Professor Ghulam Azam

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My Journey Through Life Part 4

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(Abridged Translated version of the author’s original Bangla Memoir Jibone Ja Dekhlam)

Translated and Edited by Dr Salman Al-Azami

Copyright – The Ghulam Azam Foundation

Chapter Four

My Primary Education

My father was the eldest among my grandfather’s four sons and I am his first grandchild. My grandfather was retired when I was small and taught me many valuable things orally before I learned to read and write. Generally, the first child of a family learns literacy a bit late and the subsequent children learn to read and write relatively faster by following their elder siblings. This happened in our house too as my younger brother Ghulam Muazzam was just one class below me though he was two years younger. He would approach me whenever he would see me studying and therefore learned to read and write before he started school.

Learning to Read the Qur’an

I started learning to read Qur’an in the mosque after morning prayers at the age of six. All the children in the village used to go to the mosque to learn how to read the Qur’an with the local Qari1who made everyone memorise the Qur’an until Surah al-Duha2. There was a tradition that when someone would complete memorising until Surah al-Duhaa, their family would send pitha (Bangladeshi pastries)3 for everyone in the mosque so that the whole village would know which boy or girl has achieved this feat. This was such an inspiring event that everyone wanted to compete with each other to master the chapters. The Qari also taught us how to pray by making us stand together and recite aloud every stage of a prayer and correcting us if we made a mistake. He would also ensure that we performed all the different rituals of the prayer correctly.

I would have my grandfather’s company for much of my time at home. He helped my brother and I memorise Surah Yasin4 and would often ask us to recite the chapter to him to ensure that we had learned it properly. When he was satisfied that we had successfully memorised the chapter, he said to us, “The Prophet (PBUH) has asked us to recite this chapter when a person dies. You should recite Surah Yasin in front of me when I die.” We recited the chapter when he passed away many times before he was buried.

I was not sent to school for a year to ensure that I first learned how to read the Qur’an independently without help; so I did not start my primary school when I was six as is usual. I would go to the Qari in the morning and would learn from my grandfather in the afternoon and evening. Thus, I learned how to read the Qur’an properly and independently within a year and then started primary school when I was seven.

Primary School Education

The headmaster of the school was from the Sarail sub-district of Brahmanbaria district. He lived as a tutored lodger at one of the houses in our area from where the school was a few minutes’ walk. In my exam results I came first in my class5 and was promoted to Class 2. Following this, the headmaster ordered me to see him every day in his office half an hour before school started and I would give him an update about my progress in my studies. He also encouraged me to take the Class 4 primary scholarship exams. He never demanded money for this extra tuition; headmasters at that time would take special care of those students who had potential so that they could be successful in the scholarship exam and bring honour to the school.

I used to go to school with the headmaster and return with him. On the way, he would ask me about my studies. His love and care made me so attached to him that I would speak to him frankly even though I was very afraid of him. He used to do dictation tests when I was in Class 3 and one day while checking how we did, he discovered that I had made one mistake. He became angry and hit me with a cane, whereas he said nothing to those who had made many more mistakes. I felt very upset and asked him, “Others made so many mistakes, but you beat me up for only one error!” Seeing my reaction, he called me near him with affection and said, “I can’t tolerate even a single mistake by you.” I became overwhelmed by his love towards me and tears began to stream down my cheeks. Later, I once visited him in 1950 in his village when he was elderly. He became very emotional seeing me and cried whilst hugging me, which brought tears to my eyes as well. I can never forget that moment. It is difficult to imagine such relationship between a teacher and a student in modern times.

The teaching method of our headmaster was also very unique. He used to make us memorise complex mathematical calculations, which made us so confident that we could even solve maths problems of higher classes. He also taught us another technique: to look through the topic of the following day in advance. When he went through the lesson the following day, the concepts became so clear that revising them at home was unnecessary. This technique helped me perform well during studies at college and university as well. As I would go through the topic in advance, everything became clear and I would only take down notes of some of the things that were difficult for me during my pre-reading. Those notes were to be very useful during exam preparation. Thus, my primary school headmaster was a guide for me even when I was at university.

