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Islam and Pluralism ( 7 March 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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North Indian Muslim superiority complex is not justified

Madrasas in Kerala do not churn out fatwa-hurling mullahs holding bone-chilling views on politics, women and non-Muslims

By Yoginder Sikand

7 March, 2009


Writings about India’s madrasas generally focus on the most ultra-conservative or reactionary of these institutions, of the sort that churn out fatwa-hurling mullahs characterized by bone-chilling views on politics, women and non-Muslims. This owes principally to a distinct prejudice on the part of many observers—non-Muslims as well as many Muslims themselves—as well as to lack of personal knowledge of and interaction with the ulema and students of such institutions on the part of many of those who glibly write about them. It also stems from to a marked, although thoroughly mistaken and misleading, tendency to regard traditional north Indian madrasas as typical and representative of all madrasas across the country.


Unbeknown to many, the system of madrasa education in Kerala is markedly different from the traditional north Indian system. It is well-organised and fully integrated with the secular system of education, thereby enabling Muslim children to receive religious as well as secular education simultaneously. It also enables would-be ulema to gain a basic modicum of knowledge of modern subjects, not leaving them totally bereft of this as in the case of many traditional north Indian madrasas.


One of the major Islamic organizations in Kerala is the Jamaat-e Islami. Like the Sunnis and the Mujahids—the two other major Islamic groupings in Kerala (each of which is divided into competing factions)—the Kerala Jamaat has a vast network of part-time madrasas (corresponding to north Indian maktabs) and full-time Arabic Colleges (similar to senior madrasas or dar ul-ulums in north India that train would-be ulema). Says Muhammad Ali, secretary of the Majlis ul-Taleem il-Islami, the Kerala Jamaat’s Islamic education wing based in Calicut, ‘We run 21 Arabic Colleges across Kerala and some 200 madrasas. In addition, 73 regular schools, mostly English-medium institutions that are till the tenth grade level, are affiliated to the Majlis, with some 40,000 students, including several non-Muslims, on their rolls. Eighty per cent of their teachers are women, and more than half are non-Muslims. They are independently registered and are locally managed. We believe that both Islamic as well as modern education are necessary for Muslim children. The fees that they charge are low and, for most families, affordable.’

Unlike in the Urdu-Hindi belt, where would-be ulema often have no familiarity with modern subjects, the Arabic Colleges under the aegis of the Majlis require prospective students to have finished at least the tenth grade in regular school. Some of these Arabic Colleges are affiliated to government-run universities, and offer a regular BA course, with Islamic Studies as a subject along with other Arts subjects, while the rest are specialized Islamic institutions that offer the afzal ul-ulema degree but which also require their students to study English. Graduates of the former generally go on to do a degree in education and take up jobs as Arabic language teachers in government schools, Kerala being the only state in India where government schools offer Arabic as a subject. Several of them also seek jobs in the Gulf, as translators and office staff in business-houses and government offices. The specialized Islamic institutions aim at training professional ulema. Nine of the Majlis’ Arabic Colleges are specifically for women, while the rest are roughly equally divided between co-educational and men-only institutions.


The 200-odd madrasas that the Majlis oversees are managed by local committees, which collect donations locally to pay for their teachers and other expenses. Most of the madrasas charge only a nominal fee of Rs.5 a month, but several do not charge anything at all. The majority are co-educational, and have both male as well as female teachers. Muhammad Ali estimates that some 40 per cent of the madrasa teachers are women, the proportion of women Arabic College teachers being around half of that. Madrasa timings are adjusted in such a way as to enable their students to attend regular school as well. ‘This is why’, says K.K.Muhammad, another senior Majlis functionary, ‘the dualism characteristic of Muslim education that is so stark in north India, between madrasa-educated and school-educated children, is largely absent in Kerala.’

In contrast to the Urdu-Hindi belt, where each madrasa is free to set its own syllabus, the madrasas run by the Majlis follow a common curriculum. Almost eighty Islamic Studies, General Knowledge and Arabic language textbooks for madrasa students have so far been prepared for students from the kindergarten to the tenth grade level by a team of Majlis specialists that includes educationists as well as Islamic scholars. Presently, almost all the books are in Malayalam, and a few in English, but efforts are now being made to prepare a complete set of books in English and Hindi as well, the latter intended to be used in madrasas in the Urdu-Hindi belt. Periodic workshops are also organized to update the textbooks. In addition to the madrasas run by the Majlis, some madrasas in Kerala that are not affiliated to the Kerala Jamaat also use these books.


A major bane of the madrasa system in the Urdu-Hindi belt is the complete lack of any system of teachers’ training as well as the absence of a uniform evaluation system. In contrast, the Majlis organizes regular district- and state-level teachers’ training and orientation courses. The Majlis’ Muallim Welfare Fund provides financial assistance to needy teachers for medical expenses, debt relief and education of their children. The Majlis’ Examination Board also sets papers for quarterly, half-yearly and annual examinations for students studying at various levels in all its madrasas, thus ensuring a uniformity of standards that is sorely lacking in most madrasas elsewhere in India. Papers are evaluated centrally, by the Board. As an incentive to students, the Majlis conducts the annual state-wide Majlis Talent Search Examination, with bright students being given awards. The Majlis Festival, organized every year at the district- and state-levels, brings together students of madrasas and schools under the aegis of the Majlis to participate in a range of art, literary and cultural programmes and sports events.


Muhammad Ali and KK Muhammad both opine that there is much that managers of madrasas in the Urdu-Hindi belt can learn from the well-organised system of madrasa education in Kerala. However, language remains a problem, with few Malayali ulema knowing good English and there being almost no north Indian ulema who understand Malayalam. To add to this is the problem of the thoroughly misplaced, little talked-of, but, at the same time, undeniable north Indian superiority complex, with the experiences of Muslims outside the Urdu-Hindi belt hardly given any attention by those who claim to be leaders of the Indian Muslims as a whole. Clearly, that complex must be exposed and critiqued, for the Kerala experience can provide valuable lessons for Muslim organisations elsewhere in India to learn from.


A distinguished Scholar of Islamic Studies, Yoginder Sikand is with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.