Jenny March 28, 2017

Bridging the gap for India’s madrasa youth

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The university of Aligarh, a couple of hours on the train southeast of Delhi, is a place with history. At first glance it reminded me of universities in Bangladesh – the main one in Dhaka of course, but also Jahangirnagar university in Savar, outside of Dhaka. The buildings are made from bricks and other material in natural shades, and small roads and pathways criss-cross the campus. The name of Aligarh’s university is actually Aligarh Muslim University, even though the student body today is about 50/50 with both Muslims and Hindus (and, granted, Christians, seculars and others too). The name refers back to its founding in the 1800s, when the university was an important part of the “Aligarh movement“, a move to promote new kinds of teachings, including traditionally Western ones, alongside Islamic knowledge to move India’s Muslim community forward.

Today, more than 150 years later, the call for ways to marry different religious and scientific ways of knowing and understanding does not seem any less urgent. With fear-inducing movements with four letter acronyms screaming from one end and larger-than-life leaders with inventive imaginations yelling from the other (about very similar ideas of returning to idealised “roots” or eras of imagined greatness and truth), what we desperately need in the world is attempts like this, inviting us to question ideas and forge new paths.

At Aligarh Muslim University, following that very tradition of looking beyond to allowing one’s own traditions to grow, an ongoing initiative is helping students to do exactly that. It is called the Bridge Course, and is a one-year course given to students from madrasas, schools that teach children and youth the Quran and Arabic language. For many Muslim families in India, not least those with small financial means and those who see religion as an important part of everyday life, sending their kids to the madrasa is a good choice for practical and cultural reasons. When graduating, the students become ulema or alimat, the Arabic words for religious scholars. But apart from knowing religion and Islamic thought, madrasa graduates are in general poorly equipped for competing for well-paying and competitve jobs, and lacking what is needed to enrol in university courses.

The Bridge Course wants to change all of that.

“We started by taking and comparing basic documents from different civilisations – the Quran from the Islamic world and declarations of independence as representatives of the West. We found some very basic and recurrent themes in each, which are comparable to each other. Freedom, happiness, right to life, right to conscience and mind, and freedom to aspiration.”

Rashid Shaz, a soft-spoken and thoughtful man whom I got to mee twice in India last year (first at a conference in Delhi on how to prevent violent extremism, and later at the university in Aligarh), recalls how the Bridge Course initiative got started. He is one of India’s most active and engaging Muslim academics, and keeps up an ever-tiring pace writing, lecturing and thinking about how to connect everyday religiosity with the deeply spiritual, and how to engage with other faiths and traditions.

For him, finding a way to reach out to the many youth graduating from madrasas, giving them a chance to integrate their knowledge and find a place in mainstream workplaces, was important. Families who put their children through madrasas give them time to reflect spiritually, and acquire skills that have traditional importance, but in terms of equipping them for a future in the job market, they do not do them a favour at all.

“These are students who believe the world is not made for them,” said Rashid Shaz. “They think their future is very narrow, that they can never compete with other students. Our project changes the lives of these indidivuals.”

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Rashid Shaz, in his office at Aligarh Muslim University.

After listening to Rashid Shaz at the panel at the UNESCO conference (which also had the very inspirational Nurudeen Lemu from Nigeria who is doing interesting peace work in the Nigerian context), I went to see him and his students in Aligarh. I arrived on the same day as the student elections so trees/gates/walls/vehicles were plastered with posters, which reinforced the sense of being somewhere similar to the universities of Bangladesh as I for some reason always seem to be visiting right during election times.

Students with election posters.

India, which has the second-largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia and slightly ahead of Pakistan) has some 7,000 listed madrasas across the country, with 350,000 graduates annually. The Bridge Course accepts only a tiny fraction of that – some 30 students each year, 100 in total during its first three years – and have highly competitive tests students must pass to get in.

It might seem like a rather small thing – teaching a small number of students from traditional backgrounds new perspectives and ideas. But the potential, for each participating individual, is huge. Until starting their studies at Aligarh, the madrasa students were only schooled as religious thinkers, learning from a small number of sources rather than searching for broad and conflicting knowledge. At the Bridge Course, they are taught critical and conceptual thinking, to express themselves in English, and – perhaps most interesting of all – to engage with different kinds of religious reasoning. Interfaith and intrafaith classes are a core part of the curriculum. For anyone who has previously studied only one strand of ideas, that is groundbreaking.

“I was a student in a madrasa before, and I only wanted to be an alim [a learned Muslim scholar],” says Abu Usama, one of the Bridge Course students. “There was no chance like this before in India. Then, when learning about this course, I told myself: is this how I can be part of elevating the Muslim community? Now, I have learned how to express myself and to be free.”

