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Is Madrassa education relevant?

When I look back at my school and college years, spent entirely in Northern India, I cannot recall more than two-to-three Muslim students in my class, which would be much below one percent of the entire class size. This has been a pattern all throughout my education. However according to the latest census, Muslims constitute a little more than 13 percent of India’s population.

I hardly ever had a Muslim friend or classmate because a large chunk of the community does not have access to a regular school education.

Besides a small percentage of Muslim students get education at Madrasas or Islamic religious schools. These institutes primarily teach Urdu, Persian and Arabic literature and Islamic theology. They are known to impart literary and philosophical education.

Though there is no official data available, experts believe that there are more than 25,000 Madrasas in India. This also includes Madrasas for girls, which are far fewer in number. Madrasas are run in total isolation from the regular education system in India.

Madrasas are generally not viewed positively in India. These institutions have been in the midst of some controversy or the other. Recently a politician claimed that Madrasas are breeding grounds for terrorism. (See: BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj courts controversy, says madarsas teaching terrorism.) A key reason for this perception is that Madrasas are an important vehicle for creating a sense of separate identity for Muslims and thus are viewed suspiciously.

The Curriculum

Madrasas follow a totally different curriculum and subjects from a regular education in India. Arabic, Urdu, Muslim theology, Islamic ethics and literature are some of the subjects taught at Madrasas. Some of the mainstream or modern Madrasas have started to include modern subjects like Science, Computers, Mathematics and Social Study. However, these are very few in number.

“Madrasa education is to understand Islam and Koran [Muslim holy book]. It helps us to lead a better life,” says Mohammad Arif, 26 years old, who is studying Arabic language at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is an alumnus of Madrasa Taleem-Ul-Quran in South Delhi.

Most of the Madrasas in India are affiliated to Darul Uloom Deoband’s system of education. This follows the syllabus of Dars-e-Nizami, which was prepared by Mulla Nizami in the eighteenth century. There hasn’t been any major change in the syllabus since then.

The current syllabus consists of several stages. The primary course includes subjects like Urdu, Persian, Hindi and English. Post this the students move on to the next level of Hafiz Quran, which is memorisation of Quran. This generally takes two-to-four years. This system also offers Fazil (graduate) course which takes eight-to-ten years.

Since the curriculum is extremely religious in nature it does not equip a student for further studies or even a career in a modern world.

“Most of the Madrasas offer simple courses of Alim and Fazil, which is a ten-year course. So far these Madrasas are not equipped to teach students how to live their modern life,” says Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, a well-known Islamic scholar. He is associated as an Advisor with Jamia Hazrat Nizammuddin Aulia Madrasa in New Delhi. Dehlvi is also a journalist and has written extensively on Islam.

Other Islamic scholars echo this as well. “When you talk of Madrasas in the present condition, the way they are run is not relevant for the mainstream employment opportunities as the scope and curriculum is very limited,” says S Irfan Habib, a world-renowned historian and Islamic scholar. He is currently Maulana Azad Chair at National University of Educational Planning and Administration. He has authored several books on the subject.

It is difficult for a Madrasa graduate to go for higher studies. Most of the modern universities do not recognise the madrasa education. After completing the ten-year education at a Madrasa a student needs to clear an exam conducted by Lucknow Board, which would empower him/her for admission in a regular college or university. The students usually prepare for this examination on their own and this is their only chance to get into a regular college. Besides this a few Muslim universities like Jamia Milia in New Delhi and Aligarh University recognize certification provided by some Madrasas.

“Lucknow Board is actually equivalent to CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education] because they test a student in various subjects like Science, Mathematics, Geography and English. These subjects are not taught in a Madrasa and we have to prepare for these subjects on our own,” explains Dehlvi in an animated conversation in a cafeteria in central Delhi. Dressed in white pyjamas and black kurta, it is hard to miss his Muslim identity. Over two hours, he painstakingly explained the system and concepts behind Madrasa education.

However, what really pulls a Madrasa student down is that they can hardly ever aspire to graduate in modern subjects like Science or Economic courses because Madrasas do not teach these subjects at all.

