The Madrassah – Historical Evolution of the Syllabus

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

In the year 1080, Malik Shah, Abbasid sultan of Baghdad appointed Nizamul Mulk as his Grand Vizier. It was a period when the Islamic world was divided between the Fatimids in Cairo and the Abbasids in Baghdad. There was an intense military, political and ideological rivalry between these two camps. . The rivalry was ideological, political and military. The Fatimids were Shiite Seveners and believed that the head of the Islamic community was most properly an Imam in the lineage of Ali (r). The Abbasids, on the other hand, were Sunnis and believed in the Khilafat as established by the first four Caliphs. The Fatimids controlled all of North Africa, Egypt and Syria while the Abbasids held on to the Islamic domains East of the river Euphrates. The control of Egypt gave an immense advantage to the Fatimids. They controlled the trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Cairo prospered while Baghdad withered.

The ideological rivalry extended to patronage of learning and the trades. The Fatimids started the Al Azhar University in Cairo in 969 CE. Other centers of learning dotted the landscape of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt. The Abbasids were not far behind the Fatimids in this competition.

Nizamul Mulk was perhaps the best administrator the Islamic world has known after the Caliph Omar bin al Khattab (r). He streamlined the Abbasid administration, rationalized the tax collection system and stimulated the economy that had been battered by the loss of trade with the Mediterranean. But the Nizam is best remembered for starting and patronizing a string of universities in the Abbasid domains. The best known of these was the Nizamiya college in Baghdad which attracted the renowned scholars of the age. The celebrated Al Gazzali was a Professor at Nizamiya college in 1090. The syllabus developed at Nizamiya college is known as the Nizamiya syllabus.

It is a tribute to the wisdom and far sightedness of the great vizier that his syllabus has survived almost a thousand years. And it is a sad reflection on the contemporary madaris that the same syllabus, more correctly a regressed version of it, is still followed. The world went through the Crusades, the Mongol devastations, the discovery of America, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Industrial Revolution, the consolidation and disappearance of the British empire, the two World Wars, several moon landings and yet a shrunken version of the “Nizamiya Nisab” is taught in our schools!

The shift from a comprehensive syllabus to a parochial one focusing purely on “deen” took place gradually over a period of three hundred years. In South Asia, we find the impact of three different influences shaping the madaris. First, the internal evolution of religious thought in the subcontinent. Second, the impact of the British Raj. And third, the influence of Saudi institutions and oil money.

The first indication of this shift is noticeable in the early 18th century, immediately after the period of Aurangzeb. Largely as a result of the forceful and compelling writings of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi of the Punjab, the study of fiqh and fatwa gained ascendancy over tasawwuf. The syllabus shifted in favor of the exoteric over the esoteric. Fatwa e Alamgiri, compiled under the direction of the Emperor, became a part of the syllabus. As the Mogul empire disintegrated and political and military initiative passed on to the Europeans, the disciplines that dealt with statecraft and civics were also dropped. Living under British Raj meant that the Indians had to learn to live as loyal subjects of the British crown. As European culture sank roots on Indian soil, the study of philosophy and mathematics was also dropped from the Madaris, in part because these subjects were considered “tainted” from their contact with the firangees.

A further shrinking of the deeni syllabus took place largely as a result of the contact of Indian ulema with Arabia. The syllabus in the schools of Mecca and Madina was always strong in Hadith. After World War I, the Saudis gained ascendancy in the Arabian peninsula and imposed their strict, Wahhabi brand of Islam on the Arabs. The ulema from the subcontinent who went to study at Mecca and Medina came into contact with a stripped down version of Islam, focused solely on the external observations of the Shariah. The sciences of Hadith took preponderance over the sciences of the Fiqh.

In the 19th century, as the colonial authorities pushed secular education, defeatism and isolation overtook the Muslim educational establishment. No longer enjoying the patronage of the rulers, the madaris retreated into the deeni corner, partly to preserve themselves and partly to safeguard, as they saw it, the religious heritage of the believers in the face of the onslaught from the unbelieving firangees. Whatever philosophy and mathematics was taught in the religious schools was gradually abandoned because the Europeans knew far more about these subjects than did the natives and the madrassah could not compete with the Westernized secular school in these subjects. This bifurcation of education into deeni and dunawi (religious versus secular) has persisted to this day. Indeed, it has become embedded into the structure of the madrassah. Any attempt to “reform” the madrassah must take into consideration this deep seated distrust of the secular sciences which are perceived to spread atheism and are construed to be the vanguard of a decadent Western culture which allows free mixing of boys and girls, liquor, dancing, premarital sex and the destruction of the family.

