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The Madrassah – Ancient Madrassahs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

The Madrassah – Ancient Madrassahs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Note: Much of the material presented in the section on the madrassahs of Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan is taken from Maulana Nadvi’s manuscript “Hindustan ki purani darsgahen” (Shibli Academy, 1919). We have augmented the material with our own research on the madrassahs of southern India.

The well known scholar, Maulana Nadvi, in his manuscript on the ancient madrassahs (Islamic religious schools and academies) of Hindustan, observes that Muslim rulers throughout history have considered it a religious as well as secular obligation to build schools, mosques and qanqahs. For instance, the following edict from Emperor Akbar is mentioned in Tareeq Marat e Ahmedi, written by the Diwan (Chief Minister) of Gujarat: “To the maximum extent possible, there must be support for education and training so that the men of learning do not disappear from my realm and their continued presence is secured in the world”.

In bygone years, separate buildings did not exist for education. To the extent possible, the Masjid was used for this purpose. Every great Masjidwas a vast learning center. Such Masjid-madrassah complexes existed in Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Jaunpur, Ahmedabad, Dhaka and the Deccan. Even today, one can see that the courtyards of these masjid are surrounded by small chambers, which at one time were occupied by teachers and students. Some masjid-madrassah complexes still serve the same function.

Secondly, the ancient qanqhas served as madrassahs. The mashaeq and the seekers of sufi knowledge were engaged not just in tazkiya of the individual nafs but they also concerned themselves with teaching theShariah along with Tareeqa and the knowledge of the seen and the unseen (ilm u ghaib and ilm us shahada). For this reason, the lives of mashaeq of the old, show a marked commitment to teaching and learning. Everyqanqah had students who were thirsty not just for esoteric knowledge but also exoteric knowledge. Most of the grants that were given to the qanqhasby the rulers were spent on support for students.

The tombs of kings and noblemen had madrassahs and student accommodations attached to them. The tombs of Allauddin Khilji and Humayun are illustrations. Such tomb-madrassah complexes have survived to this day in Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad and Bijapur.

These observations show that the network of madrassahs was extensive in every corner of the vast subcontinent.


By the turn of the first millennium (1000 CE), most of Afghanistan, NW Frontier Province and Western Punjab was ruled by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna. He was a friend of learning and a supporter of the learned. His court was attended by well known scholars and poets. He was keen on building schools and madrassahs in his vast realm. The historian Farishta mentions that the madrassah-masjid complex of Ghazna was built of white marble. Copying their sovereign, the courtiers vied with one another in building madrassah-masjid complexes in the far off provinces.

Shahabuddin Masood succeeded Mahmud. This prince was also a dedicated patron of education and literature. It was during his reign that Kazi Abu Muhammed Nasihi composed the Fiqh Masoodi, and Abu Rayhan Khwarizmi, who was a scholar of Riaziyat, wrote a book on Qanoone Masoodi’. Farisha notes that the number of Masajid and madrassahs established by Masood were too numerous to count.


Multan was one of the earliest centers of Islamic learning in South Asia. Nasiruddin Khabacha, who was the governor (wali) of Multan under Qutbuddin Aibak, built a madrassah and appointed Maulana Qutbuddin Kashani to teach there. Among the later sultans, special mention must be made of Hussain Shah Lanka who sent a delegation to Gujarat to study the buildings housing madrassahs so that similar ones may be constructed in Multan. When the delegation reported that the type of buildings erected on Gujarat soil could not be erected in Multan, the sultan was saddened but he declared that if Gujarat was proud of its buildings, then Multan was proud of its scholars.


Delhi, as the capital city of sultans and emperors was showered with educational endowments and academies. In 1215 Shamsuddin Altimash became the Sultan. The famous Madrasseye Maazi in Delhi was built by this Sultan as was the Mutassil Jami in Badayun. During the reign of Razia Sultana, a large madrassah-masjid complex called Madrase Nasiriyia was built in Delhi.

