Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Indian school helping the brightest Muslims

Rahmani training institute building, Patna, Bihar, India
The mould-breaking Rahmani 30 school has a record of success

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Patna

In a congested part of Patna, capital of India's Bihar state, stands a striking yellow building - a 100-year-old mansion that has clearly seen better days.

Inside it, in a small dark room, a young bearded cleric is reading out sermons from the Muslim holy scriptures to a group of boys seated cross-legged on the floor.

They are in their late teens, some are wearing skull caps and they all listen to him with rapt attention.

At first glance, this could be any of the region's hundreds of Islamic seminaries or madrassas, where young Muslims receive religious instruction.

But this is no ordinary seminary.

After prayers, the boys head out to a classroom, pen and notebook in hand, where they listen with equal attention to a lecture on advanced mathematics.

This is the unusual setting for Rahmani 30 - a training institute which prepares talented but underprivileged young Muslims for entry into India's best engineering colleges - the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

Only the top 2% make it through the stiff entrance exam.

Getting ahead

India's large Muslim minority is consistently placed at the bottom of social and economic rankings.

Irfan Alam
I wanted to make something of my life, become someone
Irfan Alam, student

Part of this has to do with education - most Muslims end up studying in madrassas, which means they have little chance of being employed in the private sector or government.

So the significance of Rahmani's initiative is not lost on anyone.

It is the brainchild of a senior Bihar police officer, Abhyanand, who takes time off from his day job to teach the boys physics.

Rahmani was inspired by a similar school - the Super 30, where Abhyanand used to work and which is also aimed at poor children but not Muslims exclusively.

"In our country, any difficult examination is very fearful because a huge number of students take part but only a few get in," Abhyanand says.

The advantage at Rahmani, he says, is the kind of students they get - mostly from poor backgrounds and determined to get ahead in life.

"They come from a rural background and that is their strength. They become competitive because, for them, it is a win or lose situation.

"If they don't make it they don't stand anywhere [socially and economically]."

Great chance

Irfan Alam, 15, the son of a barber who is preparing for the IIT exam due to be held in 2011, says it is a great opportunity.

"I wanted to make something of my life, become someone," he says smiling shyly.

Cleric reading out from scriptures
The school's philosophy is inspired by the ideas of a madrassa

"It's the perfect platform. The teachers are amazing and the best part is that it's completely free."

It is a chance that few others where Irfan comes from will ever get.

His village is a good four hours drive north of Patna, with lush green wheat-fields, narrow dirt tracks and few proper buildings.

Most people here work as farm labour and a large number of the men are barbers by trade.

I meet Irfan's father, Mohammad Shafiq, outside his modest, two-room hut made of mud and straw.

Now recuperating after an eye operation, he tells me how his son displayed flashes of brilliance as a child and soon outgrew his village school.

So he decided to send him away.

"Nobody studies here. Most of the teenagers waste their time or start drinking heavily.

"I can't read and write myself and it was always my dream that my son should be educated and not become a barber like his father and grandfather."

Back at Rahmani the classes are done but the studying continues late into the night.

Irfan sits with three of his friends inside his little dorm room, poring over textbooks and brainstorming.

In another room, one of the teachers uses a webcam to conduct a tutorial with students in another part of Bihar.

Cultural debate

It's a fascinating mix of the traditional and the modern.

"The basic philosophy of a madrassa is that the boys live, eat and study together. There is no distinction between rich and poor - everybody is equal," says Maulana Wali Rahmani, an influential cleric who heads this institute.

"There's also a culture of open debate. It's something I experienced myself while growing up in a madrassa. So we thought, why not channel these strengths in a whole new direction and see what we can achieve."

To find out how spectacularly they have succeeded, you need to travel 1,000km (625 miles), to the national capital, Delhi.

It is a completely different world in the tree-lined, sprawling IIT campus.

Young men and women stroll into their classrooms, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, back-packs slung over their shoulders.

These are India's brightest brains, many of whom will go on to work in the country's top software companies or head to Silicon Valley.

Among them is a shy, earnest young man - Shadman Anwar, part of Rahmani's inaugural batch of students last year, all 10 of whom made it through to the IITs.

"It's been a dream come true, being here with all the other students. And I don't feel as if I'm any different," he says.

His is the kind of confidence that has helped raise expectations at Rahmani, whose administrators now want to establish 10 similar schools over the next couple of years.

India's Muslim community is often said to have under-achieved, plagued by poverty, low education standards and a conservative outlook.

Now in one of India's poorest states, a small initiative is trying to break the mould.

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