Members of the Assam Madrasa Coordination Committee demonstrate in Guwahati in the northern Indian state of Assam on Aug. 13, 2014 as they demand the government affiliation of pre-senior, senior, Madrasa and Arabic colleges with the state education department. (Photo by IANS)
Muslim groups in India have welcomed a federal government move to modernize traditional Islamic schools so they can do more than teach students Islam-centered subjects and languages.
Indian child rights groups recommend providing a broader curriculum at over 40,000 madrasas, the traditional Islamic schools that dot India's villages and towns. An estimated 3.5 million children study at these.
"Subjects like modern science, history and mathematics should be introduced. There is a strong need for such a measure," Mohammad Rajbalim, a Muslim leader in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, told ucanews.com.
The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) recommended in early March that traditional Muslim schools should fall under the Right to Education Act. This would make it mandatory to provide free and compulsory education to children until the age of 14.
"A large number of Muslim children are being deprived of their right to education" as they only receive religious instruction, the commission said.
It expressed concern over the poor quality of education being offered at madrasas and said the children coming out of them are as well qualified as those with no proper schooling.
Muslim leaders agree that a curriculum which focuses on teaching children how to read and memorize the Quran and learn Islamic jurisprudence is not comprehensive enough to set them up for modern life.
The typical madrasa curriculum offers interpretations of the Quran, Islamic Sharia law, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, and a subject known as mantic, or logic. They also offer Islamic history but tend to avoid any scandals and controversies.
Indian Muslim boys recite the Koran at the Madrasatur-Rashaad religious school in Hyderabad on June 19, 2017, during the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims are encouraged to pray and read the Koran during Islam's holiest month. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)
Rajbalim said students who attend the madrasas live alien to mainstream society as they lack a modern education. He said they must learn about science, art and other subjects to survive in today's competitive job market.
Most of India's 172 million Muslims live as a "religious minority, backward in science education," Aabid Ahmad, a research scholar in Islamic Studies from the University of Kashmir, told ucanews.com.
"Their participation in the scientific activity of the country is woefully low," he added.
"This situation, if allowed to continue, would certainly hinder the progress of the community and the country. No community that is poorly educated can command respect."
Moulana Javaid Ahmad, an Islamic scholar who runs a madrasa in central Kashmir, said modern science, mathematics, the arts and basic computer education could be integrated into the curriculum with positive effects.
"Religious subjects should be given top priority but a modern education cannot be ignored," he said. "Muslim civil society must consider immediately reforming the curricula taught at most madrasas."
Ahmad said he has been striving to incorporate this into his Muslim school but has failed to attract government assistance.
"The government sees madrasas and modern schools as two different things completely. But that doesn't have to be the case. It's possible to combine a religious and secular education," he said.
Sayid Rasheed Ali, chairman of the Kerala Muslim Waqf Board, told ucanews.com the process of bringing madrasas into the modern age has already begun in the southern state. The general level of education in Kerala is considered among the best in India.
"There are various government-funded schemes through which modern subjects could be taught," he said. "The idea should be to impart education in all subjects at these schools so the kids won't get left behind."
Sana Asma, a research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, said the madrasas must be upgraded to meet the challenges of the modern world.
"A strong emphasis will need to be laid on the quality of education and expanding the base of science, information and technology, because these are highly competitive areas nowadays," she said.
The madrasas have made an important contribution to society but the educational development of Muslims can't be strategized without taking into account their service to the community, she added.
According to a census taken in 2011, 47 percent of Indian Muslims have no formal education, while 36.4 percent of Hindus are unschooled.
Hindus make up 80 percent, or 966 million, of India's 1.2 billion people. This makes the 172-million strong Muslim community the largest religious minority in the country.
Indian Christians comprise 29 million people, or 2.3 percent of the population.