Muslim Madrasa Modernisation

A rather animated debate is on among different sections of the Muslims as also among the civil and the uncivil society in India about the Madrasa, their importance, the role they play and the need to make them more modern, thereby converting them into institutes that are more relevant to the contemporary requirements of both the Muslims and the market. The former is openly stated while the latter is rarely articulated.

Before proceeding with an exploration of some of these concerns and to try to understand the trigger behind the proselytising zeal to modernise the madrasa, let us understand the institution of the madrasa itself.

The word is a derivate of Dars – lesson, the word Maddarris – teacher and Tadrees – to teach, all have the same root. None of these have any denomination specific significance just as Maktab, Paathshala and School too have no denomination specific significance. Before the English inspired ‘School’ became ‘the place of learning’ for the young, the madrasa served this purpose.  Most madrasas were open to all, (remember that many schools that were started in India at the time did not welcome all castes, in fact they excluded most castes)  It is difficult to say how many, if any, of these madrasas were co-educational and yet co-educational madrasas must have existed or else the much distracted Majnoon and  the doe-eyed Laila could not have met in the famous tragedy.  The love affair between the two flowered under the unwatchful eyes of the maddarris.

The madrasa was not traditionally a place that only imparted religious education. The madrasa Ghazi-ud-Din Started in the first decade of the 18th century, that was to later become the Delhi College, was a major centre of education that aside from teaching the Quran, Islamic Jurisprudence and fiqah etc also offered courses in Philosophy, oriental disciplines, languages, literature, Arithmatic and the like. Even to this day the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband, aside from being a major centre for Islamic education also conducts courses in Urdu, Persian, Hindi, English, Geography, Arithmatic, Arabic Grammer & composition and Calligraphy.

Traditionally subjects like mathematics, science, philosophy, engineering, astronomy, history, medicine were also taught in madrasas and till well after the colonisation of India by the British many Madrasas continued to admit students who were not Muslims. The image of the madrasa as primarily an institution that imparts religious education alone and is open only to Muslims is thus a fairly recent development.
As per the data provided by the Sachchar committee report only three percent of Muslim Children of school-going age go to Madrasas and not to any other kind of school, an overwhelming majority of these 3 percent, would, I believe, belong to socio economically backward communities. Of the remaining 97 % of school going children of Muslim parents go to state or privately managed schools or do not go to any school at all.

According to ‘Flash Statistics: Elementary Education in India and Progress Towards Universal Elementary Education (2006-07)’, released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), about 30% of Muslim children do not join schools at all, while the number rises to 56% at the upper primary level.

So while talking of masdrasas and issues connected with educating the Muslim child we are dealing with two problems,  1) how to get the out of school 30 % into the school and 2) how to modernise Madrasa Education that caters to 3 % of the school going Muslim Children.

To my mind the basic issue is to ensure that education reaches those Muslim children who have been denied this right. The issue of lack of access to education for the children of Muslims is tied up with the issue of the muslim children going to madrasas.

Both the Sachchar Committee and the Knowledge commission have pointed out that areas with majority Muslim population are overlooked when it comes to implementation of government schemes and this includes the absence of govt. schools in areas of Muslim concentration. Travel the length and breadth of this country and you will find the same pattern. This despite the fact that wherever a govt. school has come up in the vicinity of a madrasa one finds more Muslim parents opting to send their children to govt. run schools.

The question that needs to be addressed, therefore, is not the modernization of Madrasa education but setting up of more primary, secondary and higher secondary govt schools in areas of Muslim concentration. Modernization of madrasas, that cater only to around 3% of muslim school going children is not likely to have any perceptible impact on the overwhelming majority of Muslim children of school going age because they do not go to the madrasas.

The idea of modernizing madrasa education is in any case an oxymoron. If modernizing is taken to mean infusion of new technology, like computers, DVD and OH projectors etc and this is being tried in some places, one can say with a certain amount of conviction that it will not yield the desired modernity. New gadgets may change the techniques of knowledge transmission they are unlikely to have any impact on the content being delivered because the curricula will remain unchanged. Children will continue to be taught subjects like Fiqah, the Quran and the Ahadis, necessary for those who want to pursue a career as Imams or Muftis. But this line of modernization will not equip them to find jobs. In any case how many Imams of Mosques can a largely impoverished populace sustain?

If on the other hand modernization is taken to mean introduction of secular curricula, this too is unlikely to work, because the madrasa faculty is not likely to teach either the Big Bang or the Theory of Evolution, (just as the Saraswati Vidya Mandirs do not tell their students that all Hindus are not vegetarians or that mythology and History are two different things). Doing so militates against the very principles upon which the Madrasa Nisabs (curricula) are organized. The teachers in the Madrasas are in any case not trained teachers in a modern sense and to expect them to overnight turn into trained teachers is asking for too much.

Modernisation of the madrasa would therefore involve introducing secular disciplines of education and appointing trained teachers, providing the madrasas with all the wherewithal of a modern school and eventually turning it into a modern school.

