I am standing amid 60 rambunctious children at the Boro Katara madrasa. Located deep inside Chawk Bazar, this school hosts around 750 students for whom it provides room, board and education. This Qawmi madrasa is 400 years old, and has a reputation for creating leaders in the Islamic world.
But these leaders are never heard of in our mainstream society. Too often, madrasa students are stigmatised as “others,” feared to be terrorists and stereotyped as uneducated.
“We complete extracurricular work such as Islamic literature, handwriting, and training to teach younger kids,” a group of boys tell me as we sit down in their study room, ripe with the scent of wood and attar.
The boys have just completed their “kitab bibhag,” or secondary school (which covers everything from post-primary to Masters-degree equivalents) and are currently doing extracurricular work during their annual break.
As I take a walk around the dormitory rooms, I notice the tiny, square rooms that host far more than their capacity. It is in the same room that they sleep, study, eat and laugh.
But the students also share a spirit of positivity that is contagious, with which they discuss politics and corruption, joking about life’s challenges. They chat, talk and argue – with logic – just like you and me, an identity that has been denied to them merely because of a difference in their education system.
Children at Qawmi madrasas such as this one begin with primary schooling where they learn basic Arabic, English and Bangla. Then they move to “Hefz” to memorise the Quran. Normally this takes about three years. Although some systems in the country allow other subjects to be taught during Hefz education, this madrasa discourages it.
“The aim for our general curriculum is to cover English, Bangla, and mathematics,” says Maulana Saiful Islam, principal at the madrasa's school. “Much like the mainstream schooling system teaches English in line with its aims, we teach Arabic in line with our aim of teaching the Quran.”
However, their degree – although obtained through tremendous hard work, and covering Islamic literature, law, and plenty of other subjects – is not recognised by the government. This drastically reduces the ability of these students to find a job in the mainstream job market after their graduation.
“The government and the Qawmi madrasa system are having difficulty finding a middle ground,” says Saiful Haque, founder and president of MOVE, an organisation working to de-radicalise and de-stigmatise madrasa students by teaching them about legal, social and cultural issues outside the boundaries of the madrasa.
“The government recognises it but wants to have a say in its curriculum. But the Qawmi madrasa teachers want their system to remain free from any outside influence or incorporation of other curriculum. They are open to having subjects such as science in their syllabus, but they would still want to maintain the core syllabus.”
Degrees of separation
“Many of us get separate academic degrees on the side, and this has helped to refute the notion that madrasa students are not educated,” says Ali, one of the students who has a job and is also studying political science at University of Dhaka.
Ali studied in the Qawmi madrasa system all his life, but sat the board exams at a government school in order to obtain a degree that is recognised.
“We are all Muslims, and our Islamic responsibilities include spreading the message about what we learn. For this, I knew I'd need validity in the outside world, and I could obtain it only by sitting for a government-recognised exam.
Maulana Saiful says the late Hujur Maulana Mufti Aminur called for recognition of their degree in Arabic, given that mainstream universities give degrees in languages including Arabic. But this has not happened.
“I pursued general education because no matter how much we study the Islamic curriculum, we need a certificate to get around in the world. A certificate, or degree, which would not be recognised by the government when given by a Qawmi madrasa, gives us validity when we want to share our knowledge or explore,” says Ali.
“There are experts in every field, and our aim is to create experts in our own field,” says Maulana Sakhwat Hussein, Sadre-Motamim, principal of the madrasa.
Today's scholar is tomorrow's 'farmer'
Most shocking, however, was the revelation that these students, who are memorising the Quran while undergoing a completely different education on the side, are often labelled as “farmer” – shorthand for illiterate, which is itself problematic – on their identity (ID) cards.
These are not students who are illiterate – they are just literate in a separate language and/or medium. While this may create a certain barrier, that barrier can be overcome in the same way the barrier between Bangla and English medium school students is overcome.
Maulana Ansar-ul-Haq Imran, a teacher at the madrasa who also obtained a separate state-recognised degree, says this ignorance of the Qawmi madrasa degree, which causes students to have their profession listed as “farmers” on their ID cards, also affects the government.
He says: “If the government acknowledged their degree, the number of our educated individuals would increase drastically, and we would have a higher literacy rate.”
“They are excellent learners,” Saiful Haque said during his interview.
“We’re talking about students who memorise the Quran – their learning and application capabilities are excellent,” he says, adding that civil society should engage with madrasa students at a local level.
The students expressed interest in a wider education about global issues related to Islam's place in the world. Not all madrasas can afford these facilities, so Saiful plans on establishing these through MOVE.
“We'd like to have a resource centre for madrasa students who have expressed interest in learning about the world and information technology (IT),” he said.
“This could bring a huge change,” Saiful believes. “And it would be better to have a positive change that would be sustainable, instead of imposing something unusual or alien on them.”
But not everyone shares this interest in IT.
“When we ask for recognition, we are asked if we are skilled in fields such as IT. But we only want recognition and a chance. Why are we denied that? Not all of the 160 million people of our country are trained in IT,” says Maulana Ansar-ul-Haq.
Maulana Saiful and Sakhwat say: “The difference from the mainstream curriculum is in our purpose. The general curriculum’s purpose is job-driven, but ours is spiritual growth and social work.”
Need for integration
A recent study by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute refers to statistics showing that madrasas are not breeding grounds for terrorists – contrary to popular belief.
The study “Modernisation Of Madrasa Education In Bangladesh: A Strategy Paper,” however shows how there are misunderstandings about the Qawmi madrasa students.
The very lack of interaction between Qawmi madrasa students and mainstream students perpetuate these sentiments and misunderstandings, and a first step would be to integrate these two.
In order to do so, there needs to be a middle ground where the government and the Qawmi madrasas meet.
Qawmi madrasa teachers fear that if they are handed over to government control, individuals who are not familiar with the madrasa system may be assigned to deal with them.
And it is this fear the government needs to address in order for the conversation to move forward.