WB Report on the Goodness of Qoumi Madrassahs

Published on Friday, June 5, 2009

WB Report on the Goodness of Qoumi Madrassahs 

                 Farida Majid



The news of a new World Bank report on Quomi madrassahs in Bangladesh, published on 9th May, 2009 on the front page of the New Age, raised quite a few eyebrows. We learn from it that the madrassahs are normal educational venues of communities and survive under community and individual household donations. While percentages of madrassah running expenses that derive from these donations are mentioned, there is a conspicuous silence on the share of money that comes from abroad.  Though there are 5,230 Quomi madrassahs with about 14 lakh students, their uncontrolled proliferation should not cause any public alarm, the report claims. Quomis are doing a good job because all Muslim Bangladeshi parents only care about their children excelling in religious studies.


Several references are made to unfavorable "popular beliefs" about madrassahs that the World Bank report seems eager to dispel. The West's negative attitude towards 'Muslim countries' is also to be reckoned. The goodness of this staggering number (the count is according to a Bangladesh Bureau of Education Information & Statistics finding published in December 2008)  of quomi madrassahs will presumably cure the malady of West's  negative attitude towards 'Muslim countries'.


The report is especially troubling to those of us who have dedicated our lives to the service of education.  Curiously it does not make a single reference to the Education Ministry of Bangladesh or to any recognizable academician who is or had been connected with the education policy of the nation in any capacity.  Neither was any Islamic scholar or any representative of a respected, non-partisan Islamic institution named whose opinion supported the report's conclusions.


What made the World Bank decide that it is its business to study the goodness of quomi madrassahs in Bangladesh?  Since it is a fact that Madrassah system is a peculiar education system prevalent among the Muslim population of the subcontinent only and not anywhere else in the Muslim world, a pertinent question to ask would be: Has the World Bank made a similar report on the goodness of Madrassahs in Pakistan? What about the goodness of madsassahs of India?


We have been reading many accounts of Pakistani madrasahs for the last 15 years or so, especially since the rise of the Afghani Talibans in Pakistani refugee camps, and then, with renewed interest, after the trauma of September 11, 2001. United States Institute of Peace, whose mailings I used to receive regularly, completed a project on madrassahs in August 2005 conducted by Dr. Saleem H. Ali. It was largely descriptive with a predictable prescription for reform. Though it talked about madrassahs traditionally providing free religious education, boarding and lodging for the poor, I do not recall Dr. Ali saying anything about them 'doing a good job' for the general student population of today's Pakistan. In 2008 USIP brought out a book by C. Christine Fair titled The Madrassah Challenge: Militancy and Religious Education in Pakistan which is an extensive survey with lots of recommendations for reform.


"Reform" is a buzzword heard everywhere in connection with madrassah in the subcontinent. Deobandi and Barlevi Ulemas of both India and Pakistan express desire for madrassah reform in various interviews and articles I read on the internet. However, it would be a grave mistake to think the word bears the same meaning in every camp. For instance, none other than Syed Abul 'ala Moududi (1903-79) the Indian-born founder of Jamaat-e-Islami party and the father of modern Islamic fundamentalism, urged for reforming the existing madrassah system, calling for discarding "centuries old cultural heritage." Dr. Yoginder Sikand, a prolific Indian author and scholar of Islam and Muslim civilization in India, praises Moududi's  madrassah reform ideas in a review of Islami Nizam-e-Talim, a book in Urdu which was actually a document sent by Moududi to Pakistan Educational Commission in 1950, and recently re-issued by Jamaat-e-lslami Hind. [Posted on the internet by Sikand, 12/07/2007].


India, one should note in this context, holds the third largest Muslim population in the world, and the state of its massive number of madrassah-enrolled students should have provided the World Bank with a negative model, supposing it missed, by some miracle, any account of the Pakistani model.   Madrassah system's responsibility for the lamentable failure of providing appropriate education for the Muslim children of India is undeniable.  Hence Yogi Sikand, a sincere activist for renovating Indian madrassahs, sees good ideas emanating from Moududi's powerful polemic against the existing system. Yogi, my scholarly Indian friend, is oblivious of its political implications in Bangladesh.


