Some Aspects of Muslim Educational System in Pre-Colonial India

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SOME ASPECTS OF THE MUSLIM EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM IN PRE-COLONIAL INDIA by Aamir Bashir

ABSTRACT This paper explores some of the hitherto less known aspects of the Muslim Educational System in pre-colonial India. It examines the broad contours of this system by looking at the public attitude towards knowledge, scholars and students; the various types of institutions, and the evolution of curriculum. It also looks at the depth of Indian scholars’ engagement with ÍadÊth and other sciences. Finally, it also looks at Sufis and their attitude towards the various Islamic sciences. The paper suggests that the educational system of the period under study was organic in structure and was in tune with the needs of the individual and the society. The course of study was a good balance between the temporal and the religious. Indian ‘ulamÉ were fully engaged with the ÍadÊth sciences; and lastly, the Sufis gave great importance to all Islamic sciences. This paper suggests that the historical Muslim educational system in pre-colonial India provides valuable resources for the problems faced by modern educational systems.

INTRODUCTION The aim of this paper is to bring to light some of the hitherto less known aspects of the Muslim Educational System in pre-colonial India. By pre-colonial India, we refer to the time from the advent of Islam in India in the beginning of the eighth century CE up to the consolidation of colonial rule in the middle of the eighteenth century.1 This short paper cannot do justice to all the details of the Muslim Educational System during this period. Therefore, we shall confine ourselves to only some aspects of it. These include the evolution of the curriculum over the centuries, and general contours of the educational system. We will also be challenging some conventional theories. These include the notion that before the coming of the press, books were in short supply in India. The other is that ÍadÊth was little known in India until the coming of ShÉh WalÊ AllÉh (d. 1762). We will be presenting individual incidents which we feel to be representative of a broader trend and from these we shall draw general conclusions. During the period under study Muslim rule gradually extended from Sindh to include the whole of Northern India until it became one of the three major Muslim powers of that time under 1

All the dates mentioned in this paper are CE (common era) dates unless otherwise noted.

the Great Mughals,2 Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran being the other two. Such a strong and vast empire required a strong administrative structure which in turn required an effective system of education. As we shall see later, education was sufficiently sought after, and provided for during this time, such that India at that time could favourably compare and often compete with the central lands of Islam in the field of scholarship.3

POSITION OF KNOWLEDGE AND EDUCATION IN ISLAM We begin our analysis with looking at the position of knowledge and education in Islam. Numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic traditions establish the centrality of knowledge in Islam. The verses include “Are those who know and those who do not know alike?” (39:9); the first revelation “Read in the name of your Lord who created” (96:1); and the prayer taught in the Qur’an, “Say (O MuÍammad), My Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (20:114). Similarly, the Prophetic traditions (aÍÉdÊth) exhorting people to seek knowledge are also well known. Examples include the famous tradition in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “It is obligatory upon every Muslim to seek knowledge.”4 At another time, he said “Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.”5 Similarly, al-TirmidhÊ has reported a ÍadÊth in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The excellence of a scholar upon the worshipper is like my excellence over the lowest one amongst you.” 6 This emphasis upon knowledge and education has been taken for granted in Muslim societies...
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