The Madrassah – Modern Issues

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The madrassah is an ancient institution and has survived for fourteen hundred years. We have outlined in other chapters how the madrassah has evolved over the centuries. Once a thriving institution which served as the pulsating heart of the Islamic community, it has been neglected, allowed to decay, and is now the object of suspicion on the global stage.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, the madrassah has attracted a great deal of attention. During the days of the Taliban and the prelude to the Afghan war, it was the principal focus of the American media. It was made to appear as if all the goblins in the mountains of Afghanistan were hiding in the madaris between Kabul and Peshawar.

The madrassah is not a monolithic institution with a single structure. It appears in many shapes and forms. It has a variety of structures, and is subject to the same social and political pressures as is the society at large. It defies simplistic packaging for ten second sound bites or TV infomercials. In the context of South and Central Asia, it is at once a source for social stability and a legitimate target for cultural and political reform.

At the outset, a clarification in terminology must be made, and a differentiation established between maktab, madrassah and jami. A maktab is any school, whether it is secular or religious. Every child who attends school goes to a “maktab”. A madrassah is usually a religious school in which Arabic is taught as part of a religious curriculum. A jami is a university in which advanced religious studies are pursued and graduate degrees are granted. Al Azhar, Deoband, Qum and Nadwa are universities that are classified as “jami”. This chapter focuses specifically on the madrassah.

In its early years, the madrassah was a mosque-based religious school similar to Bible schools attached to churches in America. It is only in recent years that the paradigm has shifted to secular education sanctioned by the government with a heavy emphasis on technical subjects.

No reliable statistics exist on the number of madaris in South Asia. From Kabul to Kerala, the landscape is dotted with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Islamic religious schools. In some areas, such as Afghanistan and the NW Frontier, they are the sole means of education for children. In others, such as the educationally advanced South India belt, they exist side by side with the secular schools. Some are no more than an assembly in the open, under a tree, where poor children sit on bare soil and memorize their lessons. A few are richly endowed, with millions of dollars in property, and modern facilities. All of them call themselves “deeni madaris” to ensure that the attendees, and the donors, know that they are different from the secular schools, and that they cater to “deen” as opposed to “duniya”.

These madaris provide a valuable social service in parts of South Asia. In some villages, notably in the NW frontier province of Pakistan and in Afghanistan, they make the difference between literacy and illiteracy. The molvi sahib who heads up the madrassah, teaches reading and writing in the local language, introduces the child to elementary Arabic, and facilitates basic memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith. These madaris provide employment to scores of religious teachers who would otherwise be unemployed. One thing they do not teach, as is commonly alleged in the news media, is terrorism.

The failing of the madrasas is not in what they teach but in what they do not teach. We have shown in another chapter how the syllabus of the madrassah has been marginalized over the centuries. Where it once exposed the student to a broad spectrum of disciplines, the modern madrassah limits a student to the study of a few subjects. Absent is a study of natural science, mathematics, sociology or history. Gone also is tasawwuf, the spiritual dimension of Islam. As a consequence, a typical graduate of a madrassah has little understanding of the modern world, feels marginalized and is alienated from it. This feeling of alienation is the main reason why so many molvis and mullahs taken extreme positions on contemporary issues. Such extreme positions are often transmitted to the captive audiences that the mullahs command at religious and social gatherings.

In this chapter, we briefly examine some of the modern issues facing the madrassah using examples from the South Asian experience. Since the subject involves living history, some aspects of it are bound to be controversial.

The Student Body

The great majority of students who attend the madrassah are from the poorer sections of society. Fathers who cannot afford the cost of a secular education bring their children to the madrassah so that the child gets at least an elementary education in the religious disciplines.

In recent years, the influx of middle class Muslims into the Tableeghi Jamaat has worked to the benefit of the madaris, as many Tableeghi families prefer religious schools to secular ones. The escapist orientation of the Tableeghi Jamaat and the deeni (as opposed to dunawi) orientation of these schools tend to complement each other. Consequently, the economic profile of a typical student in a madrassah has somewhat improved.

In addition to imparting elementary education (taalim), the madrassah performs a secondary function, that of tarbiyat. In practice, this second function is even more important than the first. Tarbiyat means molding of character. In the same sense that a potter molds a pot on a wheel, the teacher in a madrassah molds a pupil into a mold. Discipline tends to be very strict, indeed harsh, in most madaris. The tarbiyat function of a madrassah is what distinguishes a religious school from a secular school. Whether a graduate of a madrassah becomes an extremist or a sufi depends to a large extent on the tarbiyat that the molvi or the shaikh imparts to the student.

