How To Reconcile Traditional Islamic Values With Demands Of Modernity - Part 1

How To Reconcile Traditional Islamic Values With Demands Of Modernity - Part 1

by Arshia Malik - Mar 17, 2023 07:02 PM +05:30 IST
How To Reconcile Traditional Islamic Values With Demands Of Modernity - Part 1Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammed Abduh
  • Modernisation in, and of, Indian Islam is not possible without the modernisation of madrasa boards in India.

    This is the first of a two-part series making an intellectual case for the same.

The word "madrasa" comes from the Arabic word "madrasah," which means "a place of study."

Madrasas vary in size and scope, and can range from small neighbourhood institutions to large, well-established universities. In some countries, madrasas are supported and regulated by the government, while in others they are privately funded and run.

Madrasas have been an integral part of the Indian Muslim community for centuries, playing a vital role in the education and spiritual development of generations of Muslims. 

Madrasas are traditional Islamic schools that offer education in Islamic studies, Arabic language, and other religious subjects. They are an important part of the Islamic education system and have been established in various countries around the world, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. 

The curriculum in madrasas typically includes the study of the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, and other Islamic subjects, as well as Arabic language and literature.

The teachings in madrasas are based on the Islamic traditions and are aimed at providing students with a comprehensive understanding of Islamic theology and culture. In addition to religious education, some madrasas may also offer secular subjects such as mathematics, science, and literature.

However, Indian madrasas have been the subject of controversy and debate in recent years, with concerns raised about their curriculum, teaching methods, and their potential role in promoting religious extremism. There have also been criticisms that the education provided by madrasas is outdated and insufficient in preparing students for the modern world. 

The history of madrasas in India can be traced back to the medieval period, during the reign of the Delhi Sultanate.

These traditional Islamic schools were established to provide education in Islamic studies and Arabic language and were initially patronised by the ruling Muslim elites.

Over time, madrasas expanded in number and scope, becoming an integral part of India's Muslim community.

During the Mughal period, the madrasa system was further developed and expanded. This process ultimately peaked with the establishment of the Darul Uloom Deoband, founded in 1866 in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

These madrasas were known for their emphasis on traditional Islamic studies and were influential in shaping the religious and cultural identity of India's Muslims.

In the 19th century, as British colonial rule became more entrenched in India, madrasas faced increased scrutiny and regulation from the colonial government.

The British viewed madrasas as centres of religious and cultural resistance and sought to bring them under their control by implementing a system of state-funded education that favoured Western-style schools over traditional Islamic institutions.

Arif Mohammed Khan, scholar and Indian politician and a former member of the Indian Parliament, in his book Text and Context: Quran and Contemporary Challenges mentions Jamaluddin Afghani and his criticism of the Ulema.

Syed Jamaluddin Afghani was a prominent Muslim thinker, reformer, and activist of the late 19th century.

He was born in 1838 in Iran but spent much of his life traveling throughout the Islamic world, including Egypt, India, Turkey, and Afghanistan.

Afghani was known for his ideas about Islamic reform and pan-Islamism, which called for a revival of Islamic culture and a rejection of Western influence. He argued that Islamic societies needed to modernise and adapt to the changing world, but should do so on their own terms, rather than simply imitating Western models.

Afghani's ideas and activism had a significant impact on Islamic thought and politics in the 20th century. He inspired a generation of Muslim reformers and nationalists, including Muhammad Abduh and Hassan al-Banna, (who went on their different trajectories later) and helped to shape the development of political Islam.

His advocacy for pan-Islamism also contributed to the rise of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the Muslim world.

Despite his influence, Afghani was a controversial figure in his time, and his ideas were often viewed with suspicion by both conservative religious authorities and Western colonial powers. He was arrested and exiled multiple times throughout his life, and his exact political and religious views remain a subject of debate among scholars.

Nonetheless, he is widely regarded as one of the most important Muslim intellectuals of the modern era.

What is important is that Jamaluddin Afghani was known for his criticism of traditional Muslim clerics or ulema, whom he saw as obstacles to Islamic reform and progress.

In his view, the ulema were too focused on preserving traditional Islamic knowledge and practices and were resistant to change and innovation.

In one of his most famous speeches, delivered in 1883 at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Afghani launched a scathing attack on the ulema. He argued that the ulema had become corrupt and had abandoned their duty to promote the welfare of the Muslim community.

He accused them of clinging to outdated ideas and failing to engage with the challenges facing Muslims in the modern world.

Afghani's critique of the ulema was particularly focused on their relationship with political power. He argued that the ulema had become too closely aligned with ruling elites and were more interested in maintaining their own privileges and status than in advocating for the interests of ordinary Muslims. He called for a new generation of Muslim scholars and leaders who would be independent of political influence and committed to promoting social justice and reform.

Afghani's attack on the ulema was controversial at the time, and his ideas were met with resistance and opposition from traditionalist religious authorities. However, his critique helped to spark a broader debate about the role of the ulema in Muslim societies and contributed to the emergence of new, reformist Islamic movements in the 20th century.

His famous and much analysed debate with Muhammed Abduh, an influential Muslim scholar and religious reformer and one of the key figures of the Islamic modernist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, should be a part of the curriculum at Jamia Millia, Osmania, and Aligarh Universities.

Afghani believed in returning to the original sources of Islam and using independent reasoning to interpret them, while Abduh believed in adapting Islam to changing times and circumstances through reinterpretation of Islamic texts using reason and critical thinking. 

Despite their differences, both aimed to promote Islamic reform and modernisation while staying true to core Islamic values and principles. Their ideas and debates continue to influence contemporary Islamic thought, particularly in the area of Islamic modernism.

Many Muslim scholars today continue to grapple with the question of how to reconcile traditional Islamic values with the demands of modernity, and how to reinterpret Islamic texts considering changing social and political realities.

To be continued…

Arshia Malik is a columnist and commentator on social issues with particular emphasis on Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
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