The traditional Islamic schools known as madrasas have been in the spotlight in recent times with supporters defending them as essential seats of Islamic knowledge and critics denouncing them as hotbeds of extremist ideology. Established to disseminate Islamic knowledge, Bangladesh’s madrasas represent a diverse array of ideological orientations and ways of operating. This is the first of a six-part series in which the Dhaka Tribune takes an in-depth look inside Bangladesh’s madrasa education systemA total of 68 madrasas dot the eight kilometre stretch of highway going from Jatrabari to Kachpur.
There are 66 Qawmi madrasas, privately owned, while only 2 Alia madrasa exist that are government affiliated.
These privately owned Qawmi madrasas do not receive financial assistance from the government and are only able to operate with the aid of contributions and donations made by the locals or patrons.
There are however some exceptions such as madrasas that run an orphanage and are given financial aid strictly for the use of the orphanage. The madrasas that incorporate orphanages are sometimes given financial aid, following background checks and screening by government officials. It should be pointed out that some institutions exploit this loophole.
Dhaka Tribune has found there are 47 schools and colleges that enjoy government support and are situated in the vicinity of the same eight kilometer highway.
Forming an Alia madrasa requires government permission. Until 1970, there were an estimated 2,721 Alia madrasas in the country, as per Prof Abul Barkat, author of Political Economy of Madrasa Education in Bangladesh published in 2011.
In 2008, the total number of Alia madrasas stood at 14,152.
Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), however, says that as of 2015 total of 9,319 Alia madrasas were operating in the country. Of them three are government and others are non-government. The number of total students are 2,409,373.
BANBEIS keeps no data of the students and number of madrasa of Qawmi stream.
Prof Barakat’s research indicates that between 1950-2008 the number of madrasas increased rapidly—from 4,430 to 54,130. This includes both Qawmi and Alia madrasas. The Qawmi ones increased 13 times and Alia 11 times in the 60 years span.
Between 1991-2000 the growth rate was highest when 15,000 new madrasas were added across the country.
Discussions with researchers, politicians and teachers points to religion being politicized and belief systems becoming entrenched, bolstering the grown rate of madrasa in Bangladesh.
The government’s negligence to introduce proper education guidelines has also had an impact.
Mawlana Rafiqul Alam, Principle of Monshipara Hafijiya Madrasa and Orphanage in Gazipur said to Dhaka Tribune: “The objectives of Qawmi madrasa education and general education system are totally different. People who want to pursue religious work opt for madrasa”.
Qawmi madrasas are operating under more than a dozen education boards. A handful of Qawmi madrasas are not under any board. Then there are Maktabs, which are often attached to a mosque. This primary type of institutions are being established to tutor children in reading, writing, grammar and Islamic studies such as Qira’at (Quranic recitation) at rural and town areas.
Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh (Befaq) or Bangladesh Qawmi madrasa education board is the most popular regulatory board of Qawmi madrasas. Under Befaq there are approximately, 5,451 madrasa as per their website.
“A vast number of people in our society want to build madrasa because of their personal religious beliefs,” added Rafiqul.
Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh (Befaq), aims to encourage dignitaries to form more madrasas in their communities. They aim to promote Islam and claims that as a result, almost all villages in the country have a madrasa.
Explaining why madrasas are popular, Rafiqul said: “Madrasa education is significantly cheaper than general education. In addition, they also offer residential facilities which otherwise are not available in normal schools at cheap cost,” he added.
The interesting fact of Qawmi madrasa is, they reject state funding and instead rely on donations from the public to run their activities.
Funding and management of Qawmi madrasasEvery Qawmi madrasas has a managing committee named Majlis-ash-Shura consisting of the head of madrasa, its teachers and locally respected people and an executive committee with key members. The committee chief and Mohtamim (principal of the madrasa) are the key persons to take care of the madrasa fund.
The financial source of a Qawmi madrasa can be divided in two categories—internal and foreign sources, according to the book by Professor Barkat.
Affluent people donate money to the fund as Zakat (a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation or tax), Fitra (religious tax paid on the day when Muslims break the fasting period at the end of the month of Ramadan) and Sadaqa (voluntary charity).
Besides, earning from waqf properties (donated assets), cultivating crops in rural areas, fees given by the students are also sources of income. People also donate skins of sacrificial animals to these madrasas.
Students, teachers, staff members also collect donations from the houses, sometimes railway and bus stations and give receipts to the donors. In the past, people also used to donate paddy to these madrasa and their orphanage, who now donate money generally.
The foreign funds are mainly collected from the expatriate Bangladeshis in Middle East and European countries. Some foreign organizations also donate money but these donations normally are kept secret.
Prof Barakat said most madrasa authorities are reluctant to open their mouths about the source of funding.
The Qawmi madrasa collects money for several funds—general fund, lillah (for poor students) fund, fund to buy books, fund for infrastructure construction. A standard Qawmi madrasa spends Tk25 lakhs in a year on average.
The financial structure of Alia madrasaThe financial structure of Alia madrasa is regulated by management committees consisting of Upazila Nirbahi officer (UNO), who plays the role of president, backed up by an education officer, madrasa principal, teachers, guardians and locally influential people.
The whole financial system is being monitored by the Education Ministry, education board and madrasa board. The executive committee approve expenses and local education regulatory office of the government. All transactions are operated by a bank.
An Alia madrasa gets funds from the government’s revenue and development budget. They also may get personal donations. Teachers, committee members and students help to collect these personal donations.
This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune