Within South Asia, Bangladesh has apparently been most successful in implementing state-administered madrasa modernization: 30 per cent of secondary students in Bangladesh are in Aliya (reformed) madrasas. Given the current emphasis on madrasa reform programmes by many donor agencies, this study attempts to understand the nature of madrasa reforms in Bangladesh and to identify factors that led to acceptance of the programme within the religious establishment.
The study argues that Aliya madrasas have indeed been able to combine secular subjects with religious education. On the other hand, while some present day Aliya madrasas might have converted from the traditional Qomi madrasas, as argued by some authors, these state reformed madrasas have failed to displace the Qomi madrasas’ control over the Bangladeshi religious establishment. It is the Qomi madrasa students that are being trained to fill religious positions in Bangladeshi mosques. Aliya madrasa students, on the other hand, are being trained to compete for jobs teaching the children enrolled in the secular schools.
The control over religious authority and public interpretation of Islam remains in the hands of the ulema of the Qomi madrasas. Therefore, the study argues that it is misguided to see the Bangladeshi madrasa reform programme as a model for a more liberal interpretation of Islam, which is the focus of current reform efforts. Rather it is a very good model for making madrasas an effective tool for promoting education in conservative societies, where there is a clear demand for combining secular education with a strong religious input. Also, it argues that good financial incentives alone do not explain the rise of Aliya madrasas. The spread of the Aliya madrasa is embedded in a complex interaction between Islam and the Bengali language movement, in pre- and post- liberation (1971) politics, and in the support for the Aliya tradition within an influential segment of the Bangladeshi religious establishment, that is Jamiat-i-Islami. The paper thus argues that in studying madrasa reform programmes, it is important to be clear about the objectives of the reform. Modern interpretations of Islam within madrasas cannot be achieved simply through the introduction of secular subjects. They are only possible if the leadership of Qomi madrasas is successfully convinced of the need for a modern reinterpretation of religious texts and is supported in that process.
Working Paper No. 13, Religions and Development Research Programme, University of Birmingham, UK, 48 pp. ISBN: 0 7044 2567 X