The South Indian city of Bidar — the northernmost part of Karnataka, 145 km from Hyderabad — is barely known beyond the subcontinent. In recent years, it has built a great reputation among Muslims. It is drawing students from miles around, and the teaching pedagogy at its largest seminary (madrasa) and the amazing outcomes that it is delivering have baffled educationists. It is not just opening the gateway to modern careers but also strengthening the prospects of eternal salvation. Madrasas are an important feature of the Muslim community; they can be, and have been pivotal in engendering tolerance, mutual respect and integration. They are now slowly shaping as beacons of modern learning.
In a narrow alleyway, opposite the 15th-century edifice of Madrasa of Mahmud Gawan (1472) in Gole Khana area of Bidar, stands Shaheen School — the flagship institution of a vibrant educational revolution whose ripples are touching thousands of lives across the country.
Parents seeking a blend of temporal and spiritual education are being drawn to it. It offers a bridge course for madrasa pass-outs to join the mainstream education system. Founded on the theory of providing quality education to Urdu-speaking students in their mother tongue, Shaheen is an Urdu medium school that has turned more than 900 students into doctors in the last 15 years.
When Abdul Qadeer, an engineer by profession, began teaching 17 students in one room in 1989, he never imagined that his effort would be a harbinger of an educational revolution. The original mission was to “shape an ideal seat of learning that is accessible to one and all”. What started off as a visionary endeavour in a one-room tenement accommodating 18 students way back in 1989 has now evolved into a major centre of academic excellence touching the lives of more than 11,000 students supervised by 400 teachers, all of them engaged in creation of knowledge wealth. It is a mission of making quality education universally affordable. It has nine schools, 16 pre-university colleges and a degree college having its clones in several cities.
Muslims desperately need such institutions. Of all India’s religious communities, Muslims have the highest illiteracy rate (42.7 per cent), the lowest level of enrolment in higher education (4.4 per cent) the lowest share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university posts including that of government jobs (4.9 per cent), earn less than other groups, are more excluded from the financial world, and spent fewer years in school — even though they comprise 14 per cent of India’s population. Pitifully Muslims account for 40 per cent of India’s prison population.
Qadeer is one of the many links in the chain of modern liberal Muslim education that was forged by Sir Syed Ahmad who founded the Aligarh Muslim Univesity. Sir Syed found the madrasa syllabus unsuited to the present age and to the spirit of time. He criticised it for encouraging memorising rather than real understanding.
Modern Islamic entrepreneurs believe that madrasas cannot be reformed by cosmetic changes, like tweaking a few courses or installing a few computers. More important, they have to be provided with physical and intellectual resources — and, most important, cultural temperament — to equip their students for the complex demands of a highly competitive modern world? Madrasas lost their academic and intellectual purity, and ceded prime space to Western-oriented education.
Qadeer has spent his active life bridging the divide between traditional and modern education. His schools teach secular subjects like science, medicine, technology, social sciences, and history, in addition to classical Islamic texts. Having a realistic frame of mind, he tried to inspire Muslim society towards modern education.
Historically, madrasas were institutions of higher learning until their importance diminished with the onset of Western education.
Abu Sofyan, a doctor and a product of Shaheen, proudly says he can offer both spiritual and physical healing — Dawa and Dua (medicine and prayers) — to his future patients. The second year MBBS student at Raichur Institute of Medical Sciences is a “Hafiz”, who has memorised the Quran. “When I joined high school, I felt transplanted into an uncongenial soil. With great difficulty I could find my roots. But I managed to score good marks. My stay here turned out to be a life-changer,” he says.
“The experiences are not isolated. Hundreds of madrasa graduates are in mainstream colleges now. A youth with a wholesome education is less likely to go wayward. A proper understanding of the modern world and exposure to current knowledge equips youth to withstand wrong influences,” Qadeer says. We encountered a lot of scepticism from the ulema (clergy), but we persisted, and it paid off. Now, they have all come around as they realised we were training boys to achieve the best of both worlds.
More than 300 Shaheen students who cracked the National Eligibility cum Entrance (NEET 2018) have secured admission in different medical colleges of India. Shaheen Group had sent more than 200 students to different medical colleges in 2017, 152 in 2016, 111 in 2015, 93 in 2014, 89 in 2013 and 71 in its first batch in 2012.
One of the 300 eligible students in 2018 is Waheed Abdullah of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. He is a Haafiz-e-Quran and never went to a school. He got free coaching at Shaheen’s Bidar centre and scored 659 out of the total 720 marks to secure all-India rank (AIR) 95.
Azeem Qureshi’s family is another wonderful example. They belong to the butcher (Qureshi) community of Bidar. His three daughters — Ishrat Fatima, Naziya Sultana and Mehreen Fatima — are alumni of Shaheen who ended up securing MBBS seats.
Ishrat Fatima has done MS in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Naziya Fatima is doing her MD Pathology. Ishrath Fatima was one of the students from this course. A Hafiza ( a female who memorises the entire Quran verbatim in Arabic), Ishrath moved to Shaheen and eventually went on to complete her medical specialisation. She now teaches in a medical college in Jalna district in Maharashtra. “After completing my Hifz, I enrolled in Shaheen with the intention of just passing matriculation as it was thought necessary to get married.”
On account of Shaheen’s resounding success in medical entrance tests, the college has been attracting students from as far as Canada and the Middle East. Non-Muslim students come in large number; parents value the quality education and appreciate the environment of the Shaheen’s campus.
Madrasas and mosques are an important feature of the Muslim community and can reinforce community cohesion and integration but to make relevant to contemporary times we need a choreographed strategy — the one which Qadeer has used at Shaheen.
Madrasas like Shaheen demonstrate that the community’s own shortcomings cannot be easily palmed off on others. Madrasas elsewhere should take a leaf out of Shaheen’s book.
Since the curriculum and pedagogy they follow were designed for a society far different from ours, these madrasas have lost their vitality and relevance. Accordingly, madrasas need to introduce subjects that can broaden the minds of students and equip them to understand modern society with all its complexities. This way madrasas can produce able religious leaders and scholars who can comprehend the modern concerns and complex challenges.
Religion, for Sir Muhammad Iqbal the great philosopherpoet, was a dynamic and fluid movement; not a closed theology meant for mere imitation. Islam marked the end of prophecy, not human intelligence. Shibli Nu’mani, a renowned 20th-century scholar from within the madrasa circles has himself noted: “For us Muslims, mere English (modern) education is not sufficient, nor does the old Arabic madrasa education suffice. Our ailment requires a ‘compound panacea’ (Majun Murakkab) — one portion Eastern and the other Western.”
Madrasas, like those run by Qadeer, can play a vital role in promoting an intellect that is well equipped to face challenges of the modern world. Since the students are schooled in classical and modern science as well as secular and religious thought, they are better able to spot scriptural distortions.
They also tend to be more connected to their own communities as well as to the mainstream society and their stable sense of identity, religious and otherwise, shield them against radicalism. These madrasas are powerful allies in India’s transition to modernity.
The writer is a well-known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He can be reached at email@example.com