The dropout rate in most madaris is high. Sometimes it is as high as 60 percent. This could be attributed in part to the underlying poverty of the families and partly to the harsh discipline imposed on the students. Grinding poverty compels many a promising son to quit school and enter the work force as a teenager and support the family. Those who complete a few years of schooling seek employment as mullahs in small villages where incomes are low and opportunities few. Those who complete their diploma and earn the degree of aalim, move to the larger towns and cities where there is more money and the opportunity to build lucrative personal trusts is much higher.

Some of the graduates go on to do their graduate work at Deoband, Nadvatul Ulema or the University of Medina. The university in Medina, in particular, is a respected center of learning. A degree from Medina offers a far greater guarantee of a lifetime job than does a masters degree in English from any of the well-known secular schools. A large number of students from the subcontinent attend the University and obtain degrees of aalims and faazils. In addition, the University publishes books, which are used in the curricula of the madaris.

The Impact of Colonialism

The colonial period introduced a historical discontinuity into the evolution of the madrassah. The injection of foreign and alien interference scuttled the natural evolution of this institution. The discontinuity may be illustrated by examining the syllabus followed before and after the colonial period. In the table below we have summarized the syllabus as it was during the period of the Great Mogul Akbar (circa 1600) and as it is today.

Subjects taught during Akbar’s reign (circa 1600) Subjects taught today
Arithmetic                    Arithmetic
Fiqh                         Fiqh
Languages                         Languages (Urdu, Farsi, Arabic)
Literature                         Literature
Siasat e madan
Qur’an, Hifz, Hadith                           Qur’an, Hifz, Hadith

India was the first great non-Western civilization to fall to Europe and it was here that the colonists perfected the mechanism of dismantling the traditional educational systems and replacing them with systems that served the colonial administrative machines. The Indian experience illustrates this observation. Until 1824, the East India Company maintained the pretense that it was ruling in the name of the Mogul emperor in Delhi. In 1828 the company abandoned the use of Farsi in the Indian courts and replaced it with English. With the Anglicization of the judicial system, there was an immediate need for lawyers who could represent Indian clients. This encouraged the growth of English-medium schools. Convents and seminaries initially ran these schools. Gradually, English was introduced into the public school systems. In 1832, the Company abandoned the pretense that it was a proxy for the Mogul emperor, relegated him to a pensioner of the company and took over direct rule of the subcontinent. The madaris, which taught Arabic and Farsi, took a direct hit. They were marginalized to teaching Gulistan and Boostan, classics of the Eastern languages, but which had no utilitarian value in the new colonial order.

The Muslims who had lost the power struggle with the British for control of India, had a deep distrust of the foreigners, whom they called Firangees (a derogative term derived from the term Frank). This distrust did not stop at the English language and culture but extended to philosophy, science and mathematics. Isolation set in and the old system of education was marginalized and retreated into a corner. Even the rudimentary exposure to philosophy and mathematics that was offered in the Nizamiya syllabus was abandoned because the Firangees were much better at these subjects than the mullahs. For survival, the mullahs had to introduce product differentiation into religious education and give it new branding. This was done by attaching the label “deen” to the madrassah to differentiate them from the secular schools which taught subjects related to “duniya”. The bifurcation of education into deeni talim and dunawi talim was now complete. As the prospects of the graduates from madaris finding jobs in the government evaporated, the mullahs drew an ever-tighter circle around the madrassah syllabus so as to guard the religious turf. Even the application of the Shariah did not escape this marginalization. Where once the Shariah embraced all aspects of life, it was now confined to “Muslim personal law”. Any subject that would open the society up to Western influences was summarily abandoned. The air was taken out of the educational balloon and where once teachers and students alike would soar high and take in vast vistas, they were now grounded and could only gaze at the dirt below.

The Saudi Influence

While a great majority of the madaris in South Asia are poor, and are located in rural or remote areas, there are some that are well endowed with land and money. Thanks to the largesse from Saudi Arabia, and donations from the Gulf, some madaris are opulent even by international standards. While some are literally run from thatched huts, some have vested properties of millions of rupees. The Molvis in these madaris live in comparative opulence, move about in expensive cars, own mobile phones, and dine on nothing less than the highest quality basmati rice.

