Books Review


By Mushirul Hasan, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamayah Milliyyah Islamiah, New Delhi , 2003 Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

This slim booklet provides a general overview of Muslim education in contemporary India. The author notes the paucity of research on the actual living conditions, including state of education, among the Indian Muslims. State authorities, he says, do not publish data on Muslims, on ostensible “‘political” grounds, while Muslim institutions, for their part, have hardly done any field-based surveys. In this regard, the author points to both “intellectual lethargy” of sections of the Indian bureaucracy and political class as well as their resistance to accepting ‘religious minorities’ as a distinct category, because of the fear that “acquiescence in legitimizing the Muslim minority as a separate entity” would somehow contravene the notion of an “exclusive Indian nation”. This fear the author dismisses as untenable since constitutional guarantees already exist for religious minorities as well as for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the Other Backward Classes.

Muslim educational backwardness, Hasan says, is largely a product of Muslim poverty and neglect by the state. The vast majority of the Indian Muslims work as landless labourers, small or marginal peasants, artisans, petty shopkeepers and the like. More than half the urban Muslim population lives below the poverty line, and, as compared to Hindus, proportionately a considerably higher number of Muslims are self-employed. Given their structural location in the economy and the perception of discrimination, relatively few Muslims can afford or aspire to higher education. To add to this is the widespread opposition among many Muslims to higher education for Muslim girls, who are among the least educated sections of Indian society. It is widely believed that higher education would diminish girls’ chances of getting good husbands, given the relative paucity of Muslim men with higher education, and the fact that less educated men are generally reluctant to marry women who are better educated than them. Another major cause for Muslim educational backwardness, particularly in north India, where most Muslims live, are the systematic discriminatory policies of the state concerning Urdu. Since Urdu is no longer taught in most state schools and since the language has lost its earlier organic connection with the economy, it remains largely confined to madrasas, which is one reason why many Muslim families prefer to send their children to madrasas than to state schools.

Given the pathetic state of Muslim education in India, the author stresses the need for affirmative action policies on the part of the state aimed at promoting education in the community. Short of reservations for all Muslims, which might prove to be too politically volatile at this particular juncture, the author calls for the state to extend the various development projects and schemes that it has launched for the scheduled castes and tribes to economically deprived sections among the Muslims as well. Hasan notes that the state has, from time to time, announced various schemes for “minority development” but laments that there has been no effective monitoring of their actual implementation. No one seems to know who the beneficiaries of the schemes are. Much of the funds released for these projects have remained unutilized; there is little co-ordination between the union and state government bodies responsible for implementing them; the schemes are not properly advertised; and there is an absence of interaction with community leaders about them.

The author also calls for new and more contextually relevant understandings of Islam and Islamic education for Muslims to take the question of education more seriously. He approvingly quotes Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh movement, who appealed to Muslims to modernize their understanding of Islam, believing that the confirmed facts of science could not have been opposed to Islam as he understood it. This urgent task, Hasan believes, is fraught with numerous hurdles, not least being the opposition that it is bound to face from sections of the ‘ulama. In this regard, he quotes Muhammad Ibrahim, Chairman of the Minorities’ Commission of Madhya Pradesh, who argues that many ‘ulama have a vested interest in preserving the madrasas as their strongholds. Many ‘ulama, he says, have little or no familiarity with the world around them, excel in sectarian controversies and see “everyone else as ignorant, irreligious and atheistic”. In this regard, Hasan sees the suspicion with which many ‘ulama have greeted state proposals for madrasa “modernization” as stemming, in part, from the fear that this might effectively challenge their monopoly, and provide the state with an excuse to interfere in their functioning, in particular, in monitoring the funds that they garner from the public. While this might well be true, it reflects a rather naïve approach to the state’s overall policy towards the madrasas, which reflects an understanding that the madrasas need to be brought in line with the “mainstream”, which is defined in essentially’ upper’ caste Hindu terms. Hasan also ignores the Hindutva propaganda against the madrasas, which is also reflected in official pronouncements emanating from top bureaucrats and government officials with an undisguised sympathy for Hindutva-brand “nationalism”.

Yet, Hasan also notes with appreciation that a few ‘ulama do support modern education and, in several states, have affiliated themselves with state-approved madrasa education boards and, accordingly, have introduced some basic modern subjects in their curricula. He is appreciative of the efforts of some ‘ulama to bridge the gap between the traditional and modern systems of education, and insists on the “desperate need of a constructive and bold humanism that can restate and reinterpret Islamic educational ideas in the contemporary social and cultural environment”. He pleads for what he calls “a fundamental reconstruction of Muslim educational thought”.

Although Hasan appears critical of the refusal on the part of many ‘ulama to brook any reforms in the madrasa system, he insists that the rhetoric about madrasas as training grounds for “terrorists” is misplaced and erroneous. Despite being “conservative”, they are, Hasan says, “opposed to fundamentalism”. What they offer their students, he says, may be the “fulfilment of desires for individual empowerment, transcendent meaning and social morality that do not engage directly with national or global politics at all’. The growth in the numbers of madrasas in recent years, he says, is not because of any conspiracy, as their detractors allege, but, rather, because the state has not done enough to promote modern education as well as economic mobility among Muslims. Consequently, poor Muslims, who cannot afford to send their children to school, choose to send them to madrasas instead, where they receive free education, and boarding and lodging. Given the role that madrasas are playing in providing education to large numbers of Muslims, particularly from poor families, Hasan appeals for the state to treat the madrasas with “sympathy and understanding, rather than with suspicion and disdain”. In this way, the state could work along with the madrasas to promote mutually agreed reforms in their curriculum and teaching methods.

Hasan concludes this essay by reiterating his appeal for the state to take a more pro-active role in promoting modern education and economic development among Muslims. He also appeals for Muslim community leaders to take the question of education with the seriousness that it deserves. He calls for the setting up of a Muslim Educational Board to help promote both reforms in modern schools and madrasas, and suggests that Sufi shrines and waqf Boards, with the vast money at their disposal, also set up modern educational institutions catering to the poor among the community.

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