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Old-School Ties

Often the only access to education for pauperised Muslims, madrassas need to expand their scope

Old-School Ties
Jitender Gupta
Old-School Ties
"I have a beard, say my namaz regularly and teach in a madrassa. That is why I am afraid of outsiders. That's why I am being labelled an anti-national."
Dr Mohammad Yunus Ali, teacher at the Madarsiya Islamiya Arabiya, Aligarh

A PhD in theology, Yunus Ali has spent most of his adult life imparting religious instruction to young Muslims. That's enough reason for him to fear being labelled anti-national. Ever since September 11, there has been a sustained campaign against the madrassa network in India. On September 29, Union home minister L.K. Advani chaired a meeting which resolved to crack down on illegal madrassas which have mushroomed in the last five years and, according to a home ministry report, "pose a threat to national security". And last week, after the terrorist attack on Parliament, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also joined this campaign. "The promoters of terrorism in our neighbourhood have even turned schools meant for religious education into factories of terror," he said.

But are madrassas terror factories as is made out to be? On the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, it has been conclusively proved that madrassas contributed to the growth of fundamentalism and provided the bulk of the manpower for the Taliban. But there's no evidence that this has happened in India though intelligence reports warn of suspect organisations financing madrassas on the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh border.

A great deal of suspicion about madrassas stems from the fact that the average Indian has no clue about what is taught in these institutions. Most madrassas in India follow the Dars-i-Nizami syllabus, set by the premier religious university in the subcontinent, the Darul Uloom, at Deoband, in Saharanpur district, UP. The curriculum, set in the 19th century, concentrates on memorising the Quran, the Hadith (traditions of the prophet), Fiqh (jurisprudence) and Tafsir (commentary on the Quran). In fact, one reason why madrassas in India have come under attack is because the Deoband curriculum is also followed by the hundreds of madrassas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which churned out the Talibs (students) who made up the leadership and rank and file of the Taliban.

This association has proved deeply embarrassing for Deoband, which actually has an illustrious history. Historian Mushirul Hasan points out that the Deobandis arose in British India, not as a reactionary but a forward-looking movement to unite and reform Muslim society in the wake of the oppression the community faced after the 1857 revolt. Hasan stresses: "The Deobandis opposed Partition, rejected the two-nation theory and strongly supported the nationalist movement led by the Congress. It is sacrilege to label them anti-national."

In his authoritative work on them, Taliban—The Story of the Afghan Warlords, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid points out that the madrassas which sprung up in Pakistan's NWFP and in Afghan refugee camps through the '80s were run by semi-educated village mullahs far removed from the original reformist agenda of the Deoband school. Rashid writes: "The Taliban have clearly debased the Deobandi tradition of learning and reform with their rigidity and their viewing of debate as little more than heresy. But in doing so, they've advanced a new, radical and extremely threatening model for any forthcoming Islamic revolution."

It's clear that the curriculum taught at madrassas is outdated and does not equip students for mainstream careers.Muslim intellectual A.M. Khusro says: "Madrassa education is inward-looking but often it is the only education available to Muslims who now face discrimination along with poverty and illiteracy." Mushirul Hasan also agrees that Deoband promotes a puritanical brand of Islam—"It is an orthodox school," he says.

Syed Hamid, chancellor of Delhi's Jamia Hamdard University, believes there is a desperate need to modernise madrassa curriculum. He points out that a madrassa modernisation scheme had been launched by the Union government in 1994. Under this scheme promoted by the HRD ministry, the government assists madrassas with one or two teachers of modern subjects like science, maths and English. Many universities now accept the certificates issued by such madrassas. In UP alone, 700 madrassas are covered under this scheme while in West Bengal and Assam, there is the Madrassa-e-Aalia stream which includes most of the subjects taught in mainstream schools and is recognised by universities.

Despite this, however, job prospects of most graduates of these religious schools is limited to being employed at mosques or as teachers in madrassas. Says S.U. Siddiqui, director of the government-run Maulana Azad Education Foundation, which promotes education schemes for the minority community: "There are five lakh mosques in India which need imams. Besides, every madrassa product is capable of setting up a small school by himself."

In fact, Siddiqui argues that at the primary school level, Muslim literacy figures are on par with other communities largely because of the access to these schools, where children get free food along with education. It is at the middle and high school level that dropout figures become distressingly high.

Hamid too believes that with the government school system in a shambles, madrassas are often the only avenue open to the economically-backward members of this minority community. "As it is, literacy figures for Muslims are far lower than the national average. Without madrassas they'd be even lower," he says.

Although no regular census of madrassas has ever taken place, government sources estimate there are approximately 25,000 such full-fledged institutes in the country. Besides, there are about 80,000 makhtabs, rudimentary schools, often located within mosques, which provide primary education. Hamid stresses that surveys have shown that madrassas are run out of zakat (charity) collected from within the country. "Yet there is an unnecessary phobia about foreign money flowing in from the Middle East. Even the media contributes to this false propaganda," he says.

Asks former cabinet secretary Zafar Saifulla: "Don't Christian and Hindu institutions get funds from abroad? It has been proven that much of the VHP's finances come from outside India. In any case, all foreign donations have to get an FCRA clearance." Leading Muslim educationists point out that the constant police scrutiny under the BJP regime makes it very difficult for madrassas in India to get money from overseas without a home ministry clearance.

Saifullah in fact sees the "demonisation of madrassas as part of the overall tactic of discrediting the minority community". After all, he points out, "Sangh parivar ideologues make no secret of the fact that they are waging a war against Marx, Macaulay and madrassas." Eminent historian Irfan Habib too sees the campaign against madrassas as part of the Sangh parivar attempt to communalise the polity."If the Centre has any evidence against madrassas, they should come out with it. Why keep making insinuations without backing it up with hard evidence?" he asks.

With the government so suspicious of these religious seminaries, they could well fall into the hands of fundamentalists. Modernisation, argue Muslim scholars, is the best way to bring the madrassas into the national mainstream.
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