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Reforming Traditional Muslim Education

There is a strong feeling among Muslim activists, scholars, the government and international actors that there is a need to modify traditional madrasa education and introduce basic "modern" subjects into the curriculum. This article discusses the efforts of one educational programme in Gujarat that attempts to do so and finds that not only does this benefit those participating in the programme but also a larger section of the community.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 19, 200819Reforming Traditional Muslim Educationyoginder sikandThere is a strong feeling among Muslim activists, scholars, the government and international actors that there is a need to modify traditional madrasa education and introduce basic “modern” subjects into the curriculum. This article discusses the efforts of one educational programme in Gujarat that attempts to do so and finds that not only does this benefit those participating in the programme but also a larger section of the community.The Indian Muslims, as has been so forcefully brought out by the recently-released Sachar Commit-tee report, are among the most economi-cally and educationally marginalised communities in India. Among the many causes for Muslim educational marginali-sation is the sharp dualism between the ‘ulema’, religious scholars educated in traditional madrasas and the small, “mod-ern” educated Muslim middle class. In large parts of the country, the leadership of the community rests with the ulema, who belong to various schools of thought (‘maslak’) and jurisprudence (‘mazhab’). The ulema run a vast network of ‘maktabs’, mosque-schools and madrasas or higher Islamic seminaries across the country. Most charitable funds generated within the community are spent on maktabs and ma-drasas, the money being routed through the ulema and their organisations.Reform in Madrasa Education Madrasa education has, for a variety of reasons, today become a hotly-debated subject. Increasingly, governments, inter-national actors as well as Muslim scholars and activists, including a large number of ulema themselves, have been calling for reforms within the maktabs and madrasas, although the ways in which they conceive of such reform and the purposes that they intend this for vary, reflecting different agendas. At the core of various sugges-tions for reform are modifications in the existing curriculum, particularly the introduction of basic “modern” subjects, such as English, Hindi or a regional language, social and natural sciences and mathematics.Although influential sections of the mass media tend to portray the ulema and the educational institutions that they run in stereotypically negative terms, often as allegedly being wholly and fiercely opposed to reform, this is not quite the case. Today, among the most ardent advocates of reforms in the maktabs and madrasas are leading and widely respected ulema. Consequently, although this has not received the attention that it deserves in the “mainstream” media, today a number of ulema organisations are engaged in processes of reforms in the maktabs and madrasas that they run, with varying degrees of success.Another fact that is also generally ignored in standard diatribes against the ulema for being allegedly wholly opposed to reform is the fact that although many ulema might indeed welcome certain reforms in the system of maktab and madrasa education, often financial con-straints, lack of suitable contacts and knowledge and hesitation to approach non-Muslim organisations who could assist them in this regard prevents them from being able to do anything practical in terms of introducing substantial reforms in the existing curriculum. That is not to deny, of course, the obvious fact that there are indeed ulema who are opposed to any significant reform and who would refuse to entertain any changes even if they had the financial and other resources available to do so. Increasingly loud voices for reform in the maktabs and madrasas, being articu-lated even within Indian circles, added to the growing wave of propaganda attacks against madrasas as being alleged “dens of terror” (for which there is no substantial proof in the Indian case) are today encour-aging leading ulema and their organisa-tions to reach out to the wider Indian society, in the process facilitating the process of reform. An illustration of this is the series of anti-terrorism conferences that have been organised in the last few months across India by the leading body of ulema associated with the Deobandi school of thought, the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i-Hind.In some parts of the country, madrasas have begun organising meetings and functions inside their premises to which prominent local non-Muslims, including political and social activists, journalists and religious leaders, are invited.Collaborating with NGOsA probably unique case of collaboration between the traditional ulema and non-Muslim civil society groups is the Jeevan Yoginder Sikand( is a research scholar working on Muslim-related issues and is based in Bangalore.

Talim educational project in rural Kutch in northern Gujarat. It represents a pioneering and innovative effort to bring ulema to work along with secular nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) for Muslim community development. A joint project of the new Jamiat ul-Ulema-i-Hind and the Ahmedabad-based Janvikas, through its initiative Udaan, a resource centre working on primary education, it started in 2004 with a grant from Misereor, a Germany-based Catholic relief and development agency.

Hitherto, the Jamiat focused mainly on providing religious education to Muslim children through a vast chain of madrasas and maktabs and providing relief in the event of natural disasters and anti-Muslim violence. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Kutch in 2001, the Jamiat played a crucial role in relief and reconstruction efforts. This, says Ahmad Shaikh, a senior Jamiat leader based in Ahmedabad, marked a significant change in its policies and priorities because its activities in the state had till then been restricted largely to providing religious education and constructing and maintaining mosques. It was for the first time, in the course of its relief work in Kutch, that the Jamiat had the chance to work with some secular NGOs.

The almost complete loss of faith in the system of the Muslims of Gujarat in the wake of the genocidal anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 provided the context for the Jamiat (as well as a few other Muslim groups in Gujarat that were earlier concerned almost wholly with issues of religious education and identity), to become more involved in practical efforts to address the pathetic educational, economic and social conditions of large sections of the Muslim population of the state. This set the ground for collaboration between the Jamiat and Janvikas to work together to devise and launch the Jeevan Talim project.

