The ʿUlamāʾs response to English Education in South Asia: 1803-2002

Dr. Muhammad Arshad

In the history of Muslim religious intellectual thought (fiqh and ilm al-kalam: jurisprudence and theology) the question of mastering the languages of “others” (non-Muslim people) never arose and, therefore, had not been debated in the early and medieval ages. Muslims had received a very clear verdict from the Prophet Muhammad declaring the acquisition of languages of non-Muslims not only permissible but even preferable and obligatory in some stances.

In the pre-colonial eras, Muslim theologians and jurists never perceived the acquisition of the languages of non-Muslim nations as a threat to Muslim religious and cultural identity, instead they perceived it as an effective medium of academic, religious and cultural dialogue with other nations. Even in pre-modern/postcolonial 17th century Muslim India, when Portuguese Jesuits came in contact with Muslim scholars and engaged them in polemics at the Court of Mughul Emperor Akbar, some of the ‘ulama and courtiers learned Portuguese to respond to the Jesuit missionaries. A school of European languages was established in Lahore, where the sons of the princes and the courtiers learned Portuguese. The ‘ulama did not oppose / challenge that initiative.

However, the British conquest of Muslim Empire in India and, more specifically, the introduction of colonial civilizing mission [the dissemination of European learning, mostly through the medium of English] in the nineteenth century provoked an intensive debate on the question. The debate continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The ‘ulama in their statements, writings and fatawa (religious verdicts), argued in favour or against the notion of learning English and, more particularly, its introduction to the curriculum of the madrasahs (religious seminaries). The persistent debate, significantly, contributed to the Madrasah-curriculum reform initiatives and the establishment of some reformed-madrasahs. Contrary to the standpoint of reformed-ulama, the ‘ulama of the Deoband School did continue to reject the notion of curriculum-reform.

The madrasah of Deoband was the first and largest madrasah, established in the aftermath of the failure of the 1857 uprising. Its founders, patrons and professors vehemently resisted the notion of the introduction of English and modern disciplines in the curriculum throughout the colonial period. However, in the post-colonial period the pressure of the diverse forces (political, social and economic) subjected them to review their longstanding position on the question. Since 1980 a new phase of debates on Madrasah-curriculum reform took place both in Pakistan and India which resultantly paved the way for the introduction of English and some modern disciplines in the curriculum of madrasahs managed by the ‘ulama of Deoband School, first in Pakistan and later in India. It was a historic moment in the history of madrasahs in South Asia, when a Department of English language and Literature was established at Dar al-‘ulum of Deoband, in 2002. Since then, every year, a select group of the graduates of the Madrasah is admitted to the Department to impart to them communication skills.

The close examination of the debates on the introduction of English learning reveals a variety of Muslim religious responses, which can be categorized as: conditional approval, rejection and limited acceptance. These debates also show that the ‘ulama’s response to English learning was shaped and reshaped by several factors: political, cultural, religious etc. I would argue that ‘ulama’s resistance to the learning of English was not just a matter of maintaining their religious authority, as Zaman and others have argued (Malick, 1996; Zaman, 2004). Obviously, the diffusion of modern education had reduced ‘ulama’s religious authority, however there were some other factors which significantly contributed to their resistance to English education. ‘Ulama’s response to English learning was rooted in their resistance to British colonialism. Under the non-Muslim alien rule ‘ulama had assumed the role of the Custodians of the faith of Muslim masses and they were resisting forcefully foreign influences and, particularly, English learning. They perceived English learning as a powerful tool of Western civilization which was undermining the religious and cultural identity of the Muslim masses. ‘Ulama’s traditionalism and conservatism also contributed to their response as they were very wary of embracing innovations and new ideas etc.

This paper seeks to describe and analyze the debates among the ‘ulama on the question of learning English and, more specifically, its introduction to the madrasah-curriculum. It takes into account the statements, writings and fatawa (religious verdicts) of the ‘ulama which appeared during the 19th and 20th centuries. This paper, to a large extent, focuses on the response of the ‘ulama of Deoband school of thought.