Qawmi Madrasa in Bangladesh What do pumpkins do - Dialogue with the Islamic World

What happens behind the closed doors of Koran schools? Filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz pursued this question in his new film "Koran Children" in Bangladesh. Eren Güvercin spoke to him.

​​Mr Dill-Riaz, your new documentary "Korankinder" has just started in German cinemas. How did you come up with the idea of ​​making such a film about the madrasas, the Koran schools in Bangladesh?

Shaheen Dill-Riaz: The film isn't really just about Koran schools. In each of my films I try to discover a world where I haven't been before, and into which I can take people from Europe as viewers. That's how I came up with the subject of Koran schools because it also has something to do with the current situation in Bangladesh.

You hear very often there that there are more and more Koran schools. And very often you also hear that these Koran schools do not have anything to do with extremists, but they are repeatedly accused of being politically active, which I was unable to prove in my film. I was particularly interested in what Koran schools are and what status they have in Bangladesh.

Koran schools are considered to be very closed. How was it possible to get a filming permit? How did you win the trust of those responsible?

Dill-Riaz: It was very difficult. At the beginning, those responsible completely rejected filming. Some also said that this is not possible because there is a ban on images in Islam. I tried to contact different Koran schools and let my personal relationships play out.

Then there was an interesting discussion within the Koran school, where they argued among themselves. One group was against the filming, while the other said it was important to open the doors because otherwise the journalists write all kinds of things and people believe that there is really something to hide. In the end, a couple of Koran schools gave permission to film.

​​Were there any problems or attempts at manipulation during filming? Were you able to move freely?

Dill-Riaz: I had pretty much freedom of movement. It gave me the impression that people didn't even know what journalists can do with a camera and what they can develop from the images.

How were the reactions of the people in the madrasas?

Dill-Riaz: It was interesting to see that everywhere in the Koran schools people immediately defended themselves without me asking questions about extremism. There were common statements that one does not want to have anything to do with extremists, as this is forbidden by belief. I didn't use these statements because it's just not the subject of the film.

During the shooting, the people in the Koran school were very friendly and helpful. They were very happy that a camera team wanted to stay there for so long. Most journalists up until then only came for one day, and it was always about the allegation that Koran schools were training terrorists. They were surprised that I didn't go into that at all. I wanted something completely different. I wanted to watch and learn more about these people, about their tradition.

​​The Koran schools have acquired a bad reputation, especially recently. What was your impression? Is there really a danger from such madrasas?

Dill-Riaz: There are generalizations that Koran schools are being instrumentalized politically, that radical groups use these institutions for their own purposes. That is partly true. But that's not what my film is about. First of all, I wanted to get to know the Koran schools and get a deeper insight. Where do the madrasas come from? What do they have to do with our history on the subcontinent? What role do they play in our society today?

Koran schools look back on a very long history. They existed on the Indian subcontinent as early as the 12th century. There used to be the so-called "Tol", the elementary schools founded by the Hindus. And then there were the "madrasas", which literally means "place of instruction". These are two educational institutions that were very common on the Indian subcontinent.

During the colonial period, the English tried to establish reformed models of the Koran school. They needed it for a practical reason: because the texts and the tax system were Persian, they had to rely on the Muslims, since only the Muslims could speak this language, the Hindus not. The Hindus integrated into the colonial structure much faster. They learned English very quickly and sent their children to English missionary schools. The Muslims, on the other hand, have isolated themselves because they have also been disempowered.

These newly formed madrasas by the colonial power, the so-called "Aliya" madrasas or high madrasas, were used to train these Persian-speaking officials so that they could later integrate Muslims into the administrative apparatus and had access to this language. In response, the Muslims in Bangladesh set up the so-called "Qawmi" madrassas, that is, people's madrasas. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the British education system.

To this day, the "Qawmi" madrassas are the dominant tradition on the entire subcontinent. They are also isolated from the state. Even then, the English left the "Qawmi" madrassas alone. They were never checked. To date, the government of Bangladesh still has no control mechanisms to register these schools.

What is everyday life like for children in such Koran schools?

Dill-Riaz: The children usually have to get up at half past four in the morning, after which lessons - apart from two to three breaks in breaks - last until ten in the evening. It is a very intensive study because these children have to keep everything in their minds. They even spend the night in the same room where they study.

In Germany, too, there is a lot of discussion about Koran schools in backyard mosques. Fears are being voiced that Muslim youth in these Koran schools will be ideologically influenced and radicalized. What do you think of such assessments? Do these schools really pose such a threat?

Dill-Riaz: A danger only arises when you force people to isolate themselves. This is the case with many ethnic or religious minorities. I think this is a serious issue. I don't know to what extent these influences exist in Germany, but I can imagine that traditionally minded Muslims would be more in favor of their children learning the Koran by heart.

Such an extreme religious practice always arises when the religious practice disappears in everyday life. If this millennia-old tradition, which one lived with religion, falls away, then one falls back on it. It serves to compensate for the fact that I cannot really practice my religion in everyday life.

What role does Saudi Arabia, which builds and finances Koran schools in many parts of the world, play in the spread of Wahabism in countries like Bangladesh or India? Do the Saudi Wahabis have a great influence there?

Dill-Riaz: I think there are a lot of madrasas that are funded by Saudi Arabia in particular. It is believed that the Wahabi reading of Islam is also preached there. One hears that madrasa teachers from Saudi Arabia are flown into these countries.

I think it's a shame that something like this is allowed out of control. It is up to the state to watch over who teaches what teaching content at educational institutions. Unfortunately, this does not happen. Of course, one shouldn't object to Saudi Arabia promoting good quality basic education - as long as the country doesn't propagate any orthodox content there to teach Muslims how to live their religion.

Interview: Eren Güvercin

© 2009

"Korankinder" (Bangladesh / Germany 2008), director: Shaheen Dill-Riaz, actors: Mohammed Ismael, Kamrul Hassan, Rayhan Hossain, Prof. Salimullah Khan, Sharfuddin

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