After World War II there was a large infusion of oil money and the Saudi influence on the curriculum in the madaris accelerated. The science of hadith became the central focus along with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. The sciences of the soul and the sciences of the heart were dropped from the syllabus, and the madrassah became a deeni replica of the secular schools, which catered to duniya. This was the flip side of secularism wherein the study of religious sciences is dropped in favor of science, technology and secular sociology.

In the more recent past, modern influences have exerted an enormous influence on the evolution of Islamic education. As the global secular materialist civilizations sweeps the planet, local cultures and local religions come under increasing pressure. Disciplines that do not command the interest of the market place are dropped in favor of those that have a need in the market place. For instance, computer science replaces philosophy and accounting replaces arts. “Deeni Taleem” has been further pushed into a corner and has become but a caricature of the comprehensive, cosmopolitan self that it once was.

The Evolution of Syllabus in the Madrassahs of India and Pakistan – A Case Study

During the Middle Ages, the vast subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was a border state in the mosaic of the Islamic world extending from Spain to Indonesia. Borders were porous. Sultans and potentates vied with each other to attract and hold men of learning. Tradesman traveled freely. There was a constant flux of ideas from one part of the Islamic world to the other. Geography dictated to a large extent the interaction of the Indo-Pak landmass with Central Asia, Iran and the Arab world.

Islam appeared on the southwestern coast of Kerala in the eighth and 9th centuries through trade and commerce. The southwest monsoons brought Arab traders from Yemen and Arabia to Indian shores. They brought with them incense and gold and took back spices and ivory. They married Indian women and a thriving Islamic community evolved over the centuries. This community was part of the trading network in the Indian ocean which was dominated by Muslim traders until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Trade brought with it the religion, customs and educational systems of the Middle East. The traders established madaris all along the Caromandal coast where the syllabus and the mode of instruction were similar to those in the coastal areas of the Arabian peninsula. However, very little historical information about these madaris has survived today.

At the other end of the subcontinent, in the northwest, Islam was introduced through Omayyad invasions in the 8th century. Mohammed bin Qasim captured Sindh and Multan and made them a part of the Arab empire. Multan became a thriving educational and cultural center and many a fine madrassah graced its landscape. The curriculum, method of teaching and the structure of the madrassah were similar to those in Central Asia and the Persian heartland. The evolution of the madrassah in this region followed the general historical trends in the broader Islamic world.

Islam made its inroads into the heart of the subcontinent when the renowned Sufi sheikh Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti moved to Ajmer from Multan (1190). Soon thereafter, the victory of Mohammed Ghori at the first of battle of Panipet (1192) solidified the political hold of Muslims on the Gangetic plains. The infant sultanate of Delhi was still struggling to consolidate itself when Gengiz Khan, after laying waste Samarqand, Merv and Bukhara, appeared on the Indus (1219-22). For forty years thereafter, the primary contribution of the Delhi sultans to Indian history was to hold off the Mongol hordes and protect India from the devastation suffered by Central Asia and Iran.

It was not until a hundred years later, during the reign of Alauddin Khilji (d 1302), that the Delhi sultanate succeeded in consolidating its hold on the subcontinent. The conquests of the Khilji general Malik Kafur brought southern India into the orbit of Delhi. The Tughlaq dynasty inherited the vast Indian empire and under Mohammed bin Tughlaq projected its influence as far away as China.

The spirituality of the Sufi shaikhs attracted a large number of Buddhists and Hindus to Islam. A growing Muslim community required the services of a large cadre of ulema and kazis to teach the basics of the Shariah and to man the judicial arm of the state. The local madaris were not equipped to produce the ulema and the kazis in such large numbers. The sultans therefore sought out well known scholars and kazis from around the world to come to India and help with the judicial work.

The experience of the celebrated world traveler Ibn Batuta at the court of Mohammed bin Tughlaq in Delhi provides an illustration. Ibn Batuta, a resident of Tangier in Morocco, was trained in the Maliki Fiqh. Mohammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351), the emperor of India desired to embellish his court with scholars schooled in Fiqh. When Ibn Batuta arrived at the court of the emperor, he was received with great honor and was appointed a judge in Delhi. Ibn Batuta served more than a year at the Delhi court before he tired of the idiosyncrasies of the emperor and escaped to the Caromandal coast of India on his way to Malaya and China.

