Inside Madarsas: A story beyond stereotypes
By – Hasan Akram, Pramiti Lonkar, Mayank Chawla, Ghada Mohammed, Ila Kazmi & Haris Ahmed Khan
A timeline from the colonial times to the present
Early Islamic education started inside mosques in the form of study circles. It had evolved gradually to separate institutions for elementary and higher stages that taught Islamic theology along with various subjects such as mathematics, grammar, poetry and history.
In the Indian sub-continent, early ‘Madrasas were established in Sindh region during the Arab rule in the 8th century. InSouth India, a form of Madarsas was established almost around the same time along the Malabar Coast. Thus, Madarsa was an essential part of any Muslim society to provide the individuals with education and to fulfill the state’need for preachers, teachers and judges or Qazis.
It wasn’t until the colonial years that the distinction was made between religious and general education. According to Muslim scholars, there were traditionally transmitted sciences such as Quranic studies, Hadith and Fiqh and then there were the rational sciences – logic, philosophy, arithmetic and astronomy. (ReligiousEducation and rhetoric of reform: Madarsa in British India and Pakistan by Muhammad Qasim Zaman) ‘Both these sciences were taught in Madarsas. When the colonizers wanted to set up universities in India, they started promoting this binary,” says Waris Azhari, an Islamic scholar at Jamia HamdardUniversity, New Delhi.
The British came to an understanding that a distinction between religious and non-religious learning was imperative for sound political administration. The East India Company only supported Madarsas set up by the state or the ones they financially supported. They faced restrictions on imparting religious knowledge, limiting themselves to Arabic and Persian. During Viceroy Macaulay’s tenure, the British came down heavily upon these religious institutes.
Muslims realised that their religious sciences were under threat due to the state regime. In response to this threat, Darul Uloom Deoband was set up in 1866. The syllabus of the Madarsa had now entirely changed, shifting its emphasis from the rational sciences to religious education. Other Madarsas in British India were set up on the same model as Deoband. The focus had shifted to the preservation of Islamic texts.
In 1875, Aligarh Muslim University was set up. “Since then,the Muslim ulama decided to take up the task of teaching the religious sciencesin the Madarsa and let the university take up the task of modern education,”says Wazhari.
Most private Madarsas in India resist state funding as the ones run by the state are in deplorable condition. They also fear that the state may exercise control over the syllabus in lieu of funds. Further, many of the Madarsas are run by families over generations who don’t want to pass over the ownership to the government
After the events of 11 September, 2001, Madarsas across the world began to be viewed as a hub of extremist activities. In a Congressional report on Madarsas by the United States government- ‘observers suggest that these schools are wholly unconcerned with religious scholarship and focused solely on teaching violence.’
“Several Madarsas in India were run by foreign funds from Saudi Arabia and other countries. As Madarsas were seen as a threat, the funding soon dried up after 2001,” says a member of the administration at Jamia Riyaz Ul-Uloom in New Delhi.
In a recent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the educational attainment of Muslims is the least. In urban areas, the number of male Muslim postgraduates is as low as 15 per 1,000. This number is about four times lower than that of other communities, including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Despite India being the fastest growing large economy, the economic condition of Muslims does not show any sign of improving.
Madarsas often pave the way for affordable education in low-income households. Caught between the cycle of ‘reform’ and ‘modernism’, Madarsas strive to maintain their relevance in the contemporary world.
One cannot limit oneself to the Madarsa, need to study beyond it: Ayaz Ahmed
17-year-old Ayaz Ahmed has already chalked out his career plans. Currently studying at Jamia Riyaz Ul-Uloom in old Delhi, he wants a desk job as a web designer. ‘Mujhe AC aur kursi ki naukri karni hai’- I want a job where I can sit in an airconditioned room. He also aspires to serve his community along with his regular job.
Four years ago, Ayaz joined the Madarsa to offer hisservices to Islam. After finishing his classes in the Madrasa, he travels toMukherjee Nagar in North Delhi to study for a Diploma in Computers. Several universities don’t give due recognition to students of Madarsa to enroll in college courses. Ayaz is also giving his Class 12 examinations from theNational Institute of Open Schooling so that he can apply for a Bachelor’s inComputer Applications.
According to him, studying in a school or college is necessary to earn a livelihood and studying in a Madarsa is necessary to become a good Muslim. He believes that both of them are of equal importance. When asked if Madrasas need to change to remain relevant, Ayaz says, “A Madarsa is a fort for religion. If they change, then there will be no such thing as a Madarsa.”
