Madaris and Sectarian Conflict


Among the various internal challenges facing madrasas (religious seminaries) today is the pressing problem of sectarianism and sectarian conflict. Some people claim that in the last ten or fifteen years there has been a decline in the sectarianism actively promoted by madrasas. God knows better, but I feel that if indeed this is so, it is still not very significant. A glance at the sort of literature being churned out by madrasas and a general survey of the mentality of madrasa students and graduates of madrasas make this claim appear doubtful.

The problem of sectarianism among Muslims, including within the madrasa system, is, of course, centuries old. But in present times it is no longer restricted to ideological debates in scholarly circles. It has now taken the form of organized communalism, undermining all efforts to promote Muslim unity and making a complete mockery of the notion of Islamic brotherhood.

The manifold problems facing the Muslim ummah today cannot be addressed and effectively solved until the idea of Islamic brotherhood and unity, which every Muslim holds dear, is actually put into practice. Sectarianism and sectarian conflicts are the single biggest hurdle in this path, and, unfortunately, our madrasas are playing the leading role in keeping these alive and further exacerbating them.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that nine-tenths of the literature produced by our traditional madrasas and the speeches of their ulema are devoted simply to instigating ideological war against other Muslim sects in order to further boost sectarianism. These self-styled ‘devoted followers’ of God are forever on the look out for ideological enemies, not missing a single opportunity to whip up hatred against them. Many madrasa magazines survive mainly on drumming up opposition to other Muslim sects. Some such magazines are devoted entirely to this cause, which they regard as ‘noble’.

The most saddening and unfortunate aspect of this entire situation is that most supporters of every Muslim group and sect have been made to believe that they are literally at war with the followers of other sects. They are made to imagine that the beliefs, interpretations and the reputation and respect of the founders of their own sects are all under threat from others. To protect all these, they believe, they must leave no stone unturned, and because they believe that they are in a state of war with other Muslim sects they think that for them every means is permissible.

Shockingly, all this continues unchecked, even in a country like India, where Muslims are an increasingly beleaguered minority, where their very existence and identity are under grave threat, and where Hindu extremists have now started demanding that the government take over the madrasas. What is even more distressing is that these madrasas depend on funds provided by the public, and most members of the public do not approve of these sorts of activities that promote hatred and conflict. Instead, they are simply concerned that in the prevailing anti-Muslim and increasingly irreligious climate the community’s future should be provided with proper Islamic education.

It must be forgotten that the conditions of education and literacy among the Indian Muslims continue to remain pathetic. The money provided by the community should be spent on addressing these fundamental problems instead of on instigating hatred against other sects. After all, if a person is left completely illiterate, uneducated and pathetically poor the chances of his or her abandoning religion altogether are even greater.

Causes of Sectarian Strife in the Madrasas

As I mentioned earlier, sectarian differences among Muslims are not a new thing. Nor is it limited just to India or the Indian sub-continent. But it is a fact that intra-Muslim sectarian conflict has assumed a far more menacing form in India and, particularly, Pakistan, than elsewhere, and is now even more severe than in the past. Today, in our part of the world it has taken the form of a distinct social phenomenon.

What are the causes for this? Without identifying the causes, the problem cannot be solved or, at least, reduced in severity. In my view, this mounting intra-Muslim sectarian strife promoted by the madrasas in South Asia has three major causes: (a)The syllabus and methods of education used in the madrasas (b) Blind faith, personality worship (shaksiyat parasti) and the resultant emotional extremism and (c) The quest for power and wealth, whether out of greed or compulsion.

Much has already been written about the drawbacks in the curriculum and teaching methods used in the madrasas. Unfortunately, these have been devised so as to discourage the students from thinking for themselves, and, instead, to fit them into a particular sectarian mould. Subjects such as Hadith, Jurisprudence, Quranic commentary and Allied Disciplines are all taught from this sectarian perspective. Examination questions also reflect this. This is why the mentality of the madrasa students is so heavily shaped by sectarian concerns and understandings. Consequently, their identity is primarily defined by their being Hanafi, Shafi, Ahl-e Hadith, Deobandi, Barelvi scholars, and only then as Muslim scholars.

The second major cause for sectarian strife in the madrasas is personality worship. Personality worship is a characteristic of the majority of those who are associated with madrasas, whether as managers, teachers or students. The tradition of teaching religious commandments and perspectives directly from the primary sources of Islam—the Quran and Hadith—came to an end a very long time ago. Now, all these things are taught through reference to the writings of certain individuals belonging to one or the other particular sect. The views of these individuals are now regarded as the means to understanding what Islam is all about, and are even considered as the criterion and source of such understanding.

Earlier, the views of individuals were judged according to certain external standards provided by the scriptures, but now these views have become the standard, to back up which, suitable evidence is sought to be marshaled from different sources. Naturally, this also assists and promotes a sectarian mentality.

Every sect now has its ‘holy’ personages, and all of these have their own views, which the followers of their respective sects seek to defend at all costs. They refuse to accept the fact that an intellectual critique of a person’s views and arguments is certainly not tantamount to disrespecting him. Muslim history is replete with instances of great scholars who sharply differed from their teachers on many points and even critiqued some of their views but they never disrespected them. But, unfortunately, this tradition is now almost extinct in our madrasas, where students are made to believe that the elders of their sect alone were right and that all that they said or wrote is inerrant.