When we know that the net result of this painful and contentious exercise is going to be the creation of regular govt. schools, why don’t we just go ahead and open regular schools in Muslim majority areas and be done with it. Staff them with properly trained teachers, ensure due representation to Muslims in the staff, without staffing them exclusively with Muslims and run them as regular schools.

This is precisely what the knowledge commission has recommended – Muslim majority areas are overlooked during implementation of schemes. it is necessary to increase public expenditure for development of “physical and social infrastructure for schooling in Muslim Majority areas  and to reorient official strategies to ensure that Muslim children have better access to schools.

Despite clear pointers by both the Sachchar Commission and the Knowledge Commission to the effect that Muslims are the most backward in terms of education and that they have been discriminated against in the allocation of resources in education, as also in other areas of socio-economic development and that the only way out is to increase allocation of resources to overcome this lag and despite the fact that Muslims have shown no specific preference for Madrasa education, the only panacea for educational backwardness of the community, that is being shoved in our faces day in and day out is the ‘modernisation’ of madrasa education. As if the only place where the Muslim will go to be educated is the Madrasa.

One of the reasons for this insistence is the decision of the state to rapidly withdraw from the social sector and to increasingly hand over the entire field of education to private operators. What is surprising is the fact that even in the face of clear cut recommendations for increasing public out-lay in education by the knowledge commission – headed incidentally by one of the staunchest votaries of privatisation- the govt continues to harp on the theme of modernisation of madrasa education.

Is it because all this noise about ATR on the Sachchar Commission report is intended to be nothing more than a whole lot of hot air and that these hot air balloons will continue to be floated till the elections are over and then this report too will meet the same fate that earlier inquires on the status of the minorities have met.

Is it not a little strange that there seems to be no such concern for modernising the thousands of sarswati bal mandirs, that continue to spew venom against the minorities or to look at the functioning of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams who are every day creating an artificial Hindu identity for animist tribals in all parts of the country, before pushing them in the cauldron of communal strife, as was done at the time of the Gujarat Genocide in 2002 and the recent pogroms against the Christians in Orissa and attacks on churches and on Christians in other states.

The script seems to be clear as long as the Muslims remains confined to the madrasa and the ghettos that have been built for them they will not be able make too much noise about jobs and equal rights and the stray handfuls who do manage to breakout can easily be taken care off as was done recently in Batla House.

11 thoughts on “Muslim Madrasa Modernisation”

  1. Sohail, you have not mentioned why ‘Convent’ schools are considered mainstream and madrassas are not. At the end of the day, they’re also educational institutions (and have been for a long time). And the Bengal example of a Hindu madrassa student finding his way in the merit list proves your point.


  2. Muslim youths are angry, frustrated and extremist because they have been mis-educated and de-educated by the British schooling. Muslim children are confused because they are being educated in a wrong place at a wrong time in state schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers. They face lots of problems of growing up in two distinctive cultural traditions and value systems, which may come into conflict over issues such as the role of women in the society, and adherence to religious and cultural traditions. The conflicting demands made by home and schools on behaviour, loyalties and obligations can be a source of psychological conflict and tension in Muslim youngsters. There are also the issues of racial prejudice and discrimination to deal with, in education and employment. They have been victim of racism and bullying in all walks of life. According to DCSF, 56% of Pakistanis and 54% of Bangladeshi children has been victims of bullies. The first wave of Muslim migrants were happy to send their children to state schools, thinking their children would get a much better education. Than little by little, the overt and covert discrimination in the system turned them off. There are fifteen areas where Muslim parents find themselves offended by state schools.

    The right to education in one’s own comfort zone is a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be available to all people irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background. Schools do not belong to state, they belong to parents. It is the parents’ choice to have faith schools for their children. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim teacher or a child in a Muslim school. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools. An ICM Poll of British Muslims showed that nearly half wanted their children to attend Muslim schools. There are only 143 Muslim schools. A state funded Muslim school in Birmingham has 220 pupils and more than 1000 applicants chasing just 60.

    Majority of anti-Muslim stories are not about terrorism but about Muslim
    culture–the hijab, Muslim schools, family life and religiosity. Muslims in the west ought to be recognised as a western community, not as an alien culture.
    Iftikhar Ahmad


  3. Why Convent schools are considered mainstream while madrasas are not should be fairly obvious, Convent school, even fake convents, (Like the convent of “Lucipher” that operated out of a quasi slum in a west UP town, till the folly of their ways was pointed out to them) will continue to be the mainstream as long as English continues in the position of pre-eminence that it has acquired.

    The fate of Madrasas was sealed the day Urdu came to be identified as the language of the ‘other’ the foreigner, the Invader.

    Those who placed Urdu in that position, despite their high sounding swadesi claims, were collaborating with a very specific colonial project of linking languages to religions and of establishing a one to one equation between lreligion and culture.

    The harvest of hatred is now being reaped.


  4. Sohail, I agree with you. Instead of the claptrap of ‘modernising’ madrassas, the institution should be included in the mainstream edu system forthwith.

