Madrasa reforms
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Jamal Hussain |

Any critique about madrasas in Pakistan must be handled with care, given the sensitivity of the public about an institution considered by many in the country as shields protecting pristine Islam from undesirable foreign influences. Besides propagating and spreading the knowledge of Islam, madrasas in the Pakistani context are the largest public welfare NGOs on education and literacy. It partially makes up for the inability of the state to fulfill its constitution role of providing education to its people.

Initially the focus was on religious sciences only but subsequently, the curriculum slowly began to diversify with many madrasas teaching both religious and secular sciences such as logic, mathematics, philosophy history, medicine, astronomy, and chemistry.

The literal translation of madrasa, an Arabic word, is an educational institution of any type. Historically in the Indian subcontinent and the West, madrasas are known as Islamic seminaries—educational institutions where the focus is on Islamic studies, although the curriculum might include other secular subjects as well.

The first institute of madrasa education in Islam was established near a hill known as Safa, in Makkah where the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was the teacher and the students were his followers. After Hijra, Suffa was established in Medina adjacent to the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi with Ubada ibn as-Samit appointed as a teacher by the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Besides the teaching of the Quran, faraiz, and Hadith, horse-riding, the art of war, handwriting, calligraphy, athletics and martial arts were also a part of the curriculum.

In the early Islamic period, elementary schools were known as maktabs and madrasas referred to higher education institutions. Initially the focus was on religious sciences only but subsequently, the curriculum slowly began to diversify with many madrasas teaching both religious and secular sciences such as logic, mathematics, philosophy history, medicine, astronomy, and chemistry. The curriculum was generally set by its founder.

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Madrasas in Pakistan

The News International reported that in 1947 there were only 189 madrasas in Pakistan but over 40,000 by 2008.

Madrasas in Pakistan are basically Islamic seminaries, known as Madaris-e-Deeniya in Urdu. Most madrasas teach Islamic subjects such as Tafseer (Interpretation of Holy Quran), Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic Law), Arabic Language but include some non-Islamic subjects (such as logic, philosophy, mathematics), that enable students to understand the religious ones.

Estimates of the numbers of madrasas vary, but all agree their number has grown enormously, having expanded exponentially during and after the rule of President General Zia ul Haq. The News International reported that in 1947 there were only 189 madrasas in Pakistan but over 40,000 by 2008. Their number mushroomed from around 900 in 1971 to over 8000 official ones and another 25,000 unofficial ones in 1988 (David Commins). In 2002, the country had 10,000-13,000 unregistered madrasas with an estimated 1.7 to 1.9 million students, (Christopher Candland) According to the New York Times, as of 2009, there are more than 12,000 registered madrasas and more unregistered ones in Pakistan.

Membership of madrasas, particularly those situated along the border with Afghanistan also grew with an influx of recruits from Central Asia, North Africa, Burma, Bangladesh, Chechnya and Afghan refugees. Estimates of foreign enrolment in madrasas vary from 10-50% of the total student body. Government policy under Zia allowed foreign madrasas students free entry and movement within the country simultaneously encouraging them to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Between 1979 and 1995 approximately 3,906 new madrasas were set up (ICG Asia Report 2002). Those that recorded the highest number of growth were the madrasas of the Deobandi and Ahle Hadith sects, both of which shared a conservative and ultra-orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam and had the highest percentage of involvement in sectarian violence.

Madrasas are popular among Pakistan’s poorest families in part because they feed and house their students. In some areas of Pakistan, they outnumber the underfunded public schools.

Among the madrasa students (Talibs or Taliban) some are day students while the majority are full-time boarders who are fed, boarded and lodged free of charge. Day students come from various sections of the society—poor, low middle class and even affluent—for learning the recitation and/or memorization of the Holy Quran.

For a majority of Pakistani families, madrasas may provide the only realistic option to educate their sons, but critics have complained that many madrasas offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Quran. They encourage extremism, as analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck Pakistan has found most attended madrasas.

Madrasas refute these charges quoting several cases where those involved in their ranks (jihadists from their viewpoint) were university-educated youths with degrees in engineering and computer sciences. While a scattering of mid-level cadre in organizations suspected of indulging in violence in the name of religion is university graduates, a clear majority of the top echelon leadership and foot soldiers are pure Madrasa graduates.

