In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States (US) in 2001, researchers, analysts, and policymakers trained their eyes on madrasas. Their initial investigations at the time found that many Taliban leaders and Al-Qaeda members had been radicalised in these Islamic educational institutions. In July 2004, a report prepared by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United Sates (or the 9-11 Commission) described madrasas as “incubators of violent extremism.” It did not specifically say, however, whether any of the 19 individuals who had executed the 9-11 attacks themselves attended madrasas for their education. The following year, then Secretary of Defence Donald H. Rumsfeld declared that madrasas “train people to be suicide killers and extremists, violent extremists.” Subsequently, such a narrative around madrasas made these institutions easy targets of criticism, even as analyses have shown that out of the 79 terrorists involved in the five worst attacks on Western democracies, only eleven percent of them had madrasa education. Madrasas in India are the subject of similar criticism, with students being branded as “terrorists”.
Madrasas are an integral component of the education system in India. A primary reason is that historically, the country’s Muslim population have been disproportionately disadvantaged in education. Even as they comprise nearly 13 percent of India’s population, their enrolment rate at the primary school level (Class 1-5) was a meagre 9.39 percent of total enrolment figures for 2006. More than 90 percent of madrasa students in India belong to poor families.In some parts of the country, even poor non-Muslims send their children to these schools.
These institutions are facing massive challenges in finances and are in desperate need of reforms. There is a lack of scientific and secular subjects in the curriculum, and graduates find it difficult to find employment. The government recognises the need to “modernise” India’s madrasas. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, “The Government of India is leaving no stone unturned in empowering the Muslim youth. We want them to have the Quran in one hand and a computer in the other.” Progress has not been made so far, however, and indeed, some state governments have derecognised the madrasas in their jurisdictions or dropped Islamic subjects from these institutions.
Current state of madrasas in India
In the 21st century most of the madrasa schools around the globe have adopted scientific curriculum that have increased the employability of their students. The Singaporean madrasa system, for example, has begun using modern technologies like tablets.
According to information provided by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, India has 24,010 madrasas, of which 4,878 were unrecognised, in 2018-19. Unofficially it is claimed that only one organisation, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind has over 20,000 Deobandi madrasas in north India. Madrasas in India are largely run by private religious sects. However, in six states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bengal and Assam—a large number of madrasas are state-funded. They are the equivalent of mainstream education and their certificates are also at par with the school boards—this enhances the employability of madrasa-educated children. For example, in the four states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh the number of recognised madrasas is 10,680, with some 2,020,816 students. The Sachar Committee report, meanwhile, said that the number of students attending madrasas is less than commonly held. In Bengal, for instance, where the Muslim population is more than 25 percent of the state’s population, there are only 341,000 madrasa students, or 4 percent of those between 7-19.
The following paragraphs describe some of the most fundamental challenges facing India’s madrasas.
A section of conservative Muslim clergy has been opposing the introduction of scientific and modern education every time the central government had attempted to amend the curriculum and improve teaching methods. To be sure, the state of madrasas across India is varied. For example, while madrasas in the northern part of India, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have not adopted more modern curricula, those in Kerala are different—they are of the view that there is no separation of knowledge in Islam, and that the Prophet did not divide learning on the basis of what was “sacred” and what was “secular”. Indeed, Kerala’s Muslim tradition has other elements that do not conform to those in other regions of India. For example, Kerala’s Nadwat ul Mujahideen believes that there is no official clergy in Islam, and that a doctor or a management professional can lead a prayer. The Friday sermons in Kerala are read in the vernacular, Malayalam, while in the north Indian states, they are in Arabic and not translated to either Urdu or Hindi. Nadwat ul Mujahideen is a Salafi-influenced Islamic group in Kerala that has roots dating back to the 19th century. Founded in 1924, this renaissance group has been opposing the Sunni orthodoxy and their alleged ‘false beliefs’ such as polytheism. Nadwat ul Mujahideen claims to introduce ‘true’ Islamic practices to the Muslim community in Kerala. Nadvath ul Mujahideen also says it is catering to the state’s Muslims to create their own characteristics and peculiarities that distinguish them from other Muslim communities in India.
Funding for madrasas mostly come from the religious orders. There are also Waqf boards that offer some financial support. At present, there is no institutional mechanism whereby charity funds such as zakat and sadqa are channelled to madrasas. Madrasas that are affiliated with religious sects or seminaries like Darul Uloom Deoband, Nadwa tul Ulema, Jamaat E Islami, or Jamiat e Ulema, are generally better able to manage their institutions financially.
A crucial issue is that a large number of madrasas in India belong to the unorganised sector which depends on charity from the Muslim community. The funding of these unorganised-sector madrasas is meagre and erratic, with more reliable inflows of financial support coming only during the month of Ramadan. Consequently, the lack of adequate funds results in shortages in the basic requirements to run the school. For example, many students in these under-funded madrasas could not even have proper clothing. Teachers are also not being paid appropriate remuneration. Compounding the situation is the absence of transparency in both the funds received, and the expenditure.
The dire financial situation affects teacher quality, as the pay-scale fails to attract individuals who may be better qualified. Many teachers do not meet the rudimentary qualification of having a Bachelor’s degree in Education. Often, teachers who may be educated and trained to teach humanities or language end up handling science and mathematics subjects in madrasas run by the SPQEM. The teachers also find themselves needing to depend on the conventional methods used in learning Quran and other religious texts. Moreover, the madrasas that receive government funds also contend with the problem of lack of textbooks. In 2018, for example, the state of Uttar Pradesh reported that the amount of INR 470.920 million not released. The grants have been irregular and inadequate, leading to the closure of the scheme in madrasas. It has been pointed out that the erratic funding is also due to the delayed submission of Utilization Certificates by the states to the Centre.
