’.[19] Alongside fiqh, and Uṣūl al-Fiqh, for tafsīr ‘al-Bayḍāwiyy’ and ‘Jalālayn’ were taught, and for ḥadiṭh it was thought sufficient to study ‘Mishkāt al-Maṣābīḥ. It is interesting to note that part of the dars-e-niẓāmī Engineering and Astronomy were also taught as part of the curriculum. Students were also taught the skills of official letter writing and calligraphy, which they would need as prospective civil servants.[20] It is interesting that despite this no longer being taught in the madāris of Britain, it is evident from afāḍil’s response that skills of this kind may well be required:

‘…they could do more dunyavī (this worldly) wise. They could perhaps work more on career’s advice; we have started an organisation to help ‘ulamā and ḥuffāẓ[21] after graduation to know how the system works e.g. Tax Credits, filling in forms, paying bills etc through our organisation ‘Khidma Station’.[22]

It is noted that the current madrasa syllabus is so textual that it fails to respond to the context that it now faces. For this very reason one finds that the ‘ulamā’ are passing this textual study down to their students, but for a living they are having to work other part-time jobs, such as in Asda, B&Q and as taxi drivers.[23]

Khalīlī finally elaborates the geographical divide in India during the final daur, as he believes the markaz (centre) of ‘ilmwas then divided in three different locations: Delhi, Lukhnow, and Khayr Ābād. Shāh Waliyullah and his family were based in Delhi and they focused on the manqūlāt (tafsīr and ḥadīth); the ‘Ulamā’ of Lukhnow – the traditional scholars of Farangī Maḥal – still remained heavily influenced by the teachings of ‘mā warā’ al-nahr’ (Transoxania), hence their focus was on fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh, and they taught Jalālyn and Bayḍāwī for tafsīr and sufficed in ḥadīth with the textual study of mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ. The latter, Khayr Ābādī ‘Ulamā’ focused all their attention around manṭiq andfalsafah.[24]

Following the unsuccessful mutiny of 1857, the British Raj decided to uproot the madāris of India and hence Shāh Waliyullāh’s madrasa in Delhi too became a victim of their tyranny.[25] It is said that for miles no ‘ālim could be found to even lead the funeral prayers.[26] The state of the Mussalmāns of India and their religious institutes was then being compared to the Mongol invasion of 1258, where it was believed the sea first turned black with the ink of books and then red with the blood of the ‘ulamā’.[27] And with this time period is connected the notion of the ‘closing of the doors of ijtihād’. The lack of ‘ulamā’ and also according to Tabassam another significant reason for the establishment of Dār al-‘Ulūm Deoband in 1866 was to counter the British Education Policy that aimed at spreading Christianity through various British Colleges and other institutions, and the suppression and exclusion of Muslims from high vacancies.[28]Hence, there grew this opposition to British culture and later western-influenced Muslims. It should, however, be noted that Dār al-‘Ulūm Deoband’s foundation and institution did not carry the same grandeur as it does today. Rather it is always portrayed with rather simple and humble beginnings, as it is recorded that Deoband was founded on the 30th of May 1866 C.E. on a Thursday in the courtyard of Masjid Chattah under a pomegranate tree with a single teacher and his student, both Maḥmūds.[29] For indeed this helped the madrasa to remain unnoticed by its colonial rulers.

Fig. 1 – The Chattah Masjid and the famous Pomegranate Tree

The Syllabus of Deoband that was set, following a decade of the destruction of the three centres of ‘ilm, was a combination of the three centres of knowledge – Delhi, Lukhnow, and Khayr Ābād. Hence, Khalili suggests that the syllabus was founded on dars-e-niẓāmī from Lukhnow with the inclusion of ṣiḥāḥ sittah from the Delhi school and Logic and philosophy from the Khayr Ābādī scholars. Khan further elaborates how in the early syllabus of Deoband an eight volume ‘secular’ book al-Naqsh fī al-Ḥajr was part of the syllabus, which Rashīd Riḍā praised when visiting Deoband in 1912 C.E. Following are the titles of each of the volumes:

یہ کتاب ۔ النقش فی الحجر ۔ کیا تھی اس کے مندرجات پر ایک نظر دوڑالیجیئے :






