The present day policymakers of madrasa education claim that their main target is to create a bunch of imams, ulemas, muftis and preachers who will hold the Muslims to the core, however their predecessors had a broader aim. They had offered a large scale of liberal education in madrasas to develop versatile individuals. As a result, apart from numerous Islamic scholars, politicians like Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish, educationists and authors like Abul Fazal, Shawkat Osman, Dr. Mofizullah Kabir and Abu Jafar Shamsuddin were also the products of different madrasas who lead the nation and showed the path of enlightenment after acquiring proper knowledge. During their time, although madrasas’ main purpose was to spread Islamic education and prepare Islamic scholars, the institutions inspired their students to maximize their potentials in other fields as well. There was a space for thinking freely and that was why, despite studying in madrasas, students could think of contributing to the social welfare in their own way.
But it seems that our madrasa education system has lost its past glory and we hardly find iconic figures with madrasa background who are ready to dedicate themselves to change the fate of mass people in the country and work for the greater welfare of the society. Certainly the Islamic scholars, founders, teachers and students of madrasas have to take the responsibility of this situation, but other stakeholders including respective governments, political parties and their leaders, educationists, intellectuals and civil society members cannot also ignore their liabilities for sidelining a big group of our overall population. Whenever a terrorist attack occurs, no matter whether any madrasa student is involved in it or not, we first point our fingers at them. We often tag them as extremist or conservative (being more moderate). But scarcely do we dig deeper into the current system of madrasa education to specify the real problems that madrasa students and teachers are facing and find out the remedies.
In South Asia the establishment of madrasas dates back to the ascendancy of the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century. Later, under the rule of Akbar, the education system adopted an inclusive approach in which the emperor fostered the learning of additional courses including medicine, agriculture, geography, along with texts from other languages and religions. The pre-colonial Muslim rulers patronized innumerable madrasas and supported alems or ulemas to learn fiqh, history, sciences and archery in order to be effective administrators and jurists. With the advent of the European powers the focus of the madrasas shifted to bare essentials like learning the Quran and Hadith. The British Raj played an instrumental role in changing the orientation of madrasas both directly and indirectly. One of the responses from the Muslim community came from Sir Syed Ahmed, who founded the Aligarh University on the basis of modern education for Muslims. The greater portion of the Islamic community differed from him as they believed modern education would lead Muslims to astray. In 1867, scholars who took inspiration from the great eighteenth-century thinker Shah Wali Ullah established an Islamic institution in Deoband with a view to reviving a rigorous study of the traditional Islamic disciplines that they believed would link the Muslim community with their traditional identity.
Till the last year two streams of madrasa education were available in Bangladesh: Qawmi madrasa and Alia madrasa. From this year another system named Darul Arqum has been introduced with the aim that the madrasas under this new system will help impart Islamic education accurately through a standard syllabus.
Until 1970, there were an estimated 2,721 Alia madrasas in the country, as per Prof Abul Barkat, author of Political Economy of Madrasa Education in Bangladesh published in 2011. In 2008, the total number of Alia madrasas in the country was 14,152 that imparted education to an estimated 4,580,082 students. Besides, the number of Qawmi madrasas was 39,612 that year where approximately 5,247,660 students studied in different classes. However, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), as of 2015, a total of 9,319 Alia madrasas were operating in the country. Of them, only three are government madrasas. Total 2,409,373 students study there. BANBEIS has no data of the number of students and madrasa of Qawmi stream.
The financial source of Qawmi madrasas can be divided into two categories—internal and foreign sources. Affluent people donate money to the fund as Zakat, Fitra and Sadaqa (voluntary charity). People also donate skins of sacrificial animals to these madrasas. Besides, students, teachers, staffs of Qawmi madrasas also collect donations from house to house, at the railway stations and bus stoppages. The foreign funds are mainly accumulated from the expatriate Bangladeshis in Middle East and European countries. Some foreign Islamic organizations also donate money to them. Qawmi madrasas assemble money for several funds—general fund, lillah fund (for poor students), fund for buying books and fund for infrastructural development. On the other hand, Alia madrasas get funds from the government’s revenue and development budget. They also receive personal donations. Teachers, committee members and students help to collect these personal endowments.The philosophy of Qawmi mainly focuses on the life after death. After 10 years of learning, Qawmi students sit for the Mutawassitah examination (equivalent to SSC) and then they take part in Sanabia Ulaiya examination (comparable to HSC). The students who complete these two stages learn about the Quran and read accompanying explanations such as the Hadith, Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic history. They also read Arabic, Persian and Urdu classics. But only a small number of students from Qawmi madrasas study in the Fazilat (Honours) and Takmeel (Masters) level. Then again, Alia madrasa education system was introduced to produce skilled Islamic graduates by providing a combined education with religious knowledge and practical lessons. At the graduate and post-graduate levels, Alia madrasa students are taught specialized subjects such as Arabic literature, Hadith and the Quran. They gather thorough knowledge about the Quran and Sunnah to lead life accordingly and get peace in heaven.
