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‘Traditional’ Ulema And ‘Modern’
Islamic Education In Kerala

By Yoginder Sikand

19 March, 2009

The Muslims of Kerala, who form roughly a fourth of the state’s population, are divided into three broad groups, each being what could be called a separate Islamic interpretative community based on differences in the understanding and interpretation of Islam. The largest, in terms of numbers, are what are locally called ‘Sunnis’—that is, Muslims who adhere to the Shafi school of Sunni jurisprudence and who also follow various forms of Sufism. The ‘Sunnis’ are further divided into smaller groupings, shaped by regional differences as well as association with different leading personalities. The other two broad groups among the Kerala Muslims are the Jamaat-e Islami and the Kerala Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, both of which, in contrast to the ‘Sunnis’, are characterised by hostility to popular Sufism as well as opposition to taqlid or strict adherence to traditional Shafi jurisprudence.

In contrast to the Jamaat-e Islami and the Kerala Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, the ‘Sunni’ ulema of Kerala, like their counterparts in north India, were slow in taking to modern education, sometimes even castigating it as ‘un-Islamic’. Numerous ‘Sunni’ ulema in fact issued fatwas against Jamaat and Nadwat leaders who encouraged Muslims to take to modern, in addition to religious, education. However, in recent years, the situation has been drastically transformed. Today, leading Kerala ‘Sunni’ ulema are actively involved in promoting modern education, including the modernization of traditional madrasa education.

The most bold initiative undertaken by Kerala’s ‘Sunni’ ulema to promote reforms in their madrasa system is the Dar ul-Huda, located at the village of Chemmad in Malapuram district, the heartland of the Mapilla Muslims of Malabar. Established in 1986, it is part of a vast chain of educational institutions under the Samastha Kerala Sunni Jamiat ul-Ulema (‘The All-Kerala Union of Sunni Ulema’), the representative body of the Kerala Sunni ulema, which also runs some 8000 madrasas or part-time Arabic and Islamic schools across Kerala. More than a dozen Arabic Colleges for higher Islamic education are affiliated to the Dar ul-Huda. At present, the Dar ul-Huda has more than 1000 students and almost 60 teachers on its rolls.

Zubair Kottalil, a graduate of the Dar ul-Huda, presently doing his Ph.D. in Arabic at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, takes me around the sprawling campus of the Dar ul-Huda, which is spread over 13 acres. We first visit the office of the Principal, Shaikh Zainuddin Musaliyar. As his title of ‘Musaliyar’ indicates, he is from an established family of learned Islamic scholars. He also serves as the General Secretary of the Samastha Kerala Sunni Jamiat ul-Ulema. He talks enthusiastically about the uniqueness of the institution he heads. ‘We want to prepare scholars who have a good understanding of both Islam and modern society so that they can serve community better and more effectively. The ulema need knowledge of modern subjects in addition to Islamic subjects. After all, they have to provide guidance to the community not just in ritual matters but in all other spheres of personal and collective life. Here, we combine both religious and modern subjects.’

I point out to the Musaliyar that many traditionalist Sunni ulema I have met in north India, while not opposed in principle to modern education, continue to object to the inclusion of modern subjects in the madrasa curriculum on the grounds that it would be too heavy a burden for students, who already have to study many religious subjects, to bear. They would, consequently, be good neither for this world (duniya), nor for the next (akhirat), they argue.

‘I don’t agree’, the Musaliyar replies softly. ‘We have a very strict selection process and admit only bright students, after a rigorous interview. So, they can easily cope with the syllabus.’ He contrasts this with the case of most north Indian students, where, he says, ‘generally, the dullest children in families are sent to study in madrasas.’ ‘In north India’, he continues, ‘most students in madrasas come from poor families, many of whom join madrasas simply because they cannot afford to go to regular schools. In contrast, most students in Dar ul-Huda come from quite well-off families. They come here out of choice and interest in becoming religious scholars, and not out of economic compulsion. Because we teach both Islamic and modern subjects, parents from middle-class families are enthusiastic to send their children here. In other parts of India, on the other hand, because few madrasas have proper arrangements for teaching modern subjects, middle-class parents hesitate to send their children there to study.’

