Walk into a Dar-al Uloom (a house of knowledge) in India, and you will hear what sounds like the buzzing of bees. It is the sound of hundreds of students reciting The Holy Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, as part of their daily studies. But you may be surprised to know that many students reciting the Qur’an are Hindu.

The madrasa is one of the most important institutions for millions of Muslims and Hindus in India. For the millions of children that attend them, they are a means to alleviate poverty in India.

Madrasa is an Arabic term meaning place of study and specifically refers to schools that teach an Islamic curriculum. Institutions vary greatly from the countries they are in, the subjects they teach and the ideologies they adhere to. The only common denominator are that they are administered by Muslims and incorporate some form of Islamic coursework.

Many madrasas receive their bad wrap from the small fraction of institutions that spread Wahhabism and are associated with terrorism and global threats. These institutions are catapulted to the spotlight and used to paint a broad picture of all madrasas as breeding grounds of fanaticism, but this is not true.

Madrasas in India are established Islamic seminaries that provide many children with the opportunity to receive basic education and life skills. These are opportunities that they would otherwise be unable to receive on their own due to living in extreme poverty.

In India, madrasas are also a strong pillar of community services. They offer boarding for many orphaned students and provide young women with access to basic education and skills such as cooking and sewing­ opportunities they would not have access to if madrasas did not exist in their villages.

For years, madrasas have worked to incorporate modern education alongside their religious curriculum. In West Bengal, nearly 600 government recognized madrasas are teaching mainstream curriculum and have a healthy non-Muslim population of students.

Anwar Hossain, the headmaster of the Orgram madrasa in India located 125 kilometers north of the state capital, Kolkata, says that it is mostly the madrasa’s modern curriculum that has made the institution increasingly popular in the Hindu-majority society.

The benefits of such madrasas in India are numerous in fighting poverty in a country with an enormous population of impoverished citizens. Student’s fees are very cheap or free for all students who cannot afford them. This is because many madrasas are funded privately by donors and are occasionally state sponsored. The madrasas also offer free uniforms for their students and a free meal every day, helping low income families provide food for their children.

Graduates of such madrasas are accepted into universities to study a variety of subjects. Madrasa graduates are going on to become scientists, doctors, engineers and other professionals, which is attracting more and more youth who feel they have a chance at a better life.

The madrasas are also working to bridge understanding and cooperation between Hindus and Muslims in India. University of North Eastern Hill professor and social activist Prasenjit Baswas says, “madrasas based on strong intellectual traditions that draw from other cultures and religions can help overturn the historical divide between Hindus and Muslims.”

With the help of proper funding and aid, many madrasas are reforming their curriculums in an attempt to empower graduates with the tools to combat poverty in India. However, this month the Indian government has de-recognized certain madrasas stating they are not teaching proper modern curriculums.

Instead of de-recognizing madrasas, more support and aid is needed to make sure that such institutions are given the tools necessary to reform, which will in turn help prevent youth from becoming radicalized. This process is not only beneficial to India, but the world as well.

Adnan Khalid

Sources: Al Jazeera 1, Al Jazeera 2, New York Times
Photo: FT

Since last summer, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has fought to expand its self-declared Muslim caliphate. Now, many fear that the group’s new schools are irreversibly affecting an entire generation of children.

One of ISIS’s key tactics for expansion is the indoctrination of children to support jihad. In the past year, the group has swept through schools in its conquered territories, changing curriculums to reflect its extreme interpretation of Islam.

When ISIS fighters seized the city of Deir Ezzor in Syria, they closed schools and forced teachers to attend retraining sessions in Islamic education. According to Ahmad, a teacher of 14 years in Deir Ezzor, the training did little to address the problems with Syria’s educational system. Instead, ISIS leaders used these courses to weed out potentially disloyal teachers.

ISIS has imposed strict new rules for students as well as teachers. To complete the required training program, teachers must pledge their allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Male and female students and teachers are taught in separate classrooms or schools. Girls and women also must wear the niqab, a full-body veil that leaves only the eyes visible. The Hisbah, the ISIS religious police force, monitors schools to make sure teachers and students follow the Islamist guidelines.

Recently, ISIS reopened schools in Deir Ezzor, which for now serve only male students and run for just four hours a day. The schools operate out of volunteers’ houses, not the public buildings previously used as schools. According to Ahmad, schools for girls will reopen when female teachers have completed their Islamic education courses.

Ahmad chose to quit teaching rather than remain a part of the worsening education system. Still, he fears for the children in ISIS-run schools. “The Islamic State aims to raise this generation in darkness and to instill aggression and extremism in them,” he explains. “Children are preoccupied with fighting and vengeance…what they learn in the Islamic State schools nurtures and validates such urges.”

In Deir Ezzor, as in many parts of Syria under ISIS control, the extremist group has instated an entirely new curriculum, banning subjects like history, philosophy and music and arts. ISIS leaders claim that these subjects from the formerly secular curriculum conflict with Islamic teachings. Science is a particularly tricky subject. In schools where physics and chemistry are still allowed, teachers must carefully explain to students that scientific laws come from God. The teaching of evolution is completely banned.

In some Syrian schools, new subjects like ‘Islamic jurisprudence’ and ‘biography of the prophet’ have been added to the curriculum. The group has also removed all reference to the country’s name ‘Syria’ from textbooks, replacing it instead with ‘The Islamic State.’

Despite teaching this ISIS-approved curriculum, many teachers are still technically employed by the Syrian government in Damascus. However, ISIS forbids the acquisition of money from the Syrian government and threatens to kill teachers who collect their salaries. One lifelong Raqqa teacher claimed that as of November of this year, she hadn’t received her government salary in over six months. Now living in Turkey, she says that barely 30 percent of eligible students in her Syrian hometown still attend school. “Nobody wants to send their kids to school anymore because they would probably be recruited to fight and kill in the ISIS army,” she explains.

The choice for families, however, is a difficult one. Now that ISIS has destroyed secular schools in areas under its control, parents must decide whether to send their children to a radical Islamist school or no school at all. Even worse is the possibility that their children might be recruited for ISIS’s militant training camps, where young men are indoctrinated with a love of jihad. The camps teach courses on weapons and explosives, and boys as young as eight learn how to behead “infidels” and opposition fighters.

ISIS’s use of education to influence children promises trouble in the years to come. Even the defeat of the extremist group would not entirely wipe away the fundamentalist tendencies of children who have grown up under ISIS control.

One ISIS militant passionately explains how this generation of children has been groomed to inherit the caliphate. “God willing, this generation will fight infidels and apostates, the Americans and their allies,” he says. “The right doctrine has been implanted in these children. All of them love to fight for the sake of building the Islamic State and for the sake of God.”

– Caitlin Harrison

Sources: ABC News, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal 2, Syria Deeply, Vice News
Photo: ABC News