By Moin Qazi
As the evening prayer ends, hundreds of boys wade out of mosques in droves, 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 one side, students sit cross-legged on carpets, wearing tight, crocheted caps as they rock back and forth reciting verses from Qurans resting on low wooden bookstands The curricula is classical Arabic, daily supplications and basic etiquettes of Islam. Some young Muslims spend around eight hours a week memorising the Qur’an. Across the street, students are hunched before computers in college classrooms, learning to become doctors, pharmacists, and engineers.
Perception versus ground reality of madrasas
The physical distance between them is barely 50 feet, but it could be five centuries in terms of mindsets and intellectual perspectives. 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 in Akkalkuwa, he has built a network of religious schools, hospitals, and colleges with more than 200,000 students across the country, and earned a reputation among India’s Muslim clerics as a reformer. Vastanvi also manages about 4,500 mosques across the country.
Vastanvi’s students attend some of India’s many Islamic boarding schools or madrasas. Contrary to general misperception, several of these schools teach secular subjects like science, medicine, technology, social sciences, and history, as well as vocational courses in agriculture and mechanics in addition to classical Islamic texts. Historically, madrasas were institutions of higher learning until their importance diminished with the onset of Western education.
Unwarranted negative publicity
Madrasas across the world have suffered a great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They have been in the crosshairs of strident debates and continually targeted with an avalanche of searing critiques. In secular countries, the state has not only castigated madrasas but has attempted to wrest exclusive control over them. It is true that some madrasas are guilty of fostering extremism but most are not— including Vastanvi’s seminary. The school has paid a steep price proving that point.
Vastanvi’s enterprise is a symbol of worldwide efforts for making madrasas a medium of wholesome and premium education—something they originally were until they degenerated with the decline of Islam’s Golden Age.
However, the negative stereotypes presented in some sections of the media do not present the true picture. The majority of madrasas 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, madrasas provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labour, sex trafficking, or other abuses.
Understanding what modernisation really means
Many of these madrasas, like Vastanvi’s, are challenging stereotypes to weave a positive counter-narrative. In seeking to keep pace with the times, a number of such madrasas have not only introduced modern, progressive syllabi but are also equipping their students with computers and other technological tools.
Rather than undermining the madrasa system, policymakers should engage it. Beards and bigotry may make for a good newspaper copy, but the reality of the madrasa system is far different. It is characterised by both orthodoxy and diversity and once modernised, they can be an ally for India’s unmanageable educational infrastructure.
While the debate over the modernisation of madrasas continues, there are several madrasas in India initiating change to bring them in tune with modern times. Some recent reform efforts have focussed on modernising the teachings on offer at madrasas. This modernisation includes the introduction of computer proficiency and English language classes, which strengthen employment potential for students outside of the religious sector. 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.
The greatest modern Muslim reformist thinker, Fazlur Rahman, believed that cultural isolation of madrasa students would lead to stagnation. Indeed, the puritan madrasas are already bellowing signs of a deeper dissatisfaction and fatigue with a redundant learning system.
Blending traditional and modern education regimens
Visionaries like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his votaries like Vastanvi were quick to understand the need for a modern education to meet the challenges being encountered by the community. Vastanvi’s university, the Jamia Islamia Ishaatul Uloom, has 200,000 students on its rolls in schools across India. It has 15 colleges equipped with modern facilities and running engineering, medicine, teaching, pharmacy, and information technology courses. The madrasa runs schools in Gujarat and Maharashtra and also has 30 hospitals.
I asked students in madrasas run by the institutions if they were also studying subjects that would help with a job hunt when they finished school. Several eager students pulled out their homework books to show me pages of science and math studies and English essays. I fired off a simple math quiz and was glad to receive instant answers.
“I know you think we all become terrorists if we go to a madrasa,” said Fazal, a 13-year-old boy. “Maybe, now that you have seen things with your own eyes, you can explain to people that’s not true.”
Critics accuse madrasas of holding Muslims back from advancement, although government surveys found that only 4 percent of Muslims (0.5 percent of Indians) attend a madrasa full-time. However, madrasa students view religious studies as one “credential” among many that are available in modern India. Some madrasas are stepping-stones to universities. For others, this religious credential is at times sufficient for achieving students’ goals: literacy and schooling, social status in their hometowns, respect in villages where caste prejudice remains strong. Islamic learning and Arabic skills often open the doors to mosque jobs in big cities and in other countries. They are also justifiable merely in terms of the personal spiritual development a student attains by becoming an Islamic scholar.
Complementing the system already in place
Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned twentieth-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’ (ma?jun-i murakkab)—one portion eastern and the other western.” These sentiments are actually true even though the local custodians of madrasas don’t acknowledge them. The curriculums are often fossilised, with some science and philosophy texts dating back to the 13th or 14th centuries.
Religion for Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the great philosopher poet, was a dynamic and fluid movement; not a closed theology doomed for mere imitation. It is time we shed our intellectual lethargy and awaken a new spirit of vitality that looks outward to the world. Muslims need a radical theology of hope in harmony with the world, not outside of it. Islam marked the end of prophecy, not human intelligence.
Madrasas, like those run by Vastanvi, and backed up by new paradigmatic ventures shepherded by Moosa can play a vital role in promoting an intellect that is well equipped to face challenges of the modern world in the light of centuries of traditions. 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 transition to modernity.
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