So far, Shaikh Zainuddin says, twelve batches of students—a total of more than four hundred—have graduated from the Dar ul-Huda. They have taken up a range of careers, including as imams in mosque, teachers in government schools, madrasas and Arabic Colleges, as well as employees in the Gulf in companies and in various religious and government institutions. Some now work as journalists in leading Malayalam magazines and newspapers. Several have gone in for higher education at regular universities—not just in Islamic Studies or Arabic, but also in such disciplines as English Literature, Journalism, Sociology, Anthropology and Economics. A number of them are now enrolled at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Jamia Hamdard and Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, and also at the Aligarh Muslim University.

I point out that several traditionalist ulema are opposed to madrasa graduates joining universities, fearing that this might cause them to turn irreligious. ‘We do not want, and nor do we expect, all our students to become professional ulema,’ Shaikh Zainuddin answers. ‘Even if they go to universities and then take up other careers, they can use their religious knowledge in a positive way and make an impact on others.’

I then meet with Bahauddin Nadwi, senior teacher at Dar ul-Huda, who explains the structure of courses that the institution offers. Admission is provided to students who have passed the fifth grade of regular school and who have also received an Islamic education till the same grade at a part-time madrasa. Junior students undergo a five-year Initial or Ibtidai course, and then a four-year Secondary course, where they study Islamic disciplines plus the various subjects taught in regular schools, including compulsory English. This enables them to sit, as private candidates, for the high school examination for government schools. After this stage, they can choose to join regular universities or else continue at the Dar ul-Huda for a four-year course in Islamic Studies, equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree, and then a two-year MA-level course. Graduate-level students at the Dar ul-Huda must also simultaneously enroll in a degree programme at Calicut University as private candidates or in any Open University. ‘They generally choose to join the English, Arabic or Sociology Departments. We provide them with teachers for these subjects’, Nadwi says. ‘Unlike many ulema in the north’, he adds, ‘the Kerala ulema encourage their students to join regular universities. They do not see this as a threat to the religious identity and faith commitment of their students.’

Haji Muhammad Shafi, a businessman, is the Secretary of the Dar ul-Huda. He is the son of one of the Dar ul-Huda’s founders, Dr. U. Baputty Haji, an Ayurvedic doctor, who played a key role in collecting funds for setting up the institution. He explains that among the reasons for the success of educational experiments in Kerala like the Dar ul-Huda is what he describes as ‘the close association between the ulema and the umara—local Muslim social, economic and political elites’. ‘Unlike in many other parts of India, the ulema and the umara in Kerala work together, the latter also providing the funds for educational projects of the ulema. In Kerala, the umara play an important role in the day-to-day functioning of Islamic educational institutions. It is not like in the north, where most madrasas are controlled entirely by ulema, and that too by a particular person or family of founders. Here, madrasas are generally registered trusts, and the umara are also their members. This allows for much greater popular participation in the functioning of our educational institutions and for greater accountability as well,’ he says. He cites the case of the Dar ul-Huda itself. Of the 40 members of its executive body, only 6 are ulema, the rest being umara. ‘In many other parts of India’, he elaborates, ‘madrasas are often owned, for all practical terms, by the founder alim or his family, who regard it as their personal property. But here in Kerala it is different. All the assets of the Dar ul-Huda are owned by the trust that runs the institution and decisions about them are made collectively.’