Most madrasas in Pakistan belong to the Sunni sect, many following the doctrine of the Deobandi school that has helped propagate and interpretation of Islam practiced by a minority of the Sunni population in Pakistan. An estimated 4-10% madrasas serve the Shia population. Additionally, a number of Quran academies offer diplomas in Islamic courses. During the Zia era, the Saudi Arabian-financed madrasas made replacement of Deobandi or Barelvi (Hanafi sect) jurisprudence with Salafi (Hanbali) teachings a precondition thus much of Deobandi madrasas now follow the Hanbali jurisprudence known by its strict, literalist and puritanical approach to Islam. The Saudi-funded Deobandi/Salafi madrassas are blamed for fostering religious extremism in previously moderate regions of Pakistan. Children from impoverished families sent to isolated madrasas are often recruited for martyrdom operations.

Five types of madrasas function in Pakistan, divided along sectarian and political lines: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia, Ale-Hadith/Salafi and Jamaat-e-Islami.

Other than a handful of JI and Ahle Hadith seminaries, a majority of Karachi’s madrasas based on the Deobandi sect are suspected of promoting the jihadi culture and are associated with the Wafaq al-Madaris al Arabia. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, and Maulana Samiul Haq, the respective leaders of the two factions of JUI run over 65 percent of all madrasas in Pakistan. Most of the students and teachers of Karachi madrassas under their tutelage are Pashtuns and Afghan refugees.

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Madrasas in Pakistan may be classified into two categories: major institutions that have structured curriculum and their degrees (sanads) and certificates are recognized by Wafaq/Tanzeem ul Madaris, Rabit ul Madaris and are given equivalence with Graduate and Masters University awards. Some of them host foreign students from other Muslim countries. A vast number of madrasas, however, have no affiliation with any recognized state institution, follow their own script and design their syllabus in accordance with the wishes of the donors/founder.

Five types of madrasas function in Pakistan, divided along sectarian and political lines: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia, Ale-Hadith/Salafi and Jamaat-e-Islami. The largest number of madrasas are those of the two main Sunni branches, Deobandi (almost 70%) followed by those belonging to the Barelvi sect (SPDC 2003).

There is no uniform curriculum or set of teachings across these five types of madrasas. While officially there is a standard madrasas curriculum known as the Dars-e-Nizami, each type of madrasas follows its own exclusive texts with their specific and sectarian interpretations of Islamic teachings (ICG Asia Report No. 130, 2007). In recent years, while many madrasas have incorporated modern subjects, (such as science and math) most of them still impart religious education focusing on Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Given that madrasas curriculum is heavily dominated by religious material and divided along sectarian lines, madrasas graduates are seen as having a limited and exclusionary worldview, which encourages religious intolerance and sectarianism (USCIRF Report 2011).

Free education, respect for Islamic knowledge and teachers, active roles in community life, non-materialism, preservation of tradition and the use of charity make madrasas uniquely remarkable institutions.

While the majority of madrasas do not impart military training or education, it is estimated that between 10-15% of madrasas are affiliated with violent extremist religious/political groups. They teach a brand of violent political jihad, extol suicide bombing and impart ideological and other training that encourages violence. Preaching and sermons at madrasas serve as an important recruitment tool, especially for young males. Madrasas also function as sanctuaries and meeting places for militants (ICG Asia Report).

Free education, respect for Islamic knowledge and teachers, active roles in community life, non-materialism, preservation of tradition and the use of charity make madrasas uniquely remarkable institutions. Yet there remain doubts in terms of curriculum usefulness, negative worldviews, economic and educational limitations as well as militancy links (Waqas Sajjad).

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The politicization of madrasas rather than factors inherent in the madras system is the root cause of the problems and allegations regarding madrasas. Sectarianism has existed in the country since independence but the clashes generally remained non-violent. Politicization has introduced violence in its most virulent form.                               