If everyone becomes doctors who will spread the message of Islam?: Mohammad Asif
It’s a few hours after sunrise. The boys are busy getting ready for their morning classes. As they comb their hair while sharing hand mirrors in the corridor, 24year old Mohammad Asif walks along and gathers a small crowd. The students in the Madrasa are not too pleased with Asif as their newly elected leader. They believe the student union president has not done enough to make their problems go away. ‘What have you done for us since you were elected? We have been asking for a good English teacher since months’, says the tallest one amongst them. Asif explains that he has been trying to get a teacher that the Madrasa can afford but to no avail. “There is a constant need for funds and we always come up short,” says Asif.
Four years ago, Asif came to Jamia Riyaz Ul- Uloom in old Delhi to become an Islamic scholar. Born and raised in Muradabad, Asif soon realised that the world looks at the Madrasa with a different lens. Largely, the narrative in media is that extremist beliefs are being taught in Madrasas. This is also largely backed by the research papers on Madrasa written by government agencies. ‘There is no understanding of the message of Islam. What does Islam really say? It is the messenger of peace’, says Asif.
And it is this understanding that Asif wants to bring in to society’s discourse on Madrasas. While Asif acknowledges the lack of economic stability that comes with becoming an alim, he believes there is a need for more youngsters to start learning the religious sciences.“If everybody becomes doctors and engineers and no one becomes an alim, then who will tell the people what goes on inside a Madrasa?’ he asks.
Eventhough the children at Madarsa have the talent, they can’t get jobs: Arshad
“Learning Urdu was the biggest advantage of studying at the Madarsa,” says 23-year-old Arshad. He is preparing for civil servicesand he has chosen Urdu as his optional subject. However, Arshad believes thatis the only advantage he has over students from the modern education system.
Many Madarsas are not governed by a central body. Hence, there is no standardised syllabus. History and geography taught at the Madarsa has barely helped him prepare for civil services. “Before coming to JNU, I was not even aware of my rights or the Indian constitution,” says Arshad.
Madarsas have a 12-year course. The governmentrecognises Madarsa education only if the student completes the entire length ofthe course. Else, he is considered a dropout and has to start over. Further, several colleges don’t recognise these certificates. JNU is one of the fewinstitutes which recognise Madarsa education.
“There is a need to restructure the syllabus and work with the government to gain recognition,” says Arshad. Even though a child may have the requisite skills, he cannot get employed without a valid certificate.
I want to become the future: Shamshaad Alam
As the students in the Madarsa settle in after dinner, Shamshad arranges notes for his class.He teaches his class based on themes. Today, he is going to teach the studentsthe etiquettes of addressing people in English. Although English is included inthe curriculum of the Madarsa, some of the students feel it’s not enough.
“Shamshaad helps us in making conversations. What we study from the teacher is mainly textbook knowledge which doesn’t help us to talk in English,” says one of his students. There are around 15-20 students who pay a monthly sum of 300 rupees for the night classes. Shamshaad has been training himself in English for the past seven months at the American Institute in New Delhi.
He passes on these teachings to his students. Shamshaad also said that once he imposed a fine of five rupees for anyone speaking English in his class. He says that the same rule is applicable at the American Institute too.
According to Shamshaad, English helps him bridge the cultural gap and he considers it as important as currency in today’s world. “Now, when I step out of the Madarsa, I become a part of the culture outside. There is no difference,” says Shamshaad.
He says that English is not taught ‘up to that level’ in the Madarsa. When asked if he plansto talk to the principal about it, he says he doesn’t want to rile things up asthe teachers might take offence. He refrains from questioning their pedagogy. Shamshaad plans to learn five more languages in the future and aspires to become a translator.
In need of an upgrade in Pakistan
It is a small room packed with teenagers, all of whom sit on the matted floor, with wooden desks in front of them. They are virtually glued to the copies of Holy Quran places in front of them as they recite verses in chorus following their Qari (teacher). This is a regular madrasa class at Jamia Darul Khair, a medium-sized Deobandi madrasa (religious seminary) in Karachi.
In Pakistan, there are over 35,000 functioning madrasas, as per a report titled “The Madrasa Conundrum – The state of religious education in Pakistan” by Umair Khalil, lead researcher of HIVE, a non-governmental organization.
The report estimates 64 percent of Pakistani madrasas are Deobandis. Whereas 25 percent are Barelvis and the remaining 11 percent are from different sects.
