RAZIUDDIN AQUIL | 17 JUNE, 2015

Some Thoughts On Madrasa Education


The persistence of a somewhat pre-modern value system, educational backwardness and consequent unemployment are indeed major issues facing Muslim communities.

Madrasas are a remnant of the past, or they may be useful for theologians, but they have lost in the march of time and Muslims are hardly capable of building modern institutions. This is particularly true of Bengal and much of north India.

The trajectory of Islam in southern India can indeed be different in many ways. For instance, in the current discussion on establishing educational institutions, Muslims in parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and more prominently in Kerala have founded institutions and are running them with fair amount of success. The Kerala case is particularly instructive, as we keep hearing from time to time. There the initiative for building educational institutions - both regular schools and colleges and vocational institutions such as engineering and medical colleges and computer training centres – has come from Muslims with divergent interests/background -liberal/reformist, fundamentalist, and traditional/conservatives, as also from pure business-minded people.

Modern education may or may not serve as an antidote to communal consciousness, but their value for job and decent livelihood cannot be denied. This is not necessarily to support economic determinism, but good modern education alone can help Muslims compete for better jobs/positions, which, in turn, can help them improve their economic condition and bring about a change in their social status/outlook. The change will not be dramatic, but it may be visible in two-three generations.

The fate of the madrasa system of education in our times is for all to see. Where do the graduates from these seminaries stand in terms of establishing themselves after completing their education? Contrary to the arrogant pronouncements of champions of religious orthodoxy, they can only be imams in local mosques or teachers in madrasas, where the openings are not many either. The fortunate one, imam of a government Waqf Board run mosque was getting just about a thousand rupees per month until recently. The condition of the imams and other staff such as the muazzin, the person responsible for azan, or the call for prayers (namaz) in mosques financially supported by contributions from Muslims in localities is no better.

Many of the madrasa graduates turn to petty business, such as footpath kiosks for survival. They may have studied theology, philosophy, scholasticism and logic among other subjects; one may ask what is the use of all these from the point of view of livelihood? By contrast, those who switch over to secular education through Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and some other universities after completing their courses, alimiyat or fazilat, in the madrasas do better in life. At least, they get jobs as translators or interpreters (from Arabic to English and vice versa) in some foreign embassies. Some even get posts in University departments of Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Islamic Studies and History.

Significantly, their children are not likely to go to madrasas. The worldview of those struggling, rotting on the footpath or suffering and groaning in mosques can be very different from those doing well in modern universities or offices. But the orthodoxy reacts: ‘madrase ki talim hasil karne ke baad university mein padhne jana waisa hi hai, jaise ghode ki sawari ke baad gadhe ki sawari ko jana’ (Going to the university after having received education in the madrasa is akin to riding a donkey after galloping on horseback)!

It will be interesting to check data to see what percentage of Muslims are literate and what how many of those are seeking education in madrasas. Here we also need to define the very concept of literacy and interrogate its value, as the ability to read the Quran in Arabic without understanding a single word of it also comes within its purview.

Literacy data from the Indian census might demonstrate that more than half of the Muslim population is not receiving any education, that is, not going to madrasas either. So the debate about madrasa education is a matter of politics and not primarily of pedagogic concern. It may also be that if we insert the gender profile into the literacy figures, we might probably find an interesting ‘disparity’, as more and more Muslim girls may be going to the madrasas, whereas the boys are dispatched for work and support the family’s subsistence; this is contrary to the suggestion that gender-based differentiation on education might reveal much more appalling figures for women. Also, of the half the population that is literate how many went to the madrasa and how many to secular schools. It will be important to search for data regarding Muslim children studying in government or private schools, secular ones and not madrasas, and passing out the Higher Secondary School examinations, though the probabilities are not very promising.

In such a situation, the easy option should be to move with time: let the madrasas continue for specialised theological studies, for training the maulvis or imams, the professionals in the service of religion, and send the children to the maktabs or lower madrasas for basic introduction to Islam, for instance, for learning to read the Quran and know the foundational categories of the faith; from a modern standpoint, anything beyond that is suicidal for the whole society.

The Christians and other religious communities learnt it long ago; Muslims remain caught in a time warp. Some are indeed cherishing the desire to lead a life some fourteen hundred years backward in time. In such a context, there is very little a modern, democratic government can do to deal with the matter. It cannot work like a Mustafa Kemal Pasha to set things right with one stroke of the pen, or by using force for that matter, and that does not work in the long run either, as we now know with the Islamic revival in Turkey.

The guardians of the community often argue for better funding from the state and no interference in syllabus and recruitment, etc., though it is time to provide for modern education and train the Muslim youth to compete for modern jobs. Understandably, Muslim leaders are poor governor of things. Nobody has any expectation from them; certainly, not any thinking Muslim.

On the other hand, the Hindu Right’s campaign against so-called Muslim appeasement flies on its face when one analyses the data concerning representation of Muslims in government service. Even in a state like West Bengal, ruled by the Left Front for three decades and these past four years by Mamata Banerjee just about two per cent of the 25 per cent Muslim population has been accommodated at the level of Class three government employees.

Hard communal politics demands that these facts are ignored to build a case for spreading false propaganda about pampering the Muslims. Some might as well argue that government employment or the lack of it does not necessarily reflect an anti-Muslim bias as such, that Muslims themselves want to live a life away from modern governmental apparatus, and that it is difficult to govern them. The outstanding problems of Muslim education and the rhetoric of the relevance of madrasa as part of a distinct Muslim identity clearly reveal a crisis of the governmental kind, where, following the insights offered by Social Scientist Partha Chatterjee’s critical observation, successive modern governments have failed against the politics of the governed.

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