Madrasa financing

The spirit behind establishment and running of madrasas has been the propagation and spread of Islamic teachings and values among the masses. In the context of the Indian subcontinent madrasas played a key role as Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran, is not the mother tongue of the people and scholars conversant with the nuances of Arabic are considered necessary for a correct interpretation of the scripture. The spirit was in evidence in almost all the madrasas established in Pakistan until the 1980s. With the influx of foreign funding, a vast number of madrasas since then have become money making machines—receiving funds from various extremist and terrorist organizations and recruiting youths who are inculcated and primed to serve them as foot soldiers.

The Deobandi Wafaq al-Madaris claimed in 2004 that it has 1500 madaris under its tutelage in Karachi and 35-40 new ones appear every year.

While the newly sprung madrasas are generally believed to be financed by politically and religiously affiliated foreign and local bodies, charity by locals is also a major contributor. Many local and foreign donors prefer to remain anonymous as they do not want their acts of charity publicized and/or they are wary of being accused of terror financing. Members of the community also donate generously due to a sense of social responsibility for communal projects (Waqas Sajjad) making an accurate assessment of madrasa funding very difficult.

Islamabad the nation’s capital and Karachi, the provincial capital of Sind and the country’s economic powerhouse are prime examples of this phenomenon. Both have registered a mushrooming of the Deobandi madrasas. The latest survey of seminaries in the federal capital stands at 374 and most are unregistered (Dawn newspaper report). The Deobandi Wafaq al-Madaris claimed in 2004 that it has 1500 madaris under its tutelage in Karachi and 35-40 new ones appear every year (Crisis Group Asia Report 2007).

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Islamabad Police suspect seventeen religious Deobandi madrasas in the Capital are involved in terror activities and these are in different sectors of the metropolis. They serve as possible hideouts of terrorists and have links with the TTP and other outlawed movements which finance them. Similarly, Deobandi madrasas in Karachi have sprung up around the periphery of the provincial capital and are reportedly being sponsored by terror outfits. The majority of the students of these madrasas are children and teenagers from the Afghan refugees settled in the two cities.

Around the world, Saudi wealth and charities contributed to an explosive growth of madrasas during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. During that war (1979-1989), a new kind of madrassa emerged in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region—not so much concerned about scholarship as making war on infidels. The enemy then was the Soviet Union, today it’s America.

The Saudi monitory influx that had a strong sectarian streak led to the Iranian support to the Shia madrasas, practically giving birth to a proxy sectarian war.

Darul Uloom Haqannia, an Islamic religious seminary located in Akora Khattak, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is based on the Deobandi faction of Sunni Islam. It was a major recipient of Saudi funding during the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s. Considered the University of Jihad by the West due to its methods and content of instruction, Darul Uloom is considered the Alma Mater of the Taliban who swept into power in Afghanistan in 1995.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi funding was state sponsored to promote the Hanbali jurisprudence in Pakistan. Since 9/11 and the declaration of war by al-Qaeda and its affiliates against the Saudi Royals, the official Saudi state funding of madrasas in Pakistan has practically ceased but money from the Saudi locals and clergy whose support essentially props up the Royals has continued unabated.

Madrasas in Pakistan are established along the sectarian divide and before the Saudi financial invasion were financed by the local followers of the sects. The Saudi monitory influx that had a strong sectarian streak led to the Iranian support to the Shia madrasas, practically giving birth to a proxy sectarian war. The matter took a turn for the worse when the Deobandi/Hanbali followers declared the Sunni Barelvi beliefs in shrines and tombs as shirq that must be eliminated through force if necessary. The previously non-militant and non-jihadi Barelvi madrassas and outfits also became militant leading to intra-sect (within the Sunni divide) violence that along with the Shia-Sunni split is one of the major existential threats Pakistan is currently confronting.