Next to the Qutub Minar and the ruins of Masjid Quwwatul Islam is the tomb-madrassah complex of Alauddin Khilji. Alauddin embellished the complex and built a grand academy on the site. He also laid the foundation of Hause Khas madrassah in Delhi which was completed during the reign of Feroze Shah.

Sultan Muhammed bin Tughlaq (d 1351) founded the city of Khurram Abad next to old Delhi and built a Masjid-madrassah complex there.

For a long time, Madrase Feroze Shahi was the largest and the best known of the masjid– madrassahs in Delhi. Feroze Shah built it in Feroze Abad in the year 1354. It was headed by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (not to be confused with Mevlana Rumi of Konya, Turkey). It has been mentioned and praised in the writings of Zia Barani.

There was another madrassah built in Delhi at about the same time, Madrase Balaband Aab Seeri. The buildings were built to match the beauty and grandeur of Madrase Feroze Shahi.

Humayun’s reign began in the year 1528. He was a lover of history and geography. His personal collection consisted of over 150,000 books. He carried this collection with him during his wanderings in the desert when he was dethroned by Sher Shah Suri. Humayun was the inventor of an astrolobe, which is commonly referred to as astrolobe Humayuni. In the library of Darul Uloom Nadwa, until recent years, there stood an astrolobe Humayuni donated by Amal Ziauddin Mohammed bin Qasim. The top floor on Humayun’s tomb was in fact a madrassah.

During the reign of Akbar, Mahem Begum, one of the wives of Akbar built amasjid and madrassah in the old city. The madrassah was called khairul manazil.

The Jami Masjid in Delhi was not only one of the most beautiful structures built by Shah Jehan but was indeed an embellishment on the landscape of Delhi. The British traveler Stephen writes that the northern side of themasjid was a royal hospital where the poor and the destitute received free services. It was well equipped with the best facilitates of the age. On the southern side of the masjid was a grand madrassah called Darul Baqawhich was destroyed by the British after the uprising of 18534.

During the reign of Bahadur Shah, Ghaziuddin Khan Feroze Jung, father of Asif Jah, the founder of the Hyderabad dynasty, founded a madrassah. Another madrassah was built by Nawab Sharfuddawla Irawat Khan during the reign of Muhammed Shah.

Yet another well known seminary was madrassah Shah Abdur Rahim Dehlavi. It was here that Shah Waliullah, Kazi Sanaullah Panipati, Maulana Shah Abdul Azeez Dehlavi, Shah Ismail, Shah Ishaq, Shah Abdul Qader and other ulema were trained. The madrassah no longer exists.


Lahore, the capital of Punjab, attracted large endowments in schools and mosques. One of the earliest existing mosques, Wazir Khan ki Masjid has a shopping complex built around it. The income from the complex supports the masjid and a madrassah.

The Badshahi Masjid dating from the late Mogul period is a jewel in the same class as the Jamia Masjid of Delhi. It too had rooms built around the courtyard where students stayed during their study years.


By the reign of Aurangzeb, Sialkot had acquired a reputation for learning. Mullah Abdul Hakim Sialkoti, whose writings are well known from Delhi to Istanbul, taught in this city. Sialkot had a Darul Uloom and Jami Ulema which were well known during the reign of Shah Jehan and his son Aurangzeb. The centers were well known in the subcontinent and students from all over the Muslim world came to study here.


The well known Dargahe Shaikh Chilli was built by Dara Shikwa in 1661. Another madrassah, madrassah’e Noor, was built by Sher Shah Suri in 1545 near the tomb of his grandfather in the Punjab.


Agra became a center for learning during the reign of Emperors Akbar and Jehangir. Akbar invited a renowned scholar of the age, Chalebi Baig from Shiraz to come and teach at Agra. Other scholars also came from Shiraz to teach at the Jami in Agra.

Jahangir writes in his Tazk: “… the population of Agra is filled with a large number of artisans and students. Scholars of many religions live in this city”. It is important to note that Jahangir mentions scholars of other religions, not just Islamic scholars, who were teaching in the madrassahs.

