Sunday, March 28, 2010

REVIEW: Reading with Allah


Reading with Allah—Madrasas in West Bengal
Nilanjana Gupta
Rs. 595
Pp 192
ISBN: 978-0-415-54459-7

Based on extensive fieldwork and archival records, this book traces the emergence and flourishing of madrasas and the myriad ways in which they impact upon local Muslim communities, especially in West Bengal. It also addresses issues of identity, ‘secular’ education and gender in this context, while exploring the myths that surround these institutions. Amongst other things, it interrogates why Muslim communities prefer sending their sons to government schools to receive a secular education, while the daughters are sent to madrasas. 

Much has been written on the Indian madrasas or Islamic seminaries, but because the most influential madrasas in the country are concentrated in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, many of these writings tend to project north Indian madrasas as representative of madrasas in the country as a whole. Consequently, patterns and changing trends in madrasa education in the rest of India have been scantily dealt with, if at all, in the existing literature.

This well-documented work by Nilanjana Gupta, Professor of English at the Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is an in-depth study of the madrasa system of education in West Bengal, where some thirty per cent of the population are Muslims. Despite their formidable numbers and the fact that the so-called ‘progressive’ Left Front has been in power in West Bengal for decades now, the bulk of the Muslims in the state are economically, educationally and socially far behind the other communities, including even the Scheduled Castes.
The book begins with an engaging discussion about debates, set in motion with the advent of colonial rule in Bengal, about the usefulness or otherwise of madrasa education. Gupta points out that in pre-colonial Bengal, as in much of the rest of India, madrasas were centres not just of Islamic learning but also provided education in subjects such as Persian, Mathematics, Sciences and Medicine that were indispensable for would-be administrators and other government officials. Several madrasas were also open to Hindus of the ‘higher’ castes. The advent of the British and the new educational system that they set in place, she writes, marked the beginning of a rigid educational dualism, with secular or ‘modern’ subjects now being taught in Western-style schools, while madrasas began to narrow their focus, being restricted largely to Islamic subjects. This, in turn, led to lively debates among the Bengali Muslim community about the usefulness of madrasa education, whose echoes continue to reverberate even today.

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