How modern, moderate madrasas are drawing global acclaim

Moin Qazi
Moin QaziDec 06, 2016 | 18:46

How modern, moderate madrasas are drawing global acclaim

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 are preparing for very different futures.

On one side, inside a traditional Islamic seminary, teenage boys in skullcaps are studying ancient texts to become imams. 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. In the middle is a bearded Muslim cleric.

These students attend India’s many Islamic boarding schools, or madrasas. Contrary to popular belief, several of them teach secular subjects like science, medicine, technology, social sciences and history in addition to classical Islamic texts and vocational courses in agriculture and mechanics.

But their reputation has taken a battering in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. Madrasas have been continually targeted with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques. In secular countries, the State has not only castigated them but attempted to wrest exclusive control over them.

But 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 labour, 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 characterised by both orthodoxy and diversity and is host to a quiet debate about reform.


While the debate over the modernisation of madrasas continues, there are several madrasas which are taking steps for initiating change to bring them in tune with modern times. Several madrasas in India are open to non-Muslims and teach secular subjects as well.

In Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, among several other states, madrasas provide modern education through computers and the internet. Some have allowed the entry of Muslim girls and ones like Moin-ul-Islam near Agra have a large number of Hindu students on roll and have even introduced Sanskrit as a subject.

The new hybrid model of the seminaries has caught the attention of global organisations and is seen as a path-breaking enterprise. (Photo: India Today)

In 1979, one such seminary in Akkalkuwa town had just six students. Today, the humble school in Maharashtra's Nandurbar district, bordering Gujarat, has grown into an institute, the Jamia Islamia Ishaatul Uloom, which has two lakh students on its rolls in schools across India.

Mullah Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi has spent the past decade bridging the divide between traditional and modern education for Muslims. From his main campus in Akkalkuwa, he has built a network of religious schools, hospitals and colleges across the country, and earned a reputation among India’s Muslim clerics as a reformer.

At Akkalkuwa, there is an industrial training institute run by Jamia, on which the name of the institute is written in colours of the national flag. In Akkalkuwa alone, Jamia runs 15 colleges which look like any other modern campus. The swanky buildings not only give an international look but also have modern infrastructure. Each college has a computer lab with internet connections.


The Jamia Islamia Ishaatul Uloom also runs 30 hospitals in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Its education budget is around Rs 24 crore. It boldly combines modern education with religious studies. Vastanvi is also behind the construction of 4,500 mosques  across India.

West Bengal has become the first state to begin the modernisation of traditional madrasas with support from the central government. As a result, nearly 600 government-recognised madrasas have a 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 per cent of students in the state's modernised madrasas are non-Muslims. The new hybrid model of madrasas here has caught the attention of global organisations and is seen as a path-breaking enterprise.

The Brookings Dohn Center which is located in Qatar and is sponsored by the Brookings Institution of Washington 2009 identified West Bengal's madrasas as the model for modern education and suggested that Pakistan should emulate them. The process of modernisation of madrasas has earned Bengal international accolades. Such madrasas with success and utility provide excellent examples for others to follow.

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.

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 youth so that they get jobs.

The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas needs to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one. State governments have to be sensitised 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.

Thus, apart from equipping madrasas with tools of modern education, we have to orient the mindset  of students to attune it to social realities and sensitise madrasa students to emerging socio-cultural paradigms. This must be the fundamental objective of the modernisation process if we want madrasas to be relevant to our times.

Madrasas need to keep pace with the imperatives of changing times. They should enlarge their worldview and should have enough resilience and malleability to respond to the fluid and changing world. We must remember that cultural isolation would only lead to stagnation. The madrasas betray a deeper dissatisfaction and fatigue with a redundant learning system.

Students unfamiliar with the intricacies of their own faith can be swayed by arguments that seem to call for jihad when taken out of context. But students coming out of these new generation Islamic schools are grounded in both classical and liberal values.

They also tend to be better connected not just to their communities but to the mainstream society as well and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shields them against radicalism. We are allies in India’s fight against extremism.

Last updated: December 06, 2016 | 18:46
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