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Vikramshila Education Resource Society - Shubhra Chatterji

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I feel it is a great privilege to be invited here today to talk about a project we are trying out with a handful of madrasas in West Bengal called ‘Integration of Deeni and Duniavi Taleem’. I must confess that it is with a great deal of trepidation that I have taken on this invitation, for I am aware that I am on tricky terrain, because there are very divided views on this topic and both points of view are equally strongly articulated. I would first like to tell you a little about our organization and its work, in order to give you some sense of why we took this project on. Vikramshila is an NGO working for the education of underprivileged children. Every child has a right to receive a good education, but the inherently inequitable nature of our education system accentuates the rich–poor divide rather than bridging it. We have been working in the field for almost 25 years, and our work with madrasas began when we realized that a sizeable section of children from poor families attend these institutions.


As an organization, we take on interesting and innovative projects from time to time—and one such is on Social Science education, where we are trying to develop a curriculum for the upper primary classes with the idea of helping children to experience and undertake critical analyses of certain contemporary issues, such as gender and diversity, rights and equality, etc., in a structured manner. It is through such experiences, we feel, that students will develop the democratic values of equality, respect for all, justice and a conviction that things can be changed for the better through democratic action. For this project, we work mainly with children in government schools. There is practically no scope for doing this kind of work in the madrassas, where our efforts are mainly to introduce quality educational practices to help children learn better.


But here too we felt that it was important to engage the children with certain activities that are helpful in constructing of an identity which can in turn help them function efficiently in a modern democratic culture. Soon we got an opportunity to work in collaboration with the Tata Trust, which has been supporting our work in the Madrasas.

Madrasas have a long history in India. In the precolonial period, they shared a functional relationship with society, preparing students to partake in the wider sociocultural milieu of the times and did not restrict themselves to preparing for Ulama. The highest levels of learning privileged the learner to a higher status within society. This relationship changed with the onset of colonial rule. The madrasas were labelled as religious institutions and stopped receiving the kind of funds they used to under the Mughal state. This became the genesis of the modern version of the madrasas. It was under such an onslaught of British policy that Madrasa education became a bastion for Muslim identit- formation and the emphasis shifted to dini talim (religious education).


In the post-Independence period, after Partition the largest section of educated Muslims migrated to Pakistan. This left a small number of educated Muslims in positions of power and with political leverage to lead the community. This demographic change along with the flight of the intellectuals paved the way for the madrasas to become the harbingers of Muslim identity. As minority institutions recognized by the constitution, Madrasas tended to become self-referential. In the absence of any state interference, and as an affront against Western forms of education, they resorted to viewing religious texts as the best understanding of the world, and established a curriculum accordingly. Since the Madrasas has been left without any government patronage from colonial times, they remained stereotypical, lacking proper pedagogical practices and development.


However, within the universe of madrasas, there are voices that are now actively seeking an engagement with the larger educational enterprise. This roughly forms the context of our engagement with the Madrassas. In West Bengal, there are two types of Madrassas—government aided, looked after by the Board of Madrassa Education and supported by the government in all respects. These are limited in number. The other, larger in numbers, is the Khariji Madrassas. These are not recognized by the state and do not receive state funds. They offer degrees mostly up to the Alim level, and their curriculum is not standardized. Some are aligned with the puritanical Wahhabi tradition while others are more comfortable with a liberal tradition of Isam. While most of the government-aided Senior and High madrasas are located in Muslim-concentrated districts and have received government recognition and funding, the nature of a khariji madrasa is very different. They are set up within the community with a religious view and the source of funding is mostly private or collected from the community on a periodical basis. We have been working with some Khariji Madrasas who are willing to engage with outsiders like us because they are genuinely interested in introducing and promoting quality formal education.


‘Modernisation of Madrassa’ education has been a major thrust of the central government for quite some time, ostensibly to ensure that students from these institutions are ‘mainstreamed’ and do not remain isolated from the social and economic activities of the larger society. There has been a push from the government to introduce secular subjects such as Bengali/Hindi, Maths, Science and English. While many of the Madrassas have been open about the idea, there is a lingering un-ease with the idea of mainstreaming and whether this will lead to a shedding of their Islamic identity in favour of an overriding larger Indian or ‘majority’ identity.


It is this modernization push that provided us with the window through which to engage with Madrasas. We are helping them to adopt modern and child friendly teaching methods using charts, posters, pictures and models and these have been well accepted. We found that there was a very clear demarcation of the religious and the secular, and we have consciously confined ourselves to the latter. However, as an organization, we have always held the view that whatever a child is learning in school should be connected to his or her lived experiences. In case of a child in a Madrasa, it is undeniable that religion has a very important role, but the sacred-secular demarcation was causing some kind of identity problem. Hence when we were introduced to the concept of a possible integration of Deeni and Duniavi Taleem by Dr. Amina Chirania of Tata Trust, we felt an immediate sense of connection. I will quote from the initial concept note that she shared with us, to explain the idea

