Striking the balance between religious and mainstream education, these institutions come with the promise of equipping students with a respect for their culture and knowledge to succeed in life
Najma Mohsin was very disturbed. Her five-year old daughter, Samiya Khan, proudly started reciting the Gayatri Mantra at the breakfast table one day. Samiya had recently started attending a private school in Mayur Vihar, New Delhi.
Najma was worried that the child would grow up ignorant of her own culture and traditions. However, being a professional lawyer, Najma was also aware that she herself might not be able to spend too much time with her.
In the end, Najma decided to get her daughter admitted to an Islamic school where she would learn about Islamic philosophy and religious ethos but not at the cost of regular education, which is a pre-requisite for a satisfying professional life.
She is not the only one. The appeal of the Islamic schools has been consistently rising in the Muslim community. While there are no statistics, experts believe that the number of Islamic schools is increasing and flourishing in the country.
The growing demand can be gauged from the fact that these schools are expanding across the country. For instance, Hyderabad-based Memory Scholars (MS) Education Academy has opened institutes in Mumbai and Delhi in the last four-five years.
“We have 20 schools, 10 junior colleges and five degree colleges in the country. We were targeting to start 100 institutions by 2016 because of strong demand from the community. The target is very difficult but we are trying,” says Mohammad Abdul Lateef Khan, managing director, secretary and correspondent, MS Education.
The Hyderabad-based group was set up in 1991 but the expansion in other Indian cities really took off in the last few years.
Besides, there are a number of new Islamic schools, such as International Islamic School, which has recently started operations in IP Extension, New Delhi. Until three years back, Al Hira Islamic School had just one branch in Mumbai but now boasts three branches in the state of Maharashtra.
These schools can be described as a cross between a traditional madrassa [an Islamic religious school] and a regular school. The students study a combination of both the religious as well as regular subjects.
In contrast to a madrassa education, these schools have included subjects such as Science, Social Studies and English in their curriculum. Most of these schools are affiliated to government boards and thus augment the chances of students going in for mainstream universities and later in seeking jobs.
“All our schools are affiliated to the Maharashtra Board. We believe that just imparting Islamic education is not enough so all the subjects are taught at all the three schools that we run,” says Mohammad Inamullah, founder of Al Hira Schools.
This amalgamation of both the religious and the mainstream is the key differentiation of Islamic schools. However, the ambience and ethos of the school remain Islamic, which increase the comfort levels of the parents.
“We don’t really offer religious education. We just have one period of Deeniyat class every day, which is compulsory for all students, otherwise the students study all the subjects that are taught in a regular school,” explains Rana Jameel, the headmistress of MS Creative School in Zakir Nagar, Delhi.
The uniform of the students is inspired by traditional Islamic dress. At MS Creative in Zakir Nagar, the boys are dressed in bottle green pajamas, green and white shirts and green skullcaps; the girls wear salwar kameez and scarfs, which cover the upper part of body, as is the norm in Islamic culture.
The Islamic ambience of the school is unmistakable. All the teachers are required to wear the burqa. One can also see books on the life of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) along with storybooks for children in the reception area of the school.
Bridging the gap
These schools seek to address the gap between a madrassa and a regular school. While the Islamic or Muslim ambience is unmistakable, they are different from a traditional madrassa. The students talk fluently in English and can be seen reading from regular NCERT books.
The rising appeal of Islamic schools points to a gap in the education system. While madrassas focused only on Islamic education, the community felt that regular education was also unable to inculcate moral values in children.
“There is definitely a gap in the education. A madrassa education does not equip a student for modern life. But the community feels that a regular education should not be at the cost of religious education. This is the main reason that the popularity of Islamic schools is increasing. The basic advantage is that the parents don’t have too many reservations about sending their kids because of Islamic culture,” says Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, an Islamic scholar and a journalist.
The proliferation of Islamic schools is a positive development for the community, which has been lagging behind in education. While on an average an Indian child goes to school for only four years, the mean years of schools for Muslims is the lowest at about three years and four months, according to Sachar Committee’s report 2006 report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India.
The committee further points out the female enrolment rate for the community was 80 per cent but it was less than that of Schedule Castes/Schedule Tribes, which was at 83 per cent.
As many as 25 per cent of Muslim children in the 6-14 year age group have either never attended school or have dropped out, says the Sachar Committee Report.
“The appeal of Islamic schools is definitely increasing. People prefer this because they get both secular and religious education. Another reason is that these institutes provide a good standard of education as well. All this leads to the growing popularity of these schools. They follow national boards, such as CBSE, which is an added advantage. The community is becoming more aware of the importance of education. It is not the same as it was 10-15 years back,” says Ashfaq Ahmad, president of Students Islamic Organisation. The organisation has been working at grassroots level to increase awareness of the importance of education in the community.
Tackling moral lacuna
There is, however, another reason for the growth of Islamic schools. Parents believe that regular schools do not stress moral values and a child lacks in life skills.
“I didn’t even try in any regular school. I was sure that I wanted my child to grow up in an Islamic environment and be aware of his culture and traditions. Besides, I believe religious education is important in helping one deal with the ups and downs of life,” says M. Umair, assistant professor in the Civil Engineering department at Jamia Milia Islamia.
His son, Uzair Khan, is a student of grade IV at MS Creative School, Zakir Nagar. Umair himself was educated at a school in Aligarh Muslim University.
This view is expressed by others as well. “A big problem faced in today’s education is that there is no moral education. Children are not given any direction as to how to lead life; what is the code of conduct in different situations and circumstances? This makes parents uncomfortable. With today’s education system, they can become good professionals but not good human beings,” says Mohammad Lateef Khan of MS Education.
Unlike schools run by different communities, Islamic schools don’t really attract students from other communities. For instance, convent schools or even Hindu schools attract a significant number of students from other communities but the same is not true for Islamic schools.
It can be said that these schools might be the first step towards reducing the socio-economic gap between the Muslim community and the mainstream. Just Islamic education at a madrassa left the students with hardly any option in the conventional economy.
However, as the number of Islamic schools increase, the chances of the community members in mainstream rise, thus leading to enhanced integration with other communities.
Eventually, the success of the Islamic school model will depend on the basic tenet of any education venture — providing quality education. “Quality education is of paramount importance. Like any other good school, we have to strive to provide quality education. Otherwise it doesn’t matter whether we provide religious education or not,” says Khan.