NEW DELHI: Middle school students in private schools code and make phone apps these days; government schools are raising their game too, but in the 3,000-odd madrassas of Delhi the teaching is stuck in the 18th century. The Quran, Urdu and Persian remain main subjects, limiting the job prospects of their roughly 3.6 lakh students.
“They are churning out vast numbers of maulvis, only some of whom can be absorbed into the system,” social activist Firoz Bakht Ahmed told TOI. “Others turn into a burden on Muslim society because they have not been trained in such a way as to be an asset to the community.”
Although there is no standardised madrassa syllabus, Ahmed said most follow some form of the Dars-i-Nizami pattern developed by a Lucknow scholar, Mullah Nizamuddin, in the early 1700s. It was designed to impart learning needed for government service at the time but is out of sync with today’s needs. It needs a “radical overhaul,” he said.
“We can gain a great deal from experiments in modern Islamic education in other countries. For instance, Egypt’s Al-Azhar university has introduced modern subjects in the thousands of schools it runs. There is no reason why Indian madrassas should not do so.”
Author and activist Sadia Dehlvi said madrassas will always focus on Islamic education but their modernisation is necessary to make students competitive. “While there has been some modernisation in these schools, some more work is needed.” Those in the madrassa system, however, said their syllabus is adequate and students who feel the need of skill-based learning can opt out of the system.
“We have students coming from the Mewat region of Haryana, from UP and as far as Bengal,” said Munshi Basheer Ahmed Qasmi, a senior cleric at Madrassa Husain Baksh, founded in 1856 and one of Delhi’s oldest.
“Religious education should not be looked at through the prism of job guarantee. Students are encouraged to pursue other lines while attending the madrassa. Many have gone on to clear competitive exams and got admission to institutes like Jamia Hamdard and Jamia Millia Islamia where options are available to them.”
Mohammad Baqi, 16, is one of the madrassa’s students who straddle both worlds. He studies at the madrassa from early morning till afternoon and then rushes to Fatehpuri Muslim Senior Secondary School where classes run into the evening. “I have learnt Arabic and Persian here and at my school I get modern education. I agree that madrassa education doesn’t open many job opportunities but I still pursued it along with school,” he said.
Wasi, who studied at a madrassa near Kashmere Gate, cleared class X through the Open School on his own while pursuing the Aalimat course—considered equivalent to Class XII—at the madrassa.
Some even turn to madrassas later in life after a successful start in the mainstream. Uzair Ahmed, 22, studied at Delhi Public school, Mathura Road and worked at Google before joining a madrassa near Fatehpuri Masjid. He wakes up at dawn for Fajr prayers, and reaches his madrassa by 7.30am to read the Quran. He will soon be a hafiz—someone who has memorised the whole Quran. “After that I will look for a new job and go back to working.”
But such examples are rare. The vast majority of madrassa students have a limited worldview, and reformers say limiting madrassa education to Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Islamic studies violates the “human rights” of students.
“They come from far-flung areas to acquire knowledge so that they can be part of the mainstream and earn their living. Simply making them learn the Quran, Urdu and Persian won’t benefit them. National Human Rights Commission should take note of how these students are being deprived of modern education,” said Asad Ghazi, president, Nawa-e-Haque Welfare Association, an NGO which works in the field of education.
“If this continues for another 20 years, we will have a population of Muslim youths who will be unemployable in the modern economy and there will be chaos,” Ghazi added.
There have been some initiatives to modernise madrassa education. Jamia Millia Islamia started the Nayi Manzil scheme with support from the ministry of minority affairs. Under it, madrassa students can clear class XII exams after proper training and support at Jamia Secondary School. Students get full fee waiver, free stationery, books and food and a stipend of Rs 4,000 per month. Also, students who have cleared the Fazilat level (graduation under the madrassa system) can join Jamia Hamdard’s degree and certificate courses in Unani medicine.