Home Articles The role of Islamic faith-based organisations in the education sector in West...

The role of Islamic faith-based organisations in the education sector in West Bengal

Taqdeer-e-Umam Kya Hai, Koi Keh Nahin Sakta
Momin Ki Firasat Ho To Kafi Hai Ishara
Who knows the nation’s fates?
But signs abound, If Muslims are wakeful -Allama Iqbal
By Sheikh Khurshid Alam for TwoCircles.net

This is the first of a two-part series on understanding the role of Islamic faith-based organisations in West Bengal along with analysing what ails the community in the state especially in their quest for education.

My parents hail from a remote village of East Uttar Pradesh (U.P) and they moved to West Bengal for a better life prospect. A lawyer by training, I was brought up in Kolkata. During the course of legal practice in West Bengal, it so happened that my client base was predominantly from the Muslim community, with whom I had worked very closely and assisted them with the registration and management procedure of their Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO). Therein, I was exposed to some of the existing legal challenges of such NGOs. I used to work at such places which have been referred to as ‘India’s Muslim ghettos’ and among such people who have been called ‘people without history’, in the book ‘People without History: India’s Muslim Ghettos’ by Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui. The people who came to me for advice regarding the formation of NGOs had different objectives behind such initiative. It came to my knowledge that most of my clients had the desire to contribute to the welfare of the society at large by being inspired with their religious teachings. It was encouraging to see the zeal in my clients, but at the same time I wondered whether the people were carrying out the developmental activities only because of their religious values and faith or were they compelled to do so because of other reasons!

Out of all the developmental works in various sectors like livelihood, health and education, my clients were more interested in the education sector. I used to ask my clients as why did they want to work in the education sector and not any other. To which, almost everybody answered by quoting the first revealed verses of the Quran, which said, “Read in the name of thy Lord who created; [He] created the human being from blood clot. Read in the name of thy Lord who taught by the pen: [He] taught the human being what he did not know.” (The Quran, Chapter 96 Verses 1-5). They told me that Quran encourages reading, so whoever works in the education sector, Allah bestows His blessing upon them.

Throughout my law school from 2006-2011, I was exposed to the findings of the Sachar Committee Report in the form of seminars, articles, discussions and debates, which had made me aware about the social status of the Muslims, illiteracy being the main concern for me. The disturbing question before me was why was there so much illiteracy among the Muslims even though their Quran encouraged them to read? Through this article, I intend to find answers to some questions which bothered me during my years of study and practice of law.

Islamic faith-inspired organisations in West Bengal

Substantial research is available in the field of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) in India, but it is felt that there is paucity of research on the operations of Faith Inspired Organisations (FIO). Surinder S Jodhka and Pradyumna Bora made an attempt at broad mapping of faith-based organisations in Pune and Nagpur. They too cite the lack of documentation of the Faith Based Organisations (FBO). Their study states, “A great deal of scholarly research has been done in India on religion and democratic political processes and religious conflicts. Similarly, the development activities and other aspects of the “secular” non-profit sector have been documented by some scholars (Sethi 1993; Kudva 2005; PRIA 1991; Webster 2002; Gellner 2009). However, we know very little about the nature of work that FBOs have been doing at the “grass roots” or their participation in development activities.”

The present article is an attempt to study the Islamic FIOs in West Bengal, an Indian state with substantial number of Muslim population. In order to understand the current status of the Muslim community and their organisations in West Bengal, it will be apt to refer to the 2006 High Level Committee under the chairmanship of Justice Rajinder Sachar which is popularly known as Sachar Committee Report (SCR), which presented a very depressing picture of the community on all the fronts; social, economic and educational.

Since the release of SCR, a lot has been discussed in the academia about the educational, social, cultural and political conditions of the Muslims and a plethora of literature is available on the same but what is found lacking is any substantial and exclusive study about Muslim managed NGOs or Islamic FIOs and their challenges.

Pointing towards the noteworthiness and challenges of the Muslim NGOs, the SCR observed in its recommendation, “Credible NGOs, with necessary expertise, from the Muslim community are few and far between. But many face problems in getting their organisations registered. The registration of trusts set up by the community, such as Waqf institutions and mosque committees, should be facilitated.

