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An Islamic Seminary of Lucknow: Cloister or College?

By Christopher Taylor

The Islamic seminary (madrasa) of Nadwat ul-‘Ulama sprawls along the crest of a slope rising up from the northeast bank of the river Gomti. From its perch, Nadwa (as the madrasa is locally known), since its construction in 1896, overlooks a wide swath of the city-scape of Old Lucknow.  New Lucknow has filled in behind Nadwa as urban development ballooned to the north and east, effectively making Nadwa the geographical center of this expanding metropolis.  Yet, despite geographical centrality, Nadwa is sidelined in the social imaginaries of Lucknow’s urbanites. Many Lucknowites, who style themselves forward-thinking, view this madrasa as a relic of the past. Those, who were not students or faculty of Nadwa, rarely enter, or give sustained attention to Nadwa, whether Muslim or not.

In modern India, critics of madrasa education have termed it a  ‘medieval’ and disorganized form of learning with little emphasis on job skills or modern subjects. Yet, existing urban madrasas such as Nadwa in Lucknow are accepting more students every year and new ones are opening in even more remote villages.  This growth suggests that a sizable number of Muslims do not view madrasas as part of a burdensome past to be cast away in order to join India’s modern future. For many people I spoke with in Lucknow during my two years living there, Nadwa is still a valid route for educational advancement.  If reforms are needed in madrasas, many people, who knew of Nadwa, said, they are a little different from the improvements needed across the board in north India’s spotty educational system.

An Alternate Route to Employment

India’s primary school system is still beset  with lack of coverage in rural areas and slim oversight of teachers and administrators. India began to open education up to privatization in the 1990s to meet skyrocketing demand as its population cleared a billion. Private schools fill the gaps in educational coverage and basic literacy. But many charge fees out of proportion to the low-quality instruction. Madrasas charge no fees, getting income from wealthy pious locals in Lucknow and from the alumni. As Zahir, a diminutive young madrasa student with an intense gaze, explained to me, “I began madrasa for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to have an education that was composed of entirely worldly subjects. Second, I had no money. They’re not supposed to take fees but many government school teachers do.”

“Nadwa is the best madrasa in India,” Zahir asserted to me when we spoke, and many share his view. Nadwa attracts students from every state in India. The Islamic school offers English classes and general education courses that cover the basics of the government school curriculum, as do many madrasas in India. Zahir planned, along with many other Nadwa students, to sit for the government exam that certified madrasa graduates with a secondary school degree. This allows them to parlay madrasa schooling into other divergent opportunities. “I’ve already been offered a job teaching Urdu at my old madrasa,” Zahir explained, “My plan is to teach there, for now, and save up for my BA degree.”


Read Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, for other stories.


Critics accuse madrasas of holding Indian Muslims back from advancement, although government surveys found that only 4% of Muslims (0.5% of Indians) attend madrasa full-time. But madrasa students view religious studies as one  ‘credential’ among many that are available in modern India.  Some students declared that their prior education in rural schools did not prepare them for university, and madrasas are stepping-stones to universities. For others, this religious credential is at times sufficient for achieving students’ goals: literacy and schooling, social status in their hometowns, respect in villages where caste prejudice remains strong, Islamic learning and Arabic skills that open the doors to mosque jobs in big cities and in other countries. Religious schools are equally valid for seeking job skills as other Indian schools. Or, they are justifiable merely in terms of the personal spiritual development a student attains by becoming an Islamic scholar, even if he then serves as an accountant.

Religious Education in a Secularizing World

Late one evening, after the blaze of the India’s daily heat turned to the humid chill of night, I wheeled my bicycle down the main road of Nadwa leading to the mosque. I had arrived to meet a friend there just after the sunset prayers, and hundreds, perhaps a thousand, of students and professors flowed out of the mosque at the center of the madrasa’s sprawling, tree-lined campus.  Among leafy hedges, the students gathered into chatty clumps to enjoy the breeze billowing out the loose cotton fabric of their traditional white flowing shirts.  A sense of calm and of a life free of the cares that plagued the world outside surrounded the casual gatherings of students, especially due to the meditative mindset induced by the twenty minutes of silent, repetitive focus during the sun-down prayers.

