A Madrasa with A Difference: An Educational Oasis in the Kutch Desert (Gujarat)
Yoginder Sikand, May 22, 2008

Kutch, in northern Gujarat, on the border with Pakistan's Sindh province, is, in terms of area, India's largest district. Much of it is uninhabited, consisting of vast stony, sandy and uncultivable plains that stretch till the horizon, interspersed with low-lying rocky outcrops. More than a third of Kutch's population is Muslim, comprising of over three dozen endogamous caste-like groups. Muslims are concentrated more in the northern tehsils of Kutch, particularly on the fringes of the Great Rann, a vast desert, much of which turns into a massive inaccessible swamp during the monsoons.

The Muslims of rural Kutch are, by and large, small peasants and impoverished cattle-grazers. Their literacy rate is no more than 15 per cent, and even among those who are officially classified as 'literate', many can only read and write their names. The female literacy rate among rural Kutchi Muslims is estimated to be less than 3 per cent.

It is in this context that the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia, the only large madrasa associated with the Deobandi school of thought in Kutch, is engaged in pioneering educational work. It is located on the outskirts of Bhuj, the largest town in the district. It was founded in 1986 by the now aged Muhammad Ilyas of Surat, a graduate of the famed Mazahir ul-Ulum madrasa in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He first visited the interiors of Kutch on a tour with activists of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim reformist movement. The stark poverty and the pervasive illiteracy that he saw led him to want to establish a school in Kutch, which would provide both Islamic as well as modern education to children from poor Kutchi Muslim families. In 1986, he started the madrasa in Bhuj, with just five children. Today, it has almost 300 boys on its rolls from different parts of Kutch, mainly from very impoverished families.

The amiable Maulvi Ghulam Muhammad Qasmi, a wonderful host, is the rector of the madrasa. He insists that we—myself and four other friends—spend the nights in his madrasa during our week-long visit to Kutch. Originally from Barmer, a district in the western Rajasthan desert bordering Kutch, he graduated from the Deoband madrasa in 1984. He has been associated with the Bhuj madrasa for almost two decades now.

The course of study in the madrasa consists of both traditional Islamic as well as modern subjects. The madrasa provides Islamic education till the fourth grade, or Arabi Chaharum, after which students, if they wish to carry on with the subject, can transfer to a higher-level madrasa outside Kutch, elsewhere in Gujarat or beyond. At the same time as the students study the traditional Islamic subjects (Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, Arabic Grammar and so on) in the madrasa, they also enroll in the Madani Primary School, located in the same campus, which provides modern education from the first to the seventh grade. The government-approved curriculum is employed in the school. The timings of the madrasa are suitably adjusted to enable the children to study in the school as well.

'By structuring our course in this way', Maulvi Qasmi explains, 'we have left the choice open to our students to decide what sort of education they want to pursue after they finish the fourth year Arabic course and the seventh year regular school course. They can choose to carry on in a higher-level madrasa or else join the eighth standard in a regular school'. Several students of the madrasa have selected the latter option, and some of them have gone on to complete high school, and fifteen, an impressive figure by rural Kutchi standards, have graduated from colleges.

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'Many people have a wrong impression that the ulema are all opposed to modern education. If that was the case, obviously we would not have a regular school in the same campus as the madrasa. Nor would we make it compulsory for our students to attend it', says Maulvi Qasmi. He adds that the opposition to the school initially came, not from his fellow maulvis, but from the concerned government authorities. They tried to create all sorts of hurdles to begin with, refusing the necessary permission, even by going so far as to say that the school was not needed at all! Finally, in 2003, after considerable effort, the madrasa authorities managed to get government recognition for the school.

In contrast to most other madrasas, the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia has both madrasa-trained maulvis and college-trained lecturers on the rolls of its staff. Its seventeen teachers of Islamic subjects have at least an alimiyat, if not fazilat, degree. The six teachers in the school attached to the madrasa have mostly done their B.A.s, and some also have a bachelor's degree in Education. So far, the madrasa has produced 47 certified ulema, who, after finishing the fourth grade here, went on to complete their alimiyat or fazilat degrees from madrasas outside Kutch. Almost all of them are now teaching in madrasas and schools in different parts of Kutch, thus playing an important role in educational progress in this educationally deprived district.

The madrasa has a vast collection of almost 60,000 Islamic texts in its library, probably the largest in Kutch. It also has some 70 delicately crafted hand-written Arabic and Persian manuscripts, some several centuries old, including Quranic texts, which Maulvi Qasmi proudly displays to me. Some of these were recovered from an ancient dry well in Bhuj, and others were procured from the custodian of a local Sufi shrine.

The madrasa is unique in another sense: it is actively associated with a secular NGO, the Ahmedabad-Jan Vikas, headed by the noted human rights activist Gagan Sethi. Jan Vikas, which, in collaboration with the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Hind, runs a network of non-formal schools, called Jeevan Talim centres, in more than thirty Muslim settlements across Kutch. Many of these centres are located in the premises of Jamiat-run village maktabs, and several of their teachers for subjects such as Gujarati and Mathematics are also maulvis who teach in these maktabs. The joint-secretary of the Jamiat's Gujarat unit, Noor Muhammad Raima, is also the secretary of the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia madrasa, and he is one of the overseers of this educational project.

Interestingly, girls and boys study in the Jeevan Talim centres. Some centres also have Hindu and Dalit students as well as women instructors are women including some non-Muslims. There are also several women in the Jan Vikas team who work with Jamiat leaders in supervising the activities of the centres. Students from several of these centres have taken admission in the Bhuj madrasa to carry on with Islamic and modern education.

I ask Maulvi Qasmi what he feels about working with a non-Muslim NGO, especially since many of its volunteers, who regularly interact with the ulema involved in the project, are women.

'That's no problem at all', he tells me, to my pleasant surprise. 'We believe that the work we want must be done properly, no matter by whom.' 'Initially', he adds, 'we did have some hesitations and misconceptions about working with a non-Muslim NGO as we did not have the experience of this before. But, after several meetings with Jan Vikas activists all our fears were put to rest. Now, we regularly meet them and give them whatever help they want because we trust them.'