The madrassa series: Trapped between the Hindu Right and timid reforms, centres of Islamic learning can only be rescued by bold thinking

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. This is the concluding segment of the series.

By Yasmin M Khan

“Madrassa are a conspiracy against illiterate and less educated Muslims. These institutions provide a narrow education which keeps their students away from the mainstream. It is in the interest of Muslims themselves to close them down.”

“It is high time that the Muslim community realises the urgency for change in madrassas.”

“Religious schools have no place in the modern world…if at all they need to be there the government should have full control over their curriculum.”

“Through institutions like madrassas, Muslim leaders have blocked Muslims from joining the mainstream.”

“We oppose any interference in madrassas. It is the right of every religious community to run its own religious institutions without interference.”

These comments picked up at random from various newspapers and social networking sites illustrate the polarisation in the debate on the role of madrassas and efforts to reform them. Talk to anyone, and they have a view on madrassas ranging from one extreme to another. “On the one hand, the Hindu Right consistently tries to paint them as dens of terrorism; on the other, sections of Muslims passionately defend them as if nothing is wrong with them,” wrote Arshad Alam, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in The Indian Express. He called for a “meaningful and dispassionate discussion on madrassa reform and the future of thousands of children who study in these institutions’’. But, the sharp and contrasting reactions to his article only appeared to confirm how divisive the issue has become.

Unfortunately, much of the debate is coloured by madrassas' association with extremism and there's a view that government reforms are also prompted by national security concerns. The way “Islam-madrassa-extremism” angle has played out has made even many moderate Muslims, who have no love lost for madrassas, defensive.

The madrassa series: Trapped between the Hindu Right and timid reforms, centres of Islamic learning can only be rescued by bold thinking

Illustration by Maitri Dore

The late Islamic scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer, is one of them. He spent a lifetime taking on Muslim fundamentalists who in turn routinely targeted him. But he remained extremely critical of the “ill-informed” attacks on madrassas; and the way “myths" were invented to portray madrassas as havens for “jihadis” – and by implication Islam as a violent religion.

“Most of the views about madrassas were expressed by those who hardly had any first-hand knowledge of madrassa system or what is taught in these madrassas. They just presumed that since these are Islamic institutions they must be teaching jihad and war. Even responsible ministers from (Vajpayee's) NDA government made such statements. What is needed is well-informed and well-studied opinion,” he wrote in 2009.

More than nine years on, it is still almost impossible to have a “well-informed” discussion on madrassas. For that to happen it is important to demystify some of the myths that surround them, particularly the perception that they are a homogeneous entity with common aims, curricula and outlook. It becomes apparent on examination that they adhere to different, and often conflicting, schools of Islamic thought (Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Hadees to name a few) with almost every Muslim sect represented by its own madrassa.

“People make the same mistake with madrassas as they do with Muslims who they see as a monolithic community with identical views and outlook,” said Fauzia, an activist of a Gurgaon-based group which campaigns for more girls’ madrassas – she uses just one name. Another misconception is that madrassas are free to frame their own courses. In reality, state-funded madrassas are required by law to follow the government prescribed curriculum or lose government recognition and funding. This is one reason why bigger madrassas run by rich Wakf boards or private benefactors prefer not to seek state grants and recognition.

Such misperceptions (some genuine, some deliberate) feed the Muslim Right. Which gives it another pretext to invoke the ‘Islam in danger’ bogey and indulge in conspiracy theories. Such is the level of distrust that most of the big, independent self-financing madrassas, including Deoband, have refused to sign up to government plans, calling them an attack on Muslim community’s right to run its own religious institutions and preserve their identity.

Where do madrassas go from here? Will they survive at all, or die a slow death because of their unwillingness to adapt? Tufail Ahmed, Director South Asia Studies Project of the Washington-based right-wing Middle East Media Research Institute who studied at a madrassa in Bihar, sees madrassas in their present form as a “threat to liberty” and believes that they must be forced to change or shut down. “Madrassas are counter-liberty movements, and are incompatible with the 21st century's ideas of rights. Secular Hindu leaders and Islamic scholars defend madrassas in the name of religious freedom. But, under the Indian Constitution, the right to religion is superseded by all other fundamental rights,” he said addressing the pro-BJP Indian Foundation’s “India Ideas Conclave” in Goa recently.

The Right to Education, which guaranteed every child in India mainstream school education irrespective of their religion, takes precedence over the Right to Religion: “If a specific madrassa does not deliver these educational metrics, it must be banned as unconstitutional, in violation of the Right to Education Act.”

But Huma Kidwai, a research scholar at Columbia University who has written a paper on madrassas, favours a more consensual approach, and believes that it is important for policy-makers to “acknowledge the diversity and complexity in the political and social identity of Muslims and their institutions”.

According to her, the future of madrassas is tied up with the question of Muslim identity in a “Hindu majority” country; and their future depends on how well they are able to resolve the tension between their “perceived need to protect their image as religious institutions on the one hand, and to establish their relevance to contemporary society on the other”. When I asked people how someone writing a similar series ten years on would assess the madrassas, most suggested “not very differently”. they didn’t expect madrassas to change very much.

The reason they gave was a “lack of ambition” of pro-reform campaigners whose aim they see as rather modest – limited to making madrassas only slightly more widely acceptable and increasing their appeal by adding a few modern subjects. “We are not talking about root and branch changes so I don't foresee anything sensational happening,” Abdul Rahman Siddiqui, who briefly taught at a madrassa in Meerut and now offers private tuitions, told me.

It is a perspective that is widely shared – that the reforms are “too timid” to bring about any fundamental change in the character or outlook of madrassas. In government circles, however, this is seen as something positive. One UP government official who didn't want to be quoted said, “We don't want to rock the boat – only steer it in the right direction.” The good news, however, is that despite widespread scepticism there is a very Indian philosophical sense of optimism that in the end it will all turn out right and that the reforms, limited though they are, will make some difference to the way madrassas are run. Any change is better than the status quo, goes the argument. We’ll know in time.

How it all began

The first madrassa in north India was established in 1191 by Sultan Mohammed Ghori. It was built in Ajmer. Rulers who followed Ghori expanded centres of Islamic learning to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat and Aurangabad. Some became among the most renowned in the Muslim world.

Initially, both students and teachers were drawn mostly from the ruling class. But their social composition changed radically with the establishment of Dar-ul-Uloom in Deoband in 1865. It was the largest traditional madrassa in the world and marked a turning point in Muslim education in India. Madrassas began to enrol students from the lower strata of Muslim society – a process which has continued.

In 1892, Nadwat-ul-Ulema was set up in Lucknow – in opposition to Dar-ul-Uloom – to teach both Islamic theology and modern education. This, in a sense, forms the precursor to the modernisation progamme the government has launched.

Part 1: Misogyny, and the beginning of reform in north India’s madrassas
Part 2: How Deoband became shorthand for extremism and violent intolerance
Part 3: Why blaming madrassas for poorly educated Muslims will get us nowhere

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2016 18:38:21 IST

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