15 Feb 2017 – As the evening prayer ended, hundreds of boys rushed out of the building in waves, mats slung over their shoulders. On opposite sides of a dusty road, thousands of Muslim students in this remote farming town of Akkalkuwa in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, touching the Gujarat border, are preparing for very different futures. On this side, teenage boys in skullcaps are studying ancient texts to become imams. Inside, the atmosphere was earnest and scholarly. In room after room, students sit cross-legged on carpets, reading from Qur’ans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. On the other, students are hunched before computers in college classrooms, learning to become doctors, pharmacists and engineers.
The distance between them is about 50 feet, but it could be five centuries. The man in the centre is Mullah Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, who has spent his active life bridging the divide between traditional and modern education for Muslims. From his main campuses here in Akkalkuwa, he has built a network of religious schools, hospitals and colleges with more than two lac students across the country, and earned a reputation among India’s Muslim clerics as a reformer. Vastanvi also manages about 4500 mosques across the country.
These students attend India’s many Islamic boarding schools or madrasas. Contrary to general misperception several of these schools teach secular subjects like science, medicine, technology and social sciences and history and vocational courses in agriculture and mechanics in addition to classical Islamic texts. Historically, madrasas were referred to institutions of higher learning till their importance diminished with the onset of western education .
Madrasas across the world have suffered great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They have been continually targeted during the last few years with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques .In secular countries, the State has not only castigated them but has attempted to wrest exclusive control over them.
However, the negative stereotypes that we get to read in sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of madrasas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, it may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrasas provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labor, sex trafficking, or other abuse.
Rather than undermining the madrasa system, policymakers should engage it. Beards and bombast may make for good newspaper copy, but the reality of the madrasa system is far different: it is characterized by both orthodoxy and diversity and once modernized they would be an ally for India’s unmanageable educational infrastructure.
Madrasa education in India is caught between the need to maintain its exclusive identity as a centre of Islamic studies and culture and at the same time to remain relevant to the present day needs of the community that it serves. Besides, the minority status of the Muslim community in general and the designation of the madrasa as a ‘minority institution’ in particular, with constitutionally mandated privileges, have added another dimension to the state-madrasa relationship in the country.
While the debate over the modernization of madrasas continues, there are several madrasas which are taking steps for initiating change to bring them in tune with modern times. Vastanvi’s enterprise is a symbol of worldwide effort to make madrasas a medium of wholesome and premium education –something they originally were until they suffered from degeneration in the Medieval Age on account of overall decline in intellectual pursuits.
The Akkalkuwa seminary began three decades back from a small hut in Makrani Mohalla. Vastanvi’s elder brother Hafiz Issac stared with six students. It was in the eighties that Vastanvi shifted base from Gujarat to this Maharashtra town and has stayed put ever since. . Today it has grown into an institute, the Jamia Islamic Ishaatul Uloom, which has two lakh students on its rolls in schools across India. It has 15 colleges equipped with modern facilities besides running engineering, medicine, teaching, pharmacy and information technology courses. The madrasa runs schools in Gujarat and Maharashtra and also has 30 hospitals. There is an Industrial Training Institute run by Jamia on which the name of the institute is written in colours of the national flag. The swanky buildings not only give an international look but they also have modern infrastructure.
West Bengal has become the first state to begin the modernization of the traditional madrasas with the support from central government. As a result nearly 600 government recognized madrasas have modern curriculum. They offer courses in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, mathematics, computer science, English language and literature and other regular subjects. Islamic studies and the Arabic language course form a small part of the curriculum. About 15% of the students in the state’s modernized madrasas are non-Muslims.
West Bengal has become the first state to begin the modernization of the traditional madrasas with the support from central government. As a result nearly 600 government recognized madrasas have modern curriculum. They offer courses in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, mathematics, computer science, English language and literature and other regular subjects. Islamic studies and the Arabic language course form a small part of the curriculum. Interestingly, fifteen percent of students in these madrasas are non Muslims.
According to Prasenjit Biswas, Professor, North Eastern Hill University,”Madrasas based on strong intellectual traditions that draw from other cultures and religions can help overturn the historical divide between Hindus and Muslims”.
Efforts to stay ‘politically correct’ have contributed to an absence of structured debate and discussion on how best to make modern education accessible to millions of poor Muslim youths so that they get jobs. The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one. The government machinery needs to be sensitized and co-opted and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to ‘secular versus non-secular’ and ‘pro-Hindu versus anti-Muslim’ debates.
While at present’ modernization’ rather than ‘reform’ is the proclaimed objective of state interventions in the affairs of the madrasa, several critics of the government believe that this is only a step away from ‘reforms’ . They question the state’s wisdom and intentions in focusing on an institution that caters to the educational needs of an almost negligible percentage of the population.
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. The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one. State governments have to be sensitized and co-opted and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to ‘secular versus non-secular’ and ‘pro-Hindu versus anti-Muslim’ debates.
Madrasas, like those run by Vastanvi, can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. Since the students are schooled 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, shields them against radicalism. These madrasas are allies, in India’s fight against extremism.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 February 2017.