Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Book Review: Madrasah Life By Shaykh Dr Akram Nadwi

Madrasha Life is a unique book by the erudite scholar, Shaykh Dr Akram Nadwi which shatters the negative myths of the madrasah system that is increasingly prevalent in the Western world. The book unearths a day in the life of a madrasah student who is in the fadilah course (Masters Level) at the celebrated Nadwat al-Ulama in Lucknow, India. This distinguished school is celebrated for its emphasis on Arabic, Persian, Urdu languages and literatures as well as managing to successfully blend the traditional sacred sciences with the secular. Thus, it is not surprising that the book is glittered with quotations from esteemed poets from Labid to Ghalib.

This book reveals for the reader the daily activities a master’s student undergoes in a classical Islamic education system. Readers are introduced to a group of young master’s students and their educational and social life. The reader discovers the student’s curricula they study, their social antics, the recreational games they play, the conversations and disagreements in detail to the food they eat. Readers will be surprised to see that western and traditional Islamic students are very much similar, they love and dislike grammar, they tease one another, some are proactive and while others just down right lazy. This book beautifully reveals the level of intellectual curiosity of students, their favorite subjects, teachers and social life.

I was very surprised when reading the book because as a masters student myself in an eminent Western university. I know first-hand the level of intellectual capacity my fellow student’s possess. Yet the intellectual level of traditional masters students at Nadwah compared to my university is far greater. The author shows how students are well versed and competent in discussing and critiquing the works of Plato, Aristotle, Satre as well as Ibn Tamiyyah and Bukhari. One can see that that the students at Nadwah have a passion for knowledge and learning that is rarely found in a western master’s education. No wonder that the students at Nadwah are extremely hardworking and intelligent.

I have not come across an institute in the Western World that requires mastery of three different languages, a clear comprehension of different sciences as well as a four year degree, just to be considered as a candidate to enter a Master’s Program. The social and educational interactions dismiss the Western notion that madrasahs are platforms of extremisms, where young brain dead individuals are brainwashed into ideals of extremism. This is far from the truth as acknowledged by Major General Sir Sleeman who argues that traditional Islamic madrasahs are akin to a classical Western education. Moreover their tuition fees are much cheaper too.

“He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his son an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn through the medium of the Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in our colleges through those of Greek and Latin- that is, grammar, rhetoric and logic. After his seven years of Study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford; he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna”

What I really love about this book is the reader can clearly see the relationship of a traditional Islamic teacher and their student. You can see the traditional Islamic students have a respect for their teachers that many western students cannot fathom. Traditional students do not see their teachers as just mere teachers. But as loving fathers.They take their students gently by their hands ensuring a mastery of the subject. Students do not just inherit the knowledge attained, but an Ijazah and sometimes their teacher’s spiritual states. A Ijazah is a certification to teach the subject which ensures that the student becomes part of the Isnad, a scholarly lineage of teachers that goes back to the Prophet PBUH through his Companions, a later venerable Shaykh, or the author of a specific book. This way knowledge is not just taught and merely given away but protected. Each student who requires an ijazah must have mastery of the particular subject, this ensures that academic standards do not drop.

Although teachers are greatly respected, the book conveys the critical thinking of the madrasah system. Opinions are cross examined and criticized in a respectful academic manner. Readers should understand that traditional educations colleges like Nadwah do not result in inflexibility of the mind, obstinate opinions and a monolith world view. Students do not just accept their knowledge blindly.They are taught to challenge their teachers. They critically examine their knowledge and question them. Students are taught to understand the chain of thought of scholars, this result in often questioning a scholar in one science, while admiring him in another. By embarking on research projects and dissertations this also leads to critical thinking. The contribution of Madrasah Life by Shaykh Dr Nadwi is witty and a very fun read while still unearthing the milieu of traditional Islamic schools and their traditions.

Madrasah Life, By Mohammed Akram Nadwi, Published by Turath Publishing,(2007)

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