The character of the madrassah and its structure reflected the political and social context of India in the thirteenth and 14th centuries. Since judges were in short supply, it was difficult to support a curriculum in Fiqh and Hadith. Instead, a study of akhlaq was emphasized in the schools. The emphasis on the study of akhlaq differentiated the madaris of India from those in Arab heartland of Islam wherein a study of Hadith was emphasized. Zia Barani writes in his book on history about an event during the reign of Alauddin Khilji. An Egyptian scholar, Maulana Shamsuddin Turk, came to India to encourage the study of Hadith, but returned after visiting Multan. Before he left, he wrote to the Emperor admonishing him that the ulema in India were heedless in the study of Hadith. The mullahs of Hindustan, sensing that a shift in emphasis from akhlaq to Hadith would jeopardize their jobs, saw to it that the letter did not even reach the Emperor.

Maulana Abul Hasan Nadvi, in his manuscript, Hindustan ki khadeem darsgahen (Shibli Academy, 1919), states that the syllabus of the madaris in the subcontinent during the 13th and 14th centuries included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq and its principles
  • Grammar
  • Oration
  • Hadith and its sciences
  • Arithmetic and astronomy
  • Tasawwuf
  • Kalam

India was not immune from the intellectual turmoil raging in the post-Mongol Islamic world. The ulema who migrated to India from other parts of the Muslim world brought with them not only their knowledge but also their intellectual predispositions. The rise of tasawwuf as the governing paradigm of Islamic life brought about a reaction from the more conservative quarters concerned that the liberal outlook of the Sufis would dilute the discipline of the Shariah. Ibn Taymiah (d 1325) of Damascus waged a life long battle against the esoteric Islam of the Sufis, emphasizing the importance of adhering to the Islam as practiced by the earliest Companions. His movement is generally referred to as Salafi Islam.

A second source of tension was the presence of Mu’tazalites in the Delhi court. The study of philosophy received a boost when some of the Delhi sultans openly espoused its study and practice. The emperor Mohammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351) was one of them. Sultan Mohammed invited some of the leading Muta’zalites of the day to Delhi where they were received with honor and given important positions at the court.

The simultaneous presence of Salafi ulema, Mu’tazalite philosophers and Sufi Shaikhs was sure to result in a showdown. Indian Islam was at cross roads. The sultans of Delhi found themselves as arbitrators of the disputes between the Sufis, the Salafis and the Mu’tazalites. The historian Farishta documents in his book, Tazkiraye Nizamuddin Awliya that a debate took place in the court of Ghyasuddin Tughlaq (d 1236) on the issue of sama’a, the ecstatic dance performed by the Sufis accompanied by music. On one side was Shaikh Nizamuddin Awliya, the reigning Shaikh of the Chishtiya silsilah, considered by many to be one of the greatest of the awliya to grace Indian soil. Shaikh Nizamuddin was a hafiz, a scholar of hadith and a master of akhlaq. Arrayed against him were Kadi Jalaluddin, chief kadi of Delhi and Shaikh Ilmuddin, who was a Mu’tazalite and had traveled extensively through Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Persia. Farishta relates that whenever Nizamuddin Awliya offered as evidence a Hadith in favor of sama’a, the opposition would declare that in Delhi the sciences of akhlaq had preponderance over sciences of the hadith. Kadi Jalaluddin and Shaikh Ilmuddin asked the emperor to ban the practice of sama’a. The emperor, not willing to be drawn into the controversies, ruled that the sama’a was legitimate for the Chishtiya order but not legitimate for the Qalandariya order, knowing full well that the Qalandariya order had not yet entered the heartland of India. The Sufis triumphed and tasawwuf continued to be the governing paradigm of Indian Islam well into the zenith of the Mogul period in the 17th century.

India was a border state in the vast tapestry of Muslim states and the reformist currents in the Islamic world invariably had an impact on the madaris in India. During the resign of Sikandar Lodhi, towards the end of the 15th century, two well known scholars, Shaikh Abdullah and Shaikh Azeezullah migrated to Delhi from Multan. Shaikh Abdullah settled in Delhi and Shaikh Azeezullah settled in Sanbhal (UP).