For many of the students, not least those female students who, coming from religious families, have been brought up with tight social restrictions, joining the course means stepping into a much larger and diverse world. Zikra Hamid, who is the youngest of ten siblings, said the chance to move and study in Aligarh entirely changed things in her life.

“Girls in my family usually don’t go out. I am the only one who studies. I think I’m a bit of a special case since I’m the youngest. All my sisters are kind of angry with me for this!”

Still – and perhaps indeed because since she’s the younger sibling – her father is supportive of her choice.

“He always supports me. He is landless, and I want to study to be a lawyer so that I can fight for his rights in court,” she said.

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The female students at Aligarh’s Bridge Course, all graduates of traditional religious madrasas. Zikra Hamid is number four from the left.

At the moment, the Bridge Course only prepares students for continuous studies within the humanities. Rashid Shaz and the others want to expand and open a second track, for students aiming to continue with science.

At the library – all kinds of reading material!

The concept of a bridge course is interesting, because it specifies that the learning will not go in one direction. It is not a matter of students departing from their previous course, and leaving earlier knowledge behind. A bridge is something you cross, it is by its very definition multi-directional. This is the essential and really interesting about the Bridge Course I think; how it attempts to not only bring traditional university education to these students, but also bring them to the university. Whatever knowledge there is in religious teachings, and whatever relevance it may have to today’s life – it might be none, who knows, but we will realise that only when we actively engage with it – there are thousands, millions, of people who build very fundamental parts of their lives upon it.

“I come from a small village near Jodhpur. People there are not aware of education, not their own destinations. I am doing this to bring the light of education to my village. It inspires me to be at a university where so many students are different from each other,” said one of the students, Fahim Akhter.

Many of the students had prepared small speeches, sharing their own motivations and thoughts. Since I was the guest, they did not speak in Hindi or Urdu (or a mix of both, which many students said that they use at home), but English and in some cases Arabic. Once again, Arabic turned out to be this incredible valuable thing, enabling me to communicate across otherwise unsurmountable linguistic borders (I have been able to converse with people in rural villages in Bangladesh, scarcely populated mountain areas in Nepal, alleyways in Sri Lanka and countless shops and trains and buses across the world thanks to this language, as a result of not only migration from the Arab world to the West, but at least as much because of work migration to the Middle East from Asia, and the strong willingness among many Muslims, regardless of mother tongue and home country, to attempt and learn the Arabic language). Another student, Kulsoom Zehra said, in an English she had worked hard to master – the perhaps biggest challenge for the Bridge Course, said Rashid Shaz, is to get students, often with very little knowledge of English, ready to study in the language after only one year:

“I am wondering about Islam and how it is relevant for the 21st century. We live in a capitalist world, we often feel trapped. So much of the wealth is controlled by very few. I don’t want to spend my life just earning my bread and butter, I believe that life has a purpose. The Quran taught us that bounties are for everyone, no matter caste, creed, colour or gender. We can create a new world for everyone.”

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Outside the Bridge Course facilities at Aligarh Muslim University.

For Rashid Shaz, the whole endeavour of extending the limits of Islamic thought and education, and building (literal) bridges between different strands of thought, is essentially a continuation of the past.

“Islam in history brought people together intellectually, there were similar thought patterns extending from Morocco to Malaysia. In historical times, there was a strong sense of endless possibilities within that larger world. You could go and live in, say, Cairo if you wanted, you would still be part of the same whole. There was another kind of world before the nation state, another culture with poetry, mosaic and calligraphy, enabled by people who mixed and moved around. Of course, it took a long time back then!”

Still, he said, as we sat in his office, tracing different imaginary possibilites for future and past worlds, breaking new intellectual ground can still be possible without traveling and exploration. Kant and Kirkegaard, he said, lived and worked within what – a 30 mile area?

The growth in popularity (at least on the surface, measured in its loudness) of radical interpretations of religion is a far too vast topic to be dealt with quickly, but Rashid Shaz, who himself has been extended angry fatwas because of his writings, keeps returning to the idea of interchange of ideas as a means to stop it.

“We must teach youth how to deal with modern day problems and challenges, enable them to be successful in the world. We must teach them to trust their own rational thinking, the understanding of other faiths. Critical engagement can do this,” he said.

“I was a Sufi in my youth and student days here at Aligarh. I slept on the floor with a brick as a pillow. Now, I’ve learned that there are other ways to engage spiritually with the world.”

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As I leave the students and Rashid Shaz and step out the gates of the university, the busy street life of urban northern India immediately takes over. The diversity and endless different expressions of culture, architecture, commerce and styles and trends in cities in the north is similar to none – an inevitable result, of course, of a history where a myriad of ethnic, religious, linguistic and imperial influences never ceased to interact. A good place for these students to find ways for the old and new (and that beyond time and space) to meet.