Create Indian madrasas on the lines of ancient Uzbek ones

The author reflects on his visit to Uzbekistan and highlights the rich history and educational significance of the ancient madrasas in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. He emphasizes the need for India to change the negative perception of madrasas and suggests establishing new universities with modern scientific skills under the name of madrasas. The author believes that this approach can remove the stigma associated with madrasas and revive the tradition of great scientific learning.

I visited Uzbekistan for the second time earlier this month to see the architectural miracles of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The most famous of these is Registan Square in Samarkand. This square is open on one side with three massive buildings, with minarets on the other three sides, each flashing brilliant tiles of blue, turquoise, orange and green.

Beauty apart, what struck me most was that all three dazzling buildings were ancient madrasas. Today, madrasas in India are widely seen as places where Muslims learn the Koran and nothing else, an education that is useless for employment. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, some madrasas are linked to Islamic fundamentalism and even terrorism. Saudi Arabia funds madrasas throughout Asia that preach a fundamentalist brand of Wahabi Islam.

This is in stark contrast with the ancient madrasas of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, which were world-famous centres of learning. They were not schools for children. They were simultaneously religious seminaries and universities, teaching and studying mathematics, medicine, astronomy and sciences. They boasted some of the greatest scientists, philosophers and mathematicians of their time – Ulugh Begal-Khorezmi and Ibn Sina.

India needs to change the image of its madrasas. Muslim entrepreneurs and wakf boards should establish new universities with the highest scientific skills and call them madrasas. This will remove the stigma from the current use of the word ‘madrasas’ and revive the tradition of having madrasas that are on a par with the best technological centres, such as IITs or IISc. Indeed, the new madrasas can be named after the great madrasa builders of Central Asia.

Ulugh Beg, the ruler of much of Central Asia and grandson of Timur-lang (called Tamerlane in the West), built three madrasas, including the finest one in Registan Square. But he was more than just a great builder. He was the greatest astronomer of his time, famous for his star charts and astronomical calculations, which have proved more accurate than those of rival astronomers across the world for centuries to come. Ulugh Beg created a cadre of scientists and astronomers at his observatory in Samarkand, the world’s finest at the time.

I love reading Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. But, more than just a poet, he was also one of the great scientist-philosophers of Samarkand.

Khiva was the birthplace of Muhammad al-Khorezmi (780-850 AD), sometimes called al-Khwarizmi, from whose name we today get the word ‘algorithm’. Algebra is derived from al-jabr, one of al-Khorezmi’s techniques to solve quadratic equations. He also pioneered the use of the decimal point.

Ibn Sina, called Avicenna in Europe, was the foremost medical scientist of his time, apart from being a philosopher and historian. He studied and taught at the madrasas at Bukhara and Khiva. Later, he worked and became famous in Greece (Called Yunan in Hindi) and founded the Unani school of medicine that still has adherents today in India.

The great madrasas of Central Asia were built on a monumental scale and decorated as lavishly as palaces. That emphasised the honour bestowed on science and learning at the time. There is no equivalent in Indian madrasas today.

India has maybe 30,000 madrasas teaching the Koran and little else. GoI wants madrasas to modernise, and teach regular subjects found in school curricula. This advice has been followed by a modest number of Muslim modernisers, including women. But other Muslims resent what they call government intrusion into their religious institutions, Overall, change is slow.

The Sachar Committee concluded that the solution to low Muslim literacy and high dropout rates was to open high-quality government schools in Muslim areas rather than focus on madrasa reform. The committee found that only 3-4% of Muslim children have full-time madrasa education, which they view as a religious supplement and not a substitute for ordinary schooling.

No doubt better government schools have an important role. Voluntary madrasa curriculum reform can also help. But Uzbekistan suggests an additional approach.

Muslim and other donors should be encouraged to create modern universities named after Islamic scholars of the past, such as Ulugh Beg, al-Khorezmi and Ibn Sina. These modern universities should be called madrasas, as in the Islamic Golden Age. It is important to portray madrasas as the legacy of great Islamic scholars, not of Wahabi mullahs alone.

Let the new madrasas be religious seminaries and universities, as in ancient Samarkand and Bukhara. Other great ancient universities such as Nalanda, Taxila, Oxford and Cambridge also combined religious with scientific studies. Instead of stressing only madrasa modernisation, let us take madrasas back to their glorious scientific traditions of yore.

The wakf boards have never been short of money. They have massive assets. They have never been keen on modernisation, so the Muslim elite must press for a radical change of attitude.

India has some billionaire Muslims, but they prefer to create secular universities like Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and Bhopal.

I wish they would collaborate with other secular people to develop great universities with names like Ulugh Beg Madrasa, Samarkand and Ibn Sina Madrasa.

This article was originally published by The Economic Times on October 24, 2023.

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