Madras e Khas was built by Maulana Alauddin Lary, author of Sharh Aqaede Nafsi during the reign of Shah Jehan.

Jehan Ara Begum, eldest daughter of Shah Jehan, built a madrassah complex in Agra and endowed it with a large number of shops as waqf to defray the expenses.

Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar built a large number of madrassahs and qanqahs. The jami masjid as well as the tomb of Salim Chishti in Fatehpur Sikri served as a grand madrassah. There was a madrassah after the name of Abul Fazal, which is still functioning.

Sikandar Lodhi (circa 14340) built numerous schools, sarai, madrassahsandmasajid in his reign including a grand masjid and madrassah. It was during his reign that the Hindus started to study Farsi.


In 226, Shamsuddin Altimish built a Jami masjid and an adjacent madrassah in Badayun.

Nawab Faizullah Khan established the madrassah at Rampur. The Nawab invited Maulana Bahrul Uloom to build the madrassah and teach there. Kandan Lal Ashkee writes that three hundred students studied at the school.


When Rahmat Khan occupied Ruhilkhand in 13450, he established a great madrassah at Shahjehanput and invited Maulana Bahrul Uloom to come to Ruhilkhand and teach at the school.


In the waning years of the Mogul empire, Oudh became an important provincial town and a center of learning. The earliest known madrassah was established by Shaikh Nizamuddin Ansari at Sahali during the reign of Akbar. During the reign of Aurangzeb, a madrassah was established by Mullah Qutbuddin.


The earliest madrassahs in Lucknow were established by Shaikh Azam Jaunpuri and Shah Pir Muhammed. However, it was Mullah Qutbuddin Saeed and his son Mullah Nazimuddin who were responsible for making Lucknow a magnet for scholars from all over the world. Other schools sprang up in Khairabad, Belgram and Fatehgadh.


Jaunpur was known as the Shiraz of India. The emperor Sher Shah Suri was educated at Jaunpur. His course of study included Sikandar Nama, Gulistan, Bustan, philosophy, and the biographies of kings and sultans. He often visited madrassahs and qanqhas and made friends with the ulema and the shaikhs.

In the year 1444, Bibi Raja Begum established a madrassah in Jaunpur. However, when Sikandar Lodhi captured Jaunpur, he demolished most of the old madrassahs. Jaunpur was rehabilitated during the Mogul period. Shah Jehan referred to Jaunpur as the Shiraz of the East. He sanctioned grants to the scholars of the town. He made it a matter of policy that whenever there was a madrassah established, he would sanction a grant for it. The rich and the princes stopped in this town to witness the grandeur of its academies and further bestowed grants on them.


Benares was known for the school established by Maulana Amanullah Benarasi.


Azamgadh was connected with Jaunpur. It produced many scholars. The names of Mullah Muhammed Jaunpuri, Maulana Inayat Rasul, Maulana Shamsul Haq, Molvi Hafiz Noor, Molvi Mohammed Zubair, Maulana Altaf Hussain, Maulana Aleemullah, Maulana Tasaddaq Hussain, Maulana Jamaluddin, and Maulana Farooq is well known.


Bakhtiar Khilji conquered Bihar and Bengal in the 12th century and laid the foundation of Islamic education in that area. Bihar produced many a great scholar including Shaykh Tayyeb Budhen, Mullah Muhibbullah and Ghulam Yahya, Some of the best known towns where madrassahs were located were Mohiuddinpur, Nagar Nahisa, Kohta, Geelani and Isthanuwan.

In Bihar, the town of Sehseram, has the qanqah of Hazrath Kabir. It is one of the great madrassahs and has an old library, which dates from the reign of Shah Alam.

Nawab Asif Khan founded the madrassah ‘e Danapur and the contiguousMasjid, which was completed by Nawab Heebat Jung.

The qanqhah at Phulwari is well known for its madrassah teaching both Ilm ul Gaib and Ilm uz Zahir.

