New Texts for Madrasas: Kerala Muslim Group's Experiments in Curricular Reform
Yoginder Sikand, May 12, 2008

The Council for Islamic Education and Research (CIER) is a wing of one of the largest Islamic movements in Kerala, the Kerala Nadwatul-Mujahidin (KNM). The KNM runs some three hundred and fifty part-time coeducational madrasas across Kerala, and the CIER's work is to prepare books for these schools and to train their teachers. Established in 2002, the CIER is headed by Dr. E.K.Ahmad Kutty, former Head of the Department of Arabic in Calicut University. Other senior members of the CIER's governing board include Saeed Faruqi, Chief Instructor of the Government-run Arabic Language Teachers' Training Institute, Calicut, and N.P.Abdul Ghafoor, member of the Kerala Government Textbooks Committee.

'Our major achievement so far', explains Abdul Jabbar Thirupanachi, a member of the CIER's governing board, 'is a set of new textbooks for our madrasas, which are probably one of their kind in the whole of India'. The madrasa texts used previously, he says, were at least half a century old and badly need to be reformed. 'We retained the basic content of the earlier curriculum as it broadly was', he relates, 'but made major changes in style and presentation, drawing on modern, child-centric, activity-based and story-telling teaching methods that encourage students to think for themselves rather than simply bombarding them with information'.

Thirupanachi proudly displays a set of the CIER's new madrasa texts--brightly coloured cartoons and pictures splayed on every page, the Malayalam and Arabic lettering large and bold and reader-friendly for children, each chapter ending with a set of questions, puzzles, fill-in-the-blank exercises and so on.

'Learning should not be a drab affair. It should be fun', he says as he flips through the texts and tells me what they contain. 'The old books were somewhat drab and boring and very preachy', he goes on. 'Some conservatives elsewhere might have problems with the pictures that our new books use', he says in reply to my query about them, 'but in Kerala this is a non-issue really'. The pictures and cartoons that fill the books are the work of a noted Hindu artist from Calicut, he informs me. 'In many Arab countries, too, they have books like this. In fact, we've borrowed quite a few ideas from their books as well', he adds. In addition, Thirupanachi says, the CIER has prepared a set of audio CDs of rhymes contained in its new textbooks, and plans to prepare visual CDs of lessons as teaching aids for madrasa instructors. Half of these instructors, he tells me, are women.

For my benefit, since I do not know either Arabic or Malayalam, Thirupanachi translates excerpts from the texts. One chapter is about zakat, the poor-due. 'In the texts we earlier used, children were simply told about zakat', he says. 'But in these new books', he explains, 'children are asked to count the number of members of their family who are eligible to pay zakat, to discuss with their parents the assets they have and to calculate how much zakat they should pay on them and whom they should pay it to and so on'. 'In this way', he points out, 'they learn what zakat is in practical terms. Besides, it is also a mathematical exercise for them and a way for them to discuss what they learn in the madrasa with their parents'.

Thirupanachi selects another chapter, this one on salaat or worship. While the previous texts simply instructed the children on the various physical movements and verses to be recited during prayers, the new ones involve doing this practically, the students going along with their teachers to the neighbourhood mosque and following him or her in offering their prayers.

The classes conducted by the KNM's madrasas are held for two hours a day, either in the early mornings or in the late afternoons, thus allowing their students to attend regular school simultaneously. These madrasas are till the seventh grade, and so far the CIER has produced new madrasa texts for students till the fifth grade. These include books for the teaching of basic Arabic and Islamic Studies. The CIER is presently working on texts for students in higher classes, which will be used once the KNM's madrasas go beyond the seventh grade. In the meantime, for these senior students it has prepared a curriculum to be used during their summer vacations. It is also almost over with work on a set of two texts for kindergarten students, which, Thirupanachi tells me, deal with such issues as respect for parents, elders and friends, personal hygiene and basic moral values, relayed through rhymes and stories.

Another area in which the CIER is doing pioneering work is that of madrasa teachers' training. It conducts madrasa teachers' training courses, of one month for new madrasa teachers and two-day refresher courses three times a year for existing madrasa teachers. Plans are also afoot to establish a separate madrasa teachers' training institute to popularize the use of modern teaching methods in the madrasas.

The KNM runs almost 100 Arabic Colleges or higher-level madrasas across Kerala that are geared to training ulema or Islamic scholars. Students join them after finishing at least their tenth grade, which means, Thirupanachi explains, that all of the KNM's ulema are also at least matriculates. Of the KNM's Arabic Colleges, three are affiliated to Government-run universities, and use the syllabus prescribed by these universities. The others are autonomous, their syllabus being framed by the KNM authorities. Students in most of these colleges also appear as private candidates for university-conducted examinations for the Afzal ul-Ulema degree, which is now recognized as equivalent to a Bachelor's of Arts degree. The CIER is engaged in preparing some new texts for these colleges that deal with new jurisprudential or fiqh issues so that would-be ulema that are being trained in these colleges are kept abreast of new developments.

The CIER's new madrasa books, Thirupanachi tells me, are now also being used in institutions other than the KNM's madrasas. Some English-medium schools are now using their texts for teaching Arabic, and the CIER is translating its Malayalam-language Islamic Studies texts into English so that they have a wider appeal outside Kerala as well. The books are also being used in the madrasas run by the Indian Islahi Centres, affiliated to the KNM, in several Gulf states where many Malayali Muslims live. In order to present its model of madrasa education, management and reform, the CIER recently organized two large conventions, one in Calicut and the other in New Delhi, that brought ulema and Muslim educationists from different parts of India, particularly the north, where many madrasas still remain stuck in a medieval groove. 'Nothing much has come out of these conventions in practical terms as yet', confesses Thirupanachi, 'but at least they provided us a means to get our message across and tell others about our efforts'.

All in all, then, a unique, trail-blazing approach to madrasa reform.