The injection of oil money into the madrassah has been a mixed blessing. Money taints the natural growth of culture much in the same way as foreign political dominance. While oil money did help build the infrastructure of some schools, the price paid was the abandonment of the spiritual Islam that had grown up in the subcontinent over a thousand years, and its replacement by a largely ritualistic Islam prevalent in Arabia and the Gulf. Without the spiritual glue to hold the community together, there has been an increase in fragmentation along narrow, legalistic lines. A visible result of this fragmentation is the proliferation of the jama’ats in the subcontinent, each one declaring that it possesses the exclusive map to salvation and the maps owned by the other jama’ats are only partially correct. Up until the time of partition, Islam in India and Pakistan had a strong spiritual content. The eloquence of Allama Iqbal would lose its lofty grandeur if it were stripped of its spiritual content. That “traditional” Islam has disappeared and has largely been replaced by a “Salafi” Islam wherein rules, regulations and arguments dominate.

This paradigm is beginning to change. The first Gulf War of 1991 drained the resources of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. More recently, after 9/11, with “terrorism” becoming a household world, many governments have clamped down on the international transfer of funds. Money transfers from America come under microscopic scrutiny. These developments have placed a financial crunch on the madaris. With sources of foreign funds drying up, the madaris have had to fall back on local resources. Notwithstanding the decreasing external financial support, most of the madaris in the subcontinent continue to look to the Saudi universities, such as the University of Medina, and to the established academies at Nadva and Deoband, for guidance on their curriculum.

The Academic Hierarchy

The religious schools in the Subcontinent show a definite hierarchy. At the top of the academic ladder are the academies at Deoband and Nadwa. In the Islamic landscape of South Asia, Deoband and Nadwa occupy a position similar to Caltech and MIT in the technological landscape of the United States. Established in the late 19th century during the British period, their influence on the social, political and religious landscape on Muslim India is far greater than of Aligarh University which was founded about the same time by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Many of the students who graduate from the madaris as “aalims” (learned men) go on to study at Deoband and Nadwa for their graduate studies and obtain the diploma of fazil (equivalent of a doctorate). Both of these academies have a conservative leaning, more so since the Saudi version of Islam hit the subcontinent along with petrodollars. Their influence, through their alumni, radiates all over Asia and beyond. These schools have led the way for the demolition of traditional Islam and its replacement with a more rigid Islam close to the Wahhabi brand from Najad. On the positive side, there is no question that both of these institutions have produced many scholars of the first rank.

The vast majority of madaris are located in small villages. Run by a lone teacher or a Molvi, who doubles as the “pesh-imam” of the local mosque, the village madaris are financially poor often to the point of destitution. They teach elementary Arabic, memorization of a few passage from the Qur’an, and a few basics about religious rites and obligations. They receive local patronage from the subsistence farmers and petty traders. They are valued for their social utility because they help develop the moral character (tarbiat) of the students. Even parents who send their children to government run secular schools ensure that their children attend a madrassah on a part time basis. The network of these madaris is so large and they are so interwoven into the fabric of society that there is very little a government can do to change them, except with a tremendous investment in infrastructure and manpower, or through outright coercion.

At the next higher level are the well-established schools that are run by professional ulema. Some of these schools are old and date back to the Mogul period. Others are new and sprang up as Saudi money became available to the Indo-Pak religious market. Our research led us to eleven such schools located in Southern India and some patterns emerged from our observations:

  1. The older schools, established in the seventeenth and 18th centuries are run by ancient waqfs. They do not solicit funds from outside sources. They offer a traditional Nisab (curriculum), which includes a study of the Qur’an, Sunnah of the Prophet, early Islamic history, elementary philosophy and arithmetic, and emphasize tazkiyah and purity of heart. They are often attached to a zawiya or a qanqah. An example is Jamia Lateefia in Vanambadi.
  2. The newer schools were established during the late British period. Some sprang up in the nineteen sixties when Saudi money became available to the Indian religious market. These schools actively solicit local as well as international funding. Some are very well off and own substantial properties. The teachers are mostly a product of the schools in Northern India (Nadwa, Devband). Some have studied at Medina University. Their Nisab (curriculum) places a heavy emphasis on Hadith and less so on other aspects of the Sunnah. These schools are popular with the more established jama’ats, such as Jamaat e Islami and the Tableegi Jamaat. The graduates of these schools become Molvis in the masjids in the larger towns. The dropouts settle in the villages and become teachers at the local mosque-madrassah.

