Editor’s note: Last year, Yasmin M Khan, a Paris-based researcher whose area of interest is Muslim education, visited a collection of small and large madrassas in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. She spent three months interviewing administrators, students, former students, and local Muslim leaders. Her inquiries ended in September, by which time she had gathered a large quantity of information and opinions on the relevance of madrassas, their role in Muslim radicalisation and the impact the government's madrassa modernisation programme has had on these institutions.
Khan found Muslim opinion divided. Many thought madrassas were being unfairly targeted because of “anti-Muslim prejudice” and that the debate ignored the role they played in providing Islamic learning and providing free education to poor Muslim children. Others argued that these institutions were an “anachronism” and called for greater regulation around their sources of funding and their curriculum.
There was near unanimity on one issue: it was all very well to modernise madrassas by introducing computers, but not at the expense of mainstream “secular” schooling. Parents in rural areas told Khan they were “forced” to send their children to madrassas owing to the lack of proper schools in villages.
Firstpost invited Khan to write a series of four articles drawing from her travels. We commissioned pencil drawings by Maitri Dore, a Bengaluru-based architect, to serve as visual elements accompanying Khan’s pieces; she was not allowed to photograph her subjects.
By Yasmin M Khan
In the debate over the modernisation of madrassas, a question that refuses to go away is whether these institutions are relevant at all in the 21st century. Can madrassas be reformed by tinkering with a few courses or installing a few computers? Do they have the materials and intellectual resources – and, most important, cultural temperament – to prepare their students for the demands of a highly competitive modern world?
The answer is complicated, according to Muslim scholars and observers of madrassas; they dismiss attempts at such a binary approach to addressing the question. Moin Qazi, an academic and noted writer on Islam, believes that madrassas are unfairly portrayed. The majority of these institutions, according to him, “actually present an opportunity, not a threat”.
“For a poor Muslim child in a village, it may be his only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrassas provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labour, sex trafficking, or other abuse… For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours, madrassas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed, and taught to read and write,” he wrote in a widely published article.
Illustration by Maitri Dore
Even critics of madrassas caution against taking extreme positions and favour a more nuanced approach. Sunil Raman, a former BBC correspondent, and a frequent contributor to this website, who has studied the issue in some depth, is no fan of madrassas. But he is even more critical about the successive governments' confused response to how to drag them into the modern world. And he is right. The process of modernisation, as he reminds us, started not under Manmohan Singh but way back in 1992 under PV Narasimha Rao as a gesture towards the Muslims to placate them after the demolition of Babri Masjid.
“Over two decades later and crores of rupees being spent, the government appears to be tackling more or less same issues that existed in the 1990s,” he wrote recently.
He is not the only one who is extremely sceptical about the modernisation process. Critics don't have a quarrel with introducing modern subjects and computerisation but with the idea that this is an answer to the problem of Muslim education. Primarily, madrassas are seminaries meant to impart religious education and that's what they are best at doing. Their primary function is to produce Islamic scholars and imams, not doctors and engineers.
“The focus should be on reforming their religious curriculum and helping madrassas with extra resources so that they can hire better teachers and improve their infrastructure. That will be a better way of increasing their relevance,” said Sami Ullah, who studied at a madrassa and is now enrolled in an Islamic Studies course at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.
Ultimately, he said, he wants to go abroad for higher Islamic studies. “My dream is to be able to study at Al Azhar university [in Cairo] but let's see,” he said. About his madrassa experience, Ullah was clear as to the purpose it served: clarify the tenets of sharia. "For me it was okay because my need was very basic but their curriculum for advanced courses is extremely limited and offers very few career opportunities. So, there’s a problem there,” he said. He was, however, of the opinion that madrassas aren’t “an oddity”. “We certainly need madrassas, otherwise where will people like me go? Around the world, there are some great madrassas and there is no reason why we can’t have world-class madrassas,” he said.
But the question remains: what does madrassa education offers to its graduates in terms of job prospects? What do they do for a living after they pass out of a madrassa? Gagandeep Kaur, a Delhi-based journalist and researcher, has found that their curriculum is so limited that most universities don’t recognise madrassa education, which means that entry into higher education is barred for students of these institutions – in Uttar Pradesh, they are required to pass a special examination conducted by the state to qualify for a place in a regular college or university. She has written about this at length on Contributoria.
As for job opportunities, a madrassa graduate can aspire to be either a “maulana” (a teacher) or an imam at a mosque. Neither job pays enough for a decent living. “Most of the madrassas are not equipped to teach students how to live in modern society,” Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, Islamic scholar and adviser with Jamia Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Madrassa, has told Kaur.
This is a view echoed by S Irfan Habib, historian and Islamic scholar. In his interview to Kaur, Habib has said: “When you talk of madrassas...the way they are run is not relevant for the mainstream employment opportunities as the scope and curriculum is very limited.”
Kaur reports that there are some progressive madrassas. Madrassa Taleem-ul-Quran, run by an independent Islamic educational charity, the Haji Langa Trust in RK Puram, south Delhi, is one such. It has attempted to make its curriculum more relevant by combining traditional teaching with market-friendly courses. Rather than having stand-alone courses in modern education, these madrassas have integrated them with the existing syllabus, which means students who already learn Arabic and Urdu are now required to learn English as well.
This, it is claimed, has improved students’ chances of landing a job in the Middle East or in Indian companies that do business with Arab countries which need people who can communicate with their Arabic-speaking clients or business partners. I met Mushtaq Ansari who has become a freelance Arabic-English interpreter. He works for several companies and earns more money in a month than the average university graduate. He has had no formal schooling and learned both Arabic and English at a madrassa on the strength of which he obtained a modest job in an Arab mission. That, he said, gave him an “opportunity” to improve his Arabic and learned to speak it. “A colleague recommended me to a company which was looking for a part-time interpreter. While working for them I found other part-time assignments, and I am happy doing what I am doing,” he said. Ansari’s case is relevant to the debate on the usefulness and relevance of madrassas. But success stories like these are few and far between. For the overwhelming majority, madrassa education remains a dead-end and irrelevant.