Thursday, December 6, 2012

West Bengal madrassas attract non-Muslims

As state-run madrassas in West Bengal introduce a modern curriculum, they are not only changing perceptions about Muslim schools in the subcontinent. They are also starting to attract students from outside the Islamic faith.By Shaikh Azizur Rahman for Khabar Southeast Asia in Orgram, West Bengal
December 06, 2012.

Laboni Banerjee takes a computer class at Orgram Chatuspalli High
Madrassa, 150km north of Kolkata. She is one of many non-Muslim
pupils studying in the madrassa. [
Shaikh Azizur Rahman/Khabar]
It's 10:30 in the morning and the bell rings at Chatuspalli High Madrassa in Orgram, a village about 150km north of Kolkata, signaling the start of the school day.Clad in blue and white uniforms, the boys and girls assemble in the madrassa courtyard, performing the daily ritual including taking an oath to study well, become good citizens and serve their country. The morning assembly ends with the singing of India's national anthem.
The pre-class activities at Orgram madrassa are no different than those at most mainstream public schools in India. No pupil is required to read the holy Qur'an or practice any Islamic ritual during the class.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of the co-ed madrassa's 1,200 pupils are Hindus, Christians or animists. Even ten of its 30 teachers are Hindu. The madrassa follows a modern curriculum, which perhaps explains why it is popular among non-Muslims.

Madrassas are usually thought of as Muslim-only schools where children study only theology and end up as religious teachers or future clerics.

In the wake of al-Qaeda terrorism, many in the non-Muslim world viewed South Asia's tens of thousands of madrassas with suspicion, regarding them as a breeding ground for radical strains of Islam.

But in recent years, many schools are defying the stereotype. Nearly 600 government-recognised madrassas in West Bengal have introduced a contemporary curriculum, and non-Muslims are studying in almost all of them.

Currently, about 20% of the students in the state's modernised madrassas are non-Muslim, and many of them are expecting to become engineers, doctors and scientists.

"It's primarily their modern curriculum that is drawing the non-Muslims to these madrassas," Anwar Hossain, headmaster of the Orgram madrassa, told Khabar South Asia.

"Ordinary people believe that a madrassa is a place where pupils are taught only religious subjects and it has no connection with modern education," he said. "For some years, we have been working to change their perception. We are offering our students all general subjects that their counterparts are studying in regular schools."

Orgram and similar madrassas offer courses in physics, chemistry, biology, math, geography, computer science and other regular subjects. English language and literature are compulsory for students. Arabic language and Islamic studies are taught alongside other subjects.

Funded by the state, the mainly rural madrassas charge no fees, and offer free school uniforms and midday meals, making them especially attractive to students from poor and middle-class families.

Increasingly, Muslims are graduating from madrassas and going on to establish themselves as professionals – providing an example that inspires non-Muslims as well, many say. More and more parents are exploring the possibility of sending their children to the Muslim schools.

"Until recently, madrassas in this Hindu-dominated society carried a stigma which kept non-Muslim students away from these Islamic institutions," said Humayun Kabir, a pediatrician who studied in a madrassa. "But now they know that it is not difficult for a madrassa student to become a doctor, engineer or scientist in future, and so they have begun sending their children to madrassas."

Some Hindu students say their madrassa education has helped them better understand Islam and brought them closer to Muslims, helping to at least partially bridge the historical divide between the two communities.

"Before I came to study in a madrassa, I was told that Islam was a militant religion and Muslims could not be friends of Hindus. They also said that Muslims were biased against other religions," Uttam Mistry, a 12th grader in Orgram madrassa, told Khabar.

"But now I have found that people have many misconceptions about Islam and Muslims." Laboni Banerjee, an 11th grade student, agrees.

"After studying at this madrassa for some years I know that Islam teaches Muslims to respect all other religions," she told Khabar. "I believe that throughout my life, despite remaining a Hindu, I shall have a special bonding with Islam and Muslims."

Laboni Banerjee takes a computer class at Orgram Chatuspalli High Madrassa, 150km north of Kolkata. She is one of many non-Muslim pupils studying in the madrassa. [Shaikh Azizur Rahman/Khabar]

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