I was promoted to Class 4, coming first in my class, and the headmaster inspired me to take the scholarship exam at the end of the year. However, my father and grandfather sent me to Barail Junior Madrasah three and a half miles away where I had to repeat Class 3. I had already lost an academic year, and now in order to attend a madrasah I was made to lose another year. This made me very upset, which came to the notice of my grandfather. I don’t remember exactly what he said or whether I understood what he tried to say. The only thing I remember is as follows: “You are the eldest in your generation. Your father and grandfather have mastered Arabic and, as the eldest in the family, you need to learn Arabic as well. There was no opportunity to learn Arabic in school, so you had to be admitted to a class one class lower than your level in order to learn the language properly.” He continued to encourage me, “You need to learn Arabic, Bangla and English very well. Your new institution will teach you all three languages from Class 3. There is no Arabic tuition in our village school, and English tuition is also very limited.” I became satisfied with my grandfather’s consolatory words and later realised how useful it was for me.

To understand the significance of my grandfather’s advice, it is important to discuss the four types of education systems at that time.

Government Education System

In the general education system, Arabic and Persian languages were compulsory from Class 7 to the end of secondary school, known as ‘matriculation’ at that time. At higher secondary level, known as ‘intermediate’, Arabic was optional and at undergraduate level, neither Qur’an nor Arabic was compulsory, whereas a selected course on the Bible, was. Hence, Muslim students remained ignorant about Islam through this education system. Whatever Arabic one could learn until Matriculation would be obliterated from the mind as it was not compulsory beyond that level. There was a lot of debate and speech competitions when I was at university, but I never heard any topic relating to Islam in those competitions.

I started university in 1944 and took part in debating competitions while living in student halls for four years. It used to amaze me how even science students were able to quote Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Shakespeare and so on in their speeches on topics like materialism, dialecticism, evolution, nazism, fascism, democracy, etc. in English, particularly in the context of the Second World War at that time. There was little opportunity to develop the knowledge of Islam as general students never considered Arabic and Islamic Studies to be of any importance other than to those studying in madrasahs. These students cannot be blamed for this as the British colonial rulers introduced this education system in order to create a generation that would follow their own values, culture and civilisation. Those who still practiced an Islamic way of life despite being educated in this system were able to do so due to family influence and perseverance of their own. Their education had nothing to do with their religiosity.

During the Muslim rule before British colonisation, graduates from the madrasah system were capable of running the administration in government positions. The British created their own system of governance and recruited people who graduated from the education system they introduced, which led to the collapse of the education system of the Muslim rule. As the key to one’s livelihood was at the hands of the British, one was compelled to accept their education system in order to survive. Muslims initially did not accept this system whereas the Hindus widely accepted it and began to advance as a community. They filled up all the important government positions; business and trade went under their control. They produced from their ranks all the professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. whereas Muslims had no place in government posts as a result of not accepting the British education system.

The famous British ruler William Hunter wrote in his book The Indian Musalmans, “Fifty years ago, there was no Muslim family who were poor or uneducated, and now it is difficult to find an educated well-off Muslim family. The Muslims were completely reluctant to accept the slavery of the British, so they were not ready to accept this education system that would prolong the period of slavery. On the other hand, the Hindus of this country had no problem accepting this slavery. The British, in order to make their rule permanent, accepted the cooperation of the Hindus and made them their associates. This led Muslims to ‘double slavery’ – political slaves of the British and economic slaves of the Hindus.”

Private Madrasah Education

After the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, Muslims had no option but to adopt the British education system. As the Muslim soldiers were at the forefront of this mutiny, the British increased their oppression towards Muslims. At this critical juncture for the Muslims, the Islamic scholars, through their strength of faith and immense financial sacrifice, established a madrasah education system called Darse Nizami. This education system neither had any government support, nor was there any source of income for the scholars coming out through this system. Although it was a great injustice towards the scholars, Muslims covertly benefitted from their contribution. These scholars dedicated their lives to serve Islam and the number of madrasahs started to increase through their efforts. These madrasahs served to continue the legacy of Islam by such actions as creating Muslim scholars, helping Muslims with their faith issues, establishing mosques to ensure prayers were said in congregation, leading congregational prayers in mosques and introducing the five pillars of Islam through public events.