Elementary Principles of Physics

مبادی عامہ فی الطبعیات




الکیمیا ٗ







Physical Geography

الجغرافیہ الطبعیہ







Cosmology & Astronomy





علم النباتات



Principles of Logic [30]

اصول المنطق







It is interesting to note all the subjects once part of the syllabus through this book and then how the early ‘ulamā of Deoband intertwined the syllabus with spirituality. Khan portrays this rich mix of religious, secular and spiritual development in the following way:

یہ حضرات منقولات کے ساتھ ساتھ معقولات کو بھی پڑھاتے تھے اور پھر منقولات کو معقولات کے ساتھ گھول کر پیتے تھے۔ جو نصاب وہ پڑتے اور پڑھاتے تھے ۔۔۔تو یہ حضرات منقولات کو معقولات کے درجے تک پہونچا دیتےتھے اور پھر شب و روز کے اذکار و مراقبات، ذکرِ خفی و جلی اور سلوک و تصوف کے مراحل طے کرتے تے ان معقولات کو محسوسات کے دائرے میں لے آتے تھے ۔ سو جو منقولات کو معقولات اور پھر معقولات کو محسوسات تک کے دائرے میں لے آتے تھے ان کی عظمتوں کا کیا ٹھکانہ ہے۔[31]

‘These elders would teach the ma’qūlāt (secular sciences – Philosophy, logic etc) alongside the manqūlāt (Traditional / narrated), and then ‘drink’ the manqūlāt mixed with ma’qūlāt… so these elders would raise manqūlāt to the level ofma’qūlāt and then following their daily adhkār (supplications) and murāqabāt (ṣūfī meditations); dhikr al-khafī anddhikr al-jalī; and after crossing the stages of taṣawwuf and asceticism they transpose ma’qūlāt into iḥsāsāt (sensory perceptions). Hence, what could be said about such individuals who took manqūlāt to the level of ma’qūlāt and thenma’qūlāt to iḥsāsāt!.

However, with contemporary madāris it has now become important to ask the question whether we can really claim or name this syllabus ‘dars-e-niẓāmī’, when it only constitutes merely a third of the syllabus and the isnād do not lead to Mullań Niẓām al-Dīn but rather to ‘masnad al-Hind’ Shāh Waliyullāh.[32] To determine this we will analyse the ‘reformed’ ‘dars-e-niẓāmī. The inclusion and stress laid upon the teaching of the ṣiḥāḥ sittah and fiqh (manqūlāt) also reflects Deoband’s reformist concerns specifically its opposition to un-Islamic and Hindu customs prevalent among the Muslims of India. And this notion, as Sikand suggests, was further deepened by ‘Western-influenced modernist Muslims as well as Muslim groups that opposed the traditional ḥanafī insistence on taqlīd’.[33] This rigid insistence on taqlīd to oppose the threat of their legitimacy as authoritative spokesmen for Islam was dealt with a further insistence on taqlīdthat they even condemned inter-scholastic eclecticism, the borrowing from other schools of sunni fiqh, although they accepted these schools as equally ‘orthodox’.[34] And I believe this position, taken by the founders of Deoband, towards ‘rigid taqlīd’ has prodigious influences on the madāris of Britain and the neo-Deobandi phenomenon that prevails over the understanding of mainstream Islam in England.

Six months after laying the foundation of Deoband, madrasa Maẓāhir al-‘Ulūm was opened in Sahāranpūr in November 1866 with the same ethos and ideology as Deoband. However, it is significant to note that in 1875 Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1898 C.E.) undertook an opposing educational initiative to Deoband by opening the ‘Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental High School – an institute upgraded by the British to a college in 1877 and received full university recognition by 1921. I believe this ‘recognition’ of the college too would have put doubts in the minds of the Deobandis and those affiliated to them. Sir Sayyid had also clearly shunned the traditional ‘ulamā’ for their insistence on taqlīd and called for the Muslims to engage in ijtihād to develop a new modernthinking and understanding of themanqūlāt and fiqh in order to reform with‘changing times’. Interestingly, he began calling for this ‘reform’ following his two year study of the education system in England. India began to witness this polar opposition: on one side the ‘traditionalists’ who were adamant on a rigid implementation of taqlīd and on the other a modernist ideology speaking onlyof reform and ijtihād.

