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The urgency of reforming madrasa education in Myanmar

The Muslim minority of Myanmar faces exclusion caused by discriminatory policy and a separate school system. A reform of the Islamic schools (madrasas) is urgently needed.

Ishak Mia Sohel
28 November 2014
Panthay mosque in Mandalay.  Wagaung/Wikipedia. Some Rights reserved

Panthay mosque in Mandalay. Wagaung/Wikipedia. Some Rights reserved

Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist country, with Muslims estimated to account for about 5% of the total population. Most of the Muslims are of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent and have been living in Myanmar for centuries. In fact, they have made a significant contribution to the country’s economic growth by engaging themselves in small and medium-sized businesses.

However, Muslim community still lags behind in the race of access to mainstream education in the country. This is partly because of the state’s discriminatory policy towards ethnic minorities in accessing basic rights, which led to a substantial downgrading of their status in society. Education is one of the sectors deeply affected by such discrimination, in which Muslims often face severe restrictions on their right to education. Especially after the military took power, it has been relatively difficult for Muslim children to get enrolled in state-run schools, due to the existence of many hidden barriers to their entry. The 1982 citizenship law was instrumental in officially denying the right of Burmese nationality to the Rohingya Muslim community and reserving secondary education for citizens only. This exclusion rendered them unable to attend government schools beyond primary education.

Muslims themselves are also to be criticised for not embracing the formal education offered by the state-run schools, particularly those legally recognized for Myanmar citizens. Most Muslim parents still don’t prefer to send their children to public schools where the teaching curriculum is not affiliated to any particular religion or faith, except Buddhism. They fear that a secular education might dilute their children's moral values of Islam. Moreover, the exclusion and fear have opened a space that madrasas (Islamic schools) have filled. Today, education for Muslim children in Myanmar is largely provided by madrasas. In Yangon and other major cities, a few well-off Muslim children are able to attend the privately-run English medium schools, but for the education of the majority of the children the madrasa remains the only alternative. 

A madrasa education

Throughout Myanmar, there are hundreds of madrasas currently operating with the support of domestic and foreign donations. The exact number is difficult to determine. A Ministry of Defence survey of religious institutions carried out in 1997 by the military government found that there were 759 madrasas, or full-time Islamic schools, in Myanmar. All these Islamic schools are exclusively designed for male students, leading to a broader undermining of female education. While madrasas in neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia provide girls with access to education, religious leaders in Myanmar discourage the education of Muslim girls. A notable problem is that there is no specific regulatory body to oversee the education of madrasas. Not even a consistent set of guidelines is available for what a madrasa can teach its students. The choice of texts is entirely determined by the wishes of the head cleric or individual teachers, and sometimes even those making donations. In fact, most of Myanmar’s madrasas use textbooks similar to those used in Indian and Pakistani madrasas. Neither the government of Myanmar nor the modern universities recognize their certificates.

The general teaching curriculum in a madrasa is based on the following subject areas: Hefzul Quran, Tafsir, Sharia, Hadith, Islamic law and history. Most of the textbooks taught in this curriculum are very old and were written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There is no provision for science, mathematics, English, geography, economics and modern history, which hardly euips the system for the requirements of job markets in the contemporary world. With knowledge absolutely confined to religion, the prospects for madrasa graduates wanting to become doctors, engineers or other good professionals are bleak. Often, they find it extremely hard to enter mainstream employment. The only option left for them is either to settle in a local mosque as Imam or a teacher in a madrasa. The results are all too evident in the number of Muslim professionals in the labor force today.

As madrasa education does not satisfy the needs of students in the twenty first century, it has recently come under sharp criticism from the Muslim community itself. Muslim leaders in Myanmar have been calling for urgent revision of the existing system of madrasa education. They urge sweeping reforms in the teaching curriculum and syllabus by adapting modern requirements. However, the task of reform is very challenging since many madrasa administrations don’t want to change the content of their purely religious curriculum.

Steps for a reform programme

What is needed, first and foremost, is to form a central authority to exercise control over all madrasas or at least those within a particular region such as Yangon, Mandalay, or Rakhaine. The authority will have responsibility to take a lead role in the efforts to reform the madrasa syllabus, but not targeting all madrasas initially. The path to reform can begin with selecting 10 to 15 madrasas though a pilot programme aimed at addressing the following needs:

  1. Set up an expert team consisting of academics and professionals in the relevant fields who will revise the existing curriculum and integrate appropriate content with regard to culture, society, gender, economics, science, technology, and other relevant areas.
  2. Arrange consultations with key members of madrasa management, Muslim leaders, Imams and representatives from local NGOs to test implementation of the new curriculum to the selected madrasas and seek feedback from them.
  3. Provide capacity building training for madrasa teachers to become familiar with the revised curriculum and methods of teaching. There is also a need to recruit teachers from other faith communities to make teaching culturally diverse. This will attract students to madrasa education beyond the Muslim community.
  4. Improve educational infrastructure and physical facilities in the targeted madrasas including additional classrooms, library rooms, common rooms for girls students, science/computer lab rooms with internet access.
  5. Arrange a series of dialogues with relevant education authorities such as the department of higher education or other governmental offices that affect the education system in Myanmar so that they become systematically engaged in madrasa education.
  6. Arrange regional exposure and exchange visits for madrasa principals and teachers to Malaysia and Indonesia that will give them an opportunity to find new ways of thinking through observing the modernization of the madrasa education system in those two Muslim-majority countries.
  7. Organize extra-curricular activities for madrasa students such as exposure to attractive places in Myanmar that will help them to gain awareness and observation of historical places, science museum, nature, culture and heritage etc.
  8. Engage parents in the reform process in order to enhance their understanding of the necessary changes in madrasa education system.

If the pilot project proves successful, the curriculum could be expanded gradually to other madrasas after it goes through evaluation and subject to modification. However, such a reform will require a great amount of capital which the Myanmar Muslim community is incapable of providing itself. International organizations such as the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or United Nations (UN) can assist in this regard, by including the madrasa reform agenda in as part of their development assistance to Myanmar. This will help us to shape the next generation of leaders in the Muslim community, particularly at this juncture when Myanmar is undergoing a democratic transition and also facing the ongoing threat of communal intolerance.

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