“The students of Madrasas can get admission in most of the courses in universities or colleges but they need to clear Lucknow Board exams. However they cannot get admission in Science courses because Science is not taught in Madrasas. They generally go for advance courses in Arabic, Urdu, Home Science etc.,” says 24-year old Saima who is a teacher at Jamia-Tul-Banat Al-Islamia. She is also pursuing Masters in Urdu Literature from Jamia University in New Delhi.

Definitely, social science and science subjects should be included in Madrasa education and there should be reforms in Madrasa education.

Whither Jobs?

There are very limited job opportunities after Madrasa education. Since Madrasa education focuses mainly on religious education it doesn’t really offer any concrete career skills. The main job options available are that of a Maulana (teacher in a Madrasa) or Imam (who delivers speeches or lead prayers at a Mosque). Both these options are not very lucrative.

A Maulana in a non-aided Madrasa is likely to earn only about Rs 5000 to Rs 10,000 per month (50 to 100 pounds). An Imam or local religious leader also earns in the same range. However, the earnings are likely to be much more if the Madrasa is aided by an organization. Then a Maulana might earn upwards of Rs 50,000 (around 500 pounds).

“A Madrasa education is not job or career-oriented. He/she is provided a good moral education. How should you live with your neighbors, what are your responsibilities etc. After a Madrasa education, a student mainly has two options: to become a teacher or an Imam,” says Mohammad Billal, 26-years-old teacher at Madrasa Taleem-ul-Quran in South Delhi.

He is one of the few teachers who does not have a Madrasa background. He has recently completed graduation from Delhi University and has studied in a public school. He has been teaching at this Madrasa for the last six months. [After talking to him I felt that he is teaching at Madrasa only till he can find something better.]

Taleem-ul-Quran Madrasa is home to around 350 students. This is one of the few Madrasas, which has included subjects like Science, Mathematics, Computers and English in its curriculum. Madrasa’s founder claims to include regular subjects in the curriculum till VIII standard.

It is thanks to Madrasas like Taleem-ul-Quran that a new job opportunity has started to emerge for the Madrasa graduates. The expertise of Madrasa students in Arabic and Urdu language is adding a new opportunity for them. Many Madrasa graduates are pursuing translation jobs from Arabic-to-English and vice versa.

“Many of them [students] are employed with multi-national companies. They are well versed in modern Arabic having good communicative Arabic, which opens up job opportunities for them. Some of them are also employed in [Urdu] media because they have a flair for writing,” explains Dehlvi while talking of the career opportunities for the students of Jamia Hazrat Nizammuddin Aulia.

Dehlvi himself has taken advantage of the new job opportunities for Madrasa students. He was in the past employed in a Business Process Outsourcing company. A job he claims to have got only because of his expertise in both Arabic and English language.

Winds Of Change

Ironically, while researching for this story I didn’t meet anybody who was averse to adopting modern education. However, the the adoption of modern education education is at a very slow pace.

“We believe in teaching English and other subjects which are traditionally not taught in Madrasas because the students have to find a vocation in the outside world. Just religious education is not enough,” says Maulana Muhammad Ilyas of Jamia-tul-Banat Al-Islamia.

First signs of change are that a few madrasas have started to include other subjects in the curriculum much to the benefit of the students.

“Most of the big Madrasas are now offering courses in English, computer Science, Mathematics and other subjects. However, it is not sufficient and a lot remains to be done,” says Dehlvi. “Majority of our students go to central university. We encourage them to go to modern universities for further studies. We believe that religious education is not sufficient,” he adds.

He further explains that there has been a small increase in the number of students who want to clear exam conducted by Lucknow Board. “Students are burning midnight oil for secular education. Though the change is small but it is happening. We cannot deny that it is not happening,” says Dehlvi.

“The point is unless the curriculum is revised and upgraded; structural and radical changes are brought about…till then Madrasa education will not become relevant for today’s employment opportunities. To do that is a huge task and whenever there is a talk to include Madrasas in the modern education, there is a reaction from the people who run Madrasas,” explains Habib.

