Not enough choice Students at Taleem-ul-Quran in New Delhi. At present, most of the students go on to become teachers or imams after graduating from madrasas Image Credit: India Today Group/Getty Images

Once a feature central to the Muslim society in India, madrasas are today associated more with controversies than with education.

Madrasas’ decline over the years has been rather steep. Before India’s independence, they were major centres of education and learning. But in recent times, the perception prevalent about them is that they are breeding grounds for terrorism in India.

These educational institutes are viewed as retrograde and averse to modernisation. For many, they are stuck in a time warp and deeply reluctant to adopt new subjects and modern methods of teaching. Little surprise, then, that they are viewed with suspicion.

Madrasas in India are in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last year, the blasts at a house in Burdwan city of West Bengal brought them in the limelight. Sakshi Maharaj, a parliamentarian from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, claimed that madrasas are breeding grounds for terrorism in India. Then, a former madrasa teacher had alleged that she was gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam at one such institution.

In the noise these controversies have created, the good that madrasas have done goes unnoticed. The community’s voice is rarely heard.

Change in perception

In this scenario, a recent survey by the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) of India becomes significant. It conducted a study of 400 madrasas across the country. The survey also incorporated inputs from 500 madrasa teachers, directors and 3,000 students.

The most important finding of the survey is that contrary to the general perception, madrasas are not averse to modernisation. There is a growing realisation in the community that curriculum upgrade is essential for progress. At the same time, the community feels that the government machinery should stay out of this process.

“According to the survey, 90 per cent of madrasas feel that there is a strong need to change the syllabus, but only if the administration does not interfere. We [the community] want to moderate the syllabus on our own without any interference from government,” says SIO’s Abdul Wadood, who was responsible for carrying out the survey.

Formed in 1982, SIO works at the grassroots level with the mission to prepare a generation of people that cares for its country. The organisation conducts a number of programmes to create awareness about importance of education in the rural areas. It has nearly 300,000 members across the country.

Wadood clarified that the community was concerned that the administration will totally take over the management of madrasas and even force them to stop religious education altogether.

The survey further brings forth that this change in the syllabus means inclusion of new subjects. As of now, few madrasas have taken a leap and are teaching subjects such as economics, mathematics, science, computers and social studies.

“Nearly everybody we spoke to said that if madrasas are to remain relevant, subjects such as science, economics and mathematics need to be included in the curriculum. What is happening is that there are no job opportunities for madrasa students once they complete their education,” says Wadood.

The question of curriculum

The curriculum most madrasas follow today was devised by Dars-e-Nizami in the 18th century. These institutes primarily teach Urdu, Persian and Arabic literature and Islamic theology.

Though no official data are available, experts believe that there would be about 25,000 to 30,000 madrasas in India. This includes a few madrasas for girls. Madrasas operate in total isolation from the regular education system in India.

There are very limited job opportunities after madrasa education as madrasas focus mainly on religious education. The main job options available are that of a maulana or imam. Both options are not very lucrative.

A maulana in a non-aided madrasa is likely to earn only about Rs5,000 (Dh288) to Rs10,000 per month. An imam or a local religious leader also earns in the same range. However, the earnings are likely to be higher if the madrasa is aided by an organisation. Then a maulana might earn more than Rs50,000.

“A madrasa education is not job or career-oriented. A student is provided good moral education — how should you treat your neighbours, what are your responsibilities, etc. After graduating from a madrasa, a student mainly has two options: to become a teacher or an imam,” says Mohammad Bilal, a 26-year-old teacher at Madrasa Taleem-ul-Quran in south Delhi.

It is difficult for madrasa graduates to apply for higher studies as most of the modern universities in India do not recognise their certificates.

To be eligible for admission at colleges or universities, students need to clear an exam conducted by the Lucknow Board after completing the 10-year course at a madrasa. The students usually prepare for this examination on their own and this is their only chance to get into a regular college.

Only a few universities such as the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University recognise certification provided by some madrasas.

“Most of the big madrasas are now offering courses in the English language, computer science, mathematics and other subjects. However, this is not sufficient and a lot remains to be done,” says Gulam Rasool Dehlvi, a renowned Islamic scholar. He is associated with Jamia Hazrat Nizammuddin Aulia Madrasa in New Delhi as an adviser. Dehlvi is also a journalist and has written extensively on Islam.

However, what is really discouraging for a madrasa student is that they can hardly aspire to graduate in subjects such as science or economics, which are rarely taught at madrasas.

“Madrasa students can get admission in most of the courses in universities or colleges but they need to clear the Lucknow Board exams. However, they cannot get admission in science courses because science is not taught in madrasas. They generally go for advanced courses in Arabic, Urdu, home science etc,” says Saima, 24. She is a teacher at Jamia-Tul-Banat Al-Islamia, Delhi’s first madrasa for girls, located on the banks of river Yamuna. Saima is also studying for a masters in Urdu Literature from the Jamia Millia Islamia.

The survey also highlights the question of duration of madrasa education. Madrasa education is for 10 years, which the community feels is not enough. A regular school has a tenure of 12 years.

SIO recommends setting up of a madrasa board in every Indian state, which would devise a new curriculum based on recommendations from various sections of the community.

“The madrasa boards should be managed by the community. They should decide the new curriculum for madrasas as well as the duration of madrasa education,” says Wadood.

In keeping with the general perception, the survey finds that madrasa students are unaware of the problems faced by the mainstream society. This is one of the major criticisms against the madrasa set-up in the country.

“As part of the overall study, we also conducted a survey of the libraries at the madrasas. It is extremely telling that they didn’t have any material that would connect them with the outside world ... no magazine, no newspapers. The books were focused on Islamic theology, etc. They are just not aware of the issues being faced by the society outside the institute,” says Ashfaq Ahmad, SIO’s president.

The need of the hour is a complete overhaul of the madrasa curriculum as well as the way they are managed.

“The point is unless the curriculum is revised and upgraded and structural and radical changes are brought about, madrasa education will not become relevant in terms of employment opportunities available today. That is a huge task and whenever there is talk about including madrasas in the modern education [system], there is a reaction from the people who run madrasas,” explains Professor Habib.

Though madrasas across the country are faced with a crisis, one state has set an example in modernisation for others to emulate. West Bengal has implemented a system that has led to transformation of the institutes in the state.

The state government controls the management of the institutes. The curriculum in madrasas in West Bengal is almost entirely like that of any other school. The only difference is that they have one session in which Islamic theology or literature is taught. The state has thus demonstrated that it is quite possible to modernise madrasas and thus, pave the way for imparting wholesome education to the children of the community.

Madrasas serve an important purpose of imparting education to the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment. It would be a win-win situation if new subjects are also included in the curriculum, which will empower the students to pursue higher studies and get mainstream jobs.

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. You can follow her on Twitter @Gagandeepjourno