Moududi's critique of madrassahs is, in fact, quite tricky when we delve deeper into what he wants changed and why, and what he would like to see in a revamped system that he describes as Islami Nizam-e-Talim.  This "reformed" system envisioned by Moududi aims to obliterate our local cultural identity (Bengali Muslims, Tamil Muslims, Gujarati Muslims, Punjabi Muslims, Sindhi Muslims, Pashtun Muslims, etc.), and indoctrinate the children in a Mussolini-modern type of 20th century ideology labeled "Islam." Along with our local cultural heritage he was, of course, opposed to the Western-style secular education introduced by the British Imperial rule. Moududi's educational policy, like his politics, is therefore geared to a contesting imperial form of domination in the shape of a religion-based global political system that is just as imperious in its rationalization of subjugation of human beings.


It is vitally important to understand this political agenda behind the proliferation of madrassahas everywhere in the Muslim world in the last two decades. Touted vigorously as "a moderate Islamic country" by the Bangladeshi Islamists, the extraordinary mushrooming of madrassahs can hardly be deemed 'moderate' by any count.  Successive governments, led by either military dictatorship or any of the two major political parties, endorsed extending the tentacles of madrassahs for fear of losing a public image of religious piety. There is an unspoken taboo against any intelligent discussion of madrassah system of education. Any objection to the politicized madrassahs of today's Bangladesh faces a counter-accusation of being a slave of the West, Zionist spy, anti-Islamic and in possession of a colonized mindset.


 Irony upon irony! In my opinion the madrassah system in the subcontinent, as we know it, owes its existence to the meddling of the white British colonizer sahib's education reforms of 19th century. There were more than 50,000 public schools in Bengal at the time of the pronouncements of Thomas B. Macaulay's infamous "Minutes on Indian Education" on 2nd February, 1835 in Calcutta.  Schools prior to that time were not state-sponsored in the way we now know, because there was no "State" in the European sense. There were land grants, shrine or mazaar grants or mandir/mosque-cum-pond grants from the Raja, Badshah or Sultan to sufi oganizations, or Brahmanical tols and ashramas, that would school boys in scriptural and other basic studies. Girls learned to read the Qur'an in traditional home-schools, or mosque verandas on Fridays as they still do in the villages of Bangladesh.


In the pre-colonial days madrassahs were ordinary schools where Muslim children were educated. Without colonial interference they would have withered on the vine, or muted into modern-day schools. Some extracurricular, mosque or orphanage affiliated schools would have remained to serve the community with religious education of the children.  Sunday schools do the same service in the Christian West.  Macaulay's "Minutes on Indian Education" initiated English-oriented curricula to the central metropolitan stage in 1835, shoving the madrassah in the shadowy margin.  That is where it remains to this day carrying on its intellectually impoverished but tenacious life.


The World Bank report on the goodness of quomi madrassahs in Bangladesh is a cruel joke considering the recent public exhibition of unruly madrassah students in ugly, violent demonstrations against freedom of artistic expression, women's development policy and Bengali cultural icon. It is utterly ridiculous for the report to suggest that Bangladeshi Muslim parents lack means to provide religious education to their children, and that thousands upon thousands of madrassahs are needed to fulfill the need.


Talk of structural reform is futile because these are already "reformed" from the old quomi madrassahs that used to be in Bengal some 200 years ago. Not only quomi, but I imagine all types of madrassahs in Bangladesh are already "reformed" following Moududi's poisonous prescription. It is an unexplored area of study, so I will urge all the persons involved in the education of our future generation to pay attention.


Let me sign off with a quote from a scholar and columnist who has had to pay enough attention to the subject because he is a Pakistani. Husain Haqqani, who also happens to be the current Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, warned in an article in Foreign Policy (Nov.Dec. 2003):

"Now, with the prospect of madrassahs churning out tens of thousands of would-be militant graduates each year, calls for reform are growing. But anyone who hopes for change in the schools' curriculum, approach, or mind-set is likely to be disappointed. In some ways, Madrassahs are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world".


 ©2009 Farida Majid is a scholar, former professor at CUNY, and a Board Member of Interreligious Center on Public Life, Boston, MA, U.S. A.

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