When I first came to Jamia Millia Islamia to teach, some 30 years ago, the madrassa in my mind was a quaint holdover from the past. In the course of studying colonial Indian history I had read about the Darul Uloom at Deoband and the Nadwa in Lucknow, but I didn't think of them as living institutions; they belonged to the past as firmly as Humayun's tomb did.
I knew, as a historian, that the Darul Uloom at Deoband and the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College at Aligarh, the precursor of the Aligarh Muslim University, had been founded inside ten years of each other in the late 19th century; despite that knowledge, the madrasah at Deoband was, for me, a medieval seminary, while AMU was a great modern university.
There was, of course, a reason for the stereotypes in my head. The Darul Uloom, as Barbara Metcalf had shown us in her authoritative book (“Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900”) was established to preserve a style of traditional Muslim education and learning threatened by colonial modernity, whereas MAO College was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as a model of modern, western-style education for Indian Muslims. So for those like me with a superficial understanding of these institutions, the former belonged firmly to the past while the latter didn't merely have a glorious history, it had a future.
So in 1983, complacent in the 'correctness' of my knowledge of the world, I came to teach at the Department of History in Jamia. Jamia wasn't a Central University in those days; it was a Deemed University, just one notch higher than the degree-giving college it once had been. It was a much smaller place than it is now and the B.A. Honours class in the history department had all of five students. The brightest of them, by far, was a student called Mohammad Ishaq, now Dr. Mohammad Ishaq and a distinguished member of Jamia's faculty in the Department of Islamic Studies.
Ishaq was from a madrassa, and he wasn't just a brilliant student, he was brilliant in an engaged and argumentative way. While his classmates deferred to my views as a teacher, Ishaq had strongly-held views of his own and we had long arguments inside and outside of class about history, modernity, community and the nature of nationhood. What struck me as particularly impressive, even formidable, was the way in which his arguments combined rhetorical rigour with remarkable language skills.
Ishaq was the first student I encountered who had been educated in a madrassa and while he was exceptional in every sense of that term, I discovered, in the course of the years that followed, that he was also in many ways representative of a madrassa education.
For example, while correcting tutorials I discovered that students from madrassas often wrote the more cogent and consistent essays. This was for two main reasons. First of all, their essays were generally written in Urdu. Since their readings were mainly in English, this meant that they had to paraphrase and translate their understanding of these texts before they could incorporate them in their essays. As a result these essays were, perforce, written in their own words. They didn't have the option, which my English-medium students had and sometimes exercised, of cutting and pasting whole paragraphs from the articles and books that they read and joining them together in a kind of collage to confect a tutorial.
Secondly, madrassa students had been taught rhetoric as part of their curriculum. Rhetoric is the art of argumentation, of discourse. From Aristotle onwards, rhetoric was a central part of classical education both in the West and the Muslim world. It was no coincidence that essays written by madrassa students were cogently and forcefully argued: they had been given a first-rate training in the skills of persuasion.
Over the years, it has become clear to me that while there are many short-comings to the quality of education provided in the run-of-the-mill madrassa (as there are in the average 'modern' school), their strengths, that is, their emphasis on teaching rhetoric, logic and grammar, their success in teaching students from underprivileged backgrounds, and languages, both classical and modern, were considerable. And not only were they considerable, these were also strengths that contemporary schools in Delhi and other metropolitan cities in India could learn from. So when we talk about 'modernising' or 'mainstreaming' madrassa teaching, we should also remember that there is a great deal that modern schools and colleges can learn from the pedagogical practice of madrassas.
I don't want to gloss over the problems of madrassa education, but it is useful to remember that most of them are problems with all educational institutions in India: an absence of resources and infrastructure, a shortage of skilled and specialised teachers and the challenge of systematically renewing a syllabus and a school system so that it responds to the challenges of modernity and the job market.
At a time when policy makers are increasingly concerned with drawing into the process of development those who live outside the charmed circle of big cities and large to medium-sized towns, madrassa are one way in which 'mofussil' India is drawn into the metropolis. The story of Ikramul Haque is instructive. He studied in Azamgarh, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh at Madrassa-al-Islah. From there he travelled to Lucknow to study Arabic at a more celebrated seminary, the Nadwat-ul-Ulama. From there he made the journey to Delhi when he applied to Jamia for the B.A. Honours degree in History and was accepted.
By his own account, Ikram has found his educational journey various and fulfilling. “I had an interest in Urdu literature and had read a lot. I wanted to connect those stories to history, because behind every story, there is history.”
We see here not a rejection of traditional education, but a self-conscious drive to build upon it, to test it against a modern curriculum and to look for more expansive horizons. There is a seriousness to Ikram that has something to do, I think, with his madrassa training, the almost solemn sense that education is meant to help you make sense of the world.
(20-04-2012 - Mukul Kesavan is a well-known historian. He teaches at the Department of History, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)