Madrasahs are typically thought of to provide education through outdated syllabuses. But this belief itself is outdated in West Bengal. The reason is that many of the more than 600 state-run madrasahs teach a modern curriculum, with about 20% non-Muslim pupils. In these modernised madrasahs, students are groomed to become future engineers, doctors, scientists, bureaucrats and other professionals – and not just religious teachers.
Introducing mainstream school curriculum to more than 600 traditional madrasahs over the past decade, modernised madrasahs in West Bengal have been serving an advanced level of education to thousands of students.
Students of Al-Jameatul Madrasah in Pandua. Arabic, Islamic studies, maths, English are compulsory here.
According to Giyasuddin Siddique, president of West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education (WBBME), modernisation of madrasahs has brought many benefits to the society.
“After passing out of traditional madrasahs one can hardly think of doing any job outside the mosque or a religious establishment” Siddique said in an interview. “But today the alumni from these modern madrasahs do not find it difficult to enter medical, engineering, management colleges or other streams of university studies. So, it’s easy to imagine why our madrasahs are popular among ambitious students chasing modern career today.”
He further said, “Muslims in this region are backward in all socio-economic terms. This modernisation was aimed to empower the backward community – to expose an increased number of Muslim children to modern education. But today they have ended up helping Muslims as well as non-Muslims.”
The headquarters of WBBME
Education experts from Pakistan, Bangladesh, USA and some other countries have visited West Bengal’s modern madrasahs in recent years and praised the modernisation of the institutions.
In 2009, Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, identified the modern madrasahs of West Bengal as models of secularism and up-to-date education, and suggested Pakistan should emulate them, where radical Islamisation is blamed a great deal on madrasahs. Its report notes that in West Bengal, ‘a survey of Islamic schools in January 2009 found that because of the higher quality of education at madrasahs, even non-Muslims were actively enrolling in them.’ It further says that non-Muslims, including Hindus, Christians and tribal people, send their children to Bengali madrasahs ‘because of the high quality of teaching and discipline’ there. In some of these madrasahs, non-Muslim pupils even outnumbered their Muslim counterparts.
The report further notes: “It is heartening to note that the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, which follows the syllabus of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, has started publishing text books for all classes and all subjects. Subject experts have reviewed these books and found them qualitatively better.”
Logo of WBBME
The term ‘madrasah’ is an Arabic word meaning educational institution or
school imparting education to all irrespective of religion, caste,
creed and gender. The idea that it imparts religious and theology-based
education only is not true. In fact, the Madrasah education in West
Bengal is fulfilling the constitutional commitment by providing access
to free education up to secondary level for the most deprived people,
most of whom are first-generation learners living in rural areas where
avenues and opportunities are markedly limited.
Shining the light in India
Recently the members of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission have proposed that the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education may recognise madrasahs (unaided) in the state of Karnataka under the educational model and curriculum of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education.
The Khalatpur, Howrah campus of Al Ameen Mission, a pioneer Muslim educational institution
A mix of science and faith
According to Prof Prasenjit Biswas of North Eastern Hill University, “Modernisation is a fusion between the faith and modern systems of knowledge, especially of science. The fusion results into something like opening of the mind towards newer developments and also turning an open and enlightened mind toward the sacred.” The professor added that the “agenda of modernisation is doubly necessary: to stop the communal ‘othering’ of Muslims by the Hindu right, as well as to widen the internal space of learning and opening up to other cultures and civilization from within the Islamic faith.”
Tellingly, Bibhas Chandra Ghorui, a Hindu assistant teacher of a madrasah, said, “As for religious tolerance, if a Muslim student can study Baishnav Padavali (a book of Hindu religious hymns), then why can’t a Hindu student study Islam or Arabic?”
As the process of modernisation continues, more non-Muslim pupils, especially in rural areas, are expected to seek admission to Bengal's madrasahs in the future.
A student of Orgram Chatuspalli High Madrasah, Burdwan dist., taking computer class