Janvikas has been working with marginalised communities in Gujarat, including dalits, adivasis and Muslims for several years now, mainly on issues of education, economic empowerment and human rights. In the wake of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, it played an active role in relief work, in highlighting widespread human rights abuses and in fighting legal cases on behalf of a number of innocent Muslims who had been arrested on false charges. The menacing rise of Hindutva forces and the consequent escalating forced ghettoisation of Muslims across Gujarat were viewed by Janvikas activists as a dangerous phenomenon that needed to be tackled urgently on various fronts. One of these fronts was the educational sector. In many cases, Muslims were barred from studying or working in private Hinduowned schools, faced increased discrimination in government schools and continued to be neglected in government-funded educational programmes. To add to this was the tendency on the part of some Isla mic groups who sought to promote insular tendencies among the community, particularly through the madrasas. Many of these Muslim groups and their educational insti tutions focused only on Islamic education, lacked inner democratic functioning, paid little or no attention to issues of Muslim girls’ education and had few or

july 19, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 19, 200821no links with non-Muslims, including even secular groups. Hence, Janvikas felt it im-perative to work in the field of Muslim education and to closely interact with traditional Muslim religious and other community leaders in order to promote a new sort of Muslim leadership that would address the community’s economic and educational marginalisation and work with secular, non-Muslim forces on issues of common concern, such as the struggle against communalism, fascism and mounting social and economic inequalities and exclusion.Jeevan Talim Project It was in 2002, in the wake of the state-sponsored campaign of horrific violence unleashed against Muslims in Gujarat, that activists from Janvikas and the Jamiat first met. This was in the course of seeking to provide relief to the victims of this un-precedented wave of anti-Muslim violence in the state. Working jointly on common issues and projects at this time, such as providing legal aid for Muslim youth in-discriminately arrested, mostly on false charges and constructing houses for violence-effected families, activists of both organisations were able to cement a strong bond of trust and confidence. Building on this, the next year Janvikas and the Jamiat decided to work together in the field of Muslim education in the dry and relatively barren northern parts of Kutch district in Gujarat, home to a sizeable and largely poverty-stricken Muslim population char-acterised by very low literacy levels. This pilot project christened Jeevan Talim or “Life Education”, was envisaged as a com-munity initiative of the Jamiat undertaken with assistance from Janvikas through Udaan, which the local community would eventually manage on its own and sustain in the long-run in cooperation with the Jamiat.The aim of the project was to provide access to remedial, pluralistic and inclu-sive education and basic numerical and literacy skills to Muslim children in the age group 4-10 years in selected parts of Kutch where no government-funded edu-cational facilities exist. It was hoped that in this way these children would be enabled to later take admission in a government school at the fourth or fifth grade level. The project entailed using the Jamiat’s existing network of maktabs. The Jivan Talim classes would be organised in the maktab precincts or in villages and hamlets that did not have maktabs, in the porch of the local mosque, with timings suitably adjusted so that the children’s Islamic edu-cation would not be interrupted or dis-turbed. In this way, the project was seen as helping to expand the scope of maktab education. Where possible, the ‘maulvi’ or Islamic scholar teaching in the maktab would be engaged to take the Jeevan Talim classes as well, for which he would be paid an additional sum. If there was no maulvi available in the village or hamlet or nearby, then a local youth (male or female), would be engaged for this. Because the levels of education in rural Kutch, particularly among Muslims, are extremely low, a pro-vision was also made for providing suitable pedagogical training to the maulvis and local youth selected as instructors in the Jeevan Talim centres. Subjects to be taught in the centres included basic literacy in Gujarati – the official state language, numerical skills, environmental aware-ness, as well as songs and theatre. It was expected that after finishing this course, children would be able to join the nearest government school.To begin with, a total of 14 villages in northern Kutch, many of them on the fringes of the Rann, a vast stony desert that spills across the border into neigh-bouring Pakistan, were selected for the purposes of the project. Most of them had no government schools and in the few that did, the teachers came very irregularly or not at all. Two villages had Hindu and dalit inhabitants also, including one where the students who attended the JeevanTalim centres were all dalits. Today, the project runs 32 centres in dif-ferent parts of rural Kutch, with a total of some 900 children, boys and girls, study-ing in them in all. Despite the various challenges that it has faced, the Jeevan Talim project has been able to make considerable headway, although not as much as was envisaged when the project was formulated. The number of centres has expanded and a team of four supervisors and one coordi-nator regularly visits the centres, monitors and evaluates them and along with the instructors, sets periodic examinations for the children. The development of the cur-riculum remains an ongoing project and this is discussed at the monthly meetings of teachers and Udaan activists at the Jamiat’s office in Bhuj. In addition, in-structors’ training and refresher pro-grammesare organised every three months, where teachers also share their experiences and the problems that they and the childrenface. OutcomesGiven the extremely harsh terrain in which the Jeevan Talim project functions, the pathetic economic conditions of the people, their lack of a culture of literacy, poor communication, inability to get trained teachers, rapid turnover of the teachers and so on, the project has been able to at least help galvanise people’s in-terest in educating their children. The fact that literally hundreds of Kutchi Muslim children, whose families do not knowhow to read and write at all, are nowableto recognise letters and write them andsolve basic mathematical calculations,aresult of the project, is no mean achievement. The project has also had a positive impact on people’s attitudes towards education. As Saleem, a resident of Umrani village, puts it, “Now only very few people, especially the elderly, will say that there is no use educating our children because in any case they will not get a government job and because they will, like their ancestors, grow to become cattle-grazers. Even the poorest families are now aware of the need for education, and in this, the Jeevan Talim project has played a cen-tral role.” “It has”, he adds, “made us feel that the centre and its work are our own, thatthroughthe centre the children can receive education joyfully”. Another positive outcome of the project has been to undermine the process that was leading to the enforced ghettoisation of Muslim education, a result primarily of discrimination practised by the state and large sections of the Hindu community. Although the vast majority of the children, teachers and supervisors associated with the project are Muslims, a substantial number of Hindus and dalits are also closely involved in the project in different capacities, including as teachers, students and project support staff.

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