The opposing phenomenon of Deoband on one side of the spectrum and Aligarh on the other created an educational dualism – this in part was inspired by colonial critiques of ‘native’ education as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’.[35] The move to reconcile with tradition, modernity and various denominations came in the form of Nadwat al-‘Ulamā (The Council of the ‘Ulamā) in 1892, a group of ‘Ulamā from ‘different schools of thought, Muslim philanthropists, journalists, lawyers and government servants, who came together annually to discuss issues relating to promote a semblance of unity between different Muslim denominations’.[36] I believe it is important to understand this opposition in order to begin understanding the madāris of Britain and their future as indeed currentlythere are over 17 madārisaffiliated to Deoband with well over ‘three thousand’ ṭālibs as opposed to only one affiliated to Nadwa with two ṭalibsenrolled.[37] However, to elaborate the vision and ethos of the council, its first president Mawlānā Muhammad Ali Mungeri (1846 – 1927 C.E.) wrote a letter to ‘Ulamā throughout India:

‘Because it is seen that graduates of Arabic madāris have little knowledge of the affairs of the world around them, and because they can do little else at their age, they remain dependant on the people of the world (ahl-e-dunyā) and are considered useless in the eyes of the public. They also do not possess the level of religious knowledge that they should. This organization [the Nadwa] seeks to bring about appropriate reforms in this regard in all madrasas. Today the internal differences among our ‘ulamā are creating severe problems, giving rise to great strife over little issues, because of which the ‘ulamā of Islam and even our pure faith are lowered in the eyes of others. This organization shall strive to ensure that these differences do not rise, and if they do, it shall seek to resolve them’.[38]

It is interesting to note that this letter was sent in 1892, just six years following the founding of Deoband and still Mungeri felt he had analysed enough of the madāris and also those running prior to Deoband in homes and Mosques. In this letter Mungeri points towards two significant issues within the madāris: Lack of knowledge of the worldly affairs (secular affairs) and ‘weakness’ in religious knowledge. The former issue left madrasa fāḍils to become dependent on worldly people, by which we suppose is meant those educated in academia, hence they were rendered ‘useless’. I find the latter critique most interesting, and will tackle more thoroughly later, as it resonates with fāḍil 2:

‘I would like to see more scholars discussed from different continents as this is

very important for those who live in vibrant diverse societies such as London’.[39]

‘Scholars being discussed from different continents refers to scholars not belonging to one’s own madhhab as indeed Deoband’s stress on taqlīd-e-shakhṣī;[40] the following of the pious predecessors and the abundance of books onfatāwā from the sub-continent in use in Britain today and specifically for Iftā’ courses indicate the confined and consolidated approaches within madāris compared to scholars of other madhāhib. This approach again, I believe, is a direct influence of British colonialism, where the need for standardising Islamic interpretation of fiqh and sacred texts is considered ‘protecting Islam and its interpretation fromexternal dilution’ and hence a vivid metaphor is often quoted among the Deobandi ‘Ulamā:

مدارس دین کے قلعے ہیں

madāris are the fortresses of dīn-e-Islam (religion of Islam)’.

It is believed that not only Islam but also its specific interpretation is defended from an external enemy. I believe, this response to colonialism is still echoed in the attitude of madāris in the West today through a reticence with any kind of external interference. Ron Geaves also elaborates: ‘Deobandi reticence to engage with outsiders has been variously analysed as due to defensive strategies of isolation developed to protect Islam in the crisis caused by the loss of Muslim power to the British in India in the second half of the nineteenth century’.[41] However I strongly believe that even in Britain affiliation to ‘Deoband’ or being ‘Deobandi’ is a generalization and this notion requires further exploration, which is still not accomplished by a madrasa claiming to be ‘Deobandī / Sahāranpūrī’ or even Deobandī / Tablīghī



[14] Humāyūń had two reigns, as power was usurped from him by the Sūrī Sulṭāns of Delhi before he regained it for a second time.