Influence of the Nadva

In the subcontinent, the large, industrially backward state of Uttar Pradesh in the Gangetic plain has served as the nursery for molvis. At one time, this area was the prosperous heart of the Mogul Empire. As such, the local seminaries received royal patronage from Delhi. As the Empire disintegrated, and local centers of power emerged, patronage continued under regional nawabs, noblemen and wealthy landlords. The area also benefited from the fact that it was the home of the Urdu language, which became the language of instruction of Muslim India during the British period. Today, a large proportion of mullahs who lead the prayers in local mosques across the width and breadth of India come from Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh is also home to some of the well-known higher institutions of Islamic learning, including Aligarh University, Nadvatul Ulema and Devband. These institutions have had a major impact on Islamic thinking in the subcontinent. Whereas, Aligarh University founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the 1880s as a school for westernized education has thrived as a secular institution after partition, Nadvatul Ulema and Deoband have become major centers of orthodoxy, radiating their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. While these academies have produced a large number of outstanding scholars, they have also produced a much larger number of molvis with a constricted vision of Islamic learning. Their approach is didactic. They do not teach the inductive method as applied to nature, history or the human soul. While the syllabus of these institutions is outstanding in the disciplines of tafseer, fiqh, Kalam and hadith, it is pitifully inadequate in the natural, mathematical or historical sciences. And noticeably, it is weak in the sciences of the soul, commonly referred to as Sufism. It is for these reasons that while Deoband and Nadva have produced a large number of Maulanas, they have not produced a single noteworthy mathematician, logician, historian, man or woman of science, or Awliya.

Nadwa and Deoband have exercised an influence on the social and religious fabric of Muslim India far greater than Aligarh Muslim University. In the hierarchy of religious schools, Deoband and Nadwa occupy the same place as Caltech and MIT do for technical education in the United States. Graduates from lesser-known schools across South Asia attend Nadva and Deoband for advanced education and research and carry back with them the stamp and the orientation of these two academies. Conservative to the core, they focus on the exoteric religious disciplines disregarding both the esoteric aspects of religion as well as the inductive sciences of science, sociology and history. Both were orthodox institutions to begin with, but under Saudi influence, they have moved even further to the right. Both schools graduate hundreds of aalims each year. Trained only in the traditional disciplines, these aalims are ill equipped to handle questions posed by the modern global materialist civilization, or relating to the rapidly changing South Asian political landscape. Indeed, their chief contribution has been to destroy and decimate the traditional Islamic culture in the subcontinent and replace the spiritual Islam that had developed on Indian soil for a thousand years with a dried version manufactured in Saudi Arabia.

Much of the influence of the molvis from Uttar Pradesh has been due to their fluency in Urdu. Urdu has been the language of qutbas in many parts of India since the demise of Farsi in the early part of 19th century. However, this situation is changing in more recent years. In post-partition India, Urdu has steadily lost its importance and has ceased to be the lingua franca of Muslims. Many madaris in the North have adopted themselves to Hindi and those in other areas are offering instruction in the regional languages. Thus Bangla is the medium of instruction for Bengalis, Marathi is taught in Maharashtra, and Tamil in Tamil Nadu. Even in the Gulf, where there is a large concentration of migrants from Kerala, and several well-to-do Kerala Muslims have established schools, Malayalese rather than Urdu is the preferred medium of religious instruction for expatriate Muslim children. These changes are bound to reduce the influence of the Urdu speaking belt on the further development of the madaris.

There is almost always a worldly agenda behind the establishment of madrassahs. The first thing that a mullah does when he moves into a town is to start a deeni madrassah, a product for which there is a ready market. The dissociation of deeni taalim from the dunavi ta’lim has been sold to the South Asian market for over three hundred years. The process is a predictable one. First, the mullah looks for and befriends the local rich, those who are capable of donating land and money. The legal framework in India allows the packaging of this not-so-selfless effort as a religious and charitable trust, owned by the Molvi, into which the local landlords and merchants are inducted. As the madrassah acquires property and is on its way to becoming established, the donors are slowly squeezed out. The Mullah becomes the owner of the trust.

