Bangladesh Observer Editorial
Feb. 28, 2006
During British India when an election revealed how wide the schism between Muslims and the Hindus had become, and when Congress leaders showed an unwillingness to share power with Muslims in areas where there were mixed communities, the days ahead promised to be even more difficult for Muslims. This was mainly because Muslims had refused the British-style education then on offer. This caused the Muslim leaders to comprehend that the lack of modern education was a handicap to their progress. Many endeavoured to solve the problem by establishing more and more Madrassahs within their localities but they soon came to understand that these institutions that concentrated more on religious education than on general education could not bridge the gap between the communities.
The situation today is not so very different because the inability of the state to provided an all-round education to the people has exacerbated the problem to such a degree that the difference between the poor and the rich has been marked for all time. Dispassionate quarters have time and again underscored the need for broadening the base of basic education in the country, including what was on offer in Madrasahs as they know that education can improve the quality of life by enhancing the ability of households to manage health problems, improve nutrition and childcare and plan for the future.
But Madrassahs are an important part of the education system and can have a positive impact on the mental growth of a child and though in recent times, many science subjects have been added to the curriculum of the established and government supervised Madrasahs, but with the vast number of Madrasahs outside the official ambit, these subjects have not percolated down and the main emphasis is not so much on education but on indoctrination. Yet they do play an important role in the fight against ignorance. But there is a difference between gathering knowledge about religion, learning the true meaning of our faith, developing skills to interpret and understand the numerous facets of the Divine message, and imparting the skills needed to prepare people for life in the modern world, this form of education needs to be modernised.
A recent study revealed that, since Independence, whereas primary schools have only doubled in number, Madrasahs have increased eight-fold. We must therefore be more concerned about what they are teaching as the sheer magnitude of their growth indicate that the large number of students getting this type of education leave them incapable of competing for jobs in the modern work-place. Therefore, while appreciating the role of the Madrasahs in preserving and promoting Muslim identity and the education of poor Muslims in the face of what they may deem hostile forces, the insistence by some of the ‘ulama that Muslims stay away from modern education is dangerous for Muslims themselves.
Many Madrasahs do wish to reform but while preserving their religious core intact. Some are openly opposed to it but such opposition could be dangerous and counter-productive and lead to the same kind of self-imposed isolation and social exclusion we witnessed during British India times. In fact as then the insistence of some ‘ulama that Muslims should stay away from modern education is dangerous for the Muslims themselves as Muslims need to adopt, modify and temper their own ideas as well as their knowledge of others.
But a worrisome development that has taken place while our backs were turned is that from the 1970s onwards, money from Gulf sources has been used to set up Madrasahs that propagate an extremely literalist understanding of Islam. The rapid growth of lower-level Madrasahs in many parts of the country is worrisome because they are assuming the place of mainstream education among Muslims. Muslims do not require the vast number of religious functionaries that these Madrasahs are churning out every year and need to urgently reform as they cater to the educational needs of hundreds of thousands of Muslim children.