The Dinni Talim which is built around memorizing Aayats and Hadith, and adapted literature on Islaimic principles and Shariya (rituals) presents a limited opportunity to understand Islam. The Dunyavi Talim on the other hand is packaged in an altogether different context and offers no resemblance to the students’ own identity and culture. This child at Madrasa reads and understands about Science, Maths, languages in state textbooks but cannot relate to it. He or she knows that as a Muslim studying at madrasas I am different from the children and people depicted in the state textbooks. Thus a Muslim youth from Madrasa perceives the value of Dunyavi Talim (math, science, and the state language) as merely ‘skills’ that remain isolated from his or her identity as a Muslim. Because the Dinni Talim is imparted in a rote-learning method, there is not much scope to seek meaning, to guide. As a result, the development of this Muslim identity remains restricted to the Muslim attire, rituals, and memorizing the Quran. Observations of dinni and dunyavi Talim classes, discussions with madrasa teachers, administrators and students clearly indicated that these compartments or disconnected impartation of dinni and dunyavi Talims is not merely procedural. The students do not perceive any connection between the dini and the dunyavi Talim. They develop a kind of a cognitive rift that sees Dinni Talim as different and disconnected from the world of science and math. This rift narrows the scope of understanding Islam as a way of life and the importance it lays on rationality and science. This rift between the two worlds is so sharp that the students would not even know the great Islamic scientists, philosophers, poets, and different civilizations in Islam. Most of these great men in Islam have pursued dinni and dunyavi talim in a holistic mode in the past. Understanding the lives of these great Islamic poets and scientists would serve as good role models to these adolescents who otherwise do not have many prospects for future. On the other hand, unless the Din and the Dunyavi Talim integrates, the value of science, rationality and its relevance in Islam will not be realized. This note proposes a layout to integrate Dinni and Dunyavi Talim within the sensitive and confined milieu at the madrasas.”


Some examples of integration

The method of integration was carefully and sensitively worked out. The dinni Talim classes were left untouched. It was decided that that Duniavi Talim syllabus would be studied to identify entry points to integrate Islamic culture, history, heritage and role models. These integrating activities would come as reinforcement activities after the end of the chapter in the prescribed textbook. Our team went through the different textbooks to look for suitable entry points. For example, at the end of the chapter on phases of moon (from their Geography textbook), a reinforcing activity could be about relating phases of moon with the Islamic calendar. It was decided that to make the project more impactful, this would also have an ICT component, wherever possible. To give another example—the chapter ‘Transportation system’ in the Class 5 EVS syllabus was related to the great incident of Hijrat by Prophet Muhammad (S) from Mecca to Medina; another chapter ‘Great Scientists’ from the class 7 science textbook is related with Great Muslim Scientists of past and the present times and their contributions towards the modern world.


To elaborate on the first example, the chapter is divided into two parts: first, the modern transportation system is explained to the students and various modes of transport are discussed with the pictures of various vehicles, their nature and speed. Then they are asked to make a connection with the incident of Hijrat of Muhammad Sallullahe-alaihe-wa-Sallam—what was the mode of transport at the time, what is the distance from Mecca to Medina, how long would it have taken to cover the distance by a camel. These discussions are conducted with the aid of pictures of camels, desert, date plants and geographical location (world map). A brief history of Hijrat is narrated in the manner of storytelling. The students are divided into two groups: the first is given the task of making a booklet on transportation with relevant pictures from the time of Hijrat; the second is engaged in making models of transportation systems at the time of Hijrat. The students are given relevant reference books, pictures and other materials as support to their group activities. The manner in which both the groups were involved in their tasks and the beautiful booklet and models prepared by them was a clear indication that they were making lateral connections. The depth of their engagement and excitement was enough to convey to us that learning had suddenly become a meaningful process for them. His methodology of investigation, in particular using experiments to verify theory, shows certain similarities to what later became known as the modern scientific method. Through his Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manazir) and its Latin translation (De Aspectibus), his ideas influenced European scholars, including those of the European Renaissance. It is pertinent to mention at this point that science activities and experiments is a very popular activity in the madrasa students and it is not farfetched to see a correlation in this.


In the science Chapter on ‘Modern Scientists’, they were told about some brilliant Muslim scientists and their accomplishments, and contributions to the world of science. Each of them had provided a lasting legacy that changed the world in their time and even today. For example, Ibn al-Haytham, the great polymath who lived in the Iraqi city of Basra from 965 to 1040.

In conclusion I would like to say that for the teachers of these madrasas too, the integration of Deeni and Duniavi was like opening up a door of new possibilities. Exposure to new ideas and new ways of dealing with learning has been a great experience for the Madrasa heads. At least there is now a growing realization that this approach can be helpful in constructing an identity for their students which is rooted in the rich cultural heritage of Islamic history based on integration and synthesis.


 

Vikramshila Education Resource Society started its journey in 1989 in an attempt to make quality education a reality for all children. Based in Kolkata, Vikramshila reaches out to underprivileged and under-resourced sections of society to make education meaningful and relevant in their lives. Over the last 20 years, it has undertaken various initiatives in action research and teacher-development programmes all over India, reaching out to more than 200 grassroots level organisations 25,000 teachers and 14,00,000 children.


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