Old School Ties

Renewed hope Madrasa students in Delhi learn English (below) as part of their modern curriculum, Photos: Trilochan S Kalra

THE HUMAN Resource Development (HRD) Ministry has announced that Islamic school (madrasa) certificates will be deemed, retrospectively, to be at par with those issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). This means that about 3.5 lakh children studying in staterecognised madrasas can now apply for higher education in universities and qualify for government and possibly even private jobs. As part of the Prime Minister’s 15-point programme for minorities, the Central Government has also decided to set up a Central Madrasa Board (CMB) on the lines of the CBSE. Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh said, “Around 7,000 madrasas will benefit from this and it will bring them into the mainstream of education.”

For madrasa students who, after eight of rigorous study, could scarcely think of a future outside mosques or Islamic institutions, this is a move that allows them to dream of more. However, a substanial section of the ulema (religious leaders) that run the madrasas do not share this dream. For them, this “mainstreaming” is contrary to the very objective of a madrasa — Islamic education.

It starts with suspicion. “All these years, the government didn’t bother about madrasas. Why now?” asks Maulana Abdul Khaliq, Vice Chairman of the Darul Uloom Deoband, “The media has been unfairly calling madrasas dens of terror. In the name of helping our community, the government wants to monitor what goes on in the madrasas .”



Certificates of close to 7,000 state-recognised madrasas will be at par with CBSE certificates

A Central Madrasa Board will be set up soon. Affiliation is voluntary and will get Central funding

On Central affiliation, some ‘modern’ subjects like English, maths and science would be added to the otherwise fully religious curriculum


This scepticism is often followed by a recently acquired fear. “Today, it is the Congress government that will run the CMB. But tomorrow, if the BJP comes to power, there’s no saying what it will do to our madrasas,” says Jalaluddin Umri, President of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which runs several mosques and madrasas. The BJP, on its part, has been vocal in its support for a centralised body to govern madrasas. “This makes me surer that the Board is being set up to suppress madrasas, and along with it, any assertions of Muslim identity,” says Umri.

Photos: Shailendra Pandey

THIS FEAR is deepened by a premonition that soon, a madrasa’s basic purpose of imparting taleem, or religious education, will have to be compromised. Once the CMB is formed, madrasas will have to seek affiliation, and, in return for state funding and accreditation, will have to introduce modern subjects to their curricula. The independently-run Darul Uloom that has led the madrasa movement in the country since 1866, was the first to oppose the CMB. Although affiliation will be voluntary, the seminary believes that the government’s “insincere intentions” will put pressure on the madrasas. “They want us to get homogenised. We will never accept this,” vows Maulana Khaliq. The standardised madrasa curriculum, called dars-e-nizami, was constituted in the 16th century and includes subjects like Arabic and Urdu literature, Islamic jurisprudence, the Prophet’s teachings and Shariah law. “A madrasa is geared towards Islamic learning,” explains Maulana Abdul Hameed Nomani, spokes – man for Jamiat Ulama-e- Hind, a constituent of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, “We do not and will not teach subjects like English, science or geography. The objective of a madrasa is not employment.”

Nevertheless, it is not merely faith that prompts thousands of poor Muslim families across India to send their children to madrasas. Arshad Alam, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Nehru Studies at the Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi, says the government and society should stop looking at the madrasa as a traditionalist school that is keeping poor Muslims poor. “It is also an institution of mobility,” says Alam, “The religious education ensures that the son of, say, an uneducated cycle-repair-wallah, can become a respected Imam, and earn an assured income.” The Sachar Committee report says that at least four percent of Muslim children study in madrasas, almost all from the poorest class. For decades, several sections of the Muslim community have been demanding that madrasas keep pace with changing needs and assure graduates more than just an Imam’s salary. What began as schools for religious ideology and the preservation of Islam, are now being urged to respond to more earthly needs.