Lack of holistic learning
Most madrasas have no concept of organising social gatherings or extracurricular activities like field trips that could give students some degree of experiential learning. Children are enrolled in madrasas mostly so that they could have an assured meal for the day, and they would be able to read the Quran. But real-life exposure is needed, as it could help children studying in madrasas to imbibe a more integrated learning. After all, madrasas in India continue to be huge thought-influencers. For example, a small four percent of all madrasa students can create an impact on the entire Muslim population of India when it comes to religious matters: this four percent are the imams who lead prayers in hundreds and thousands of mosques spread across the country. During Fridays, these imams give out sermons that can be used to convey socio-political commentary and influence the formulation of public opinion.
The most important religious body, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which runs most of the Deobandi madrasas has set up a committee of Muslim scholars and educators to prepare a roadmap for introducing a modern curriculum to madrasas in India. These same Deobandi schools, along with the Ahl-e-Hadis institutions, have repeatedly refused to take part in various initiatives started by a succession of union governments after 1993. At the same time, however, they have benefited from the allocation of funds for state-run madrasas. The decision of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to diversify madrasa education is motivated by considerations for the future employment prospects of Muslim children, and overall, the socio-economic progress of the community.
In West Bengal, former governor Dr A R Kidwai in 2002 issued an exhaustive report on madrasa education in the state, giving practical recommendations to the state government for standardising the madrasa education system. The report, however, has only gathered dust throughout the Left-led Buddhadeb Bhattacharya regime (2002-2011) and that of Mamata Banerjee (2011-present).
The National Educational Policy (1986) has stressed on the need to liberalise education for the welfare of the marginalised sections of society. The imperative could be more acute for the madrasa system, as the Sachar Committee report findings show that Muslims are the most educationally backward community in the country.
Conclusion and recommendations
The government of Prime Minister Modi has declared its commitment to the introduction of rational and scientific education in madrasas. Efforts have to be made in the areas of planning, legislation and implementation.
The following points summarise this brief’s recommendations for enabling madrasas in India to respond to the needs of the 21st century.
- Standardise the system of madrasa education: The issue of ‘standardisation’ is contentious. In an interview conducted by the authors of this brief with Justice M S A Siddiqui, former chairperson of the National Council for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI), he insisted that there was a near consensus on the standardisation of madrasa system and mainstreaming madrasa education to create an inclusive atmosphere, promote social justice, tolerance and economic development. Justice Siddiqui acknowledged that there were procedural and legal hurdles, but he said those could be overcome in a “spirit of consensus and accommodation.” The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) can play a pivotal role in integrating madrasa education and cater to the needs of learners up to pre-degree level. Modern subjects should be integrated into the madrasa system. Begin the standardisation of madrasa education in a specific state as a pilot, before eventually scaling.
Establish a Central Madrassa Board (CMB): Such an autonomous body can aid in the creation of a standardised curriculum and encourage madrasas to pursue academic studies at par with state boards. Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh have state madrasa boards running successfully where madrasa students get certificates equivalent to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Advertisements of teaching posts through CMB and even the qualifications for the teachers can be rationalised by this board. The Sachar Commission’s recommendation of modernisation of madrasas has remained merely a slogan. Institutions continue to remain fund-starved to pay for salary of mathematics, science and computer teachers. Unlike in the Christian missionary educational institutions, community funding by Muslims for madrasa education is both erratic and meagre. The CMB should be set up by an act of parliament. The board should not interfere with the religious curriculum of an affiliated madrasa but should stress on the introduction of scientific education. What is required is a balance of science, life and spirituality, vocational training, art of living, developing scientific temperament, secular-democratic outlook, and computer education. Madrasas need to invest in technological applications as well.
- Improve teacher quality: Any system of education is only as good as its teachers. The present conditions of most teachers in madrasas is pitiable: their salaries are irregular, they have no pay-scales or avenues for career advancement. The central government should allocate money for teacher capacity-building through the CMB for different schemes like SPQEM, MOMS, IDMI. Teaching orientation programmes for madrasa teachers are imperative to usher in modernisation. Madrasa teachers need wider exposure to current discourses in public life and geo-political trends, and must learn advanced teaching methods, as well as other skills like counselling.
- Rationalise faculty: The proposed CMB and the state madrasa boards can consider setting up a centralised faculty of social sciences to teach subjects like economics, history, political science, and broader trends in foreign policy. Separate faculties in educational technology, mass communication, computer education and orientation centres should also be set up to have distinctive programmes and a character of their own. Collaborations with various educational centres of excellence should be conducted.
- Help madrasas assimilate their ‘Indian’ identity: The government of India would do well to help madrasas use their institutions in teaching Indian Muslims to assimilate their identity as ‘Indian’ and ‘Muslim’, together—on the basis of a shared sense of history, culture and language. This can be along the lines of Singapore’s deradicalisation programme. After all, the foundations of a nation-state having broad religious, cultural and linguistic diversity should not be built on religious nationalism.
Ayjaz Wani @wani_ayjaz is a Research Fellow at ORF Mumbai. Rasheed Kidwai @rasheedkidwai is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article is an extract from the report titled Locating the Madrasa in 21st-Century India. Read the full report here.