W.Bengal madrassas blend religion with modernism, science and tolerance

Kolkata, India - While the world might consider madrasas as Islamic institutions that teach Muslim theology and could do with some modernisation, madrasas in West Bengal have a sweeter tale to narrate.

Modern Islamic scholars argue that madrasas should primarily equip a scholar not just for simple scholastic interpretation of the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet of Islam, but should also cater to the changing needs of Muslim society.

West Bengal madrasas have seen intensive changes in the recent past, enabling their graduates to keep pace with a fast changing world.

Not only do the madrasas in the state teach curriculla that is on par with the other schools run by the state government, but they also employs teachers of Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

“Culturally there are no differences because basically we are all Indians. There is no separate Hindu, Muslim or Christian ambience, it's an Indian ambience. If I go into a Hindu situation or an Islamic situation, it still remains and Indian situation, so there is no alienation,” said Namita Mitra, a teacher in the Akra Girls Madrasas School.

If that is not secular enough for a religious institution, the students here are from all walks of life, especially a fair and healthy mix of the local population of Hindus and Muslims and a co-educational set-up.

“Here I have no inconveniences or problems. The Muslim students have mixed well with me and we share a bonding as co-students. They are all friends. I don't believe in any discrimination on the basis of caste or religion. Everyone is equal,” said Sucheta Mondal, a girl student from Hatiara High Madrasa who also added that the teachers in her school taught very well and the standard of education was good.

Over 40,000 Hindu students study in madrasas across West Bengal, said Abdul Sattar, the President of the State's Madrasas Educational Board.

“You will see here that West Bengal has this unique phenomenon that you will not find anywhere else in the country. The government of India, in its expenditure of budget on madrasas all over the country in all states and union territories manages to spend only about Rs. 83 crores (830 million rupees) while we here in West Bengal spend more than Rs. 125 crore (1.25 billion rupees) for upliftment of madrasas education alone. The movement to make the school children computer savvy is an agenda with the madrasas schools too. So you will find the madrasas schools in West Bengal competing with other schools in standards and doing the same syllabus,” added Sattar.

Arabic is taught as an optional language and theology is taught where the students are free to answer in the language of their choice. Ironically, the non-Muslim students top the theology paper, informs Sattar.

The history of madrasa schools in West Bengal goes to the times the British ruled India as a colony and Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital. Warren Hastings, the British colonial administrator who as Governor-General of India in the late 18th century, is reported to have founded the madrasas or college for Mohammedan education at Calcutta, primarily out of his own funds.