When Mohammad Arif, a 26-year-old master’s candidate in Arabic at Jawaharlal Nehru University, graduated from Madrasa Taleem-ul-Quran in south Delhi a decade ago, his career prospects seemed dim. After years of religious education, and without having studied subjects such as economics or the sciences, he had few lucrative skills. Like many of his peers, he seemed destined to pursue either teaching in a madrasa as a maulana, or preaching at a mosque as an imam. He did neither. When we spoke on the phone in early September, Arif was sure he would make a good living as an Arabic-to-English translator. “Medium of lecture has always been Urdu at madrasas, but Arabic is also taught. It gives us a unique advantage because no other community understands or is even interested in this language.”
A recent study of global business patterns by a multinational bank valued India’s rapidly growing trade with West Asia and North Africa at $135 billion in 2012, up from just $2 billion in 2000. Arab countries are also among the top sources of patients for India’s medical tourism industry, which is estimated to grow to a worth of $3.9 million this year. These deepening ties are fuelling demand for Arabic language skills, and madrasa students are filling the niche. And, since English classes were first introduced in some progressive madrasas in 2007, their potential as translators has only risen further.
At a café in central Delhi on a Sunday afternoon, I met Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, a journalist and Islamic scholar, clad in a black kurta and white pyjama. Dehlvi is also an advisor to a madrasa in the Okhla neighbourhood. “The linguistic skills of madrasa students are empowering them,” Dehlvi said. “There is a perceptible boom in the job options … be it translation, interpretation or as facilitators for patients from the Middle East.”
Dehlvi has done such work himself. “I got a chance to work as an HR person some time back only because of my expertise in Arabic,” he said in an extremely soft but clear voice. “It was an Arabic BPO”—business process outsourcing company—“and I was paid Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000 per month.” There are no fixed rates for translation, but Syed Abban, a professional translator who has been in the business for ten years, told me written work pays from $30 to $50 per page, and comes to him from a variety of multinational companies. By contrast, Dehlvi told me, teachers’ salaries usually start at Rs 30,000 per month in madrasas that receive funding from state governments, and between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 at those that, like most in India, don’t.
I visited Madrasa Taleem-ul-Quran, which now has regular English classes, in the first week of September. I was welcomed into the all-male domain by Maulana Mohammad Qasim Rahimi, the institution’s founder and head administrator. Dressed in pristine white, and with a matching beard, he patiently explained the institution’s workings to me. He also highlighted the career options now open to the students, and stressed that the introduction of English has been a real boost. Even so, becoming a translator still often requires significant additional effort. Later, I spoke on the phone to Abban, who a madrasa graduate with masters in both Urdu and Arabic. Abban told me he has translated for clients including IBM and the Central Bureau of Investigation. “I got the basic knowledge of English at a madrasa,” he told me, but added that he had to study a lot on his own to be able to translate and interpret professionally.
Some hope that the new opportunities created by the introduction of English will now encourage further expansion of madrasa curricula. Dehlvi, when we spoke, seemed cautiously optimistic. “These are signs of change, of course,” he said, “but a lot remains to be done.”