The Madrasa at Deoband: A Model for Religious Education in Modern India


Article by Barbara D. Metcalf (1978)


The Organization of Deoband


The madrasa at Deoband began modestly in I867 in an old mosque, the Chatta Masjid, under a spreading pomegranate tree which still stands. The first teacher and the first pupil, in a coincidence deemed auspicious, were both named Mahmud: Mulla Mahmud, the teacher, and Mahmud Hasan, the pupil, who was later to become the school’s most famous teacher. Despite the timeless atmosphere surrounding its inauguration, however, the school from its inception was unlike earlier madrasas. The founders emulated the British bureaucratic style for educational institutions instead of the informal familial pattern of schools then prevalent in India. The school was, in fact, so unusual that the annual printed report, itself an innovation, made continuing efforts to explain the organization of the novel system. The school was, notably, a distinct institution, not an adjunct to a mosque or home. As soon as possible, it acquired classrooms and a central library. It was run by a professional staff and its students were admitted for a fixed course of study and required to take examinations for which due prizes were awarded at a yearly public convocation. A series of affiliated colleges was even set up, many ultimately staffed by the school’s own graduates and their students examined by visiting Deobandis. Financially, the school was wholly dependent on public contributions, mostly in the form of annual pledges, not on fixed holdings of waqf, pious endowments con-tributed by noble patrons.


In older schools, like the famous Farangi Mahall in Lucknow, family members taught students in their own homes: there was no central library, no course required of each student, no series of examinations. After a student had read a certain book with his teacher, he would receive a certificate, a sanad, testifying to his accomplishment, then seek another teacher or return home. The Farangi Mahall family depended primarily on revenue from their endowments and on the largesse of princes. The ulama of the school cultivated intellectual interests and trained students to become government servants. The Deobandi ulama, in contrast, sought to create a body of religious leaders able to serve the daily legal and spiritual needs of their fellow Muslims apart from government ties.


The structure of the school encouraged the effective pursuit of such a goal and the opportunity for influence over a wide geographic area. The founders had seen the efficiency of a variety of British institutions in pursuing specific goals. Many of them, including three Deputy Inspectors of the Education Department, were government servants; some had attended schools like the Delhi College; and now all con-fronted with concern the influential missionary societies. In dealing with these institutions, they learned their methods and chose to compete with them on equivalent terms. They were familiar as well with a system of formal structure from the days of the Mughals. Then, however, the court had provided a framework of patronage and res-ponsibility for the judicial and educational work of the ulama. Now the ulama had to create a structure themselves. In doing so successfully, they laid a foundation for effective influence in a modern society. The school produced ulama, recruited from a widespread area, who disseminated a uniform religious ideology to many Muslims who welcomed teachings that emphasized common bonds among Muslims rather than local ones.


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The Madrasa at Deoband

  • September 18, 2013
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