Islamic Madrasa System, Past and Present, Make System More Beneficial for Future

Madrasa (plural Madaris) is an Arabic word derived from the root word d-r-s meaning lesson. So Madrasa is a place where lessons are taught. In Persian, it is Maktab (plural Makatib), Pathshala in Hindi/Sanskrit, and School in English. In the present context, in the Indian sub-continent Madrasa denotes only Islamic seminaries or institutions of Islamic…

Written by

Syyed Mansoor Agha

Published on

Madrasa (plural Madaris) is an Arabic word derived from the root word d-r-s meaning lesson. So Madrasa is a place where lessons are taught. In Persian, it is Maktab (plural Makatib), Pathshala in Hindi/Sanskrit, and School in English. In the present context, in the Indian sub-continent Madrasa denotes only Islamic seminaries or institutions of Islamic education. The Arabs use the term for schools, where Modern subjects as well as lessons in faith and religion are part of the curriculum.

It is believed that Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi (April 10, 1018 – October 14, 1092) better known as Khawaja Nizam al-Mulk, a Vazir in Seljuk regime, introduced the system of imparting inclusive education in Madrasa in the 11th century. A network of such Madaris also existed in our country during the Muslim rule. Since the syllabus was inclusive, the institutions produced not only Islamic scholars but also human resources for governance. The system attracted students as well as teachers from other religious communities also.

Lord Macaulay, who introduced an educational system based upon the British model, has noted in his report (1835) that every Mosque had a Madrasa with local resources, therefore literacy was very high in Muslims. These Madaris lost their edge over English Medium Schools established under British Occupation as English replaced Persian as an official language. Employment seekers in the Government services moved away. Worried people stepped up to protect Islamic knowledge and faith. Though the Madrasa system survived yet lost its inclusive character and became schools of exclusive Islamic learning. It was a big loss as the induction of Muslim youth with Islamic knowledge dwindled in civil administration. Hate for English hit the community.

With this shift, the character of classrooms also changed with the majority of students from the haves gone as also their generous financial support. However, public came in support with small donations. Since Madaris charge minimal or no tuition fees and provide free food also, children from poor families find sustenance there. The Managers eye upon Zakat contributions.

Funding through Zakat donations gave rise to some unscrupulous Madrasas. Anybody can get receipt books printed and appoint people to collect contributions on commission, without any accountability in the name of Madrasa. The community is not in a position to impose discipline in such cases as in some institutions accountability factor is generally overlooked. Misappropriation can be noticed if the lone founder/ manager lives lavishly and the staff members left to go hand to mouth.

Uniformity in syllabus and coordination in institutions of a locality has also become a victim of rivalries. Every Madrasa is free to teach whatever it likes. Since the public collection is relatively better for teaching higher books, many include them without able staff and enough students in class.

Some quarters want Madrasas to revert to an “inclusive” curriculum as suggested by Nizam al-Mulk. It does not look feasible, not because of lack of will but due to fear of interference by ill-intentioned rulers and financial restraints. However, modern techniques of teaching should be introduced to enhance output and excellence.

However, many Madaris have introduced basic knowledge of Maths, Science, English, etc. with Computer Science. Till recently past medicine (Tibb e Unani) was part of the Islamic syllabus. Even Darul Uloom Deoband had a separate Unani College; now it is closed. Generally, Islamic graduates used to practise medicine both to serve people and earn a livelihood.

In the early Islamic era, many high-ranking state functionaries and scholars were also noted businessmen. Their life in social service and earning a livelihood was balanced. This balance has now tilted anyhow. Even noted Muslims who tried to serve the cause of Islam, abandoned their established legal or medical profession. Sure, Allah is our Sustainer but earning for our own needs is better than looking for bestowment.