Madrasse Patna, built by Saif Khan was once vast and extensive, but it is now in ruins.


Bakhtiar Khilji was the first one to conquer Bengal. He was well known for establishing masjids, qanqhas and madrassahs. Other early masjids were known to exist in Umarpur, and Isthipur.


Shaesta Khan, uncle of Aurangzeb, built a large madrassah and a masjidinside a fort bearing his name. Close by is the Khan Mohammed MirzaMasjid including lecture halls and dormitories for students. Mohammed Azam, son of Aurangzeb built a Masjid which specialized in ulume batin and the practice of tasawwuf.


Ali Wardi Khan Murshidabadi invited scholars to come to Murshidabad from Azimabad. Included among these scholars were Mir Mohammed Ali, Hussain Khan, Ali Ibrahim Khan and Haji Mohammed Khan. There was a madrassah called Katra madrassah built by Jaafar Khan.


Among the earliest sultans who patronized learning in Kashmir was Sultan Sikandar who is known as a patron of learning and scholarship. Sultan Zainul Abedin (1423) established a department of history in Kashmir and authorized the writing of Kashmiri history known as Raj Tarangi. Hussain Chak Shah established a large madrassah in 1498 and assigned the Zainpur Pargunna to support this school. He evinced keen interest in learning and was a patron of learned people. When Akbar captured Kashmir, Hussain Khan, Waliye Kashmir was appointed the governor of the province and became a patron of a large number of madrassahs.


The sultans of Ahmadabad were second to none in their patronage ofmasajid and madrassahs. Among these sultans, Sultan Muhammed Bekhada is one of the best known. He built schools, academies and masajidthroughout the land. Saif Khan built a beautiful madrassah in 1620, named madrasat’ul ulema near the entrance to the fort of Arak.

Kazi Ikramuddin Khan who was a Shaikh ul Islam, built a grand madrassah in 16834. Maulana Nooruddin Gujarati taught in the school.

In Ahmedabad, Madrase Wajihuddin was well known. The school offered stipends to students. Allama Mamdooh taught here for 26 years.

Other well known madrassahs existed in Sarqeez, Neherwala and Usmanpur.


Haji Zahid Baig built a madrassah in the year 1629.

As directed by Emperor Aurangzeb, three madrassahs were built in Gujarat: one in Ahmedabad, one in Surat and the third in Patan. The emperor was a great supporter of learning and of the learned. The teachers as well as the students were supported by state funds. Alamgir also supported the education of Bohras in Gujarat. Contrary to parochial opinions, Aurangzeb was not anti-Shia. He was a patron of Shia, Sunni and the academies of other madhhabs. The wars he waged on the sultanates of the Deccan were not directed at the Shias; they were a reflection of the Mogul-Safavid rivalry for the domination of South Asia.

Madrassahs of Southern India

Islam has had a presence on the southwestern coast of the Subcontinent (the coast of Kerala and Konkan) since the 8th century. However, the madrassahs dating back to that era are now extant. The consolidation of the subcontinent under Alauddin Khilji (circa 1300) brought Islam to other parts of the south. The old Iddgahs and tombs that dot the landscape of Deccan are a testimony to that presence. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bahmani kingdoms of Bijapur, Bidar, Ahmednagar and Golkunda established themselves. These were supplanted by the Great Moguls in the 16th and 134th centuries. Many of the madrassahs that date from the Bahmani kingdoms and the era of the Great Moguls are still functioning in parts of the south.


Jamia Baqiatus Salehat located in Vellore was founded in 18534 by Hazrat Shah Abdul Wahab, who was himself a graduate of madras e Latifiya. As northern India burned during the Sepoy uprising and the British brutally put down the rebellion, Shah Abdul Wahab thought about the condition of Indian Muslims and felt that the salvation of the community lay in education. The school had a humble origin. Shaikh Abdul Wahab started teaching from his home. In 1882, a Majlis e Shura was organized and the institution moved to its present location. In 1896, the institution was registered under the Madras 1860 madrassah Act.

