January  2004 
Year 11    No.104

Education


Rights approach

Marrying the traditional with the modern, madrassas in Kerala demonstrate a more contemporary and well rounded approach to learning than their counterparts
in the rest of India

Zubair Kottalil is a graduate of a Sunni madrassa in Kerala. He is currently doing his MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about various facets of madrassa education in contemporary Kerala

Q: Could you tell us something about your educational background?
A: I studied till the fifth grade in a regular school and then enrolled at the Dar ul-Huda Islamic Academy, in Chemmad, in the Mallapuram district of northern Kerala. This madrassa is run by the Samastha Kerala Jamiat ul-Ulema, which is a Sunni Muslim organisation. I spent 13 years there, and along with my religious studies I did a Bachelor’s course from the Osmania University, Hyderabad, as an external candidate. I then came to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Here I did my MA in Arabic and am now in the first year of the MPhil programme.

Q: What are known as ‘Sunnis’ in Kerala, that is Muslims other than those affiliated to the Jamaat-i Islami and the Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, are often thought to be less enthusiastic about modern education. Do you agree with this view?
A: A few traditional Sunni ulema and organisations might feel this way but I do not think it is true for the Kerala Sunnis in general. Things are rapidly changing today and Sunni groups are as involved in promoting Islamic as well as modern education as other Muslim groups in the state. The Dar ul-Huda Islamic Academy, where I studied, is a Sunni organisation, and is a good example of how traditional Sunni ulema in Kerala are now increasingly willing to incorporate modern education into the madrassa system. It is a unique institution of its kind, and is a sort of model that other Sunni groups are trying to emulate today. At the academy we studied the general Islamic subjects, along with subjects like English, Mathematics, Science and History till the 12th grade level. This allowed us to appear as external candidates in the government secondary school examination. In addition, we also learnt Urdu, Malayalam and Comparative Religions. Besides, we had to learn computers and take part in a range of extra-curricular activities, such as games and literary and public discussion groups. In the eighth year of the course at the academy, students enrol for a Bachelor’s degree correspondence course in a regular university so that by the time they finish the 12-year course at the academy they also have a regular BA degree. Students can select from a range of subjects what they want to major in. Earlier, the students enrolled for a degree course conducted through correspondence by the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi, and the Osmania University, but now many of them are doing it from the Calicut University in Kerala.

By combining traditional Islamic and modern education in this way, the academy trains ulema who choose from a range of careers, and thus need not only work as imams or preachers in mosques. Some of the academy’s graduates are abroad, working in the Gulf. Some have joined various Malayali newspapers. Several of them are now studying at regular universities, many of them in higher Arabic and Islamic studies but a few in other fields that madrassa graduates earlier rarely entered. Thus, for instance, a graduate of the academy is currently doing his MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he is working on ‘The Crisis of Tradition and Modernity among Muslims’ for his thesis. Several of the academy’s graduates do become religious specialists but they are quite distinct from the traditional ulema in that they are able to relate to the world around them in a far more relevant manner as they have a reasonably good grounding in modern disciplines as well.

Q:  Do you know of similar experiments in combining modern and Islamic education for girls as well?
A: There are scores of such institutes catering to Muslim girls as well in Kerala, but unfortunately few people seem to have heard about them outside Kerala. Our academy now has a girls’ wing, the Fatima Zehra Islamic Women’s College, which offers a seven-year course. The course combines Islamic and modern subjects, after which students appear for the secondary school examinations. As in the academy, no fees are charged, and students get free food as well.

Q: How do you account for the fact that Muslim organisations in Kerala have been far more successful in combining modern and Islamic education than their North Indian counterparts?
A: In much of the rest of India there is a sharp dualism between Islamic and modern education. As a result, students who study in madrassas have little or no knowledge of modern subjects. Likewise, those who study in regular school have little or no knowledge of Islam. This dualism is reinforced by the stance of some traditional ulema who seem to regard the two forms of knowledge as distinct from, if not opposed to, each other although as I see it, any form of beneficial knowledge is legitimate in Islam. In Kerala this dualism has, to a large extent, been overcome. We have a unique system of Islamic education in Kerala, which is not found in any other part of India. Every local Muslim community has its own madrassa, which is affiliated to a state-level madrassa board run by one or the other Muslim organisation such as the Jamaat-i Islami, the Samsatha Kerala Sunni Jamiat ul-Ulema and the Nadwat ul-Mujahidin. The madrassa boards prepare the syllabus and textbooks that are used by all the madrassas affiliated to them. The boards also conduct the annual examinations and send out regular inspection teams. The costs of running the madrassas are met by the local community council, which collects donations from each Muslim family in the locality. Often the office of the council and the madrassa itself are located in the local mosque, which functions as a sort of community centre. The timings of the madrassas are adjusted in such a way that allows the children to attend regular school as well. In this way, by the time they finish their school education most Muslim children in Kerala have a fairly good grounding in Islamic studies as well. I don’t think there is any similar system in any other Indian state, where, generally, if you want to study Islam you have to go without modern education. In Kerala, fortunately, we do not have to make a choice between Islamic and modern education. Our children can study Islam while at the same time carrying on with their regular studies as well. After they graduate from regular school, if they want to specialise in Islamic studies they can join an Arabic college, and if they want to go in for modern education they can enrol in a university.

