Madrasah Reform in Pakistan

Several Muslim-majority countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan, have been trying to reform their religious seminaries to introduce rational sciences with varying degrees of success. Given Pakistan’s proximity to conflict-ridden Afghanistan, focusing on madrasah reforms within this specific context is particularly important.

Many senior Taliban leaders are the products of madrasahs within Pakistan, though it is important to clarify that not all madrasahs across the country promote outright militancy. Many of them are, however, established along sectarian lines and their students are often trained to rebut other sects through fierce polemics, which is partly responsible for sectarian strife in the country. There is thus an urgent need for students trained in dialogue, rather than violently denouncing divergent belief systems.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to a spike in funding of madrasahs within Pakistan, and supplied a steady stream of ideologically motivated students to fuel the US-backed insurgency across the border. US and Pakistani use of madrasah students in the proxy war in Afghanistan, promoting them as mujahideen who were supposedly fighting in the name of Islam, led to a disturbing trend of growing militancy inside such schools, which has now become a major problem both for the international community and for Pakistan.

According to research conducted by the World Bank, the number of madrasahs is small compared to the Pakistan’s public and private schools, and accounts for less than 200,000 full-time students, or less than one percent of total students enrolled across Pakistan.

This study, however, does not count the number of students who attend madrasahs in the evening to study the Qur’an, which perhaps explains why the International Crisis Group estimates that closer to 1.5 million students attend madrasahs across the country.

Due to the rising militancy and extremist violence within the country, Pakistan’s government has been struggling to bring madrasahs under its control. But attempts to register and scrutinise madrasah finances have met with much resistance. At the end of this past year, the Pakistan Ministry of Interior concluded yet another agreement with the United Organizations of Pakistani Madaris (ITMP), a coalition of five major madrasah boards in the country, which grants them independence in designing religious curriculum. However, they must begin teaching modern subjects like mathematics, science and social studies in accordance with the syllabus prescribed by the government.

This agreement, however, did not clarify exactly what the religious curriculum for madrasahs would encompass. This is worrying since inclusion of modern subjects alone is not sufficient to prevent intolerance, especially if madrasahs continue to propound myopic worldviews.

Surely the Muslim world has produced sufficient knowledge in Islamic subjects as well as contemporary disciplines such as the sciences and humanities over the past 14 centuries, which is acceptable to different schools of thought and could creatively be infused into the existing religious curriculum to expand the worldview of madrasah students. Curriculum and pedagogical improvements are the only way that dialogue and understanding can take the place of polemics amongst madrasah graduates.

Yet, efforts to help promote a culture of tolerance within madrasahs, by engaging constructively with their existing syllabus and teaching staff, have been limited. Although madrasahs do admittedly need a multi-tiered accountability system to ensure that extremist ideologies are not being inculcated, it is equally important that religious scholars and community members are involved in ensuring such a system comes to fruition, instead of relying upon government officials alone. Coercive attempts at external scrutiny of madrasahs, be it through government or donor agencies, will only be met with suspicion by madrasah teachers and administrators, and will continue to yield disappointing results.

It is not the international donor community but Muslim intellectuals themselves who must seriously look into these issues and try to promote intellectual awakening and serious research through madrasah education.

It is thus imperative to encourage entities like the ITMP to include the works of mainstream Islamic scholars on a range of topics within their existing religious curriculum and to pay more attention to the quality of teaching by encouraging critical thinking rather than rote learning in their schools.

Syed Mohammad Ali is a development practitioner and columnist for The Express Tribune and The Friday Times in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).