Course Correction

Kashmir’s seminary network is acknowledging the concerns but it would require strong societal backing to encourage the Dar-ul-Ulooms’ to start producing skilled people so that their graduates have enough space for decent livelihoods outside the non-remunerative faith circuit, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

Qazi Muhammad Imran in his office at a Srinagar seminary

Once upon a time, Nasir A Nadwi, now 25, a resident from Handwara, was unable to deposit his earnings in his own bank account. Then, enrolled in a Srinagar seminary, he would be always in distress and feel embarrassed. He would hardly interact with people living outside the seminary, he was enrolled. Finally, he fled from the seminary one day.

Nasir was keen to learn what the seminary taught. At the same time, however, he wanted to learn the basics of other subjects like mathematics, science, and English.  Understanding his urge, his parents admitted him to Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama at Lucknow. Seven years later, he now pursues post-graduation in Arabic language and literature at the Islamic University of Science and Technology. Now he leads prayers in one of the Masjids in Awantipora.

Nasir’s education at the university is a struggle in itself. He leads prayers that help him fund his education. He aspires to qualify NET/ JRF so that he could be more independent and pursue his higher education. The last time when the University sought semester fees, he had to request his Masjid employers to extend some advance facilities to him. Despite being a student, he is being respected for being a fluent Haafiz – a person remembering the Quran by heart, and Aalim.

“I do not know how Imams who have families survive on few thousand rupees paid by their Masjids,” Nasir said. “I do not want to be paid for leading prayers but presently it is a compulsion.”

Month of Fasting

These days, contrary to the routine, there is no humming of verses of the Quran; no loud parroting of verses, no bantering among Darul-ul-Ulooms students as the month of Ramzan means holiday after the yearlong academic session. The curricular activities in Kashmir’s seminaries are restricted to 11 months between Shawal and Shaban, the two months of Islamic colander. The final examinations are in the month of Shaban, a month before the Ramzan, which is followed by holidays and Eid and finally new admissions and new academic sessions which start post-Eid.

Resource issues often prevent the seminaries from having flexibility in managing their affairs.

In the chain of the city’s various seminaries, only a handful of students were busy dusting up the carpets, playing in courtyards, and reciting the Quran. The institution heads said the younger students go home and stay with their families for the month, unlike the senior students who lead prayers in nearby mosques.

For the month of fasting, Kashmir is witnessing massive demand for the Hufaaz, people who remember the Quran by heart. Mass surge owes to the trend that in almost every mosque, the entire Quran is being recited in the special Ramzan prayers, the Taraveh. Usually, every mosque management requires two Hafiz’s – one to lead the prayers and another to manage corrections, if any, and to replace the Imam in case of any medical emergency. This is perhaps why the seminaries certify their students in anticipation of this month. This month is s a sort of placement for them.

Students of a Kashmir seminary were busy recitation of the Quran in two groups on April 15, 2022. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Hoping To Replicate

It is in these seminaries where the new generation of Muslim scholars, Imams and architects of new seminaries get birth.

“I dream of setting up a Darul-ul-Uloom like this in my village where the people have less understanding of their religion. I want to serve my faith like my teachers,” says, Shabir Ahmed, 25, a resident of Kokernag, who is a Hafiz. Wearing a skull cap, mask over his wiry little goat beard, Khan dress, and plastic strap watch, at Lalbazar’s Darul-ul-Uloom Qasmiya, is in the final years of his eight years course of moulviyat.

In the initial three years, Quran, Arabic language, and grammar is taught followed by Hadith (life and saying of the prophet) and Fiqah (jurisprudence), principles of Tafsir (interpretation of the Quran), and other courses, which are completed in eight years.

Shabir choose to study at this seminary because he desired to know further about his religion and become a seminary teacher. Presently, he is pursuing a master’s in Arabic at Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANU) while at his Undergraduate level he passed from Kashmir University in private mode and had schooling from JKBOSE.

Inadequate resources prevent inmates from having better hostel facilities. The challenging environment, however, helps them understand life faster and better.

Most of the people, Shabir said, believe that those joining seminaries will not be able to pursue contemporary education. “People think their kids will be left behind in mundane affairs by getting admitted to a seminary,” Shabir said, insisting, “It is just a fallacy.”

Enrolment

A general belief is that most of the students enrolled in seminaries are either from economically weaker sections of society, far off places, or destitute. Getting knowledge of faith attracts them to the seminaries, which offer a dignified shelter and food, and impart them education too.

This may be a majority but there are students having both their parents alive and their families not in the destitution of any kind. For them, it is a matter of choice as they prefer education related to faith over contemporary knowledge.

Entry to a major seminary in Srinagar

Muhammad Umair, a resident of Bannihal is in the seventh year of his course. A class fifth school dropout, he was influenced by the people who had memorized the Quran. He was not interested in contemporary education. “I memorized the Quran and also want to get into teaching Quran and disseminate knowledge like my teachers,” Umair said, insisting that all his siblings have completed formal schooling and pursued degrees.