Partly because of the scholarship of the sages and partly because of the patronage of the Emperor, the fame of these two scholars spread all over India. These savants enlarged the syllabus and introduced the study of commentaries on earlier works of kalam and tasawwuf. Attempts were also made to reinforce the study of hadith. Shaikh Abdul Haq, Muhaddith, Dehlavi went to Arabia, learned the Hadith from the scholars in Mecca and Madina and published it. But the social and political context in India was different from that in Mecca and Madina. The marginal presence of Muslims in India was as yet in a consolidation phase. Indian madaris remained focused more a study of akhlaq and the graduation of kadis than the ulema who specialized in a study of hadith.

The onset of Mogul rule in India was a benchmark in global history. The Moguls extended the fold of Islam to its limits and yet still stayed within the realm of their faith. While the sultanate of Delhi struggled to hold its sway over Northern India for brief periods, the Moguls embarked on laying the foundation of an Indian nation. At its height the Mogul empire extending over the entire south Asian region embracing the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It was during the reign of Akbar (d 1605) that the Mogul reach embraced all the diverse religions, cultures and regions of India. Akbar married Rajput princesses, abolished the jizya, and opened up his administration and his army to the Hindus. In extending familial ties to the Hindus, he accorded them the same status as that enjoyed by the people of the book. He invited Jesuit priests from Goa to discuss religion with them, bestowed endowments upon the Sikhs and made land grants to mosques and temples alike.

The cosmopolitan culture of Mogul India included the Moguls, the Afghans, the Rajputs, the Persians, the Hindus and the Muslims. He even started a Sufi tareeqa with himself at his head, called Deen e Ilahi which was misunderstood by the Muslims as a new religion. Through his policy of sulhe kul (peace between all groups) he sought to unify all the cultures of India under the Mogul banner.

The cosmopolitan character of the Moguls was reflected in the madaris of the age. Gone was the narrow focus on the study of akhlaq and hadith. The moguls instituted a broad based curriculum which included not only the religious sciences but also advanced mathematics, engineering, sociology and history. According to Nadvi, the Mogul madrassah curriculum included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq and its principles
  • Literature and grammar
  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Mathematics
  • Astronomy
  • Medicine
  • Hadith
  • Kalam
  • Tasawwuf
  • The life of the Naqshbandi Shaikhs

Along with the religious madaris, there existed more secular schools run by the state. These schools trained the engineers, artisans, doctors and administrators for the state. The curriculum of these schools included the following subjects:

  • Akhlaq (good character, humility, respect for elders, etiquette. The text books used included Akhlaq e Nasiri and Akhlaq e Jalali)
  • Arithmetic
  • Astronomy
  • Astrology
  • Mathematics
  • Geometry
  • History (Shahname Firdowsi, Zafar Nama of Sharfuddin Ali Tarmizi, Futuhat e Timuri, Akbar Nama, Iqbal Nama e Jahangeeri, Tareeq Feroqe Shahi, Warzam Nama, Mahabharata)
  • Oration
  • Medicine
  • Economics
  • Sociology
  • Literature (prose, poetry, fiction)
  • Tazkiya Nafs (Maktubat of Syed Shah Ashrafuddin Yahya Ahmed Muneeri, Nazhatul Arwah, Mathnawi Molvi Manavi, Hadeeqa Hakim Sinai)
  • Planning
  • Goal setting
  • Operations Management
  • Politics
  • Health Maintenance
  • Mathematics
  • Religious Studies

The reforms introduced during the early Mogul period lasted well into the 18th century. Akbar, in particular, was a patron of scholars. He invited Shah Fatehulla Shirazi, Mir Sadruddin, Mir Ghiyasuddin Mansur, and Mirza Jan Mir to come and settle in India. He conferred honorific titles and supported them with generous grants. For instance, Fatehulla Shirazi received the title of Asnul Mulk. Similar titles were conferred upon other scholars.

The Mogul schools had a high standard of excellence. It was these schools that produced the engineers and architects who built the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Jami Masjid and the Agra Fort. It was also these same schools that trained the astronomers who built the observatories in Delhi and Jaipur in the 18th century.

In addition to the madaris and the state schools, there were the zawiyas wherein young men received a religious education as well as training in the arts. The graduates from the zawiyas were absorbed into different guilds such as metal working, wood working, weaving, embroidery, leather work, masonry, carpet making and ivory inlay work. The workmanship of the Mogul artisans was superb which attests to the quality of education and training they received in the madaris and the zawiyas.

