Friday, April 17, 2009

A Madrasa with a Difference

by Yoginder Sikand
Located at Shanthapuram, a township in the Mallapuram district some eighty kilometers from Calicut, the Jamia al-Islamiya is one of the largest Islamic seminaries in Kerala. Established in 1955 by activists associated with the Kerala unit of the Jamaat-e Islami, and considerably expanded since then, the Jamia offers a wide range of courses and seeks to combine Islamic and modern subjects. Says V.K.Ali, the Rector of the Jamia, ‘We want our graduates to take up careers in a wide range of fields, not just as professional ulema, and this is reflected in our curriculum. So far, some 40 batches have passed out of our institution, and our graduates have taken on a range of jobs. Some are in journalism. Many are Arabic teachers in schools. Others work in the numerous institutions run by the Jamaat-e Islami throughout Kerala. Yet others are in the Gulf.’

Admission is provided to students who have finished at least the tenth grade of regular school and have passed the entrance examination held by the Jamia at its premises every year. ‘Unlike in much of the rest of India,’ Ali points, ‘in Kerala most ulema have a basic modern education as well.’ Students first go through a two-year Introductory or Tamhidi course, studying Urdu, Arabic, English, Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, Islamic History and Computer Applications. Thereafter, they can opt for a Bachelor’s Degree in either Usul ud-Din (‘The Principles of Din’) or the Shariah, each of three-year duration. English, Urdu, Arabic and Comparative Religions are part of the curriculum of both courses. BA level students must simultaneously enroll, as private candidates, for a graduate degree course in Calicut University in a subject of their choice. Most select English, Arabic or Sociology. Thereafter, students can do a two-year Master’s course in Quranic Studies, Hadith Studies or Islamic Mission (Dawah). The medium of instruction in all three courses is Arabic.

Education in most courses at the Jamia al-Islamiya is provided free of cost, as are boarding and lodging. Students doing their Master’s degree are provided with an additional monthly stipend of Rs.1250. At present, the Jamia has some 500 students, of whom around 65% are from Kerala and the rest from north India, mainly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Of the 50-odd teachers, mostly from Kerala, several hold Ph.D degrees, including from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in addition to some Indian universities.

Besides regular course work, students are encouraged to participate in a range of curricular activities. Malayalam journalists are regularly invited to speak to the students to encourage them to write for the press and to help improve their writing skills. The Jamia brings out three periodicals—Sandesham in Malayalam, Majallat ul-Jamia in Arabic and Dawn in English—which contain articles penned by students. Its sprawling library, containing some 30,000 books, is one of the largest collections of Islamic literature in south India.

Recent years have seen a marked rise in the popularity of and demand for ‘Islamic’ financial institutions. To promote further research in the field of Islamic economics and to cater to the increasing demand for personnel skilled in this discipline in India and abroad, in 2003 the Jamia launched a one-year post-graduate diploma course in Islamic Economics and Finance. ‘Ours is the only institution in south India to offer such a course,’ says course co-ordinator Muhammad Saleh. ‘We framed our very detailed syllabus in consultation with Islamic economics experts, and after examining the curriculum used for teaching the same subject in institutions in Malaysia and some Arab countries. Our syllabus has been validated by the Markfield Institute of Islamic Studies in the United Kingdom, a major centre for research in the field of Islamic Economics and Finance.’ The medium of instruction is English, and entrance is open to B.Com and BA (Economics) graduates. Given the demand for ‘Islamic economics’ specialists, particularly in the Gulf, the course has been attracting a steadily increasing number of students, who are willing to pay the Rs.10,000 course fee (in addition to boarding and lodging expenses). Presently, some 40 students are enrolled in the course, four of who are girls. One of these girls is a topper in Physics from Calicut University. Another student is a trained Chartered Accountant and four students are graduates of Islamic Studies. Most of the earlier students are now working in finance institutions in the Gulf.

Students in the Institute of Islamic Economics and Finance are expected to do a one month internship to gain practical experience, generally at an interest-free credit society or shariah-based firm in Kerala. They must also write a detailed thesis, in English, on a subject of their choice, which could be either theoretical or empirically-based. Muhammad Salih points to a cupboard neatly arranged with bulky blue-coloured bound volumes—almost fifty thesis that have so far been submitted by the students. I take a hurried glance at their titles, all of which seem fascinating to me and represent innovative research that few other Islamic institutions in India are engaged in. I note down a few titles: ‘The Economic Teachings of the Quran’, , ‘Shariah Investment Options in India and the Indian Capital Market’, ‘Acceptability of Mutual Funds as an Islamic Mode of Investment’, ‘Islamic Finance in Real Estate’, ‘Interest-Free Funds in Kerala: A Case Study of the Irshad Islamic Finance Cooperative, Melattur’, ‘Islamic Micro-Finance: A Case Study of the Welfare Society, Salamath Nagar, Pallikal’, ‘Flourishing of Shopping Malls: Boon or Bane?’, ‘Islamic Microfinance Through Self-Help Groups in Kerala’, ‘The Role of the Islamic Welfare Forum in Poverty Alleviation of Muslims in Edavankad’, ‘The Impact of Interest in Society: A Case Study of Tirur Municipality’. And so on.

The Jamia’s Rector enthusiastically tells me that his institution wants to give greater focus on research on contemporary issues. ‘We need our scholars to know about present-day conditions and challenges and about what inspiration we can get from Islam to deal with these.’ To promote scholarship in this area, the Jamia recently set up the Islamic Research Centre. At present it has five research fellows, all of them graduates of the institution. Each of whom gets a modest sum of money, plus boarding and lodging facilities, to work on a project on a subject of their own choice, which, after its completion, might be published as a book and made accessible to the general public. The topics on which the researchers are presently working reflect some crucial current debates about Islam: ‘Islamic Revivalism’, ‘Salafism’, ‘Islamic Banking’, ‘Islamic Economics’ and ‘Islam and Democracy’.

‘We need to address modern-day concerns and questions, not simply parrot whatever past writers have written, as is the case with many madrasas and Islamic publishing houses in India’, says a young research scholar who takes me around. And judging by the enthusiasm of the students I meet, that seems a mission that the Jamiya al-Islamia seems to be taking with considerable seriousness.

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