A large number of people believe that if they send their sons and daughters to madrasa, they will be rewarded by the grace of Allah. Moreover, traditional education will be useless in the afterlife. That is why they choose madrasa-based education. Other than religious motivation, one of the reasons why many people choose madrasa education is that it costs less than the education in Bangla or English medium schools. For the orphans, it is free of cost. There is also a common belief among the majority of the low-income families in Bangladesh that madrasa teachers are more caring. Another group of guardians finds residential madrasas as the perfect place for turning their disobedient children into good human beings. There are also very few exceptions where even affluent and educated families plan to provide madrasa education to their children for making them Islamic scholars.
Career path of this large number of students are limited to religion-based professions. Job field for madrasa students is much narrower in comparison to that of the students of general education. After finishing madrasa education a few of the Qawmi students go abroad for higher degrees. Some of them become Islamic scholars. Many stay abroad while others come back. Alia madrasa education is known as a blend of religious and general education which provides students with both religion-based and general career opportunities. Though these students have better career prospects than the students of Qawmi madrasas, certainly they are lagging behind the students who receive general education. According to different reports, around 75 percent madrasa students now remain unemployed in different forms as they have no opportunity to avail themselves of jobs based on their education and skills. In most cases madrasa graduates struggle to earn even Tk. 5000 per month. Apart from the monthly wage at the mosque as an Imam or at the madrasas as teachers, madrasa graduates usually earn a small amount of money by teaching Arabic and the Quran, conducting a special prayer or reciting the Quran. Leading Taraweeh prayers during the holy month of Ramadan is another way of earning some extra money for the Imams. Besides, a very few of them can earn some money by presenting religious speech in waj mahfils (religious discussions). But most of them need to count on the assistance of the local influential persons as their income is never enough to maintain their families.
It is widely known that the madrasa students are used politically in many cases. Both political parties and madrasa authorities see them as their political weapons. Though most of the people establish madrasa with great enthusiasm to impart education and light of Islam to the poor children, there is another fraction of people who set up madrasas to serve their personal purpose. They get financial aid from home and abroad and spend most of the money for their own interest. They can do it as they do not face any accountability to anybody. Particularly there are numerous allegations against the Qawmi madrasas. As these madrasa authorities do not take government aid, most of them do everything arbitrarily. They force madrasa students to take to the streets on different religious and political issues; which ultimately causes political harassment to them instead of changing their fate.
Moreover, government’s negligence regarding the introduction of proper educational guidelines has also affected the overall madrasa education aversely. The objectives of madrasa education and general education system are completely different. Qawmi madrasas are operating under a number of education boards, yet there are many Qawmi madrasas which are not under any board at all. Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh (Befaq) is responsible for regulating the activities of Qawmi madrasas. Government has no control over it. On the other hand, approval of new stream of madrasa education without mainstreaming the students of previous two streams would make the situation more complex. Recently, Qawmi madrasa’s Dawra-e-Hadith degree has been given the status equivalent to Master’s degree but their other degrees before post-graduation are yet to be recognized. In the past, Qawmi students could switch to the Alia madrasa system and the general education system in secondary level but after the government’s introduction of the Ebtedayi/PEC and JSC/JDC examination, they lost that opportunity.
Different governments had shown continuous apathy towards madrasa education despite knowing that a huge number of students are getting enrolled in this system every year to build their future. For example, the number of government Alia madrasa (only 3) in Bangladesh indicates the attitude of our policymakers towards these educational institutions. Government will have to come up with audacious political will and sincere efforts to scrutinize the loopholes of madrasa education and reform the whole system, keeping the core objectives intact. And of course founders, teachers, students and staffs of madrasas should embrace government’s initiatives (if it really happens) with a broader mind. Otherwise any statement from both the government and the stakeholders of madrasa education will remain only as political rhetoric.