There were military academies as well. Attached to these academies were armament manufacturing centers wherein students learned the art of metal casting, forging, smithy, siege engine and cannon manufacture. Some of the instructors in these schools came from as far away as Istanbul and Ottoman influence in Mogul armaments was noticeable. The land-based Mogul artillery was a match for those of the Europeans well into the 16th century. It was only in the latter part of the 17th century that European gun-making caught on and overtook the armaments of Mogul and Ottoman dynasties.

In the waning years of the Mogul empire, Islamic orthodoxy displaced the cosmopolitan culture of the empire. Correspondingly, the study of textbooks on Akhlaq was replaced by the study of legal rulings such as Fatwa e Alamgiri.

In the 18th century the Mogul empire declined. It was a period of general social and cultural disintegration. There was a need to reform the educational structure of the madaris as well as the syllabus as a way to reform the society and arrest social decline. One of the most influential educational reformers of the era was Mullah Nazimuddin who was a contemporary of Shah Waliullah (d 1762). Mullah Nazimuddin enlarged the syllabus and added several books to the study of grammar and attempted to lay the foundation of a broad based educational system so that the graduate could continue his studies on his own after completing school. The study of hadith was reinforced. The courses of study in this period were based on the Nizamiya syllabus and included:

  • Sarf (accounting)
  • Nahau (grammar)
  • Balagat (oration)
  • Literature
  • Mantiq (logic as applied to language)
  • Hikmat (wisdom, integrative knowledge)
  • Riyazi (astronomy)
  • Principles of fiqh (jurisprudence)
  • Kalam (discourse on theology)
  • Hadith (authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammed)
  • Faraez (religious obligations)
  • Manazira (debate)
  • Tafseer(commentaries on the Quran)
  • Principles of Hadith

The limitations of this syllabus were:

  1. It had very little history, geography or sciences of nature.
  2. Philosophy was de-emphasized.
  3. It offered very little exposure to Hadith, Tafseer or Ilm Ijazul Quran.
  4. There was overemphasis on Mantiq.

The madaris did not use the division of classes, as it is done in modern schools. Each student was allowed to learn at his own pace. When a student finished the introductory books, he moved on to the more advanced books. Three degrees were awarded: qabil, alim and fazil.

There were also specialized schools in the Punjab, Delhi, Rampur and Lucknow. Punjab specialized in sarf and Nahau, Delhi in hadith and tafseer, Rampur in mantiq and hikmat and Lucknow in fiqh and its principles.

As the British gained ascendancy in India, the education and instructional institutions correspondingly went into decline. The new rulers replaced Farsi with English, first in the court systems, then in the educational systems. Their requirements were for lower echelon administrative personnel to run the vast bureaucracy of the sprawling subcontinent. The study of science, technology and history was discouraged. The madrassah was marginalized. It could not compete with the European system in science and philosophy. These subjects in which the Islamic world once dominated, had gone west, and had returned to the east with a heavy dosage of western flavor. The Muslims considered these subjects to be alien, a product of a secular Europe. The curriculum was marginalized and retracted unto itself. The syllabus evolved during this period was a poor imitation of the old Nizamiya syllabus.

The next period brings us to the modern age. After the collapse of political power in the 19th century, political and social stagnation set in. Education in the madaris reflects this stagnation. The syllabus has gone through a further contraction. Unable to innovate and cope with the challenge of Western education, Islamic education has fallen back to the basics. The Nizamiya syllabus has been resurrected with major deletions. Unlike the Nizamiya college of Nizamul Mulk in the 11th century the curriculum of the modern madrassah does not include a study of history, science or philosophy. Mathematics has been reduced to elementary arithmetic and tasawwuf has been eliminated. Remaining in the curriculum are hifz (memorization of Quran), hadith, elementary Arabic, Urdu, akhlaq, recitation of the Quran and tafseer (Quranic interpretations). Only recently has there been a realization that in order to survive in the modern world, the syllabus of the madrassah must be expanded to include a study of the modern languages, Islamic and global history, science, mathematics and computer science.

*This article was submitted to the Encyclopedia of Islamic History ( on March 1, 1995. This date may be used as the first date of publication. The article is based on lectures given by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed in the 1967 to 1992 period.