[15] Bosworth, C. E. (2004). The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual. p. 331

[16] ṣiḥāḥ sittah (the six most authentic books of aḥādīth) refers to Bukhāri, Muslim, Abū Dawūd, Tirmidhī, Nasa’ī and Ibn Mājah.

[17] Qāsmī, M. K. (2010), op. cit.

[18] Firangī Maḥal literally means ‘European Mansion’ – Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb offered this mansion to the sons of Mullāń Quṭb al-Dīn Sihālwī, who was part of the ‘fatāwā-e-‘ālamgīrī’ project of Aurangzeb to produce an encyclopaedia of fatāwā still used by contemporary ‘ulamā’. Mullāń Niẓām al-Dīn, was however the third son of Mullāń Quṭb al-Dīn Sihālwī. There was no such madrasa at Firangi Maḥal till 1905, until that period ṭālibs would study under scholars of the family in their homes and local mosques. See Sikand, Y. (2005) pp.45-48.

[19] Sikand, Y. (2005), op. cit., p. 47

[20] ibid. – By keeping the dars-e-niẓāmī of Firangi Maḥal more rational it was made possible for non-Sunnis, Shia and Hindus to study alongside the ‘Ulamā.

[21] Those madrasa graduates who memorise the Qur’an but do not follow on into the ‘Ālimiyyah course.

[22] See Appendix 1 – Fāḍil 8

[23] Personal interviews

[24] Qāsmī, M. K. (2010), op. cit.

[25] Khan, S. A. (2011). Qiyām-e-Dār al-‘ulūm Deoband: ayk ghalaṭ fehmī kā izālah ‘قیامِ دار العلوم دیوبند: ایک غلط فہمی کا ازالہ’. p. 25

[26] ibid.

[27] These feelings, and comparisons are also found in Iqbal’s reconstruction of religious thought in Islam’, where he compares ‘contemporary ‘ulamā and their approach to the ‘ulamā’ of Baghdad 1258. Sikand too points towards the ‘insecurity among the ‘ulamā’ that saw in free-ranging ijtihad a threat to the integrity of Islam’. See Sikand, Y. (2005), op. cit., p. 22.

[28] Tabassum, F. (2006). Deoband Ulema’s Movement for the Freedom of India. (p. 38), also see Khan, S. A. (2011). p. 23

[29] Khan, S. A. (2011), op. cit. p. 23

[30] ibid., p. 29

[31] ibid., pp. 22-23

[32] By isnād here I refer to the chain from student through his teachers to the author of the book. This will be discussed later in the essay. Waliyullāh is regarded masnad al-Hind as all asānīd (pl. of isnād) are believed to go through him to the authors of classical texts and finally to Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). Also see Appendices 2.3 to 2.7 for examples of ijāzats and also Appendix 2.8 for the significance of Shāh Waliyullāh for various Indian Muslim denominations.

[33] Sikand, Y. (2005), op. cit., p. 71

[34] ibid.

[35] Sikand, Y. (2005), op. cit., p. 79

[36] Nadwi, M. I. J. (1983). Tarīkh-e-Nadwat al-‘Ulamā’ ‘تاریخِ ندوۃ العلما’. .Vol. 1, p. 171. Trans. from Sikand, Y. (2005)

[37] Gilliat-Ray, S. (2005). ‘Educating the ‘Ulama: Centres of Islamic Religious Training in Britain’.

Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2006, pp. 55-76

[38] Ansari, M. I. (1975). ‘Nadwat al-‘Ulamā: ayk dīnī aw ta’līmī taḥrīk’ ‘ندوۃ العلما: ایک دینی و تعلیمی تحریک’. Islam aur ‘Asr-e-Jadīd ‘اسلام اور عصرِ جدید’, Vol. 7, no. 2, April 1975. Trans. taken from Sikand, Y. (2005), op. cit., p.79

[39] See Appendix 1 – Fāḍil 2

[40] Mawlānā Gangohī defines taqlīd-e-Shakh ī as ‘seeking assistance in abiding by a law from a particular scholar.

[41] Geaves, R. (2011-12). ‘Final Report’. p. 4


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