Apart from modern education, we have to orient the mindset of students so as to attune it to social realities and sensitise them towards emerging socio-cultural paradigms
Should State-run madrasas be shut and converted into regular schools like some States have proposed or its better if Muslim scholars and educationists prepare a road map to initiate modern education in Islamic seminaries across the country? The Assam Government has decided to close the 740 State-run madrasas and convert them into general educational institutions. Madrasa education was introduced in the Assam education curriculum in 1934 and the State Madrasa Board was also created then.
If we examine the history of Muslim education we find madrasas have been part of the Islamic learning system since very early times. They were usually part of mosques. These mosques became social focal points for growing communities; they doubled up as schools for learning the Quran, basic instruction in Muslim rituals and language instruction in Urdu, with accommodations for education and social needs. Throughout much of Islamic history, madrasas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe. It is only lately that education in these seminaries became ossifying and there were calls for reforms.
The reformists of madrasa education insist that knowledge in Islam is one whole, and that the division between dini (religious) and duniyavi (worldly) knowledge — with the two opposed to each other and which many contemporary ulema seem to have accepted — has no sanction in the Quran. The Quran is quoted as repeatedly exhorting the believers to ponder over the mysteries of creation as signs of the power and mercy of God. In the entire scripture, there are about 600 verses directly commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyse God’s magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system, and far from leading to doubt and disbelief, scientific investigation — if conducted within properly defined Islamic bounds — can deepens one’s faith in Islam.
But madrasas are not immune to change. Many of them are trying to forge a Muslim identity that is compatible with modern culture and resistant to the blandishments of radicalisation. Likewise, few ulema could claim to be completely satisfied with the madrasas as they exist today. Indeed, leading ulema are themselves conscious of the need for change in the system.
The negative stereotypes presented in some sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of these Islamic schools actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village children, these schools may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, these provide essential social services. They continue to serve parts of developing societies that Governments never reach. For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours with limited breaks, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught to read and write.
As their graduates go out and take up a range of new careers and as pressures from within the community as well as from the State and the media for reform grow, these Islamic schools, too, are changing. Far from typifying one end of the polarising spectrum of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular education, the State must continue to use Islamic seminaries as part of the regular educational paradigm. It must evolve an educational grid that allows constant movement between madrasas and mainstream educational institutions.
The policymakers need to pay closer attention to how transitions from madrasas to mainstream spaces can be seamlessly achieved. The State should not interfere in religious instruction, which should be the business of private individuals and associations. Second, those who carry out the inspections should be properly oriented to the traditions of learning in Muslim communities and the history and status of madrasas in particular.
The general consensus is that madrasas can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. Since the students are taught in classical and modern science as well as secular and religious thought, they are better able to spot scriptural distortions. They also tend to be more connected to their own communities as well as to the mainstream society and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shield them from radicalism. The madrasas are allies in India’s fight against extremism.
Some recent reform efforts have focused on modernising the teachings. This includes the addition of computer proficiency and English language classes, which strengthen employment potential for madrasa students. However, the introduction of computer skills at many Deoband-type madrasas is focused only on equipping them with functional literacy and not enabling them to engage with the modern technological revolution.
Thus, apart from equipping madrasas with tools of modern education, we have to orient the mindset of students so as to attune it to social realities and sensitise them towards emerging socio-cultural paradigms. This must be the fundamental objective of the modernisation process of madrasas. The efforts to stay “politically correct” have contributed to an absence of structured debate and discussion on how to make modern education accessible to millions of poor Muslim youth so that they get jobs. We must remember that cultural isolation would only lead to stagnation. The madrasas betray a deeper dissatisfaction and fatigue with a redundant learning system.
Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned 20th century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted: “For us Muslims, mere English (modern) education is not sufficient, nor does the old Arabic madrasa education suffice. Our ailment requires a compound panacea. One portion eastern and the other western.”
While it is true that most madrasas have outlived their role, they need not be decimated. What they need is essentially a makeover in a way that respects traditional sensibilities and attempts to synergise classical and modern learning.
Some of the modern progressive seminaries have turned a new leaf and many more are modernising. Students unfamiliar with the intricacies of their own faith can be swayed by arguments that seem to call for jihad when taken out of context. But students coming out of these new generation religious schools are grounded in both classical and liberal values.
The right approach would be to temper classical and traditional learning with liberal thought. It can foster a culture which will engender the two streams of learning to nourish each other. This will enable the students of these seminaries to lead lives that are as true to their faith as attuned to modem needs. It will build them into empowered stakeholders in the shaping of their own future as well as of their communities.
An enlightened and productive human capital is the most precious asset of a society, and madrasas can certainly be key enablers in this task. Modern subjects can also help the students gain a good grounding in secular subjects and technical skills so that they do not lose out in an increasingly competitive and globalised workplace.
The writer is a well-known development professional. The views expressed are personal.