The third major cause of the sectarianism associated with the madrasas is purely economic. The leaders of every sect want that their circle of followers should expand, and this prompts them to stress the separate identity of their sect and the boundaries which set it off from the others. Sectarian strife is a tool to promote this agenda, and it helps bind the followers of a sect to its leaders even more closely. To use a commercial analogy, if people come to know that they can find a cure for their ‘disease’ from a cheaper shop they would not continue to patronize the shop that they had earlier been doing their purchases from. The same holds true for the different sects.

Fanning sectarian hatred is the source of livelihood for many of those engaged in this business. If all the massive amount of literature produced by madrasa-related scholars that is geared to fanning sectarianism and sectarian conflict is destroyed or is banned from being sold, what will happen to those many writers, publishers and distributors who have been making a living out of this sort of business for decades?

Their predicament is no different from those publishers of text books who simply change a few words in an existing book and then bring it out in the market, presenting it as a completely new text, or from those useless writers who pen books on unimportant subjects. Delivering thundering public speeches against other sects has now become the sole source of income for some people, as also churning out hate-filled sectarian literature.

The situation is so dismal today that the vast majority of madrasa students with average capabilities and skills who wish to write can do so only by producing such sectarian literature, or by penning commentaries on existing texts or compiling and publishing speeches—either their own or of some other person belonging to their sect. Only those madrasa scholars whose aim is not simply to earn money or to acquire name and fame write on any other sort of topics.

Another aspect of this economic angle to the problem of mounting sectarianism in madrasa circles is that of foreign funding, mainly from the Gulf, but from some other countries also. This began some three decades ago, and now even many smaller madrasas have entered the race to garner such funds.

People and organizations associated with some sects are now desperately seeking to win over their foreign funders by trying to present their own ideology and understanding of Islam as identical with those of their would-be foreign patrons. In order to get funding from them and to prevent others from doing so, they paint the other sects in lurid colors, presenting them as wholly opposed to the sect that their foreign funders are associated with. This further exacerbates existing sectarian rivalries.

What is the Solution?

How can this menacing problem be tackled? In my view, the most important step that should be taken is to bring about certain basic changes in the methods of teaching the Islamic sciences, particularly Jurisprudence and Hadith. For this we can adopt the same approach as is followed in certain universities in some Arab countries.

For instance, in the teaching of Jurisprudence, students should be first taught only the meaning or import of commandments or laws on various issues, and only later, say after a year or two, should they learn the various proofs or arguments for these, because by this time they can apply the capacity for independent reasoning (ijtihad) to understand these issues more dispassionately.

Presently, however, students are not encouraged to engage in ijtihad. Instead, they are made to believe that on every issue (mas’alah) their own particular sect or school of thought is best and is superior to all the others. This is not the right approach. Teachers should not insist that students must always abide by the view and position of their own particular sect under all conditions. Instead, students must be able to freely think for themselves and decide, on the basis of intellectual arguments, whether or not to accept or reject the position of their own school of thought on any matter. Arguments for preferring one school of law over the other can be taught at the level of specialization, not, as at present, when students are still doing their basic course.

Likewise, the method of teaching Hadith presently employed in the madrasas is unsatisfactory. Presently, Hadith is taught by presenting it within a particular sectarian framework. This is wrong, and must be rectified. The present method of teaching Hadith does not allow for students to develop the capacity for deduction and independent reasoning. Instead, students should be encouraged to study Hadith in such a way as to enable them to understand their actual import and to develop their own perspectives accordingly.

Besides changes in the methods and approaches of teaching these subjects, certain existing texts in the madrasa curriculum can be excised and others included in order to help reduce the differences between the different sects.

Almost all madrasas are affiliated to one or the other sect. It is very rare for a student belonging to a particular sect to study in a madrasa associated with another sect. In many cases, madrasas refuse admission to students associated with a sect other than their own. Further, the environment in the madrasas generally is such that a person belonging to one sect would find it virtually impossible to study in a madrasa associated with another sect, for he would have to face considerable ridicule, fierce opposition and immense suffocation.

If the doors of madrasas are opened to Muslims from all the various sects and schools of thought, and if the madrasa managers make sincere efforts to promote a climate of tolerance, it is likely that the raging sectarian strife and conflicts could, to some extent, decline. In the same way, allowing people from other sects to become members of the managing committees of madrasas would also have a positive impact. Madrasas can also invite scholars belonging to other sects to their functions. In addition, madrasa managers should make sincere efforts to ensure that their students do not exceed the acceptable intellectual boundaries when writing or speaking about other sects.

In critiquing certain aspects of the madrasas I do not, of course, wish to negate their importance. Rather, my intention is simply to open these issues for discussion so that madrasas can play a more effective and meaningful role in promoting the welfare of Muslims, in particular, and of humanity, in general.

This is a translation of a chapter by Maulana Waris Mazhari titled ‘Maslaki Kashmakash Aur Dini Madaris’ in Yoginder Sikand & Waris Mazhari (ed.) Dini Madaris Aur Dahshatgardi: Ilzam Aur Haqiqat (’Madrasas And Terrorism: Accusations and Realities’), Global Media Publications, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 143-50.

Think about it!

  • Discuss the three reasons for sectarianism identified by the author. Can you add further to it?
  • What reforms do you suggest to change the attitude towards people of other sects?

Please send your answers through email to post your comments on this web page.


About Mubashir Nazir

A researcher and writer on religious, ethical and social issues.
This entry was posted in Islam, Personality Development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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