The Dar ul-Huda’s expenses amount to around 10 lakh rupees a month. Generating funds is also a collective enterprise, Haji Muhammad Shafi explains. According to the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, to which most Kerala Muslims adhere, zakat money cannot be given to madrasas, because, Shafis believe, it must be given directly to needy individuals and not to institutions. This is in contrast to the Hanafi school, followed by most north Indian Muslims, which allows for zakat funds to be diverted to madrasas. Hence, Haji Muhammad says, the Dar ul-Huda has to rely on public donations, which are generated through local or Mahal committees associated with the Samastha Kerala Sunni Jamiat ul-Ulema and located across Kerala. This provision of Shafi fiqh, he says, makes for greater peoples’ participation in the running of madrasas in Kerala. Equally importantly, he adds, is the fact that, historically, the ulema in Kerala enjoyed close, organic links with the Muslim masses. He contrasts this with the case in the north, which, unlike Kerala, experienced centuries of rule by various Muslim dynasties, to which leading urban ulema were often linked. This led them to have little or no contact with common Muslims, especially in the countryside. This, in turn, resulted, he says, in a sort of alienation between them. In Kerala, where Hindu, rather than Muslim, kings ruled, the ulema took the position of community leaders that was occupied by Muslim rulers in north India. This made, he argues, for stronger bonds between the ulema and ordinary Muslims.

To add to this is the fact that, unlike in north India, where Muslim elite culture, a product of Muslim rule, was, and continues to be sternly feudal and hierarchical, Kerala Muslim culture is somewhat egalitarian, because almost all the Muslims of the state are from the same ethnic stock and also because they historically lacked a feudal class. ‘This, in a very important sense, was actually a blessing for us, because it was conducive to community solidarity and for the ulema and ordinary Muslims to work together for the sake of the community,’ Haji Muhammad Shafi opines. ‘All these factors were crucial for the remarkable educational successes of the Kerala Muslims, in contrast to much of the rest of India.’

‘Dar ul-Huda is seeking to inspire Muslim groups in other parts of India with its model’, Zubair Hudawi tells me as we step out of the administrative offices of the institution and interact with the students, who are all neatly turned out in crisp white lungis and shirts, white turbans tied loosely round their heads. He informs me that the Dar ul-Huda offers a separate, ten-year course for Urdu-speaking students from other parts of India, who now number more than 200. Most of these are from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but a fair number are also from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and the Andaman Islands. Since most of them are from Hanafi families, they are also taught the rules of Hanafi school. Plans are afoot to start a similar institution near Chittoor, in Andhra Pradesh.

‘Coming here has really been a mind-opening experience for us’, says Muhammad Siddique, a student from Bahraich in eastern Uttar Pradesh. ‘Unlike in the madrasa where I studied back home, here we also learn all the regular subjects taught in general schools. The ulema here are much more open-minded, and do not hesitate to learn from, and benefit from the good things of, other communities. They don’t restrict themselves just within the four walls of their madrasas but take an active part in all social affairs. Unlike our north Indian ulema, the ulema here know English and encourage us to learn it. Our maulvis back home say that we should restrict ourselves only to religious education, but here they are broad-minded. They want us to learn about the world also so that we can more effectively serve and guide society. They are more united here, while in our area they keep fighting among themselves.’

Siddique insists that I speak with the students after lunch. ‘On any topic you like’, he suggests. After a hearty meal at the madrasa—rice, dal, two types of vegetable and a pot of buttermilk—I sit with more than a hundred students in the hall of the enormous mosque. They range from nine to nineteen years of age. They speak flawless English and strike me as brilliant and bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm. Some of them want to become journalists, others dream of becoming professors. Yet others want to set up institutions patterned on the Dar ul-Huda. All of them want to serve their faith and their community, although in different ways.
I am not sure what to speak to the students about. I have not prepared anything. I decide to tell them about my own impressions of their institute, comparing it with several other madrasas elsewhere that I have visited. ‘Yours is certainly one of the most interesting and innovative experiments in madrasa education that I’ve ever seen’, I say, and I see rows of innocent, child-like, turbanned faces lighting up with joy.

Yoginder Sikand is associated with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore


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