Madrassas (Arabic for ‘schools’) are traditional imam-led mosque schools that date back to Muhammad. They are often hotbeds for radical interpretations and communities where students are indoctrinated into a very conservative Islam.
As such, they are closely watched in most nations. In some Muslim countries the government controls the curriculum in the madrassas; in others, they control the curriculum in the state schools and in the mosque schools.
Learning involves memorizing portions of the Quran, the Hadith, and Sharia rulings by rote. Islamic education is recitation. The word ‘Quran’ comes from the word ‘recite’ and the root of ‘Hadith’ is ‘sayings.’ Reasoning is not valued or consulted in madrassa education. Islamic creativity is very limited because innovations are often deemed heretical by orthodox teachers.
Muslim parents must enroll their children in mosque training (madrassas) where male-only imams are responsible for explaining Islamic duties to all youth. Initially, both boys and girls are welcome, studying in combined classrooms. At puberty, girls are moved to women’s madrassas or withdrawn to work at home.
Imams do not follow a strict school calendar unless the madrassa follows a government program. After a student completes several years in the madrassa, many parents send their children to state schools while still requiring ongoing classes in the mosque.
The best madrassa graduates aim to become huffaz: those who can recite the entire Quran from memory. Some are groomed to become imams. Most madrassa education is woefully behind global educational levels. Only elite madrassas perform adequately. Wealthy parents typically send their children to famous madrassas overseas.
Usman’s parents can only afford to send their fifth son to a local madrassa. It is not as crowded as the state school. Dressed modestly, Usman attends every day but Saturday.
They all sit in clusters of boys or girls on vinyl mats reciting from the Qurans laying before them on bookstands. Each child owns a chalkboard for writing Quranic texts in Arabic. The imam and his assistants walk around with canes to enforce submission to the routines.
At lunch time Usman joins the boys begging with bowls in the streets, said to be in imitation of Muhammad who was once a poor orphan boy. A second adjacent classroom houses older boys studying Sharia law, conservative theology, and Islamic history.
Usman’s older brother Uthman’s madrassa is led by an imam who is very vocal in condemning local politics. Much of the course content for the upper madrassa levels is very political. Their parents hope Usman will graduate to this higher level and become an imam, but Usman dreams of going to state school and getting a permanent clerical job with the government.