The total enrollment for the Jami for the year 2003-2004 is 224. The current dean is an eminent theologian Shaikh Maulana Mufti Uthman Mohiuddin. Students are admitted at the age of 12. Boarding and lodging for the students are free. Most of the students come from the poorer strata of society. The syllabus includes the study of Urdu, elementary English, local languages, the Qur’an, Hifz, Tafseer, Hadith, fiqh, arithmetic, classical Farsi and Arabic literature. After graduation, many students go on to Nadva, Devband or the University of Medina (Saudi Arabia) for specialized studies. The institution thus maintains a conservative orientation towards learning, more in keeping with the Hadith school than the traditional zawiya school.

The Jami always enjoyed a good rapport with the local governments over the decades. In 1925, the British Governor of Madras, Count Goshen attended a conference at the school and gave a donation of Rs. 10,000. At the present time, the Jami is supported by private trusts in the cities of Chennai and Vellore.

From its humble beginnings Jamia Baqiatus Salehat has grown to radiate its influence all over Southern India as well as Sri Lanka, Maldeep Islands, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of the students are from Southern India although, until the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and its fallout, students from Ceylon, Malaysia, Maldeep Islands and Indonesia also attended.


More than three hundred years before the well known academies at Nadva and Devband were established, the Jami Lateefiyaat Vanambadi in Southern India, was founded by Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub during the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur (circa 15345), just before the armies of the Great Moguls penetrated the Deccan. The tomb of Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub, a Shaikh of the Qadiriya order, is located in the precincts. Shaikh Qutub is one of the well known Awliya of Deccan. It is reported that thousands of people entered the fold of Islam through his teachings. To this day, thousands visit his tomb each year. The ancient seminary is attached to a zawiya and is supported by private waqfs of the murids. A resident Shaikh, a scion of the Qadariya school from Hazrath Syed Shah Qutub run the seminary. The current enrollment is approximately 150 students.

The Jami Lateefiya is a more ancient madrassah than either Devband or Nadvatul Ulema. However, unlike the seminaries in the North, these ancient seminaries in the South do their work away from the public eye. They do not seek publicity nor do they go out soliciting funds. The seminary has radiated its influence far beyond the borders of the Indian subcontinent. It was one of the graduates of this seminary who foundedMadressaye Baqiyiat us Salihat and the graduates of Baqiyat have opened schools in Malaysia, Ceylon, Nepal, South Africa and the Maldeep Islands.

Maqbul ul Uloom, located in Vanambadi was founded in 1888 by Mohammed Ghouse and Hajji Abdul Majeed. Members of these two families have been running this institution until today. It is an independent institution and is managed by a trust.

The admission age for students is 12. A course of study for nine years leads to a degree of aalim. Traditionally, most of the students come from poor families. Of late, thanks to the interest from Tableeghi Jamaat, children from middle class families are also attending. The dropout rate is high and those who drop out become molvis in the villages. Those who graduate migrate to bigger towns and cities.

The institution is known for its dawa work and a large number of people have entered the fold of Islam through the work of its faculty and students. However, the dawa work is not advertised so as not to attract unwanted attention. The schools in Southern India are well integrated into the largely Hindu milieu. They teach peace, togetherness and brotherhood.

There is an association called Majlis ul madaris ul Arabia, which provides a forum for consultation between various madrassahs on issues of common interest. Unity between the madrassahs is not possible because of masalikbut such differences have not prevented them from working together.


Jami Darul Islam at Umarabad is an institution partly supported by grants from Saudi Arabia and partly from the Government of Tamil Nadu. The Saudi leanings of the school are apparent in the strict discipline that is imposed on the students. Students are sometimes starved for a day if they violate disciplinary rules. Thanks to generous grants from abroad, it is located in very modern, beautiful buildings. The total student body stands at 650. Maulana Riyazu is the Principal. Until the attack 9/11 in New York, there was emphasis on tableegh. During the year 2001, 25 students entered the fold of Islam. But because of the political climate, tableegh has now stopped. The age of admission for students is twelve and the institution gives out degrees of Aalim. Six of the faculty members were trained in Saudi Arabia, which reinforces the Saudi orientation in the syllabus. The school does not accept tasawwuf as a legitimate subject nor is it taught to the students.