    And yes, the Bal Mandirs and Vanwasi Ashrams that get state funding have to be ‘modernised’ as well and held accountable.


  5. Iam not arguing in favour of mainstreaming the madrasa, in fact i am not in favour of mainstreaming them at all.

    The demand for modernising the madrasa is an excuse for NGOiseing education and for the state to wash its hands of the responsibility of educating children, especially those belonging to the minority community.


  6. Interesting article. The writeup rightly raises the question of the schools run by the Hindutva brigade and exposing the toxification of minds which they are engaged in.

    Recently I had a talk with a friend who raised the question of the sanskrit schools which are being run in different parts of the country. According to him they may not be run directly by the H brigade but are also engaged in similar exercise. Apart from the age-old curriculum which sanctifies manusmriti, they are mostly mono-caste schools where mainly brahmin boys from poor background take ‘education’.

    It is worth noting that in all this hullaballo about Madarsa education, none from the secular brigade has tried to uncover what is going on in the ‘sanskrit schools’.


  7. It is not only the sanskrit schools, but also a whole lot of schools in tribal areas of 36 garh and elsewhere, in which the tribals are being Hinduised, through the schools run by the RSS, vidya bharti or is it sanskar bbharti or similar sounding organisations such as sarswati vidya mandirs.

    It needs to be remembered that the “venerable” congress leader ‘Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla’ had invited the RSS to Madhya Pradesh to proselytise among the tribals.

    One must also remember that the foundations of much of the Hindutva discourse were laid by the ‘nationalist’ congress in the immediate pre and post independence India


  8. Excellent article, Sohail.

    Yoginder Sikand has an excellent blog dealing with various issues related to Madrasa Reforms here –>

    Apart from the points you mention, Yoginder has eloquently put this in his article,

    “There is yet another reason why the inordinate interest of the state in madrasa education and its ‘reform’ needs to be critiqued. As many ulema, managers of the madrasas, see it, the intentions of the state in seeking to ‘reform’ the madrasas are not beyond suspicion. They see this talk of ‘reform’ as motivated by what they regard as an ulterior motive of interfering in and controlling the madrasas, and, consequently, undermining their autonomy and their Islamic ethos and identity. They point out that talk of madrasa ‘reforms’ gathered particular momentum during the rule of the BJP at the Centre, when, following the release of a report on national security, demands began made for the state to intervene in the madrasas in order to combat ‘terrorism’, based on the misleading contention that Indian madrasas are ‘hotbeds’ of ‘terror’. They look at how the demands for madrasa ‘reform’ by various governments, such as that of the United States, as well as it client regimes, such as Pakistan, are linked to their quest to control and quash opposition movements. They see these demands as hypocritical, since it was precisely these governments that funded and promoted radicalism in certain Pakistani madrasas in the wake of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. They thus argue that the state is not sincere in its protestations of being concerned about ‘reforming’ the madrasas. If the state is serious about countering ‘terrorism’, they ask, why is it not seeking to similarly ‘reform’ the vast chain of schools run by right-wing Hindutva forces throughout the country, which, unlike the Indian madrasas, openly preach hatred against other communities, particularly Muslims and Christians?”


  9. hindus and muslims are supposed to criticize their own society more than each other’s in order to prove themselves as self-critical, civilised communities. just because hindu right wing exists in india doesn’t mean problems with muslim societies should be blown under the carpet. the problem of islamic terrorism is not a fantasy. the kashmiri movement is quite islamic right-wing, which is even acknowledged by arundhati roy. how many so-called muslim liberals stood up for salman rushdie in india? the hinduisation of tribals is a kind of right-wing phenomenon which is similar to the culture of conversions in monotheistic religions.


  10. It needs to be remembered that the “venerable” congress leader ‘Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla’ had invited the RSS to Madhya Pradesh to proselytise among the tribals.


  11. So tell me Ms Hashmi what is stopping muslims from sending their kids to government schools? I can understand private schools may not be an option but why are parents willing to send their kids to madrassas where they know that the kid is not gng to learn any skill other than being a maulavi or some equally unproductive occupation? My opinion is it has nothing to do with lack of schools (our country has an enrolment rate of over 90% at elementary level which wld not be possible without enough schools). The problem is in the mindset of Muslim parents who cling to a religious education rather than being open to secular education. They are also obsessed with keeping their daughters perennially repressed and oppressed so they don’t value education for them. You would do better to work among your community to convince such parents of the value of secular education rather than unnecessarily spewing venom over schools run by some Hindu NGOs. And as to Hindu prosletysation! Really, are you kidding me? You seriously going to tell me with a straight face that it is ok for muslims and christians to prosletyze but not ok for Hindus to do so in our own country?? How do you think we have muslims and christians in our country except for aggressive proselytisation by these foreign religions! If you had the brains you will realise that some ancestor of yours was converted from Hinduism (either brainwashed or forced to convert to Islam) so if you are ok with that, you better be ok with Hindus doing the same.


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