Shaheena Zaiba grew up in the remote village of Dudlipora in the northern state of India’s Uttar Pradesh. Even as a little girl, she knew that she wanted to go to a university and study like a ‘city girl’. However, in her village, most Muslim girls either study in religious seminaries (known as madrassas) or don’t study at all. Going to a school or university is looked upon as a deviation—especially for the girls. Zaiba too studied religious texts at a local madrassa for eight years but even as she did that, she held on to her dream of becoming a Public Administrator—something that could be realised only if she could manage an admission in a ‘mainstream’ university.
Despite societal pressure and opposition, Zaiba managed to convince her family to allow her to pursue further education in a university. However, how could a girl who had studied religious texts all her life and that too, in Arabic and Urdu languages, manage to crack a university entrance exam? Most universities in India don’t even recognise madrassa degrees as formal education. And even if they did, madrassa students usually don’t have the fundamental knowledge to get through a course. Zaiba's dreams didn’t materialise, and she couldn't get through. And unfortunately, Zaiba’s story is like that of many other madrassa-educated students’.
In India, each year, around 3,50,000 students graduate from madrassas, with most of them ineligible or incompetent to apply for most courses in mainstream universities, resulting in limited career opportunities. Since centuries, madrassas have played a pioneering role in educating Muslims. Even now, madrassas are the only centres of knowledge for thousands of Muslim children who acquire their primary, and perhaps the only formal education, from these institutions. Though these institutions might have been compatible with the times before, the lack of modern scientific teachings in the present-day madrassa curriculum has been an issue garnering a lot of criticism from both, within and outside the Muslim community. This is where time stands still, and though education should be constantly evolving, madrasa education has rarely moved with the times. Thanks to this, students from these institutions are unable to improve their own monetary conditions or provide good leadership to the community after graduating.
Bridge over Troubled Water
Five years ago, keeping in mind these lack of opportunities an overwhelming number of students from madrassas face, bridge courses were initiated by some Muslim educators to connect madrassa students and universities.
The bridge courses aim to acquaint these madrassa alumni with basic knowledge of English language, arithmetic, science, social sciences and basic computer skills so as to bring them on par with students graduating from other schools.
“In most madrassas, students aren’t even aware of the fundamentals of formal or modern education since the emphasis is solely on religious teaching,” says Rashid Shaz, a professor of English Literature who started the bridge course at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), a prominent minority institute in the country. “These students have fewer options to sustain in the outer world. They find few or no jobs as they can’t pursue professional courses. Even students from ‘recognised’ madrassas who want to study in universities have essentially options of studying Urdu or Arabic literature and theology only.”
At the bridge course, students work through a year-long intensive study programme to bridge the knowledge gap in modern subjects. “The entire exercise is done to train students for an entry level knowledge. After this, they are awarded a certificate of senior secondary school so as to enable them to get admissions in mainstream colleges and fully integrate into the university system.”
Thanks to the AMU bridge course, more than 500 students from madrassas have made it to universities to get further education. However, this is still a small number compared to the 25 lakh students enrolled in madrassas, per a government standing committee report by the National Monitoring Committee for Minorities’ Education.
Mohammad Affan, who studied at Islamic institution Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow before joining the bridge course, is now pursuing a Bachelors of Arts degree in AMU. “In university classes, professors do not start from English letters, they directly start from prose and poetry. They assume that a student has cleared their higher secondary, which is not the case with us,” he says. "I have seen this course catapult us to the university level. Usually students from madrassas don't manage to get admission in courses like Political Sciences, English Literature, and Law. But thanks to bridge courses, I see many of my madrassa colleagues and seniors studying in these courses.”
After Shaz’ successful experiment, a few other minority universities in the country like Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Maulana Azad National Urdu University have also started bridge courses.
Criticism from Orthodoxy
Not astonishingly, the initiative has also faced criticism from some quarters of the religious orthodoxy. Some orthodox scholars fear that college students become ‘free thinkers’ and start questioning the foundations of Islamic philosophy.
“We are concerned with what is being taught in this course,” says Maulana Abdul Hameed Nomani, a prominent religious scholar. Nomani believes that a bridge course is unnecessarily being portrayed as a saviour of madrassa students and that all students don't need such a course. “There is a wrong notion that madrassas are not ready to reform and that madrassa students end up being devoid of opportunities. You have report after report mentioning that only 4 to 5 percent of Muslims study in madrassas. Why all the emphasis is on those 4 percent whom we educate and not the remaining 96 percent? I teach at Deoband (a prominent Islamic seminary) and I haven't seen any student unemployed after completion of the course.”
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