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The Indian Muslim and Madrassa, mirroring change and identity

By Huma Kidwai

The contemporary Muslims of India and the larger subcontinent find themselves constantly negotiating between their past and present practices, often creating a new set of contemporary traditions. ‘Indian Muslim’ is by no means a monolithic identity. To define a Muslim’s identity in India, hundreds of variables work in tandem and in response to the national and global socio-political affairs. They commonly include gender, socio-economic status, education, region, maslak, urban-rural character, profession, caste influence, local politics, local and global perceptions, etc. Another interesting group of identifying markers that Indian Muslims often use to describe themselves has to do with where they place themselves on a perceived spectrum of modernity. Hence, there are ‘liberal’ Muslims, ‘traditional’ Muslims, ‘secular’ Muslims, ‘fundamental’ Muslims, ‘moderate’ Muslims, so on and so forth. These assumed identities inevitably reflect in the institutions they manage.

I am presently studying madrassas in India. There is no official count of madrassas in the country, but the number ranges from ten to over fifty thousand. Muslims and madrassas, in my observations and analysis so far, seem to mirror each other in the process of evolution they are undergoing. Indian madrassas, like most madrassas in other countries of the world, appear to be caught between the need to keep their identity as centres of Islamic studies and culture and to sustain themselves as relevant to the present-day needs of the communities they serve. Grappling with such tensions, several countries with sizeable Muslim populations have adopted educational reforms and policies to ‘modernize’ and ‘mainstream’ madrassa education. The research I am doing in India aims to analyze the situation generated by a recent policy initiative taken by the government of India to ‘modernize’ madrassas and to explore how this policy is appropriated at distinct administrative levels. In this brief write-up, I want to initiate a discussion on the nature of evolution Madrassas have historically undergone in the country and how does this change reflect in the state and identity of Muslims in India.

Islam reached the Indian subcontinent through a variety of ways – trade, migration, preaching, and military invasions. The ways in which Muslims interacted with the local community influenced the nature, scope, and role of madrassas in that region (Riaz, 2010). More than a thousand madrassas were funded by the state during the pre-colonial period under the rulers of the Sultanate and Mughal dynasties. Various accounts indicate that due to the rulers’ patronage of education in general, the curriculum of madrassas included both religious and secular subjects (Nair, 2008). Sikand (2006) points out that both ‘transmitted’ as well as ‘rational’ sciences were taught at the madrassas, because the notion that the two were somehow opposed to each other was quite foreign to the medieval Indian Muslim educational system. Emphasis on both sciences helped the madrassa graduates acquire employment in royal courts and various branches of administration (Nair, 2008). Records indicate that several madrassas provided education to orphans, expenses for lodging and food were borne by the state, and government subsidies were provided regularly (Riaz, 2010).

With the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the British gained supremacy. The British rule brought about a new administrative and educational set up which changed various aspects of Indian life. Their view of education was governed by their understanding of religion not only as being subordinate to the state but also as an aspect of life to be relegated to the ‘private’ sphere (Halstead, 2004). By virtue of this logic, madrassas, regarded as religious schools, came under the scrutiny of the ruling power, especially after the first war of Indian Independence in 1857. The Muslim nobility lost its political and economic power and traditional educational set ups no longer had access to aid and endowments.

The state-madrassa relationship reached a crisis when many of the ulemas adopted a hostile attitude towards the western system of education brought in by the British rulers. In their efforts to preserve traditional Islamic learning, they began isolating dini taleem (religious education) from duniyaavi talim (worldly education) and, in the process, closed the doors to modern knowledge. Sikand and many other scholars conclude that this was not only the beginning of the divide between religious and mainstream education, but also the time at which the madrassa curriculum came to be seen as rigidly unchangeable and somewhat closed to outside influence (Nair, 2008). Hence, the madrassas that were initially secular in character became more ‘religious,’ [m1] once the British policies, directly or indirectly, threatened their very existence.

As a result of their bitter relationship with the state under the British, the newly founded schools of religious education rejected state patronage and support, as it was thought that this would make them vulnerable to interference. Instead, they looked towards the community for support and funds. As a result, the social composition of the madrassas began to change, with the students coming from non-noble families and financially poor households. On the other hand, better off families began to send their children to modern English medium schools, because the madrassas no longer offered a scope for elite jobs in British run government offices, especially in administration and law. Thus, the profile of the madrassa underwent a significant change in terms of the socio-economic background of its students, its resource status, and its potential to ensure employment (Nair, 2008; Riaz, 2012; Sikand, 2006).

Following India’s independence from British rule, although a large number of madrassas emerged across the country, the debate between traditional religious education and ‘modernism’ began to deepen, with various schools and masalaks taking their own position. An ‘ideological battle’ within the community of Muslim religious educationists emerged (Riaz, 2010). The lack of consolidation of the various schools of thought is reflected in the differences that prevail in the madrassa curriculum today. There is no uniformity in their curriculum or textbooks, or even in the number of years required to obtain various degrees or levels of learning.

 In conclusion, Indian madrassas have lost much of their status as a sought-after educational institution. Their subsequent course of development is based on the perceived need to protect their image as ‘religious’ educational institutions as well as to establish their relevance to contemporary society. Moreover, their status as a minority institution in a Hindu majority (though officially secular) state appears to have intensified the debate around madrassas’ role and function. With a lack of resources and support, the quality of education has deteriorated significantly with untrained teachers and poor infrastructure, leaving the low-income Muslims, who at times prefer madrassas to government schools, with few options for quality education.

The history of madrassa education in India explains the various deprivations, reservations, and insecurities in the community at present. It also offers insights into the pattern of responses and resistances that state-community interactions have propagated in the past. To address the needs of the community and mainstream it with national growth and development, it is important for policy makers to acknowledge the diversity and complexity in the political and social identity of Muslims and their institutions. If another opportunity arises, I would like to shed some light on the nature of the present state-madrassa relationship in India and the existing government schemes and policies to support education and development of the community. The present identity politics, and the way it has been shaped through the colonial and post-colonial influences, further complicates how the community relates with the government and the world at large.

[Huma Kidwai is a doctoral (Ed.D) candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies. For her research, she is studying state-madrassa partnerships for educational reform and development in India. Huma graduated from Harvard University with a Masters degree (Ed.M) in International Education Policy. She also holds a Masters degree in Child Development from Delhi University where she focused on Early Childhood Care and Education. Huma has worked at the World Bank in New Delhi as a research analyst with the Poverty Reduction Group for a research initiative called Moving-out-of-Poverty. Currently, Huma is working as a Research Associate at Columbia Global Centers (CGC) on a 5-year long collaborative demonstration project of CGC | South Asia, the Government of India, and key stakeholders in primary education in India. Through her work in research and design of this intervention project she works in close collaboration with educators and development practitioners who have an interest in improving the quality of education in rural India. She can be reached at] 


Riaz, A. (2010). Madrassah education in pre-colonial and colonial South Asia. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 20(10), 1–18.

Nair, P. (2008). The state and madrassas in India. Non Governmental Public Action Programme, Birmingham: University of Birmingham. Retrieved on Nov 10, 2011, from

Halstead, M. (2004). An Islamic concept of education. Comparative Education, 40, 517–529.

Sikand, Y. (2006). The Indian madaris and the agenda of reform. In J.P. Hartung & H. Reifeld (Eds.), Islamic education, diversity, and national identity: Dini madaris in India post 9/11 (pp. 269–286). New Delhi, India: Sage.

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