The worldly agenda of the mullahs should not detract from the social service that they have provided. Many of the madaris offer free education, boarding and lodging for orphans and the destitute. Sometimes, they offer the only opportunity for the children of the poor to learn to read and write. The illiteracy rate in the Muslim third of South Asia would be higher were it not for the service provided by the madaris.

The Mullah and the Microphone

In the religious culture of Muslims, the Mullah occupies a position, which is the object of envy of any politician. Once a week, during the Friday Qutbah, the Mullah has the control of the pulpit and the microphone from where he can preach, sermonize, lead and coax the worshipers. The faithful are required to listen to him in rapt attention. It is not permitted to interrupt a sermon unless the Mullah says something against the basic tenets of religion such as idolatry or shirk. Thus the mullah has the ear of a captive audience. No politician can dream of a platform like this one which affords a speaker the unflinching attention of an audience. Unless the qutba (The Friday sermon) is co-opted by a repressive government, the Mullah is free to choose a subject of interest to him and the community. It is this unique access to the microphone that sustains the power of mullah. It can be broken, modified or controlled only at the expense of destroying the freedom of worship and freedom of speech as has been done in Saudi Arabia and some of the Middle Eastern countries.

Terrorism not in the Curriculum

Hard as you try, you will not find the madaris teaching, even remotely, anything resembling violence or terrorism. Indeed, most of the teachers in the religious schools come from groups such as the Tableeghi Jamaat, which has turned its back on the affairs of this world and has confined itself to “matters of the other world”. How could one associate such escapist pursuits with violence?

The Taliban in Afghanistan are more a product of their culture than of the madaris they graduate from. It is like blaming the American school system for the divorce rate in the United States. Neither in the syllabus nor in the tarbiat (training) is there even the slightest hint of violence or terrorism.

Reformation of the Syllabus

The madrassah has become the repository of vested interests just like any other institution in modern life. There is money on the line. Sometimes, it is big money. The molvis and mullahs stand to lose by modernizing the madrassah. First, it would blur the line between deeni talim and dunawi talim. Second, it would deny the mullahs their claim for exclusive control over deen. Third, it would dry up their source of funding. In other words, the madaris would then become just like any other school. The mullahs would no longer head up the list of invitees whenever a poor villager slaughters a chicken for a feast. Most importantly, their exclusive claim to God and heaven would be compromised.

The more prosperous madaris would have the most to lose from a modernization of their curriculum. These schools cannot compete with the secular schools in subjects dealing with science and technology. Opening up their curriculum to modern education would be like inviting “duniya” into their closeted “deen”. The owners of these schools, or of the trusts that run these schools, would lose their market niche. Therefore, they jealously guard their current market position as the guardians of “deeni taalim”.

An attempt at the transformation of the madrassah must therefore be gradual, preserving the stability that this institution provides while enhancing its social usefulness. The changes must also come from within the community rather than imposed from the top. A first step in this direction is the reintroduction into this syllabus a study of the mathematical, natural and historical sciences as well as Qur’anic spirituality (tazkiya). These subjects were a part of the Nizamiya Nisab as late as the 18th century. Once mathematics is mastered, science, philosophy and the natural sciences will follow. Gradually, the Nizamiya Nisab will be transformed into an Islamic Nisab embracing the Qur’anic sciences, mathematics, the natural sciences, philosophy and technology.

The probability of a successful reformation of the syllabus would increase substantially if the molvis are trained to see the benefits of a liberalized syllabus, which includes a study of the languages, mathematics, history and spirituality. A top-down approach offers several advantages: It trains the teachers and has the highest potential for student reach. It offers the highest benefit-to-cost ratio. It exposes the vast majority of mullahs to the beauty and majesty of the natural and historical sciences in an Islamic framework.

If history is any guide, a reform process, which is strongly opposed by the mullahs is likely to fail, or cause a major social upheaval. Kemalist Turkey achieved such reforms but the Kemalist revolution was the tail end of a long series of reformations starting with the Tanzeemat in the first half of the 19th century. And the Kemalists had to use coercive methods to ensure that the reforms would succeed.

Another aspect of reform is potential competition with secular schools. The madaris could enjoy an advantage vis-a-vis secular schools if they offered quality instruction in secular as well as religious subjects. There is hunger among the people of South Asia for both secular and religious knowledge. Unfortunately, the madaris are neither competent to teach the secular subjects nor can they compete in secular fields. The inability to compete has pushed the molvis into a corner. To preserve their turf and protect their employment, they take a hard position on the division of instruction into deeni and dunawi domains. To coax the mullahs to emerge from their shell, both financial incentives and external pressures may be required.

