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In secular mode

Today, the very mention of madrasa conjures up the picture of obsession to medieval identity, orthodoxy and religious conservatism among people.

Today, the very mention of madrasa conjures up the picture of obsession to medieval identity, orthodoxy and religious conservatism among people.   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy


The age when the Indian elite opted for the madrasa for their children

In India, convent school education is today considered by the neo-rich, the affluent and the vast middle-class as a status symbol. The reason is that knowledge of English brings job opportunities and economic success in India.

Today the very mention of madrasa conjures up the picture of obsession to medieval identity, orthodoxy and religious conservatism among people. But not many people are aware that once upon a time the Indian elite among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sent their sons to the madrasa to be educated. 

Akbar made Persian the state language of the Mughals and made knowledge of Persian compulsory for all state officials. The far-reaching changes he introduced in education reforms made Persian truly a state language of the Mughal empire. He transformed religious education into formal education at the primary level. The new educational system imparted skills in reading, writing and accountancy. As a result, even Hindus were admitted to maktabs and madrasas, which were primarily Muslim educational institutions.

He brought about several changes. First, he introduced secular subjects in the curriculum, such as logic, arithmetic, astronomy, accountancy and agriculture. Secondly, in the reformed system children were not required to spend too much time practising the alphabet. After learning and practising the shape and name of the words they were required to commit to memory some Persian couplets or moral phrases directly and thus appropriate the ethos of the language at a young age. Thirdly, after picking up the language the students studied the prescribed curriculum, which included ethics (akhlaq), arithmetic (hisab), accountancy (siyaq), measurement (masahat), and geometry.

Akbar’s educational reforms were influenced by the polymath Mir Fathullah Shirazi. We can gather information about Akbar’s education reform from the Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th-century document dealing with the administration of his empire. It was written by his vizier, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak. Ain 25 of Ain-i-Akbari laid down thus: "His Majesty orders that every schoolboy must learn to write the letters of the alphabet first and then learn to trace their several forms. He ought to learn the shape and name of each letter, which may be done in two days, after which the boy should proceed to write joined letters. They may be practised for a week, after which the boy should learn some prose and poetry by heart, and then commit to memory some verses to the praise of God, or moral sentences, each written separately. Care is to be taken that he learns everything by himself, but the teacher must assist him a little."

The Mughals took over the keys of power from the Afghans. However, the Afghans used Hindi for administrative work rather than Persian. Before Akbar, a substantial part of the administration was carried out by local Hindus who worked in Hindi. Akbar brought in Persians to govern his empire from the Safavid empire and they brought their expertise in military and governance with them. Akbar preferred to employ foreign Muslim officials who had no local interests and thus were loyal to him. In the new system, knowledge of Persian was sufficient qualification to secure employment as clerical staff in local daftars under the Mughals. Hence, Hindu officials soon learnt Persian and joined as clerks, scribes and secretaries working in the new administrative system run by Persians. Since the department of accountancy promised better salaries, it attracted more Hindus. Accountancy and the offices of the revenue minister were mostly filled by the Kayasthas and Khatris.

Due to Akbar’s educational system, Persian became the lingua franca of the sub-continent during his reign, and command over Persian became a matter of pride and led to elegant self-expression. Persian became the language of the elite. All Mughal government documents were prepared in Persian and even the ordinary soldier and the village head-man were expected now to read Persian. 

The use of Persian became so important country-wide that even the Sikh king Maharaja Ranjit Singh made it his court language. Guru Nanak Dev ji learnt Persian at an early age at a madrasa. Guru Gobind Singh ji used Persian in his writings. The Zafarnama, or the ‘letter of victory’, written by the Guru in 1705-1706, was addressed to Emperor Aurangzeb, in Persian. Shivaji spoke chaste Persian. He ordered the compilation of a dictionary of Persian and Sanskrit during his reign. In the Deccan it became the court language of the Bahmanis and later of Bijapur and Golconda/Hyderabad. The elite of 19th century Bengal were bilingual and spoke Persian and Bengali. Raja Rammohun Roy studied in Madrasa Aliyah and knew Persian and Arabic. He edited and wrote in a Farsi newspaper. Persian continued to be the official language, until it was replaced with English in 1835 by the British East India Company.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 8:29:52 AM |

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