Set amidst the sylvan surroundings of Rajasthan's Ramgarh town, 10 km from the Jaipur railway station, is a sprawling stretch of 173 green acres encircled by a tranquil valley and cool lake - this is where you will find a completely new experiment with the traditional madrassa education system, the Madrassa Jameatul Hidaya.
Usually, madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, are seen by the media as ghettoes of antiquity, orthodoxy and obscurantism. Madrassas have become the butt of suspicion following a series of investigations after the Sep 11 terrorist strikes in the US. They end up proving their credentials of faith and by providing the authorities with certificates of loyalty.
But can you imagine a madrassa with computers, electronic labs, cricket, basketball and volleyball teams and debating societies in English and Hindi? Jameatul Hidaya is one such institution where maulanas work on computers.
The institution is an apt example of how a madrassa must be in these days of hi-tech life. These maulanas are working with the motto: The holy Quran in one hand and a computer in the other.
Maulana Mohammad Fazl-ur-Rahim Mujaddedi, an Islamic scholar and the Ameer-e-Jameatul Hidaya (proctor) of the seminary states: "For Indian Muslims, it's a dream come true.
"About 22 years ago Hazrat Maulana Abdur Rahim Mujaddedi gave practical shape to what is the most enlightened centre of learning for the community today."
The grand edifice comprises two huge halls equipped with modern electrical and mechanical workshops and several labs. The most outstanding section of the madrassa happens to be the computer section with around 50 computers for the students.
A two-storey hostel building fully equipped with modern facilities is available for 650 students along with reading rooms and dining halls.
What further distinguishes it from other madrassas is that it has been following the NCERT syllabus till Class 10 and its graduate ulema can appear for any entrance test for Class 11 in the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
From the 2007 session onwards, the Jameatul Hidaya students are studying the textbooks of the National Institute for Open Schooling, New Delhi.
Maulana Abdur Rahim Mujaddedi, the founder and a visionary, was eager to transform the Madrassa Nadwatul Uloom into an advanced madrassa with the introduction of secular subjects but that was considered blasphemous by the ulema.
An aalim (Islamic scholar) accused him of `tinkering' with the idea of chaste religious education.
Maulana Abdur Rahim founded a seminary in the name of his father, Islamic scholar Hazrat Maulana Shah Hidayat Ali Mojaddidi, clubbing religion and modern sciences in his madrassa curriculum.
The seminary happens to be the only madrassa where deeni taleem (religious education) has been perfectly blended with the modern and technically advanced system of education in such a way that the students passing out from there can even join the general institutions.
Madrassa Jameatul Hidaya is a symbol of liberation from that dogmatic precept that the traditional ulema (Islamic scholars) have always thrived on to present a lopsided view of Islamic heritage.
It has been a tragedy for the Muslim community that owing to some myopic and politically motivated ulema and their impractical attitudes and interpretations, other communities have started to have a jaundiced view of the community as a whole. It has been a difficult journey of survival for a Muslim in India.
But the introduction of computers and science and the related paraphernalia pertaining to advanced education in a madrassa like this can go a long way in not only providing what is best in education but also the right kind of perspective of Islam.
The difference between a common madrassa and Jameatul Hidaya is that the curriculum of the former consists merely of the Dars-e-Nizami that is purely a theological one in nature with Mantiq (logic), Tafseer (interpretation) Fiqeh (jurisprudence), Tasawwuf (spiritualism), Ilm-ul-Kalam (literature of Arabic, Persian and Urdu), Balaghat (linguistics), Sarf-o-Nahav (grammar) and Hadis (Prophet Mohammed's dictates).
Poor students who pass out from these madrassas, quite unfortunately, become misfits in the practical world since they can't decipher numbers on the buses or stations' names while travelling in a train. They are unable to read or write or fill simple forms.
Thus they become maulvis (theologians), muezzins (those who recite five-time prayers), khateebs (preachers), imams (those who lead namaz) and katibs (calligraphers).
The fortunate ones are adjusted in these trades while the unlucky ones are deprived of even this and are left to the mercy of the community to feed them. The maulanas of the Jameatul Hidaya, however, are well placed in addition to being well versed in these theological courses.
The latest feather in the cap of Madrassa Jameatul Hidaya is the Aligarh-based Al-Hidaya Study Centre meant to train students for the Indian Civil Services, State Civil Services, State Judicial Service and other competitive exams.
Besides, the Maulana Abdur Rahim Educational Trust has also started running full-fledged English medium schools in Jaipur. There is also the Al-Hidaya Islamic Research Centre that provides answers to all the queries on Islam and has a massive collection of rare and new books.
Another salient feature of the madrassa is its Arabic-Turkish architectural style. The building at the entrance is very dignified and impressive and appears to be the lobby of Al-Azhar University. The mode of admission is simple and fees for most of the courses are nominal. Let's hope all madrassas follow in the footsteps of the Jameatul Hidaya.
(Firoz Bakht Ahmed is a commentator on educational and social issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )