Madrassas: Out of Date

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The Maharashtra government’s decision on madrassas stresses the need for the modernisation of Islamic schools

“That is the one thing I don’t like about this place.” As Salman points at a broken pane, several heads turn in the direction of the first of four large windows that open onto the bumper-to-bumper vehicular traffic of Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai. Some nod, others titter. We are sitting inside a rectangular room on the second floor of the Minara Masjid complex. These are the residential quarters of the students of Darul Uloom Mohammadiya madrassa, located at the rear end of the mosque. Around six students, dressed in non- committal T-shirts and austere kurta-pyjamas sit in a semi-circle, trying to make themselves heard above the clamour. Mohammad Salman Qureshi, 21, a native of Uttar Pradesh, has conditioned himself to the noise in the two years that he has been studying here. Son of parents who run a meat shop in Unnao, he is one of a handful who stayed back for the Ramzan holiday month. For the past few days, the students go down to the mosque chambers at 9 pm after breaking their all-day fast and recite holy verses from the Qur’an for nearly two hours. When they come back, the horn-happy traffic has thinned, replaced by a wave of aficionados on a street famous for its Iftaari delicacies.

“Even when it gets too much, there is no point shutting the windows. I have tried telling them to fix them, but they say it was we who broke them,” says Salman. The vandals, if at all, were of previous batches, he adds, a point of logic that’s lost on the caretakers.

By now, they have familiarised me with their daily routine in the course of their academic year. On an ordinary day, they wake up ahead of dawn in time for the day’s first azaan (call to prayer), and attend eight classes in different subjects of Islamic instruction, Arabic and Urdu for four hours. At noon, it is time for lunch. The afternoons are taken by tutorials in ‘modern education’ that go on for three hours. These include lessons in English, Hindi, Marathi and computers— recent additions to the curriculum. Towards evening, from 5 to 6 pm, they go out for a stroll, unable to squeeze in enough play. The rules are stringent and have many thou-shalt-nots: play music, watch TV, stream videos on the internet or watch movies. “If they catch you, you are out,” a student tells me. The reasons, as they understand them, are elementary: modern movies have ‘dirty scenes’. They distract one from studies. Listening to contemporary music leads to alcoholism, a practice forbidden by Islam. As for music, “Abhi ka gaana sunega toh English master banega (If you hear a contemporary song, you’ll become an English master),” says one. The conviction in the voice is laced with a hint of contempt. The students want to adopt the language, and they want it minus the West’s cultural baggage.

In spite of the schedules and refrains, none of the rules seems to bother them. Asked if there is anything about their boarding school that ails them, it is the broken windowpanes that they mention. “Is there anything else?” I ask. Salman doesn’t have anything more to offer. I survey the rest, who choose to stay mum. I glance at a 10-year-old, one of the newest in the Islamic seminary. After a moment, his face dissolves into a meek grin. Then he too shakes his head.

It’s a small sacrifice, he tells me later. “We will reap the fruits of it at the very end,” says Salman, “For an ordinary school going student, life means eat, drink, maybe become a pilot. At the doorstep of death, they will have nowhere to go.”

In the last week of June, Maharashtra’s government, already smarting from a series of allegations against its ministers for corruption, courted yet another controversy. In the eye of this storm was the state’s education ministry, which sought to conduct a state-wide survey to assess the number of non- school-going children. The initiative would have been lauded as an essential input for remedial measures, save for one clause related to Islamic seminaries. The circular said those students between 6 to 14 years of age who study in madrassas that do not teach mathematics, science and social sciences as a part of its curriculum, will be counted as ‘out of school’.

In the cacophony that followed, the initiative was trashed as an ‘anti-minority conspiracy’ of the ruling saffron combine. Since not all madrassas teach the three subjects in the state, critics alleged that the government wants to ‘derecognise’ these seminaries as educational institutions. Eager opinion leaders, many striving to burnish their secular credentials, jumped into the fray and chastised the government for the move. Some cited the Sachar Committee report, which set out to assess the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India and found that only 4 per cent of the country’s adherents of Islam studied at madrassas. In a media interaction at the time, Dr Abusaleh Shariff, member secretary and then head economist at the National Council for Applied Economic Research, had said that there was no need for the Centre to spend on madrassa reforms.

