Bastion of Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Educations in India
Yoginder Sikand
Penguin India
Price: Rs 395
Pages: 385
Published: 2005

Yoginder Sikand’s Bastion of Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India reveals facts about madrasas that are not widely known. Sikand has done his work meticulously. His passion for revealing history is evident from his arduous travels throughout the country, visiting madrasas, scanning Urdu, Persian and Arabic works. Yoginder Sikand’s book reveals many facets of our social system, particularly those in which one’s religious identity becomes a major factor in discourse. In the introduction to the book he talks about the suspicious looks he got during his research. The suspicion was about his interest as a non-Muslim delving deep into Muslim domain. These things reflect the grave reality of how the work gets relegated to backstage while an individual’s caste and religious identity become big factors.

The madrasa system in India is as diverse as Indian Muslims themselves. There are various Islamic sects and sub-sects which impart Islamic knowledge to students. Prior to Partition, many of the madrasas were getting help from the state. With the Partition a majority of Muslim leadership migrated to Pakistan. The community has been carrying the cross of Partition since then. The systematic marginalisation of Muslims, particularly in government offices and educational institutions, pushed them into ghettoisation. Madrasas became a place where even poor Muslims could get a space to live in and get religious education. Yoginder Sikand seems to question the propaganda that a majority of Muslims go to madrasas. Muslims also want better education for their children and send them to modern schools.

A political campaign of the Sangh Parivar in the last decade of the 20th century targeted madrasas as symbols of Muslim culture and dens of "terrorism". Everyday newspapers would be full of reports regarding "terrorist" activities in madrasas. Right wing columnists and pseudo patriots started writing about the menace of madrasas, Muslims, mosques and mullahs. All that suggested a rising tide of Islamic fanaticism and terror from which the country had to be saved.

In the past Hindus too got their education in madrasas. Even today, many of the madrasas, especially in Avadh, are educating non-Muslim girls. In most states the so-called Dars-e-Alia madrasas are under direct supervision of the government.

Government aided madrasas teach government approved syllabi, which includes computer education and other contemporary subjects. Even some Dars-e-Nizami madrasas, which shun government support and solely depend on contributions from the community sometimes teach these subjects along with their core curriculum.

September 11 aggravated the problems of madrasas as it created suspicion fro Islam and Islamic education. Growth of madrasas was linked to growth of Muslim fundamentalism. Pakistan clamped down on madrasas under US pressure providing an "example" for India to follow. Talk of modernization of the madrasas started without much grounds work. Interestingly, alleged terrorists caught so far do not come from the madrasas but from "modern" educational institutions.

Yoginder Sikand points out in his conclusion that isolationist tendencies sometimes fostered by religious institutions like madrasas could be counter-productive for the community. Sikand emphasises interfaith dialogue between different religious communities, not just Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sikand has delved deep into the evolution of the madrasa system in the country. He also suggested some ideas for reform and debunked many myths about the madrasas.

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