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From madrasas to the liberal arts

  • Published at 09:02 am June 3rd, 2018
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Madrasa education could be so much more Photo: RAJIB DHAR

For an education that enables one to live with dignity

What was said to the rose that made it open

Was said to me here in my chest.

-- Rumi


At the heart of Islam is being open to life. 

Therefore, a liberal arts education (literature, art, music, history, and the sciences) from the very early years would best support our spiritual journey as Muslims.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, at the University of Virginia, says children with a liberal arts education become better readers by being exposed to a wider variety of subjects and not just learning to read per se. 

In the end, these children are more rounded and knowledgeable about the world. That’s a very good thing for a country.

At the moment, Bangladesh has a fertile ecology of madrasas. In its January 16 issue, the Dhaka Tribune reported that just in the eight kilometers between Jatrabari to Kachpur, there were 68 madrasas (66 that are Qawmi or Sunni orthodox, similar to the views held by Saudi Arabia) and two that were private. Qawmi are the fastest growing madrasas, increasing by 13 times over the last 60 years (almost 40,000 madrasas). 

I live in a village about 240km north-west from Chittagong. My older son attends Siddiq Nagar Primary School, which is about 100 years old. 

Before 1971, it was called Pratappur Primary School (my parents and my siblings are alumni).

No matter what I read in the journals about Bangladesh’s booming economy, here is what I see in our village: Teachers are earnest yet underpaid; children are eager yet hungry (breakfast and lunchtime meals at the school would be heaven); schools are well-attended but dirty and lack basic sanitation; children want to play but the infrastructure to support budding minds is just not there. 

I also notice that fathers are absent (years away, working in Western Asia) and mothers are worried about children growing up without proper instructions in adab (Islamic mannerisms towards life). Perhaps a South Asian interfaith ethics class in a liberal arts tradition might help.

I spoke with  Abdul Razzak, a 26-year old man whose rickshaw-pulling father sent four of his five sons to madrasas (for a life of dignity and fluency in the Qur’an). Abdul mentioned that his madrasa education enabled him to build a home for his parents (something they never imagined possible), and work a respectable job as a teacher and preacher. 

When I asked Abdul whether he will be teaching Arabic as a language to the children in his madrasa, he said no, that they would only learn the phonetics and would eventually memorize the Qur’an in this manner -- Arabic to Bengali (these students will be the future spiritual guides of the wealthy and the poor).

There are many young Abdul Razzaks in Bangladesh. Here is what their parents want, which government-managed primary and secondary schools are failing to provide: 

  • To have an education that would enable one to live with dignity
  • An education that teaches ethics
  • Access to jobs without discrimination
  • A living wage

The solutions to the above are within our reach. We just need the will. This Ramadan, let us give birth to this will. 

Shireen Pasha is a contributor.

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