Syed Manazir Ahsan Gilani’s book Musalmanon ka Nizam-e- Taleem-o-Tarbiat (The System of Education and Training under the Muslims) is a good source of information about how the business of acquiring and imparting religious education used to be conducted till the time when technological advancement — coinciding with the British rule — initiated fundamental change in the concept, practice and social character of education in the subcontinent.
Gilani was born in Bihar and at the time of writing this book, in 1942, was faithfully serving the state of Hyderabad which was faithful to the colonial masters, just like other princely states. His book is a passionate defence of the pre-colonial system of Muslim religious education against criticism that came not only from the recipients of the so-called ‘modern’ or ‘English’ education but, significantly, from some of the maulvis of the modern era as well. Gilani quotes in his preface a Deobandi maulvi — without mentioning his name — as follows:
“The fate handed over the task of interpreting Islam to such men (sufis and alims) in this country who did not properly know its teachings, and whatever little they knew they did not practice…. Allah’s book is in Arabic and these men wrote and spoke Persian and did not have even a distant inclination towards the Arabic language…. The result is obvious: the monotheistic religion which originated in Hijaz came to suffer a sorry fate in Bharat.” (The Urdu phrase used in the last sentence of this quotation is “mitti paleed ho gayi.”)
One could easily sense where the motivation of such views lay. The Deobandi movement sought (just as enthusiastically as the newly-surfaced Ahle Hadith sect but perhaps a little more tactfully) to undermine the local form the religion had taken in the course of centuries. Both were influenced, to different degrees, by the Salafis or Wahabis from Najd, which had become the ruling credo in what came to be called Saudi Arabia. Hence the harsh criticism of whatever happened earlier in this field in the subcontinent. (Gilani feels that the wholesale rejection of the past was meant to highlight the significance of Shah Waliullah and his school.)
Highly incensed by this ‘unfair’ criticism, Gilani set out to write a brief article on the subject and ended up writing a 750-page tome, employing his near-encyclopaedic knowledge about the conventional system of religious education, in the course of 20 days. The book is full of information about how the old system worked. Those connected with that system belonged to the shurafa castes (mostly Syed) — who are termed as ‘ilmi gharanas’ (upper-caste clans who had the monopoly of knowledge) — aided and supported by big or small kings, nawabs, amirs and aristocrats. The madrasas were located either in mosques or more commonly in the havelis or deorhis of the amirs. Gilani mentions a number of maulvis who enjoyed the hospitality of the wealthy zamindars of respectable origin for decades in their divan-khanas.
Students travelled to well-known madrasas in their regions of residence to stay and study. Their food came from the kitchens of generous, God-fearing shurafa households. Books used for educating the students were calligraphed by hand and used hand-made paper, ink and pens. In order to acquire a book, one had to first gain access to the personal collection of someone who owned it and then copy it (or have it copied by warraqs — calligraphers who made a living out of it ) word-by-word. Compared with printing which had become common by the end of the nineteenth century, this traditional system of hand-written books afforded more effective control of the written word, so that knowledge did not go astray and reach those who were supposed to have no connection with it. One great grievance of the progeny of the ilmi gharanas against the printing of books and the new system of universal education was precisely this: that it resulted in the ‘devaluation of knowledge’ (ilm ki na-qadri) by throwing it open to all, including those who were unsuitable as a result of their low-birth status to access it.
The curriculum was limited to manqoolat — the Holy Quran, the Hadith and commentaries thereon, i.e. the Tafseer and the Fiqh. Gilani is of the firm view that maqoolat — philosophy (actually ilm-e-kalam), logic and other non-religious disciplines — had no place in the syllabus of the Muslim education in the subcontinent until a few centuries previously. He feels that the inclusion of maqoolat in the curriculum was a harmful innovation and that it might have been a result of a conspiracy hatched by Shias during that period to bifurcate the madrasa syllabus.
Discussing what motivated upper-caste Muslim youths to study, Gilani quotes from the classic Akhbar-ul-Akhiar as follows: “Once some students were talking and trying to know each other’s circumstances as to how they described their aim in acquiring knowledge. A few of them, artificially, said that their ultimate wish was to know the divinity [ma’rifat-e Ilahi], while others simply spoke the truth and said that their aim in getting educated was to gain economic benefit.”
Gilani compares the ‘crisis’ of the so-called ilmi gharanas during the colonial era with the situation that prevailed two centuries earlier when the disintegration of the Mughal empire had disturbed the smooth lifestyle of the purveyors of knowledge. Faced with economic hardship, they had to abandon the profession of knowledge and take up that of soldiery and had joined different local armies fighting with each other to gain control of relatively smaller tracts of land. Fortunately for them, they were traditionally well versed in using both pen and sword. However, as a result of such economic crisis, the search for knowledge declined and the institutions that imparted religious education were badly affected.
It becomes abundantly clear that what concerns Gilani — and all the‘reform’ or ‘educational’ movements among Muslims of the subcontinent — is the economic interest of the shurafa who had monopolised knowledge, physical power and land, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2011.
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