Technology and the Madrassah

Science and technology have had a checkered history among Muslim people. The scientific method was cultivated by Muslim scholars in Spain and Central Asia in the Middle Ages. But it withered after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. In succeeding centuries, Muslim scholars, while paying lip service to the need for mastering science and technology, looked with deep suspicion on anything that disturbed their partitioning of the sacred and the profane. The introduction of the printing press into Muslim societies is a case in point. While the printing press was introduced into Europe in the 15th century, it was not until 1728 that it found acceptance in the Ottoman Empire. It was introduced into Mogul India even later. The reason was the determined opposition of the ulema who felt that the Word of God, namely the Qur’an, would be defiled if it touched a wooden or iron press. While the printing press made possible the wide diffusion of books in Europe, the Muslim world limped along with hand written manuscripts. It is not uncommon even to this day to find a mullah who stands up before a large gathering of Muslims and harangues them that science is secular and it fosters unbelief.

Notwithstanding the opposition of some mullahs, the all-reaching embrace of technology cannot be avoided, not even by the most insular madrassah. Technology transforms societies and cultures and the madrassah cannot escape the winds of change. Many a farsighted ulema now realize that the students in the madaris must study science and technology along with the traditional subjects if they are to face the modern world. In slow measures, even the most orthodox ulema have started to bend in the direction of technological education. At madrassah e lateefiya in Bangalore the students learn to use computers along with memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith. Mobile phones are used by molvis to talk to each other. IT driven technologies have made the teachers and the sheikhs realize the need to upgrade the teaching of science and mathematics. Many a school in Southern India require their students, before they graduate, to acquire the equivalent of a high school diploma. These may not seem like much from a global perspective, but constitute a fundamental and welcome departure from the rigidity that characterized the syllabus in most madaris and seminaries until recent times.

9/11 and American pressures- the Issue of Terrorism

It has been alleged time and again that the nineteen men who carried out the 9/11 attack on the world trade center were products of the madrassah. Based on published reports, the perpetrators, most of whom came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt were more secular than religious. If published literature is any guide, no connection has been proven between the perpetrators and the madaris. Nonetheless, the accusation is repeated often times, and most people in America have come to believe, that the attack was connected with students who attend madaris. Indeed the madrassah has been accused to be the breeding ground for “jehadis” and “terrorists”. If perception is reality, it has hurt the image of the madrassah in the global consciousness. And it will affect fundamentally and profoundly, the further evolution of the madrassah as we go forward into the twenty first century.

There have been several consequences of this xenophobia. Money, which used to flow freely from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries has decreased to a trickle. Donations from America and other Western nations have just about stopped. Even small donations are questioned. The allegations against several Islamic charities have fostered a sense of fear among potential donors. The madaris now must fend for themselves and depend on local support.

A second side effect has been increased government surveillance of all madaris. Laws have been passed in the United States that make it legal to visit and search places of congregation, including places of worship. Representatives from the police departments and intelligence departments routinely visit the madaris in India and Pakistan and question the teachers and molvis. In Afghanistan, total chaos reigns and the madrassah operates under the perennial fear of violence. The shadow of government surveillance has increased further the difficulty that the madaris face in raising funds or recruiting students.

A much more disastrous result of 9/11 and the injection of the term “terrorism” into politics is the destruction of educational links that have existed between religious schools and seminaries in different parts of the world. For almost a millennium, the madaris in Southern India radiated their influence far beyond the borders of South Asia. As early as the 12th century, it was the migration of Awliya from the trading communities of Southern India and Gujarat that introduced Islam into the Indonesian and Malaysian Archipelago. Until recently, the madaris in the South attracted students from Sri Lanka, Maldiv Islands, Malaysia and Indonesia. Alumni from the schools of Vanambadi and Salem are scattered all over South-East Asia.

Because of official restrictions following 9/11 and the suspicion that somehow the madrassah is a breeding ground for terrorists, that link has been cut. Now, these students come no more and an age-old connection between India and SE Asia has been broken. The movement of scholars and students and the cross-fertilization of ideas and cultures that it fostered for a thousand years has been scuttled. Student exchanges foster international understanding and are a major element in the liberalization of the madrassah. The scuttling of this process will increase the isolation and alienation of the madrassah from global liberal currents.

* 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.