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Madrasa reforms

Three earlier madrasa reforms have been attempted in Pakistan (1962, 1979 and 2001)—all during the military rule—with limited success. The latest attempt in the shape of the National Action Plan (NAP) has also run into a serious roadblock. The reform recommendations provided in the NAP are basically sound but the social fault lines have hindered any meaningful progress in the implementation phase. Perhaps a change in the implementation strategy could overcome the hurdles being faced. Some key strategy planks worth examining are:

  1. Western funding being offered for madrasa reformation should be kept at bay as these would sow serious doubts among the clergy about the motive of the reforms.
  2. The clergy needs to be at the front of the decision-making process because only they can provide legitimacy to the reforms.
  3. Depoliticise madrasas both in theory and practice. Affiliation of the religious seminaries with any political parties, religious or secular should be banned without exception.
  4. Enhance spending on the public education system to provide a viable alternative to the segment of the society which depends solely on madrasas for their children’s education. The current spending on education is abysmal (only 2.2 percent of the GDP). The education budget both at the federal and provincial levels needs to be doubled at the minimum. However, unless the endemic corruption that occurs right under the nose of the respective education ministries is curtailed, and even quadrupling of the budget would be of little avail.

The role of the clergy is critical and they need to participate actively, leading the reforms if need be. Publicly, the mainstream clergy in Pakistan rejects the extremists’ interpretation of Islam and their resort to violence.

In addition to the key strategy planks, a few red lines must also be drawn whose violation would entail strict punitive measures. Financing by proscribed or banned organizations, military training to the pupils, hate speeches against other religions or sects and any efforts to incite violence must not be tolerated, regardless of the rank or status of the seminary.

Registered madrasas that function along a well-structured system should be taken into confidence for any improvement or modifications in their syllabi. The role of the clergy is critical and they need to participate actively, leading the reforms if need be. Publicly, the mainstream clergy in Pakistan rejects the extremists’ interpretation of Islam and their resort to violence. They should be encouraged to “walk the talk” and fight bad theology with good theology.

Foreign funding is a touchy subject; banning them altogether would be problematic as some of the major madrasas depend on foreign philanthropists who donate generously. Any foreign donation, however, must be declared to enable the state to ensure proscribed organizations are not involved. A financial audit by the state again would be fiercely resisted but the government should ask the institutions to conduct local audit themselves and submit the report to the state.

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For the numerous unregistered madrasas, many built on illegal land, a tougher line should be adopted. The leading mainstream ulemas of the country should be taken into confidence and their concurrence obtained on the need for all madrasas to get registered. For ones that are built on the unauthorized property, they should either be regularized or demolished.

Conclusion

Madrasas in the 21st century need not emulate the university model; while remaining rooted in its own tradition, it must evolve to be able to function in the modern world.

Madrasas in Pakistan until the 1980s were viewed as pristine religious seminaries whose primary function was the spread the messages of the Holy Quran, Hadith, and Sunna. Yes, they did function along sectarian lines, promoting their version of the religion through dialogues, debates and at times even protests. Resorting to violence, however, was rare. With the influx of foreign funding and the promotion of the jihadi culture in a bid to support the Mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, militancy became an integral part of a number madrasa curriculum.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the concept of Jihad against the Soviet infidels morphed into a sectarian proxy war. The introduction of money from abroad soon turned madrasas from peaceful and charitable religious seminaries into money making machines. Their numbers grew exponentially, a majority of which were funded by sectarian local and foreign outfits, many that have been prescribed by the state for acts of terror. Madrasas surviving on funds from extremists and terror outfits modify their syllabus to produce recruits for the donors. It is in the interest of both the state and the clergy to arrest the alarming decline.

There is a dire need to reverse the trend and make madrasas return to their original status of charitable NGOs that promote literacy through Islamic teaching. Madrasas in the 21st century need not emulate the university model; while remaining rooted in its own tradition, it must evolve to be able to function in the modern world. Failure to do so would lead to the destruction of an enviable and benevolent institution—and in its wake seriously undermines national security.

The need to carry out wholesale educational reforms including the madrasas has almost universal acceptance in the country. Given the public respect the madrasa institution has earned over centuries, the clergy must be actively involved in madrasa reforms. Raising public awareness by exposing the waywardness of madrasas and the charlatans who run them masquerading as ulemas would strengthen the genuine ones. This is the primary responsibility of the state as only then the genuine ulemas can play their due role in cleansing the madrasa of cancer that threatens to destroy the institution, along with the society.

Air Commodore (retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense-related issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and Dawn, The News, and The Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Air Commodore (retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense-related issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and Dawn, The News, and The Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’.

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