On its part, the Maharashtra government has repeatedly stated that it is simply laying the foundation for the Right to Education Act, meant to provide free and compulsory education in languages, sciences and social sciences. According to the state minority affairs ministry, there are 1,890 registered institutes across Maharashtra, with nearly 150,000 students attending them. Education in the said subjects is already underway in 550 of them.

Nand Kumar, principal secretary of school education in Maharashtra, says that allegations of madrassas being ‘derecognised’ are unfounded, since the survey doesn’t paint all those madrassas that teach the three subjects with the same brush. While he does not specifically comment on the state of education in Islamic seminaries, he believes that lack of a standardised school education closes the doors on several career choices. “In the present day,” as Kumar puts it, “a student without a formal training in mathematics and science is considered ill equipped.” Besides, institutions of religious instruction, be it madrassas or Vedic schools, were never recognised as educational bodies affiliated to the Centre. “Around 2007, when I was posted in Chhattisgarh as the principal secretary of education, a standardised board for madrassas had been introduced very recently. There was opposition from several quarters at that time too,” he says.

One major reason for the resistance is that the affected religious entities, which run the seminaries autonomously in many parts of India, are afraid of government interference. “But we had managed to include several Muslim leaders in the transition process,” claims Kumar, “By 2010, we had managed to get all 421 madrassas under the board.” Today, madrassas in the state teach the tenets of Islam along with other languages, sciences and even computers in some places.

Chhattisgarh isn’t the first state to have initiated such reforms. Years ago, West Bengal was a pioneer in bringing about an umbrella body to oversee all madrassas. According to several reports, the quality of education and the subjects offered in these is now at par with the government curriculum. In a few places, some seminaries have even transcended the barriers of religion with Hindu students being taught alongside Muslims. Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Bihar are some more examples of states that have a standardised curriculum.

In India, there are broadly three kinds of Islamic educational institutes. A maktab is usually a gateway to the world of Islamic education where students are given basic lessons in the religion along with languages like Urdu and Arabic. In a few places, the curriculum includes other subjects that are taught in any regular primary school. The next kind is a madrassa, a student of which is supposed to be able to recite the Qur’an from cover to cover, and, depending on the seminary’s capacity and student’s inclination, is taught other subjects as well. These may include Persian literature and grammar, Islamic logic and philosophy, along with ‘modern education’. The education may take five to eight years on a rigorous regimen. The highest form is a full-fledged jamia or university.

“Sometimes, I feel that I should up and run away. The routine can get too much,” says Mohammad Irshad, a student of Darul Uloom Siddiquiya Rizviya madrassa in Mumbai. “But it will be a stupid thing to do.” Irshad’s madrassa is tucked away on the fringes of Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. The 14-year-old son of a purse-seller left his Urdu medium school last year to begin training as a ‘hafiz’, which requires rote-learning of the Qur’an in its entirety as a first step. Like several of his peers, Irshad tells me he doesn’t know the meaning of the text, almost a third of which he has memorised already. It will be explained to him only when and if he opts for higher Islamic studies.

“Most of the students we have come from the economically weaker sections of the society,” says Maulana Sayyad Athar Ali, a member of the All India Personal Law Board who runs Darul Uloom Mohammadiya madrassas in Mumbai. “They have a tin shed for a home, no electricity in the village, no quality schools or hospitals to speak of. Their parents can barely afford to raise them.” A child from a family of such modest means is often enrolled in a madrassa because it comes with a host of other facilities. Education is imparted free of cost and students get a dormitory to live in and two square meals a day. Except for those who seek government grants, most madrassas are run on funds raised by the community. As for Maulana Ali’s madrassa, a sizeable number of its 400 students are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

“One of the main factors of a madrassa is that it doesn’t seek to create professionals ready for employment,” Ali says, “It only creates Islamic scholars. Often, that makes them resistant to the introduction of modern education.” At the same time, he has seen students under his charge attend night schools run by the local civic body that have a secular curriculum.