These institutions, being closer to the community can indeed play an important role as intermediaries between policy programmes announced by the government and their beneficiaries within the Muslim community.” (Sachar Committee Report, Ch.12, para 3.4, pg 253)

SCR has acknowledged the deficiency of credible organisations in the Muslim community and recommended the establishment of Waqf institutions, mosque committees, and civil society organisations as a measure to address the despondency of the community. In a report dated 29th September 2014, the Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Professor Amitabh Kundu, it was stated, “As far as 2011-12 levels are concerned, Muslims stand better than Hindus only in MP and Maharashtra. In Assam and UP, they do worse than SCs and STs, and slightly worse than STs in West Bengal.” The said committee’s evaluation compliments the findings of SCR and at the same time confirms the status quo of the Muslims in West Bengal.

Again, in 2014, some eight years after the release of SCR, several members of West Bengal’s civil society which included Association SNAP, Guidance Guild and Pratichi Institute, came out with another report – ‘LIVING REALITY OF MUSLIMS IN WEST BENGAL: A REPORT’. In regards to the SCR, the Hindu had reported, “Justice Sachar report, released in 2006, collected its data from “secondary sources” as the committee did not receive much information from the then Government of West Bengal, the Committee’s member-secretary told this correspondent earlier.” But the report of 2014 by Association SNAP and others claimed to be more in-depth and comprehensive than the SCR. The said report challenged various stereotypes surrounding the Muslim community and brought out the living reality of the Muslims in West Bengal with sound empirical data.”

So far all these studies have concentrated only on the conditions of the Muslims and paid very less attention towards making any observation in regards to the Muslim managed NGOs or Islamic FIOs of West Bengal.


In this particular section I examine the difference between secular NGOs and FIOs. In describing the characteristics of FIO, which is relevant for this study, I allude to the concept of Ummah in Islam and highlight the inspiration of such concept upon the Islamic FIOs in India.

FIOs are also known as FBOs or Religious Non-Governmental Organizations (RNGOs). Gerard Clarke has made an interesting observation in defining the complex world of the FBOs. He has identified five types of FBOs namely; representative organisations or apex bodies, charitable or development organisations, socio-political organisations, missionary organisations and illegal or terrorist organisations. Clarke’s typology of the NGOs can be called exhaustive as it encompasses all the types of FIOs which can be found today. Julia Berger made the first systematic attempt at an analysis of RNGO at the international level. Berger has defined RNGO as, “formal organizations whose identity and mission are self-consciously derived from the teachings of one or more religious or spiritual traditions and which operates on a non-profit, independent, voluntary basis to promote and realize collectively articulated ideas about the public good at the national or international level.” World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) utilizes the term faith-inspired organization (FIO) and takes a fairly broad and inclusive approach in defining this term. FIOs are understood here to be any organization involved in development, charity, relief, or community support work that falls under one of the following criteria:

  • Formally linked to a religious denomination or congregation

  • Mission is inspired by religious teachings or mandates

  • Founded or headed by a religious leader

  • History is deeply connected with a religious denomination or leader

Robert Leurs, in 2012, made a comparative study of secular NGOs and FIOs in Nigeria and had some astute findings. His analysis tells us that the activities carried out by organisations inspired by both Islam and Christianity is embedded in their faith whereas the NGOs aspire towards the secular ethos. He says, “The main difference, not surprisingly, was that NGO aims, values, and development practice are couched in secular humanitarian development terms that reflect the international development discourse, whereas the aims, values, and activities of FBOs are couched in the discourses of their own faith/religion, and are often remarkably similar for Christian and Muslim organisations.”

There are instances when the objectives of an NGO and a FIO cross paths but that don’t make the definitions of NGO and FIO interchangeable.

In India, FIOs have either one or more than one or all the characteristics as explained and defined by WFDD. Article 3 of the Constitution of Jama’at-e-Islami Hind (JIH) states, “The basic creed of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind is “La Ilaha Illallahu Muhammadur Rasulullah”, i.e. the Divine Being is solely Allah, there being no god except Him, and that Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be on him!) is Allah’s messenger.” This makes JIH an FIO which is formally linked with a religious denomination and is inspired by the religious mandate, i.e Islam. Similarly, history is deeply connected with Sufi orders like Chishtiya, Rahmani, Ghaosiya etc, which had a long lasting impact on the populace in India. One such FIO from West Bengal, The Sirri Saqti Foundation attains inspiration from the teachings of Sirri Saqti. “Hazrat (Revered) Sirri Saqti (May God be pleased with him) was a great Sufi Saint who lived in the 8th Century A.D. in Iraq. His famous message that inspires us is: ‘be like the sun which sheds its light on all; be like the earth which sustains the burdens of all; be like the water which enlivens hearts of all’.”

