BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's madrassas are seeing a growth in interest from prospective students at the same authorities are trying to protect youth from radicalisation.
"Graduates who master various subjects in madrassas will never fall for extremist recruiters, who target uneducated youth," Kalyskan Bedelbayeva, a religious scholar from Osh Province, told Caravanserai.
The schools are open to any qualified Kyrgyz youngster who has completed nine years of primary and secondary education. They give bachelor's degrees after four years.
School year begins Saturday
The country's madrassas are expecting thousands of students this fall. Classes begin nationwide Saturday (September 2).
Students at the Ummu Muhammad Madrassa in Osh will learn "from doctors of science, religious scholars and legal scholars," a source at the Osh municipal qaziyat (Islamic judge's office) told Caravanserai.
The madrassas have implemented a curricular reform that began two years ago, when the Ministry of Education and Science formed a commission to revamp religious education, Bishkek attorney Almazbek Yusupov told Caravanserai.
"Ultimately, [educators] proposed that madrassa students, who already had nine years of school, not take religious studies alone," he said.
The students tackle a common curriculum including "secular disciplines like math, geography, history and legal theory", he said.
The religious part of the madrassa curriculum includes the Koran, tafsir (Koranic exegesis) and intensive Arabic and English, according to the Osh municipal qaziyat.
Outstanding students at the Ummu Muhammad Madrassa, if they wish, may prepare and defend a thesis, after which they are eligible for master's degree programmes, according to the madrassa's admissions committee.
Scholars observe increased interest in religious education
The country has 78 madrassas, nine Islamic institutes and one Islamic university, according to the State Commission for Religious Affairs (GKDR).
All of them are vetted, having to register with the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK), said Yusupov.
About 6,000 students attend madrassas presently, but the number grows every year, says the GKDR.
For example, the Ummu Muhammad Madrassa enrolled 51 new students this year, compared to 36 freshmen last year.
"Even though Kyrgyzstan is a secular state ... people are showing an increased interest in obtaining an Islamic education," said Bedelbayeva.
Saodat Alimbekova, 38, of Osh is "happy" with the quality of education in her son's madrassa. He soon begins his second year there.
"Last year, during a family council, he suggested leaving high school after ninth grade to obtain an Islamic education," she told Caravanserai. "We didn't oppose it."
Since enrolling in the madrassa, her son has become calm and reasonable and readily answers his former classmates' questions about religion, she said.
Attending madrassas can help reduce the number of radicalised youth, given how extremist recruiters keep targeting the young, she said.