The aspiration for a better quality of education runs throughout the community. “Most Muslims, those who can afford it, send their kids to a proper school. I know a host of maulanas who come to me to get admission to English-medium schools,” says Zeenat Shaukat Ali, former professor of Islamic Studies at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

A strong indicator of the shift is the phenomenal response generated among students when a new avenue for learning English pops up within the community. One such institute is the Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre, a madrassa located in suburban Mumbai, which offers a diploma in English Language and Literature. Every year, the body conducts an all-India entrance test for students seeking proficiency in the language. A section in the test involves translation of common Urdu words into English. According to a former student of the institute, only a few manage to ace this section.

“For a batch consisting of only 25 people, we have thousands of students sitting for these exams. Within our community, these exams are considered as tough as IIT and UPSC tests,” says MB Qasmi, director of the institute. As part of a two-year programme, students start off with English alphabets and are introduced towards the end to the works of Shakespeare. At the end of it, many students join multinational firms, take up government services or attend premier institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for higher studies.

While many madrassas are opting for curriculum upgrades, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which the education has been brought up to date. Many seminaries and the bodies that run them are under state oversight, but surveys of them are usually conducted by intelligence and security agencies. One such study was done in 2014 for the Home Ministry to check if madrassas were nurseries of radicalisation. The answer: with a few exceptions, no.

A probe of the serial blasts on Mumbai local trains in July 2006 had revealed that the bombers’ handlers were trained to kill in ‘madrassa camps’ in Pakistan. KP Raghuvanshi, former chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad of Mumbai Police at the time, said that some madrassas are set up exclusively for this purpose: to train and prepare men for jihad. In the police officer’s words: “In madrassas, one finds a closed education system that involves a vertical pattern of learning and interaction. There is a lack of world view among the students as they are not exposed to the other side. The texts used are written centuries ago and you cannot question them. It makes them susceptible to undue influence.” He adds that while several arrests made during his tenure as the ATS chief were of people whose education could be traced to madrassas, one can’t generalise them as institutes of indoctrination. “They are not breeding centres of terror,” he says, “but they certainly have a potential to be misused.” This is perhaps why one of the surveillance jobs of the Mumbai Police as well as agencies across the country is to keep tabs on madrassas and people who visit them.

There are also examples of people being disillusioned with the madrassa system of education. Tufail Ahmad, a project director at Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington DC, who studied at a madrassa in Bihar for several years before moving to a government school, insists that madrassas end up alienating Muslims from the country’s mainstream. Some politically motivated religious outfits tap their sense of drift to recruit a few of the vulnerable for jihadist activity.

Observes Ahmad, “I have seen that, typically, a student emerging from a madrassa after completing elementary education drops out of the education system and takes up small jobs as a bicycle and truck mechanic, welder, fruit seller or daily wage earner to support his family. The reason students drop out is because their parents begin to realise that subjects being taught at the madrassa are totally irrelevant for modern times and are not preparing them for an income-earning life in this world.” He adds, “The bigger problem with madrassas is that they teach religious orthodoxies that impact the life of Muslim women and men, who are taught through fatwa- like ideas: not to wear jeans, not to mix with men, not to work in banks, not to talk to a fiancé before marriage, not to donate blood, not to watch TV, and so on. In this sense, madrassas are institutions of social exclusion of Muslims from the country’s mainstream social life.”

Even in the so-called modern madrassas, there is a sense of suspicion against the state-led reform measures. Qasmi says that the recent guidelines to mark select madrassa students as ‘out of school’ were just a garb under which the government was trying to bring madrassas under its fold and interfere in their functioning. “You can’t force us to teach what you want. Tomorrow, you will say that teaching the Gita is compulsory in schools,” he says, “Our accountability is restricted to the community, not the government.”

One of the essential ways to go about reforms is to take the stakeholders into confidence, opines educationalist PA Inamdar, also part of a working group for higher education. “There is change happening around us, and some madrassas too recognise that. But if the government wants to help, there needs to be a middle ground,” says the educationist. “For example, the history curriculum can be so designed that for students of madrassas, it includes a couple of chapters of Islamic history. It is with such measures that you can create hope and madrassa modernisation can take place.”