Recently the Government of India sanctioned Rs 100 crore fund for modernization of the Madrasas. Several such attempts have been made in the past as well. However, there is nothing much to show for the modernization.

All this brings us to a key question: if Madrasa education does not prepare a student for a modern life or a career, then why do parents still opt for this education for their wards?

The reasons are manifold. The most obvious and prominent problem is poverty. The rural community doesn’t have access to schools and often a Madrasa is the only available option. Some times the schools are available but they do not have the means to take advantage. Most of the Madrasas cater to the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment. Secondly, the community strongly believes that religious education is important for overall development as it teaches how to live according to tenets of Islam.

A chronic problem in Muslim education is the high drop-out rate. “Very few boys study beyond standard Xth. Most of them drop out and take up a small-time job,” says Maulana Mohammad Qasim Rahimi, Founder and Nazim of Madrasa Taleem-ul-Quran. Dressed in all white and with matching beard he fits the image of a traditional Maulana.

“The main problem in Muslim education is the high dropout rate. A large number of Muslim students don’t go beyond 10th standard [high school]…most of them don’t reach that also. This is mostly for economic reasons,” says Irfan Habib.

The Madrasa Syndrome

Madrasas have always courted controversy in India. One reason for this is the community’s apparent resistance to change or modernization. There is a negative reaction every time the Government announces a modernization project.

A school of thought suggests that Madrasas should not be seen as be all and end all of minority education because not more than 6-7 percent of people send their children to Madrasa.

“The Government should be bothered about the rest 93 or 94 percent of Muslim population because they are not getting any education at all. In this context is it really important to raise issue of modernization of Madrasa and bring in mainstreaming of education when only 6 percent of Muslims go there?” questions Prof Habib.

This further implies that the Government should help the Madrasas, which are open to modernization and leave the others. “What is happening now is that because of few madrasas who don’t want to modernise, the entire system gets trapped in the Madrasa Syndrome,” says Habib.

So, even as the community cries for reforms in the Madrasa system it is unlikely that the reforms would be adopted anytime soon.

“There are a lot of vested interests of people managing Madrasas and they don’t allow anything [modernization] to happen. Because once they open it up or start taking money from the Government then they are answerable and they are also monitored. Right now, they can run it the way they want. It is a captive constituency right now,” explains Habib.

However, there is one state, which has set an example for the others. The state of West Bengal has implemented a system, which has led to the modernization of the Madrasas. While in the rest of the country the Madrasas follow their own curriculum, this is not true for West Bengal.

The state Government controls Madrasa Board. The curriculum in Madrasas in West Bengal is almost entirely like any other school and the only difference is that they have a class where they teach Islamic theology or literature. The state has thus demonstrated that it is very much possible to introduce modernization and thus paving the way for imparting proper education to the children of the community.

And the Girls?

If Muslim boys end up receiving just Islamic theology in the name of education, Muslim girls are further down the rung because most of the Madrasas are for boys.

There are a very few madrasas for girls in India so their plight is even worse than Muslim boys. Located on the banks of river Yamuna, Zayed College is believed to be Delhi’s first and the largest Madrasa for girls.

We believe that education for girls is very important and this is the main reason why this institute was started.

“Most of the girls from this institute take admission in Jamia Milia University, because we are affiliated with them,” says Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, Chairman of Jamia-Tul-Banat Al-Islamia, which is managing Zayed College and another English school for girls.

Since Madrasa for girls are very few in number, the teaching assignments for them are even fewer. The community believes in strict segregation of sexes so girls cannot get teaching jobs in Madrasas for boys. There are very few women Imams as well.

In the present scenario, Madrasas seem to have lost their relevance. There is definitely a strong case to modernize the curriculum to include modern subjects so that more career opportunities are available to Madrasa Graduates. Modernization will also play a significant role in reducing the isolation and segregation of the community.

The situation is not different today from the time I graduated about 20-years back. My 13-year old daughter has exactly one Muslim kid in her class (about 90 students in three sections).

Let’s hope the baby steps being taken by the community to include modern subjects in the curriculum will not just transform Madrasa system but will also help in integrating the community with the mainstream.

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