Many educated people across the world speak of our modern world as gradually becoming a more secularized place. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru predicted in the 1950s that religion would  ‘whither’ away in modern India.  As early as 1966, the TIME magazine famously ran a cover story “Is God Dead?” But in 1969, another TIME cover asked, “Is God Coming Back to Life?” as many people continue to have the impression that religion still has a role to play in a secular society. Wheeling my bicycle down the path, I recalled the original meaning of the word secular, from the Latin saeculum for  ‘world’, as the American sociologist Jose Casanova reminds us. In the Catholic Canon itself, the word  ‘secular’ was used to describe those priests that were doing the work of Christ  ‘in the world’ as opposed to those clergy who remained cloistered within the monastery.

“People think that madrasa graduates only know religion, but I want to show them that I can work a job, too!” Qasim, an excitable, bright student told me, “I learned software coding in evening classes in Lucknow. I want to update madrasas’ websites, to make outreach easier for them. I also was recruited to be an Arabic translator, for a business in Qatar, but I told them I want to finish my studies first.” Madrasa graduates see it as a point of pride that they began their educational career within the madrasa but still have big plans for their life in the outside world.  Some students go on to university. Others become preachers in mosques or faculty of madrasa.  All the students I spoke with believed that it was their mission to instruct others in correct ways of praying, ethics such as integrity and resisting corruption, morals, and Islamic spirituality – whether they worked in an office or a pulpit.  Religious education, in their view, is necessary for success in this life.  Students were concerned about wasteful spending or the lure of excessive consumerism. Life in Nadwa is simple and spartan. Students rise before 5am sunrise for prayers, performing absolutions with cold water.  They make meals of lentils, bread, and rice.  I spoke with many boys who chose this hard life, even when their brothers become accountants or pharmacists who drive flashy motorbikes and frequent India’s newest malls. Madrasa students were allowed to leave their walls and eat fast-food, too, but their prayerful daily routine gave them a balanced view of the stresses of a fast-paced  twenty-first century life. “When you are overwhelmed by stress, or angry with a person,” a student told me, “it really helps to just wash your hands, face, and feet” as Muslims do to purify themselves before prayer, “I always find, after that your anger slips away! You can handle situations with more calm.”

The religious scholars-in-training in the madrasa, in this view, are analogous to the  ‘secular priest’ of medieval Catholic Europe. Philosopher Charles Taylor recently termed our era a  ‘secular age’ in which  ‘fragility of belief’ gives rise to more ideological skepticism but also to more assertive expressions of religion.  The intermingling of multiple faith traditions and projects of secularization in today’s world brings everyone’s beliefs into question. But high standards of ethics and moral behavior are seen as increasingly rare. In the view of these madrasa students, our secular world is not one from which religion is departing, but a world in which religion changes to become more relevant, more immanent, and more present in people’s daily lives. Their madrasa provides a proper blend of ethics, spirituality, and worldly learning to prepare them for their adulthood in twenty-first century India.  “Education is for serving society, not only for making money!” Bilal, a city-born student with a deep voice, told me, “I used to get into lots of trouble. Whatever bad there was to do, I did it. Then my dad sent me to madrasa. My first year was so hard, but it changed me. Those who have patience with Allah, he will have patience with them. Now, I want to be a leader for my community.”


Christopher Taylor is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Boston University and graduate fellow of the National Science Foundation. He lived and performed research in Lucknow, India, in 2012-2013.  His dissertation is based on six Islamic social welfare associations including one of India’s largest Islamic seminaries, the madrasa of Nadwat ul ‘Ulama.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Saif ul Hadi #

    Great read! The tension between the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ is increasingly felt in all arenas of the public sphere. By showing what brings us together is often more powerful than what takes us apart – like the author has brilliantly done in this piece – we create greater empathy and understanding for the Other and help shift the terms of the discourse from competition to collaboration.

    April 21, 2014

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