Madrasas have been at the centre of controversy since 9/11 attack on New York towers. It was thought that attacks were planned by Taliban who were students of madrasas run by Muslims of Wahabi ideology. Though as far as 9/11 attack was concerned, the madrasas in focus were from North West Frontier Province but in India too madrasas came under fire especially from those who were politically motivated and also from a section of media which took a biased view.
Most of the views about madrasas were expressed by those who hardly had any first hand knowledge of madrasa system or what is taught in these madrasas. They just presumed that since these are Islamic institution they must be teaching about jihad and war. Even responsible ministers from NDA Government in those days made such statements. What is needed is well informed and well studied opinion.
I am glad that Ms. Saral Jhingran has made such an attempt to do systematic study of madrasas system in historical perspective. The other person who has made such an attempt is Yogi Sikand. These studies are most welcome to fight uninformed prejudices even among scholars. These madrasas were set up to fulfill a religious need rather than promote enmity with any community.
Islam entered into India from earliest time, some maintain even during Prophet's lifetime through Kerala, and a century later through Sindh in North India. Both in South and North India hundreds of people converted to Islam and hence right from earliest time there was need for madrasa institution to teach religion and also to create 'Ulama who in turn could teach others and also help perform prayers and other religious rites.
She then discusses madrasa system from Aurangzeb's time to the coming of the British in India. Jhingran says, "For the first time, Aurangzeb (17th century) made a team of scholars to prepare a digest of Islamic law, later on called Fataw-i-Alamgiri. Then he granted Mulla Nizamuddin a mansion in Lucknow, known as Firangi Mahal where he established a madrasa. It was a predecessor of later madrasas and became a renowned centre of Islamic learning." It was here that Mulla Nizamuddin developed a systematic syllabus which is known as Dars-e-Nizami and is still taught in most of the higher madrasas. Mulla Nizamuddin had tried to create quite a balanced and flexible system by standards of that time, it later on became quite rigid and no change was contemplated.
Ms. Saral Jhingran then discusses madrasas after independence and also devotes one chapter to madrasa nisabs (syllabus) and an effort to understand them and a critique. Her critique is also well informed about Islam. I must say on the whole the book is a learned and scholarly study of madrasa system and what is taught in them, how relevant those teachings are and what reforms are needed.
This book will greatly help in dispelling many misunderstandings prevalent among non-Muslims and to an extent among Muslims themselves. The critique developed by her invites orthodox Muslims to reflect seriously as to what modern madrasas should be like. Many Muslim modernists have also developed such critique. This book on the whole will be quite useful for scholars as well as for lay people.