Fixing Pakistan’s madrassas
Pakistan’s madrasas have a bad reputation. But is it justified, and will a new programme of reform improve standards?
For many, Pakistan conjures up images of young boys trained to wage religious war against the world. Shehzad Tanveer, one of four young men who blew themselves up in the London underground four years ago this month spent several weeks in a Pakistani madrasa. According to most security analysts internationally, Pakistan’s madrasas are effectively jihadi factories spreading terrorism around the world. But at a hotel conference hall in Islamabad, I spoke to religious scholars and madrasa teachers about broadening the pedagogical scope of Pakistan’s seminaries (to listen, click on the audio file above). The programme, funded by the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy based in Washington DC, seeks to promote scientific and social disciplines, critical thinking among students, and foster dialogue among the different Muslim sects in Pakistan.
As with almost all analysis of Pakistan from abroad, generalisations about madrasas obscure a more complex reality. Madrasas come in many shapes and sizes: much as Christians go to Sunday school, almost all Muslims have learnt to read the Qur’an in a madrassa. Some of these seminaries are as small as a single class room. Others, like Mufti Usmani’s Darul-Uloom in Karachi are more like universities. These larger schools are typically well funded thanks to tax free donations by wealthy individuals and organisations that claim donations as their “zakaat” – part of their obligation as Muslims to give alms to the poor.
According to the political scientist Christopher Candland (pdf) there are some 2 million madrasa students in several thousands of seminaries throughout Pakistan. Precise numbers are impossible to verify, however, as most operate independent of direct government supervision.
For parents mired in poverty and forced to work long hours with limited breaks, madrasas serve a vital role in ensuring their children are supervised, fed and taught to read and write. They have played this role in the subcontinent since at least the 11th century when Islam spread to the region. In more recent centuries they have bred major schools of Islamic thought. The towns of Bareilly and Deoband in modern day India, for instance, are the sites of two of the most influential schools of Islamic thought in South Asia. Indeed Deoband, and the Deobandi stream of Islam founded there, became vanguards of Muslim resistance to the British rule from the 19th century onwards. Then many clerics condemned their communities’ self-appointed religious leaders for toadying to foreign occupiers. Madrasas quickly became a focal point for charged discussion and debate.
Today, the Taliban invokes Deobani doctrine in its condemnation of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. They, and other religious militant groups, consider themselves a vanguard for threatened Muslim values.
One cannot deny the very real role played by madrasas in fomenting extremism in Pakistan. I have met several members of the Taliban and a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative. All had either been recruited or taught at madrasas.
Puritanical madrasas proliferated under Gen Zia ul-Haq, the Washington-backed dictator who ruled Pakistan with an iron fist for just under 10 years from 1978. His rule coincided with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, a period that saw the most rapid radicalisation of the region’s Muslim societies in modern history. Madrasas received generous funding from Zia and the Arab states of the Gulf. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, they sought to engrain Salafist Islamic doctrines that would later gain notoriety under the Taliban. Quite apart from this, however, even the ostensibly secular government education system started to become corrupted by Zia’s predecessor, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
These harder doctrines developed to the extent that today the more fundamentalist, puritanical views of Salafist Islam, while not always synonymous with extremism, are the most organised, vocal and hence powerful religious voices in Pakistani politics and society.
In centuries past, before the establishment of secular educational institutions, madrasas were the primary centres of legal scholarship as well as scientific and philosophical learning. These days, however, they are most likely to limit their syllabus to Qur’anic Arabic or the well worn rituals of Islamic practice.
But, as the conference I attended, plans were afoot for a makeover of Pakistan’s much maligned madrasas. It’s a fairly unique approach to the situation, one of the few coordinated attempts to improve the quality of teaching in Pakistan’s madrassas. According to the Centre, over 2000 madrassa teachers have joined the programme and there are ambitious plans to expand it to some of the most volatile parts of the country.
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