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What are madrasa students actually learning?

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By Ashif Islam Shaon and Shohel Mamun January 19, 2018

The fourth part of a six-part series which takes an in-depth look inside Bangladesh’s madrasa education system

The main goal of the two major types of madrasa education in Bangladesh – Qawmi and Alia – is to make the students proficient in Islamic history, religion, heritage, culture, language and customs.

In the Qawmi madrasa education system, which has the larger number of students in the country, the sole focus is learning about the religion. As a result, they do not develop any critical thinking skills and are unable to enrol further into highly specialized subjects such as medicine, science and engineering for masters degree.

The Alia madrasa education system was introduced to produce skilled graduates by providing a unified education with religious knowledge. In 1987, humanities and science were introduced in their curriculum.

At the graduate and post-graduate levels, Alia madrasa students are taught specialized subjects such as Arabic literature, Hadith and the Quran.

What is in the Qawmi syllabus?

The Qawmi madrasa education system has six levels. The pre-primary level is called Maktab Hefzul Quran where children learn to recite and memorize the Quran.

The second level, Ebtedayee, is primary schooling where children are taught to read and write in Arabic, Urdu and Persian. They are also taught Bangla, English and mathematics briefly.

After 10 years of learning, the students sit for the Mutawassitah (SSC) examination and then the HSC level exams.

The students who complete these two stages learn about the Quran and read accompanying explanations such as the Hadith, Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic history.

They also read Arabic, Persian and Urdu classics, according to “Political Economy of Madrassa Education in Bangladesh: Genesis, Growth, and Impact,” a research work by Abul Barkat.

A small number of students from those madrasas study until the honours and masters level.

Qawmi madrasas have recently made some minor changes to their syllabus, but they are not sufficient. Their scholars should make more changes to the syllabus to be significantly updated.”

Jahirul Islam, assistant professor, Arabic department, DU


In the past, degrees conferred by the Qawmi system lacked accreditation or official recognition. However, the government recently moved to recognize the Qawmi degrees after most of these madrasas were brought under the privately-run Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh education board.

Even then, they are mostly given a religion-based education; in their Dawra-e-Hadith (post-graduate) level, the highest level of education in the Qawmi system, the students are only taught elaborately on the Hadith.

In the two-year degree, which has been given the same status as general education’s masters degree, the students learn Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of Hadith compiled by Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, a collection of Hadith compiled by Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj al-Naysaburi, and some other Hadiths.

Analyzing the syllabus, it was found that although the whole education system – other than the Quran and Hadith in various stages beginning from the primary level – contains subjects such as language, mathematics, science, economics, political science, history and philosophy, these topics are only taught on surface level to give the students just a minimum idea.

However, political science, philosophy and history are taught from a religious angle. On some levels, science education is absent and other non-religion subjects are vastly neglected.

As an example, the syllabus, formulated by the Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh from preschool to Class VIII, does not have science studies. Almost all of the books taught in these classes, which are formulated by the board, are based on the Quran and the Arabic language.

Apart from Arabic, Bangla, mathematics and English, the students are also taught Urdu in Class II. The Urdu book named “Urdu ka Qaida,” which is meant to teach the students Urdu alphabets, is published by Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam of Lahore, Pakistan.

In Class II, the students are taught on primary ideas of geography and sociology and the main focus is on Diniyat and Tajbid, Islamic Fiqh and Tahzeeb.

Bangla and English grammar have been added to the Class III syllabus along with other subjects. There, Urdu is taught from another book from the same Pakistan publisher. Apart from this, Persian has been added at Class V.

In this education system, the history of Bangladesh is absent in Classes VI, VII and VIII syllabuses. While the syllabus of preschool, Class I and Class II has no history lessons, Class III has a 50-mark course on history, and Classes IV and V also have one book each for 50-mark final exam on history.

In Class VI, from where lower secondary level starts, students are taught “Tareekh Ul Islam,” a 251-page book on Islamic history written in Urdu by Shaykh Muhammad Mian.

In Class VII, students are taught “Seerat Khatim Ul Ambiya” by Mufti Muhammad Shafi, also in Urdu. In Class VIII, students are taught “Tareekh Millat Part 1 – Khilafat-e-Rashida” which is based on Indian Islamic movements.

In the two-year secondary education level, the history of Bangladesh is also absent. The syllabus does not have the history of the Sub-continent, but includes the history of Khilafat-e-Banu Umayya, Khilafat-e-Abbasiya (Abbasid Caliphate).

In Class 10, they are taught the history of Khilafat Usmania, Fatimid Caliphate and Khilafat-e-Banu Umayya.

At the higher secondary level, students are taught about the Indian Sub-continent’s history for 100 marks in Class XI. In honours second year, they are taught about Deoband movement, history, tradition and their contribution.

Jahirul Islam, assistant professor of Arabic department in Dhaka University, said the syllabus of Qwami madrasas is formulated by themselves. The authorities of the madrasas or their education board do not take suggestions from the government or educationists. This education is not sufficient to cope with the world and daily life.

“They have recently made some minor changes, but they are not sufficient. Their scholars should make more changes to the syllabus to be significantly updated,” he added.

What do students learn in Alia madrasa?

Analyzing the syllabus of Alia madrasa education system, it was found that at the general department, students are taught Islamic studies, social sciences and arts. It includes the Quran, Arabic, Islamic history,  and information and communications technology (ICT).

At the science department, they are taught Islamic studies and physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and ICT. The Mujabbid section teaches Tajbid along with other general subjects.

The science and social science students have to learn four courses on the Quran, Hadith, Islamic laws and Arabic along with the sciences and social science subjects.

The science department have students all the way up to higher secondary level, and at Dakhil and Alim levels, it does not have business studies.

The students have to pass five stages in the 16-year education period from Ebtedayee to Kamil, which is equivalent to Class I to masters in the general education system.

At the Ebtedayee (primary) level, teachers emphasize reading and memorizing the Quran. The other subjects are fundamentals of Islam, Arabic, Bangla, mathematics, history, geography and general science.

At the Dakhil (secondary) level, students are still made to learn the reading and memorizing of the Quran along with the explanations of Quranic verses. At this stage, students are also taught on Islamic philosophy, Islamic law and theories, their usages and Arabic.

At the Alim level, which is equivalent to the higher secondary education, students can choose either the sciences or the arts. In both the streams, students are taught the Quran and Hadith, Islamic law, Sharia law, succession law and the history of Islam.

In the arts department, they learn about Arabic and Persian language, while in the science department, they are taught physics, chemistry and other subjects.

At the Fazil (honours) level, students are taught in the arts and science subjects separately. In the Kamil (masters) level, the students are taught only religion. They get a specialized education on Hadith, Tafsir, Islamic law and Arabic literature.

“Till 2008, the Madrasa Education Board formulated syllabus and conducted the Fazil and Kamil degrees exams. Since 2009, the Islamic University in Kushtia took over from them,” said Prof AKM Saif Ullah, chairman of Bangladesh Madrsasa Education Board in Dhaka. “Later in 2015, the responsibilities went to the Arabic University.”

He claimed that the Alia madrasa system is modern and subjects such as science and IT has been included.

Jahirul Islam, assistant professor of the Arabic department in Dhaka University, however, thinks there is still scope to modernize the Alia system.


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