Madresay e Arabiya, in Kambipur, Bangalore was founded in 1956 by Shaikul Hadith Syed Muhammed Ismail. Its stated goal is to awaken a love for Islam in the neighboring villages and to mold the character of a Daee(inviter to Islam). Generous donations from Saudi Arabia have enabled this school to build a modern campus and infrastructure. The library has well over 1000 volumes, many of them donated by Medina University. It is currently run jointly by Tableeghi Jamaat and Jamaat e Islami. Seventy percent of the students are from the villages, the rest are from the towns and cities.

The syllabus of this school is responsive to the needs of the day and the needs of the state. The influence of Nadva is obvious from the fact that before a book is used in the syllabus it has to be approved by the academy at Nadva. High school courses are offered. English, Arabic and Kannada (the local language) are also taught. The study of Urdu is compulsory. Arabic language classes are geared to make the student understand theQur’an. Courses in classical Islamic history as well as modern Indian history are included with emphasis on the role of the ulema in the independence movement of India. A course in philosophy, including Al Ghazzali’s Repudiation of the Philosophers as well as Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Aristotle are available for study. The students are taught a trade, such as carpentry or tailoring, before graduation. Tazkiya is accepted. The role of the awliya is respected although tasawwuf is not included in the syllabus. The students are encouraged to engage in khidmate khalq and follow the example of the awliya in this respect. The Hanafi school of fiqh is followed. Interfaith dialogues are held with a neighboring Christian seminary.


The old madrassah in Bidar occupies a place of honor among the learned circles in India. It was built by Mahmoud Tawan (circa 1450) who was the vizier to Mohammed Shah Bahmani. It occupied an area of 345 by 55 meters, had two minarets 100 feet tall, one of which is still standing. There is a masjid in the courtyard. Situated around the courtyard are chambers which serve as residence for the teachers and the students. Mohammed Gawan established a library, which had 35,000 volumes.


Ahmed Shah Bahmani built a madrassah for his Shaykh, Hazrath Gaysu Daraz in the year 1422. It was a qanqhah where the exoteric as well as the esoteric sciences were taught.

Golkunda (modern ‘Hyderabad’)

Molvi Zakaulla writes in his Tareeq e Hind that Qutub Shah who was the sultan of Golkunda built many madrassahs in his capital city.

Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah of Golkunda built the Char Minar in the year 1591 and established a madrassah next to it. Qutub Shah was a patron of learning and the arts. The European writer Sheryl writes in his book that Qutub Shah established many basic madrassahs in southern India. The students sat on benches in these schools and wrote on paper which was smooth but was of a lower quality than that available in Europe.

Mahmoud Shah, who was one of the rulers of Golkunda was a well known scholar himself and had students learn philosophy and hikmat (integrative knowledge, systems) and carried the title of “Aristotle”. He built madrassahs in Gulbarga, Bidar, Ulajpur and Daulatabad.

Mohammed Adil Shah established madrassahs for the study of Farsi and Arabic as well as Qur’anic studies in the Jami Masjid at Bijapur. The students received free boarding and lodging as well as a stipend. Upon graduation, they were offered government jobs.


Burhan Nizam Shah accepted the Shi’a faith. He built an Ithna Ashari madrassah in Ahmednagar and an attached Langar Khana. For the maintenance of this complex, he established a waqf to which the tax income from Jaunpur, Sawar and Siapur was earmarked. He also built another madrassah called Madrass e Baghdad.


Nawab Wala Jah of Madras invited Maulana Behrul Uloom to Madras, built a large madrassah next to his own palace and endowed it with generous land and buildings.

In summary, Islamic education in India was widespread and was patronized by the local rulers. It was also integrative and was responsive to the needs of Muslims in a largely Hindu matrix.

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