Q: How did this transformation in the madrassa system of education in Kerala come about? Was there no resistance to this?
A: I suppose before 1947 we, too, followed the traditional system. But Kerala is quite distinct from the rest of India, and the state has witnessed a wave of reform movements, which Muslims have also benefited from. We have also developed along with the other communities. I think the fairly harmonious relations between the different communities in Kerala is a major factor in explaining why Muslims there have been willing to modernise their system of madrassa education. In contrast to many other parts of India, in Kerala, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all live in mixed localities, so there is a lot more give and take between the communities and a willingness to learn from and share with each other. In many parts of the North, Muslims have been forced to live in their own ghettos, and this trend is becoming even more pronounced with the alarming rise of Hindutva in recent years, because of which Muslims feel safer if they live in separate localities. This further reinforces a deeply rooted insular mentality, which dampens any enthusiasm for change and reform.

Another important reason why madrassas in Kerala have been more open to change is that the state has a fairly sizeable Muslim middle class, which has taken an active interest in working along with the ulema and community organisations in the field of education. In contrast, in much of the North, the Muslim middle class is almost non-existent or else evinced little interest in intervening in the field of traditional religious education.

Q: Some ulema oppose madrassa graduates joining regular universities, claiming that this would result in them straying from religion. How do you look at this argument?
A: I do not agree with this argument at all. True, there may be some madrassa graduates who are now in universities who are not very particular in their observance of religion, but these must be just a minority. Most madrassa students whom I know who are now studying in universities are regular in prayers and other Islamic rituals. I don’t believe it is difficult to preserve your faith in a university environment. Moreover, I think that studying in a regular university can provide madrassa students with new opportunities for interacting with, learning from and influencing others, including those who may be deeply prejudiced against Islam or Muslims.

I think the belief that joining universities would cause madrassa students to lose their faith in or commitment to Islam stems from a distorted understanding of religion that sees Islam and modernity as incompatible. Such a perception is more widely prevalent in North India, in contrast to Kerala. I firmly believe that most modern scientific and technological developments, including in the realm of knowledge, are not, in principle, opposed to Islam and can be embraced. So there is no reason why Muslims, including madrassa graduates, cannot go in for modern education while taking care that this does not impact on their religious identity and commitment.

Q: What is the reason that the Kerala model of Islamic education is so little known in the rest of India, particularly in North India?
A: The main reason for this is that Kerala is the only state in India where Urdu is not used as the medium of instruction. In fact, very few Muslims in Kerala understand Urdu at all. Because of this, there has been little interaction between ulema and ulema-related organisations in Kerala and elsewhere. This also explains why the writings of Kerala Muslim scholars, which are almost all in Malayalam, are almost wholly unknown in the rest of India. Another reason why many Muslims outside Kerala are not familiar with the Kerala experience in modernising madrassas is the deeply rooted yet misplaced belief that North Indian Muslims represent, in a sense, normative Islam. Hence, many North Indians feel that they have little, if anything, to learn from the South Indian example. There is this feeling that real Islam is to be found in the North and that South Indian Muslims do not fully measure up to that standard. When I came to Delhi I was amazed to find that some North Indian Muslim students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, considered to be one of the premier universities in the country, also appear to share this opinion. When they learnt that I was from Kerala they asked me, in all seriousness, if I knew how to pray in the proper Islamic fashion! One of them even asked that if we were Muslims how is it that we cannot speak Urdu properly! When I answered them and told them about Kerala’s unique madrassa system and pointed out the fact that Kerala is among the few states in India where Arabic is taught in government schools and in all our universities, they were really surprised and embarrassed.

But things are changing gradually now. In recent years there has been growing interaction between Muslim educational groups in Kerala and other parts of India, through visits and conferences and this has helped others to learn about the Kerala system of madrassa education. The academy where I studied has taken a significant step in this regard by setting up a separate unit where education is imparted in the Urdu medium. This unit caters to children from other states, and it is hoped that once they finish their education they will return to their homes and set up similar modernised madrassas there as well. In addition, the academy is now working with the authorities of the Quwwat al-Islam madrassa in Mumbai to help it modernise and impart both Islamic as well as modern education. Of course, a lot more needs to be done in this regard. I think one really productive way of doing this is to organise groups of younger ulema and community activists from other parts of India to visit madrassas and Muslim educational institutions in Kerala so that they can go back to their states and start similar experiments.

Q: Traditional madrassas have been heavily criticised for promoting inter-sectarian rivalry. How do you react to this charge?
A: It is an undeniable fact that many madrassas have been actively involved in promoting sectarian strife. Some of them go so far as to brand other Muslim groups or maslaks as infidels or at least as aberrant. I think this approach is completely misplaced. Even if you believe that your own maslak represents the truth it does not mean that you should violently denounce other maslaks. The way forward is through dialogue, not through heated polemics. I think everybody has the right to believe what he or she wants, and no one has the right to forcibly impose his or her views on others. This applies to both intra-Muslim relations as well as to relations between Muslims and other communities. After all, the Koran very clearly teaches us that everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants and that there can be no compulsion in religion.

(Zubair Kottalil can be contacted on zubihudawi@rediffmail.com).


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