A Seminary Life

But to settle into a disciplined routine in a madrasa’s is not easy for everyone.

One has to get up early in the morning, pray five times a day, recite the Quran, learn, re-learn, teach, attend classes, sleep, and play and learn again. Those who have to memorize the Quran have to wake up before the Fajr prayers to learn the Quran, followed by its recitation, and breakfast in the common dining hall.

In the first shift, which usually lasts for four hours, there are five classes. In the afternoon shift, there are three classes. Once free from classes by the afternoon, there is a break from Asr to Maghrib prayers during which students exercise and play. After lunch, they are also allowed to have a nap. After Isha, there are late-night discussions among students on books they are studying especially in the Arabic language department. Students memorizing the Quran, however, are made to sleep early as they have to wake during the wee hours. There are no machine alarms, but teachers act as human alarms.

Students who get inured to this discipline, follow this schedule throughout their lives. “We have given our life to madrasa. If we go to some other field it will be an injustice to what we have learned here,” Umair and Shabir said. “We pursue this knowledge because we want it.”

Are these students getting enrolled into seminaries just because they want to earn some money to live their lives? “Have you seen a Moulvis or the pass outs of the madrasas, hafiz, protesting over monetary benefits, or dying of suicide?” asked Umair. “The fact is that we have fewer needs and curtailed desires.”

“When any Hafiz or Moulvi leads prayers, he is paid Rs 5000-10000,” said Ahmed but they live dignified lives with such a little income. Part of this could be the outcome of their harsh seminary discipline and their modest background. This also is a fact, as Ahmad pointed out that in his last eight years, he hardly saw any student from Srinagar memorising the Quran!

A Dar ul Ulkmoom in Srinagar with one of the best infrastructures.

The Flip Side

Though Srinagar is dotted with a chain of seminaries, the best critique of these institutions also comes from the same space that feeds them. People averse to sending their wards to the seminaries say madrasas teaching method is obsolete as the seminaries are technology averse and avoid the complete knowledge basket. Even the seminary managers admit they are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The classrooms are far away from the Information Technology and students are rarely permitted to carry cell phones, especially smartphones. “Somehow we manage to use but with a lurking fear of getting caught red-handed which involves seizing of phones and other punishments,” one student admitted. When the pandemic dictated the necessity of using the phone, seminaries stopped and those who were operational suggested students use parents’ phones under their guidance. “The phones are allowed for seniors but only ‘simple phones’ without internet.” The managers may require to understand the reality that cell phones become the knowledge houses only with internet facilities.

Teachers Matter

At another madrasa, again in Srinagar, the entire ecosystem surrounds the teacher, Qazi Muhammad Imran. His grandfather had graduated from Darul-ul-Uloom Deoband in 1920 and a generation later, Qazi Imran, now 39, decided to follow his grandpa. After his tenth class, Qazi joined Dar-ul-Uloom Raheemiyyah and later went to Darul-ul-Uloom Deoband. Now he has masters in Arabic and Urdu.  Since 2007, he teaches at a Srinagar seminary.

Muhammad Umar is one of his darling students because he has done nearly 20000 revisions – reciting it fully – of the Quran since 2007.

Now Umar, 22, leads prayers at a local Masjid. He recites Quran. A resident of Khanmoh, Umar is a Hafiz and a Qari, a person knowing Qirat, the art of powerful recitation. He is in the fifth year of Aalmiyat of his eight-year course. It is his eleventh year at the seminary. Youngest of the six siblings, Umar had dropped out in the fourth primary and devoted his life to the knowledge of religion.

Muhammad Yaseen , 23, a resident of Baramulla, who joined a Srinagar seminary at the peak of the pandemic is basically a student of Darul-ul-Uloom Deoband (UP), a major institution he joined a year after dropping out in the sixth class. Now, a Hifz and he has completed many courses.

Similarly, Suhail Ahmed, 24, a resident of Budgam, left his routine schooling in sixth class and joined the madrasa. Now a Hafiz, he has completed his Qirat course and is now in the sixth year of Almiyat. Joining the seminary was his father’s decision. Unlike him, his other siblings are pursuing different degrees in different universities.

Management of this seminary is adding a new block to its existing building, which will add huge space for the inmates.

Happy that he is able to impart knowledge to the new generation, Imran said learning this knowledge is a conscious decision and not a compulsion. “Our life of simplicity is being misinterpreted as the life of penury which it is not,” Imran said. “We are content with what we have. I have a family, and my kids study in a private school. I have performed Hajj with the salary I get.”