The need for reform is apparent from the overwhelming support from students for the proposal. On hearing about the CBSE certification, Abdullah, a final year student at the Jamia Islamia Sanabil madrasa in New Delhi, excitedly bursts out, “You mean I can get any kind of job I want?” He admits he is thrilled to rethink the plans for his future, and quickly reveals a hitherto-dormant Plan B, “First, I’ll do a BCom, and get a job in an MNC. If Allah is kind, I may even do an MBA!” Abdullah’s classmate Anwar smiles broadly, “So many options are coming to my mind! Engineering, an MCA, maybe even medicine.” Looking at Abdullah, he says, “I had resigned myself to a teaching career and suppressed my ambition due to a lack of avenues. My dreams had died. I guess I can dream again.” Their new certified eligibility, however, may still not make them qualified enough for private sector jobs. Fortunately for these boys, their madrasa is one of the few that also teaches Indian history, Hindi, English and mathematics.

Arshad Alam points out that maulanas are resisting government involvement not just because they’re anxious about interference in curriculum. “Madrasas are not just about piety today. They are a part of the whole economy of religion,” he says, “The maulanas are also afraid of losing their economic independence. Right now, madrasas run on community contributions, and no one asks how they spend their money. A Central Board funds them, their accounts will be audited.”

While most madrasas reject government- engendered change, they promise their unemployed graduates reform from within the Muslim community. Students say this too has not been to the desired level. Many madrasas continue with 20-year-old textbooks and literature and logical theory from the medieval age. Waris Mazhari, President of the Darul Uloom Deoband Old Boys’ Association, says Deobandi madrasas are especially orthodox. “An English department in Darul Uloom is proudly flaunted, but it is not part of the course,” says Mazhari, “Out of 700 students graduating every year, only 10 are allowed to do English as a separate subject.” Darul Uloom’s Vice Chairman Khaliq offers the most common justification: “The Islamic syllabus is massive. Further additions will burden the students.” This, Mazhari counters, can be easily resolved by doing away with several obsolete subjects, “They teach Greek logic and philosophy in great detail. Why? What is the use?”

Leading change Most girls’ madrasas have successfully balanced Islamic and modern subjects

Akhtarul Wasey, head of the Department of Islamic Studies in Jamia Milia Islamia University says many madrasa graduates find themselves complete misfits when they leave the confines of their school. “I have seen them clueless when faced with filling out a form to buy a train ticket,” says Wasey, adding, “I understand the importance of Islamic knowledge but madrasas should not be producing students who are isolated from the ways of the world. Keep Allah happy, but also feed the hungry stomach.”

INTERESTINGLY, MADRASAS for girls have managed to modernise more successfully than madrasas for boys. In Delhi’s Jamiat-Ul-Banat Al Islamia (JBI), a girls’ madrasa, male teachers still yell lessons to a class of 30 girls from behind a purdah, but around 700 girls from class I to XII learn English, Maths, Hindi and Home Science with NCERT textbooks. They’ve substantially abridged the dars-e-nizami syllabus. Mohammad Talha, general secretary of JBI says, “The girls are anyway not going to be Muftis or religious heads, so we don’t teach them too much fiqh (jurisprudence), or hadis (Prophet’s sayings).”

At the Madrasa Aminia near Kashmiri Gate in New Delhi, a large group of boys huddle, discussing results of an exam — one they were forbidden to take by their mohtamim (principal). One of them, Ahmad Ali, says shyly, “We’ve all given the National Open School Examination for class XII students.” His friend quickly adds, “Our parents know, so it’s ok.” On passing the Open exam, they can apply to any Indian university for graduate studies. They can branch out to engineering, pure sciences, commerce or humanities. Any field is open to them, rife with possibilities. Ahmad Ali’s father, a mechanic, says, “My generation was just satisfied with being mazhabi (religious). We want our children to become duniyadi (worldly).”

The government may well be making ill-informed moves without the necessary negotiation with the Muslim community and madrasas may be rigidly averse to reform, in an effort to safeguard their turf. As the tug-of-war between the government and the ulema continues, the madrasa students that are emerging most prepared for life are those that are actively creating their own chances.



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