In the early British era, Indian Muslims were strictly averse to taking modern education. Lessons in English and Science were considered killers of the Islamic faith. This perception still agitates some minds. Let us listen to a notable scholar Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi, who is considered the pioneer of the present Islamic education system in India, and founder of Deoband Madarsa (later grew into Darul Uloom Deoband). He did not favour this perception. His noted disciple and biographer, Hzt Manazir Ahsan Gilani writes, “It is strange that Imamul Kabir wanted graduates of his educational mission, that is, pure Islamic, and the ancient sciences of wisdom, one should enter government schools and acquire modern sciences and arts.” Gilani Saheb noted, “Darul Uloom Deoband has so far failed to present a “correct model” of Nanautavi’s thought.” (Biography of Qasmi, vol. 1, p. 2)



Scope of modification always remains in all fields of life, and so is the case with the curriculum of Deeni Nisab. Imam Ghazali has broadly categorised education as (a) Divinely revealed (b) non-revealed, derived by reasoning, observation, experiments, and logic, etc.

The unrevealed knowledge is again divided in two categories (a) beneficial to humanity, and (b) disadvantageous.  Consider counting and maths, logic and philosophy, physiology and medicine, the art of administration and politics, geography and history, etc. are clubbed as beneficial. Understanding divinely revealed knowledge is ‘fard Al-ain’ i.e. obligatory. The Qur’ān is the basic text of this knowledge; actions and sayings of the Prophet ﷺ, i.e. Sunnah is the basic source of understanding the Qur’ān.

There is no controversy on this point and hence it makes the basis of Madrasa education. Acquiring beneficial knowledge, categorised as fard e kifaya is optional for individuals but obligatory for the community as a whole. The spectrum of these subjects is vivid and wide (in a nutshell modern education). The argument to induct all useful subjects in one curriculum is neither practical (beyond introductory level) nor financially affordable. Generally, Madrasas aim to produce Imams, Muezzins, teachers to Makatib, and knowledgeable people for every locality to assist people in performing rites like at times of Birth and Death, Nikah and Talaq, Qurbani and Aqeeqa, etc. The curriculum is designed accordingly.



However, Madrasas should think about facilitating their students’ induction in modern education as was envisaged by Maulana Nanautavi. It will benefit the community, country, and the institutions themselves in many ways. Following are the steps needed:

  1. Bi-furcate Madrasa certificate into (a) “Aalimiat”- equivalent to HS, and (b) “Fazeelat”- equivalent to Graduation.
  2. Facilitate interested students to take High School Exam of the board, as HS certificate is needed everywhere.
  3. Get your Certificates recognised by Universities like JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University Aligarh, and MANU Hyderabad, etc. for students’ admission after Aalimiat or Fazeelat.

This will benefit the community tremendously:

  1. Youngsters educated from Madrasas and trained in Islamic wisdom and etiquette will play an important role in advancing the cause of Islam when entering the mainstream of civil and social activities.
  2. Intake of Madrasas from the middle class, who wish to see their children as practising Muslims and also want to prepare them for various jobs as well, will be attracted. Many will gladly contribute to and compensate teaching and lodging expenses.
  3. Intake in classes will diversify. At present, it is heavily tilted towards have-nots.



In the recent past, several visionaries have developed quite a successful system of inclusive education and training. For example, MESCO in Hyderabad and Shaheen in Bidar, Karnataka. The former is a hugely developed institution providing integrated education with an understanding of the Qur’ān and Islamic values.  Shaheen has developed into a Group of versatile Educational Institutions. Started in 1989 in a small room with 16 students by Abdul Qadeer Engr, now fetches over 8 thousand boys and girls, engaged in gaining knowledge and training in an ideal environment with the mission to “teach and take care, induce values and provide a pedestal to achieve their goals and realize their ambitions in the world of competition.”

There is a long list of such emerging institutions but the system needs to multiply without disturbing the genuine Madrasa system.



Problems of Madaris are heterogeneous according to their size, management proficiency and location. One is non-coordination in curriculum and gradation in their levels. Accountability regarding finances is shockingly absent. They are badly divided into Masalik. No coordination exists even in institutions of the same Maslak. Calls to create loose federations fell on deaf ears. Madaris under Government-controlled Boards are also under strain. Millat and especially individuals running their own madrasas should be alert as a lone lamb becomes easy prey.

There is another problem we need to address. Madaris are in a huge deficit due to the Covid pandemic. Traditionally, people donate generously in the month of Ramadan. The last two Ramadans fell during the pandemic, resulting in negligible collections. The existence of many Madaris is in peril. Modification and promotion of the institutions is a welcome concern, but at present, we need to lend a hand and help Madaris to sustain.

[[email protected]]