Presently around 450 students from Jammu and Kashmir are enrolled in the institution where Imran teaches. “Technically, these are the students rejected by the education sector and then we pick up, impart them education and make them good human beings,” Imran said. “Like doctors and engineers, our students fill the spiritual space of the society.”

Peripheral Affair

In another madrasa, Mufti Nisar Qasmi is surrounded by a stack of books and lifts his head from books to address frequent phone calls from people with questions regarding various issues pertaining to Islam. He leads the Darul-ul-Uloom Qasmiya. Regretting that very few students from Srinagar enrol in these institutions, Qasmi said people believe their children will be rendered useless and may not have a life if they join these seminaries.

“Thousands of students who study and leave madrasas have never protested for employment or were distressed in search for the job,” Qasmi said. He said the seminary curriculum is designed to make the best human beings.

In his Darul-ul-Uloom almost 300 students are enrolled, of whom 60 per cent are from modest backgrounds. He has instances of the boys rendered destitute by the situation, whom he enrolled in his seminary.

Unlike many others, Qasmi does admit the crises the students of seminaries face once they move out. By and large, they end up leading prayers at Masjids at modest salaries and for most of their lives, they struggle to come out the poverty’s vicious circle. “Masjids absorb these students,” Qasmi said. “This crisis will continue till people would pay singers in marriage ceremonies more than the people who would oversee the nikkah.”

Reforms Required

Echoing Qasmi’s views, Mufti Younis, the head of 21-year-old Markazi Darul Uloom Dawoodia Kolipora Khanyar where more than 135 students from different areas of Kashmir are enrolled, said his seminary’s main purpose is to work for the welfare of society and produce good human beings.

“Most of the students who come to us are school rejects,” Mufti said. “Once they pass out, they are sought by Masjids to lead prayers at paltry sums of Rs 8000-1000.” He said they are not being trained at seminaries for materialistic pursuits.

Off late, however, there is a realisation that these seminaries may have to help their students in facing the challenges of life better. They even suggest changes in the curriculum. Nadvi says when someone leaves a seminary he should not be a misfit in society. These interventionists suggest an updated curriculum, use of IT on campuses and processes that guide students in choosing an area that can help them earn better. They work on an old dictum: “Give your students a skill to sell or they will sell what you teach them.”

Mufti Mohammad Sultan said that there is a movement going on among the Muslim scholars in Kashmir about the curriculum and the changes it requires. “One radical idea being put forward is that we should enrol the inmates in nearest schools and encourage them to study 10 to 4 and later when they report back, we will teach them our curriculum,” Mufti said. “This will help them have adequate knowledge of both the streams.” In his seminary, Mufti said the basic qualification for enrollment is 10+2. “This helps a lot,” he said.

The last time was in 2009-10 when the National Monitoring Committee for Minorities Education (NMCME) suggested the creation of a corpus that will fund the linkage of seminary set-up with modern education. It was on basis of this that Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrassas (SPQEM) was conceived. In Jammu and Kashmir, it became news in 2011 fall when the list of beneficiaries was made public by the HRD ministry.

This triggered a controversy as managers of some of these seminaries said the list included seminaries not getting any support from the government and even non-existing seminaries have been listed. The list comprised 362 seminaries spread across the erstwhile state. It was not immediately known if the scheme still exists.

Pandemic Stress

The new ideas are floated at a time when the seminaries are under intense pressure on the financial front, mostly because of Covid19. Hafiz Molvi Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a resident of Baramulla, a pass out of Darul-Ul-Uloom Deoband, now heads Darul-ul-Uloom at Bijhama, Boniyar for the last more than seven years. A postgraduate in Urdu, he has almost 70 students.

Bhat said his seminary requires Rs 18 lakh a year but the pandemic crisis led to a fall in donations as a result of which the seminary was under a debt of Rs 3 lakh. This, he said, coincided with the seminary purchasing some land to expand the infrastructure. “Almost 90 per cent of our students come from modest backgrounds so we have no option but to rely on philanthropists who have been making this institution run for all these years,” Bhat added.

The stakeholders believe that though the situation is not hugely favourable, they will have to push the changes in order to make their students’ society ready. They understand the polar differences between the two systems of education and they say they also understand the situation prevailing on the ground.

Syed Shahid Rashid, 35, who is a teacher at Law College said that many companions of the prophet and prominent Islamic scholars were also merchants, traders, and other professionals and served Islam. But the curriculum and syllabus of Darul-ul-Ulooms limit the scope and opportunities for its students to explore other avenues of life and only end up as Imams of Masjids.

“Imam is not a profession. We do not need professionals to lead the funeral prayers either,’ Rashid said. “Surviving on donations cannot be a permanent position. These seminaries must reorient and become empowering institutions on the economic front as well.”

Nadvi second these concerns must start getting addressed. “One day, when I will settle in my life, will not be possible for me to survive on the paltry sum that the Masjid Committee gives me as salary every month,” he asked.

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