In the Indian state of West Bengal, many state-run madrasahs teach a modern curriculum, attracting ever more non-Muslims. Though they seem to break down long-held social divisions, they still have opponents.
After 9/11, many in the non-Islamic world began to think of South Asia's thousands of madrasahs, the traditional name for schools where Muslim children study theology to become Islamic religious teachers, as a potential breeding ground for militant Islamists.
But in the Indian state of West Bengal, many of the more than 500 state-run madrasahs teach a modern curriculum, with about 20 percent non-Muslim pupils.
In these modernised madrasahs, young Indians are being groomed to become future engineers, doctors, scientists, bureaucrats and other professionals - rather than mullahs.
Picture of a modern madrasah
At the Chatuspalli Madrasah in Orgram village, about 160 kilometers north of Kolkata, students scurry to an assembly. Wearing blue and white uniforms, more than 1,000 boys and girls stand in rows facing their teachers.
Aged 10 to 18 years, the children take an oath that they will study well, become good citizens and serve their country patriotically. The morning assembly ends not with an Islamic prayer, but with the pupils and teachers together singing India's national anthem.
This pre-class ceremony at Orgram is no different from what can be found at most mainstream public schools in India. This madrasah teaches physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, geography, computer education and other regular school subjects, including English.
That this state-run madrasah follows a mainstream school curriculum is the main reason why many non-Muslims are studying here, along with Muslim students, said headmaster Anwar Hossain.
"Ordinary people believe that a madrasah is a place where pupils are taught religious subjects and it has no connection with modern education," Hossain told DW. But they've been working to change this notion.
"After graduating from this madrasah, many pupils have ended up as doctors, engineers, management professionals, and so on," Hossain said.
In fact, including Orgram, all 611 state-run madrasahs in West Bengal have introduced a modern school curriculum in recent years, and male and female students study together.
Unlike in traditional madrasahs, no pupil has to practice any Islamic ritual.
However, for all students, including the non-Muslims, Arabic and Islamic Studies are compulsory.
Headmaster Hossain says that the schools give non-Muslim pupils the chance to correct their stereotypes about Islam.
"Before attending this madrasah, non-Muslim students usually have wrong ideas about this place and Islam," Hossain said. But after their studies, he said, "they completely change their minds and they return from this madrasah with a good impression about this place, Muslims and Islam."
Orgram madrasah is one of only five madrasahs in the state of West Bengal where non-Muslim pupils outnumber their Muslim counterparts.
More than 61 percent of Orgram madrasah's 1,178 students are Hindus, Christians or tribal animists. And 10 of the 30 teachers are Hindu.
Teachers and students get on well, sometimes even playing volleyball together after classes.
In recent years, communal conflicts have often been flaring up between Hindus and Muslims in India.
Some Hindu students say their madrasah education has brought them closer to their Muslim counterparts, helping to at least partially bridge the historical divide between the two communities.
Uttam Mistry, an 11th grade Hindu student at Orgram madrasah, said he, for one, has changed his mind.
"I thought that Muslims are bad people and they could not be friends of Hindus. But after joining this madrasah I have found that this notion was completely incorrect," Mistry told DW.
Mistry added that he thinks if Hindu students continue to study with Muslims, they'll start mixing better.
Until some years ago in Hindu-dominated Indian society, madrasahs carried a stigma, and non-Muslims used to shun them. But this mindset is changing.
Humayun Kabir attended a modernized madrasah before becoming a pediatrician. He described the stigma as running deep, saying that during his medicine studies, many of his classmates did not believe that he would pass the entrance exam after studying at a madrasah.
But this stigma seems to be passing, Kabir said. "After their massive modernization, these madrasahs are competing well with regular schools," Kabir told DW. "Non-Muslims are no longer hesitant to send their children to these madrasahs,” he added.
Like Kabir, examples of Muslim students who attended the madrasahs and are now successful in their careers have spurred many non-Muslim families to send their children to the madrasahs.
The fact that these schools, located mostly in rural areas, charge no fees, makes them increasingly attractive to students from poor and middle-class families of all faiths.
But not everyone is happy with modernization of the madrasahs.
Mr Aziz Mubarki, National secretary of South Asia Ulema Council in Kolkata, which represents Islamic scholars, argued that the government should not replace the traditional curriculum of Madrasahs.
Although Muslim in general are not against this modernization, Mubarki thinks modern education should not have come at the cost of the traditional religious curriculum. "For all students religious education is as important as is the modern scientific education," Mubarki said.
"Both educations are necessary for the better grooming of a human being," he told DW.
Aside from striking the religious curriculum, Mubarki also thinks that teaching mixed genders together at a Madrasah is not appropriate. Nor does the modernization serve Muslim interests, Mubarki said.
"A madrasah should have a mosque on its campus," Mubarki said. "Islamic religious education has been diluted simply to accommodate the non-Muslim students," he said - which hasn't helped underprivileged Muslims, he added.
In contrast, Giyasuddin Siddique, president of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education - which controls the madrasahs - argues that Muslims are indeed benefitting from the modernization.
He thinks that education is key in helping Indian Muslims. After graduating from a traditional madrasah, Muslims had few options other than working at a mosque.
"But now, in our madrasahs, we are grooming students who can pursue advanced studies in almost any modern career," Siddique said. In the Hindu-majority society, the modern madrasahs are not viewed as Muslim-only institutions any more, rather serve society as a whole.
Which is "immensely satisfying," Siddique added.
A modern model
In 2009, the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, identified the modern madrasahs of West Bengal as models of secularism and up-to-date education, and suggested that Pakistan emulate them.
As the process of modernization continues, more non-Muslim pupils are expected to seek admission to Bengal's madrasahs in the future.
Author: Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Orgram, West Bengal, India / sad
Editor: Anke Rasper