Ummah and Islamic FIO

The concept of FIO among Muslims generally spring from the idea of Ummah or an Islamic Society, which is an integral part of Islam. For the Indian Muslims, India is neither Darul Islam (Islamic State) nor Darul Harb (State against Islam); for them India is Darul Aman (Abode of peace). “Ali Shari‘ati, for example, has defined a Muslim society or Ummah as ‘a number of people, or individuals, possessing a common faith and goal, who come together in harmony with the intention of advancing and moving toward their common goal’. Similarly, Al-Faruqi has used the term Ummah to refer to the society in Islam. He defined the Ummah as ‘a universal society whose membership includes the widest possible variety of ethnicities or communities, but whose commitment to Islam binds them to a specific social order’. This shows that faith and Divine Law bind the individuals, Muslims, and these are the cardinal features of an Islamic society”.

Sayyid Mawdudi, an Islamic scholar and the founder of JIH, while highlighting the characteristics of an Islamic society says, “Similarly, in assessing the standards of good and bad in the collective behaviour of society as a whole, only those societies have been considered worthy of honour, which have possessed the virtues of organisation, discipline, mutual affection and compassion and which have established a social order based on justice, freedom and equality. Disorganisation, indiscipline, anarchy, disunity, injustice and social privilege have always been considered manifestations of decay and disintegration in a society”. Imteyaz Anwar, ex-city president of JIH, Kolkata says, “His (Mawdudi) emphasis on organisation and discipline among the Ummah resulted in the establishment of an organisation (JIH) of upright people, with the objective of ‘amr bil maroof wa nahi anul munkar’(invitation towards good deeds and discouraging bad deeds).” Therefore, it can be understood that without understanding the concept of Ummah in Islam, the understanding about the Islamic FIOs will be incomplete.

Two fine works, Jeffrey Haynes’ book titled ‘Religion and Development – conflict or cooperation’ and Séverine Deneulin with Masooda Bano’s book ‘Religion in Development – rewriting the secular script’ on the theme of religion and development have informed the subject in context to India. These works focus on the contribution of four major religions, one being Islam, to specific development sectors as well as address broader concerns around the role of religion in development. Bano’s work relies on a variety of empirical material and the key argument is that development and religion cannot be separated. The book says, “…there is no separation between religion and development…It is not easy to separate the development activities (schools, hospitals, political protests, and so on) from the religious activities (such as prayer and worship).”

In countries where Islam is the official religion, in such countries Islamic FIOs can function within the classical concept of Ummah but in a country like India, which does not subscribe to any religion, here the Islamic FIOs, theoretically, have to submit their commitments towards the constitution first and Islam next. Though, this submission to the constitution does not prevent the citizens to follow their personal laws and is not a hindrance to practice and propagate the religion of their choice, but this freedom of religion does not fulfil the demands of the Ummah in its entirety. The law of the land does not stop the Muslim community to enact the demands of Ummah in their personal lives as long as their activities are limited to marriage, divorce, question of inheritance and adherence to certain rites like offering prayers, going for hajj, paying zakat, observing sawm, etc but for example, the moment the Muslim community harbours a dream of running a bank on Islamic principles, it is struck down by the authority of law.

Islamic FIOs have been running advocacy campaigns for years to introduce Islamic banking in India as an alternative to the interest-based banking but they had to face disappointment when Reserve Bank of India rejected the idea. RBI said that the decision was taken after considering ‘the wider and equal opportunities’ available to all citizens to access banking and financial services. What the RBI calls ‘the wider and equal opportunities’ is not fully true in terms of access to facilities of financial institutions because of the existence of exclusive tax benefits to Hindu Undivided Family (HUF). Though the Muslims of India have the equal opportunity to access financial institutions, such institutions function against the tenets of Islam and having no other options, the Muslims have to submit themselves before such institutions. The Islamic FIOs are at a loss because they cannot run Islamic banking services without the approval of RBI.

I believe that a Pan-India broad mapping of Islamic FIOs is the need of the hour, and that is a pre-requisite in identification of the obstacles in the performance of Islamic FIOs.

The author is a Kolkata-based lawyer.