As the evening prayer ends, hundreds of boys rush 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. Across the street, 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. The man in the center 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 here 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.
Madrasas across the world have suffered a great loss of reputation in recent decades, thanks to a wave of extremism. They have been continually targeted during the last few years with an avalanche of searing and strident critiques. In secular countries, the state has not only castigated madrasas but has attempted to wrest exclusive control over them. It’s true that some madrasas are guilty of fostering extremism, but most aren’t — including Vastanvi’s seminary. The school has paid a steep price proving that point.
Vastanvi’s enterprise is a symbol of worldwide efforts to make madrasas a medium of wholesome and premium education – something they originally were until they degenerated in the Medieval Age amid an overall decline in intellectual pursuits.
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 labor, sex trafficking, or other abuses.
Madrasas have been part of the Islamic learning system since very early times. They were usually part of mosques. These mosques became social focal points for growing communities; they doubled up as schools for learning the Quran, basic instruction in Muslim ritual practices, and language instruction in Urdu, with accommodations for education and social needs.
Madrasa curricula, in most cases, offers courses like “Koran-i-Hafiz” (memorization of the Quran), Alim (allowing students to become scholars on Islamic matters), Tafsir (Quranic interpretation), Sharia (Islamic law), Hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), Mantic (logic), and Islamic history (mostly constructed, and invariably avoiding any discussion on weak points of old Muslim leaders).
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 characterized by both orthodoxy and diversity and once modernized they would be an ally for India’s unmanageable educational infrastructure.
While the debate over the modernization of madrasas continues, there are several madrasas in India initiating change to bring them in tune with modern times. Some recent reform efforts have focused on modernizing the teachings on offer at madrasas. This modernization includes the addition 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. Rahman contextualized and described madrasa learning as follows:
“With the decline in intellectual creativity and the onset of ever-deepening conservatism, the curricula of education … shrank and the intellectual and scientific disciplines were expurgated, yielding the entire space to purely religious disciplines in the narrowest sense of the word. Mechanical learning largely took the place of original thought. With the thirteenth century, the age of commentaries begins and it is not rare to find an author who wrote a highly terse text in a certain field, in order to be memorized by students and, then, in order to explain the enigmatic text, he authored both a commentary and a super commentary!”
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 one 13-year-old boy. “Maybe you can explain to people that’s not true.”
West Bengal has become the first state to begin the modernization of the traditional madrasas with the support from central government. As a result nearly 600 government-recognized madrasas have modern curricula. 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. Interestingly, 15 percent of students in these madrasas are non-Muslims.
According to Prasenjit Biswas, a professor at North Eastern Hill University, “Madrasas, based on strong intellectual traditions, that draw from other cultures and religions can help overturn the historical divide between Hindus and Muslims.”
Critics accuse madrasas of holding Indian Muslims back from advancement, although government surveys found that only 4 percent of Muslims (0.5 percent of Indians) attend a madrasa full-time. But 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. Religious schools are just as valid for seeking job skills as other Indian schools. They are also justifiable merely in terms of the personal spiritual development a student attains by becoming an Islamic scholar.
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 youths so that they get jobs. The government’s understanding of and strategy for dealing with madrasas needs to evolve from a black-and-white perception to a more holistic one. The government machinery needs to be sensitized and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to “secular versus non-secular” and “pro-Hindu versus pro-Muslim” debates.
Madrasas, like those run by Vastanvi, can play a vital role in bringing secular and religious education. 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 fight against extremism.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.