There are thousands of madrasas scattered across the nation.
From Kargil in Kashmir to Kozhikode in Kerala, madrasas can be found in almost every big and small city. Children as young as five to men in their early twenties go to these religious schools. The students, wearing skull caps and kurta-pajama, can be found either memorizing the holy Quran or studying voluminous books of Fiqh (jurisprudence), Hadith (sayings of the prophet), Tafasir (exegesis of the holy Quran) and Falsafah (Islamic philosophy).
Some conservative estimates suggest that around five to six percent of schoolgoing kids study in these madrasas that are funded mostly by local population in the case of Deobandi and Barelvi madrasas or by sheikhs in the Arab Gulf in the case of Salafi madrasas.
But there are very few Salafi seminaries in India with a substantial number of students. Almost every big madrasa across the nation is either run by the Deobandi or Barelawi school of thought and they are completely funded by local traders and businessmen.
These madrasas are mostly free for students who are not just given Islamic education but also provided free lodging and food, besides some annual doles in the form of cash for students to buy clothes if the kid is extremely poor.
The madrasas have remained under scrutiny for far too long and questions have been raised about their sources of funding and there is a perception that they teach an extremist form of Islam. But these are simply unfounded rumors.
When LK Advani was the deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, he had talked about coming out with a white paper on madrasas. But because he was told by officials and agencies that the accusations were unfounded, he didn’t talk about it later.
The most important question that madrasas confront today is neither about their funding nor about their acceptability among the Indian Muslim community. It is about making them relevant to modern times.
The syllabus being taught here is the same old Darse Nizami syllabus that was prepared in the eighteenth century by renowned theologist Mulla Nizamudin Sihalwi, a contemporary of Shah Walilluah Muhaddis Dehlawi.
The same syllabus is being followed by almost every big and small madrasa across the country despite the fact that more than 200 years have passed since it was introduced here.
From the books of Fiqh to the Islamic philosophy, what is taught here are the same texts that were taught centuries and centuries ago. Only some minor changes have taken place.
Even Arabic literature books that are taught are ancient and you shouldn’t be amazed if a graduate of a madrasa doesn’t know the name of Najib Mahfooz, the winner of Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel in Arabic.
Not just the kids, most of the teachers teaching Arabic literature might have never heard his name - forget reading his books - or that of any other prominent new author.
The debate about reforms in the syllabus of madrasa is more than a century old. Allama Shibli Nomani, a leading scholar of the nineteenth and early twentieth century tried to convince almost everyone about the need to modernise the syllabi of madrasas. He couldn't succeed.
He helped establish Nadwatul Ulama, a huge madrasa in the neighbourhood of Lucknow University in an attempt to completely modernize the syllabus.
The move was strongly resisted. He got so disheartened that he left the fledgling madrasa and went back to Azmgarh where he established a research academy, Darul Musannifin, that still exists there.
His contemporary Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, also failed in his effort to convince the managers and teachers of madrasas to adapt to modernity.
There is no doubt that many organisers of madrasas accept the need for reform. There have been efforts - half hearted at best - to introduce modern subjects like English, Maths and science till junior classes and economics, history and political sciences in senior classes.
In some madrasas the administrators have tried to simultaneously allow their students to enrol in secondary and senior secondary examinations of state governments. Some have opened branches of open schools and let their students complete secondary exams while they study in madrasas. But these instances are very few and far between. Barelawi madrasas, in fact, perform best in this regard in most places in Eastern and Western UP.
Many insiders believe that madrasas in India don't do justice with even theological education, let alone modern subjects.
Many madrasa graduates and ulama are of the view that the syllabus is irrelevant in many respects and should be changed. They also suggest that many books that are being taught in almost all the madrasas in the Sub-continent are dated and completely useless. Students, despite studying those books for years, cannot actually comprehend their relevance or utility in today’s life.
While visiting one of the biggest madrasas in the country, Mazahir Ulooom in Saharanpur, UP, I felt numb when the rector of the madrasa failed to read my visiting card that was in English and asked one of his disciples to read it for him. He, too, accepted the fact that madrasas need reform.
There is an immediate necessity to improve and update the madrasa syllabus. There is a need to take others on board and streamline the existing baby steps into a major effort. Islamic Studies departments in several universities can be help in this aspect.
Syed Ubaidur Rahman is a New Delhi based writer and commentator. He has written several books on Muslims and Islam in India including Understanding Muslim Leadership in India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org