The modern madrassa
26 January 2012
Review of Arshad Alam’s ‘Inside a Madrasa: Knowledge, power and Islamic identity in India’
The title of this new book gives the impression that its author subscribes to a reductionist understanding of the madrassas; fortunately, the contents belie this notion. As the book unravels the meaning of the word inside in a much wider sense, the title turns out to be a criticism of precisely the kinds of overly simplistic views of the madrassa that have tended to permeate the international media in recent years. Arshad Alam, an academic at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, approaches the institution not through the lens of religion but as a site of social and educational reproduction. As a result, his account of Ashrafia, a madrassa in Mubarakpur of Uttar Pradesh, not only encapsulates the story of a school located in a Muslim-majority qasba (town) but also, as he writes, ‘carries within itself various other stories; stories which are the common heritage of most ordinary Indians’.
Mapping the changes in the fortunes and functions of Ashrafia over the course of a century, Alam argues that madrassas, despite their medieval and pre-colonial roots, are ‘modern’ institutions. After the colonial encounter, the ulama have internalised the modern understanding of religion as something to be relegated to the private sphere. By virtue of this fact, the very notion of religion, the core concept that animates any madrassa, has gone through fundamental changes. Alam identifies several moments of departure in the history of Ashrafia – shifting the institution outside the qasba (1973-74), and constructing a separate complex for it (intermittently ongoing since 1970s); the bureaucratisation of the management and the minimisation of popular participation in the everyday activities of the madrassa (1971); the establishment of secular educational institutions (2000); and the channelling of the educational programmes of the state and central governments. In walking through these significant points of evolution, the author shows the Ashrafia madrassa to be strikingly similar to any other modern academic institution.
Alam’s discussion of the modernity of madrassas goes beyond the formulations of contemporary scholars Muhammad Qasim Zaman and Barbara Daly Metcalf. In their writings on Deobandi ideology and ulama, these scholars have demonstrated that the madrassas accept certain notions of modernity in so far as these concepts help to sustain, or increase, their authority. For instance, the Deobandi ulama often resisted state programmes which would introduce modern subjects into the madrassas, on the grounds that the state should not meddle with the affairs of religious institutions because they fall outside the domain of a secular state India. The Ashrafia madrassa too, argues Alam invoking sociologist Jose Casanova, differentiates between the religious (private) and the public sphere, while also vehemently opposing any state intervention. However, unlike the Deoband madrassa, Ashrafia runs institutions of both religious and modern education. Casanova defines secularisation in three ways: as religious decline, differentiation and privatisation. It is in the second sense of the theory that Ashrafia has continued to modernise itself. Interestingly, by adopting secular education alongside the religious, Ashrafia has, instead of leading to the decline of religion, added to its visibility and authority.
The ethnographic evidence in Inside a Madrasa, while strengthening Zaman and Metcalf’s observations on the modernisation of madrassas in colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan, also adds texture to the multiple debates on modernity. For instance, Alam notes that while explaining their decisions to send their children to Ashrafia, several families in Bihar stressed not the institution’s religious dimension but rather the ‘secular consideration of good virtues’ that they think the school will inculcate in their children. In a state such as Bihar, losing a child to petty crime tops the list of insecurities that parents often face. The madrassa education assures these parents that their children will not turn into criminals, an assurance the government schools do not provide them. The case of Abdul Shakur, from Baisi village in north Bihar, who sends two of his sons to study at Ashrafia, poignantly illustrates this consideration. When asked why he does not send his children to a regular school, he replies, ‘Wo bhi to school hi hai‘ (‘That [madrasa] too is a school’). Not only does he regard both schools simply as centres of education, but as someone who often migrates to the states of Assam and Punjab to work as an agricultural labourer, he also finds the madrassa ‘much cheaper’. Most importantly, though, as a father, he happily recalls his sons looking sehatmand (healthy) when they last visited the village two years ago.
Another prominent theme here is the formation of identity around social institutions such as maslak (sect) and caste. This latter issue, though still an intrinsic element in local power structures in India, has yet to receive adequate attention from social scientists working on madrassa education.
Alam, on the other hand, explores the mix of caste and maslak concerns in the spread of the madrassa networks. Despite objections from the Syeds of the Barelwi maslak, for instance, the Ansaris, following the same ideology but of lower caste, have succeeded in converting Ashrafia from a qasba to an ‘apex’ madrassa. In agreement with French sociologist Emile Durkheim, this story of struggle between two caste groups of the same maslak, for control over the transmission of religious teachings, underlines just how non-neutral many education institutes truly are. Hence, Alam suggests, the Ashrafia madrassa is an ‘expression of low-caste Muslims’ aspirations to find a place within the textual tradition of Islam’.
Although the construction of identity around maslak runs throughout Inside a Madrasa, the issue receives thorough examination in a chapter of its own. The Ashrafia madrassa, like any other madrassa, symbolises the culmination of maslaki solidarity and, in turn, strives to consolidate the maslaki community. In classrooms, the talaba (students) practise the Barelwi ideology through texts suggested in the curriculum; outside, they consume popular books from Ashrafia alumni and practise oratory through bazms and anjumans (debating societies). Hashiyas (annotations), shuruhs (commentaries) and tafsirs (exegeses), which interpret key verses and hadiths from the core texts, have also been an important mode of articulating the maslak-based ideology. While these interpretations help students to become acquainted with the intellectual foundation of their maslak, the oratory performances at bazm sessions help them to ‘internalise’ their maslaki identity.
This identity, however, is specifically created in opposition to the ‘other’. Curiously, though, this ‘other’ does not constitute non-Muslims – rather, it is the enemy within, so to speak. To Barelwis, for example, the ‘others’ are Muslims such as Deobandis and Ahle Hadis, whose interpretation of the canonical texts of Islam differ from their own. Emphasising this growing polarisation, Alam fears that ‘Indian Muslims [might] increasingly define their religious identity in terms of different maslaks.’
Of some consolation might be the observation that in its current incarnation, the Ashrafia madrassa could play an important role in the secularisation and modernisation of the whole town of Mubarakpur. Although currently regarded as ‘the’ madrassa of the Barelwi maslak, Ashrafia owns properties such as shopping complexes at prime locations in and outside Mubarakpur. And apart from managing institutions of modern education such as the Ashrafia Girls High School, it contributes significantly in actualising the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, campaign for elementary education for all, implemented in Mubarakpur entirely through madrassas.
In 2006, the Rajindar Sachar Committee report suggested that, given the Muslim community’s continued marginalisation, mass reservation policies were necessary. Indeed, this demand is progressively securing support from major political parties. In this context, Inside a Madrasa could not have been timelier. Alam’s work could prove to be a shot in the arm, especially for the Pasmanda Movement of lower-caste Muslims. Alam correlates the findings of the Sachar Committee report with the politics in many of today’s Indian madrassas, showing that it is the Dalits and lower-caste Muslims – the largest chunk of deprived Indian populace – who send their children to the madrassas. Hence, it is only this section, not the entire Muslim community, that is most in need of positive discrimination.
~ Arshad Amanullah is an independent documentary filmmaker and researcher based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at email@example.com.