A large amount of Pakistan’s youth receives education at madrasas. A majority of these young students belong to underprivileged backgrounds and cannot afford to enroll at schools. “I have a year left in my graduation as a religious scholar. I came here from a very deprived area of Torghar district in Mansehra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I could never have imagined to study if madrassas weren’t there,” said Sibghatullah Qayum, a student of Jamia Darul Khair.
In Pakistan, madrasa based education has a great deal of significance in the society. Madrasas are considered as the primary source for Islamic teachings. On the other hand, these institutions also fill the vacuum created by the deteriorated educational system of the country.
According to an associated press report, approximately 2 million students have been enrolled in madrasas across Pakistan.
Reason being, they provide free religious and basic education to the underprivileged students of the country and also serve as an alternative to state-funded schools which used to provide spasmodic and substandard education. Qayum’s further described that all of his colleagues are from diverse rural areas of Pakistan where educational institutes are a rare find.
“On my return, I plan to teach at my local madrasa,” said Qayum.Historically, the curriculum at madrassas has undergone revision. They’ve taught Arabic grammar to learn Quran and Hadiths, Philology, Persian poetry, Philosophy, Penmanship, Arithmetic, Logic, Fundamentals of jurisprudence, Dialectics and Dogmatic sciences. Even, Swimming and Horse riding were included in the syllabus by some madrasas as co-curricular activities.
But, these practices were abandoned after the downfall of liberal Muslim empires across the world. According to the curriculum published by each board on their website, it is drafted in such a way that it follows Dars-e-Nizami which is the historical madrasa curriculum of the subcontinent, combining in-depth religious and some secular subjects.
Most academic experts claim that the system of education at Madrassas has been out of touch. A professor of linguistics at a university in Karachi, who wished not to be named, questioned: “How can you educate students and prepare them for the world if you haven’t updated your curriculum in decades?”While many religious institutions claim to teach English, Science, Drawing, Math, Logic, Sindhi, Urdu, Economics, Persian, History, Geography, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Astronomy as secular subjects throughout the period of study. Their primary focus remains on Arabic (Grammar & Literature), Islamiat, Life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Tajweed, Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, Qira’at, Hadith, Tafseer, Ethics, Ruling of Edicts and studying the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
“Our curriculum is designed in such a way that it develops student’s expertise in religious education without ignoring secular subjects because at the end of the day our prime intent is to educate students regarding Islam,” claims Mufti Adnan Ali, a scholar, and teacher at madrasa Jamia Darul Khair.However, Murtaza Haider, the Associate Dean of research and graduate program at Ryerson University in Canada who is currently researching on madrasa graduates and their prospects in labor market has debated over the fact that the curriculum offers secular subjects only at the initial phases of studies and are gradually reduced as the classes proceed.
This means students lack in technical and vocational skills which limit their job options. “With our limited funding sources, we can only teach theoretical subjects to the students. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education to introduce technical and vocational training in madrasa curriculum to help these students in attaining certain kind of skill development as well. Had it been implemented it would be a great initiative,” explained Mufti Ali in his defense.As the graduating madrassa students approach the competitive job market a majority of them fail to find employment opportunities.
“Most of them are not trained for the world we live in,” said a top ranking multinational firm’s HR manager, who did not wish to be named. Professor Jamal Malik, chairman of Islamic Studies at Erfurt University in Germany and an expert on the matter stressed the fact that the curriculum at madrassas in Pakistan should be revised and should include technical and vocational training which could help students securing better employment opportunities in job market.
While there is little political will to reform madrassas, the current Chief of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has recently stressed that madrasas should be reformed. In 2015, the Sindh government initiated the registration process of madrasas in the province. Lawmakers in the province have also drafted a bill for registering madrasas and monitoring their funding sources but unfortunately it has been nothing more than a paper tiger.Some madrassas in the country have realized the need for change. Darul Uloom is one of them.
“Darul Uloom has always tried to set standards,” said Mufti Ebad-ur-Rehman, head of the department of studies at Darul Uloom, Karachi. “Adopting a curriculum which has a mix of traditional religious subjects along with updated modern subjects has helped us produce better students,” the cleric claimed. While Darul Uloom may have experimented with reforming its curriculum, there are many madrassas across Pakistan that continue to resist change.
“It is necessary for the government to introduce compulsory act for reforming madrasas which should be applicable across the board,” said Murtaza Haider an expert on madrassas at Ryerson University in Canada.
“You can’t have unskilled workers in the market. Students must receive vocational training along with religion and other subject to be able to sustain themselves in the market,” Haider stressed.