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.”