The quality of the government education system at present is falling despite having a secured source of income and full support from the government. On the other hand, the Muslims will be ever grateful to the madrasah education system that has kept the Qur’an and Hadith alive amongst the Muslims – despite not getting any such support. If the scholars had not taken this initiative then there would be nothing left of Islam in this country.

Government Alia Madrasah

With the rapid increase of private madrasahs, the British thought of establishing their own madrasah system and a separate madrasah was established in Kolkata with an Englishman as its Principal. The purpose of starting this madrasah system was to create a group of Arabic-educated scholars who could teach Arabic and Persian in government schools and also work as registrars for marriage and divorce. These jobs were not available for privately educated madrasah students. Thus, there were two madrasah systems at that time – private education known as Qaumi Madrasah and government system known as Alia Madrasah. There was no provision for Bengali, English or any other modern subjects in the Qaumi Madrasah system, for which their graduates had no other jobs other than teaching in madrasahs or being imams of mosques. Even the Alia Madrasah system didn’t teach enough Bengali or English to enable students to then study at universities. Therefore, their job prospects were limited as well. In this situation. a renowned academic named Mawlana Abu Naser Wahid introduced a new system called ‘New Scheme of Education’ and obtained approval for it from the British rulers.

The New Scheme System

In this new system Class 1 to 6 was called ‘junior madrasah’, Class 7 to 10 was known as ‘high madrasah’ and the intermediate level became ‘Islamic intermediate college’. The system became very popular and many junior high schools became junior madrasahs and high schools turned into high madrasahs. In some places, Islamic intermediate colleges covered Class 7 to intermediate levels under the same principal. Students completing high madrasah in this system were able to start college to get into general education and were able to take up any subject including sciences. Those who passed Islamic intermediate were able to do BA and MA degrees in Arts and Humanities at universities, but not science and commerce subjects.

The reason this scheme obtained such popularity was that it was an alternative to the general and madrasah systems, and opened opportunities for those who wanted their children to receive a general education along with knowledge in Arabic and Islamic Studies. Through this, their children would get worldly success, but at the same time retain their Muslim identity by learning about Qur’an and Hadith and having a basic command over the Arabic language. Those who went to university from this system had the same privilege for employment as those from general education, but in their personal lives they were influenced by the Islamic way of life. Some of these students even went on to become vice chancellors of universities, like Dr Syed Muazzam Husain, (Dhaka University), Dr Syed Sajjad Husain (Rajshahi and Dhaka University) and Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari (Rajshahi and National University). Among some other prominent scholars coming from this system were Dr Kazi Deen Mohammad (former Head of Bengali, Dhaka University) and Dr Mohor Ali (former Reader of History, Dhaka University).

Unfortunately, during the autocratic rule of Ayub Khan in the late 50s, some government officials with anti-Islamic and western views conspired to get rid of the new scheme. They gave different excuses and turned junior madrasahs into junior high schools. Within five to six years, the high madrasahs and Islamic intermediate colleges had also changed into high schools and general colleges respectively.

I decided to discuss here the education systems of that time so that readers can understand the context in which my father and grandfather decided to admit me into a junior madrasah despite my success in primary school and the loss of one academic year.

1 A person who is able to recite the Qur’an with correct pronunciation and melodious tune

2 Chapter 93 of the Holy Qur’an

3 This is a traditional snack in Bangladeshi villages, usually prepared in an attractive or decorative manner and served to people as a treat

4 Chapter 36 of the Holy Qur’an

5 In Bangladesh, students are ranked in terms of their results at the end of the year and subsequently listed in the next year according to their rank in the previous year

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