Religion and Change: Oxford and Madrasas of South Asia

Masooda Bano (Oxford University)

Abstract: This paper explores the relative strength of strategic (North, 1990) versus evolutionary theories (Bowles, 2004) of institutional change to explain the reversal in fortunes of South Asian madrasas; once responsible for grooming the elite in Muslim India, they are today primarily viewed as a refuge for the poor. It compares the experience of South Asian madrasas with that of the University of Oxford, given their common origins in religious education. In the eleventh century, the two traditions started with similar initial resource endowment, comparable supply and demand pressures, and followed equal pace of consolidation over several centuries. Yet from the seventeenth century onwards, they followed different directions: Oxford and Christianity engaged with modernity, while madrasas and Islam disengaged. The chapter argues that the placement of informal vis-à-vis formal institutions is critical in determining the direction of institutional change. The displacement of madrasas by Western educational institutions established under the colonial rule, made madrasa education irrelevant for the modern economy and politics. Deprived of economic and human capital, ulama found security in consolidating old ways rather than experimentation. As part of the colonizing power, Oxford, on the other hand, faced additional pressures to innovate and experiment in response to the demands of the expanding empire and thus became steadily integrated into the modern society and economy.

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