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Another Approach to Madrassa Reforms in Pakistan

By Syed Mohammad Ali

The rise of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan over the decades, not just in the militant periphery but in mainstream society too, has been promoted by a number of factors. A critical one among them is the system of education in the country – several studies, including the Jinnah Institute’s policy brief ‘The Continuing Biases in Our Textbooks’, (April 30, 2012) have shown how the textbooks developed by the public sector are inculcating a parochial and narrow outlook in students. Jinnah Institute’s brief made several recommendations to curb this worrying trend, including effective reform of the madrassa (religious seminary) system. While a small percentage of students enrolled in Pakistani schools attend madrassas, their socio-political impact is disproportionately high given that some of them are churning out graduates that take up arms against other sects, minorities and the state.

This paper will expand on the recommendation for madrassa reform, looking at the ways in which this can be achieved, and making the case for undertaking such measures in Pakistan.. It will first survey recent attempts at madrassa reforms, which unsuccessfully relied on the use of contested administrative and financial regulation measures, or else tried to include secular education in madrassa syllabi. The paper argues for a more innovative, curriculum-based approach, relying on Islamic knowledge itself to infuse more tolerance within madrassa teachers and students.

Several countries with large Muslim populations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan,
have been trying to reform their religious seminaries by introducing modern subjects with varying
degrees of success. Given Pakistan’s proximity to conflict-ridden Afghanistan, and the fact that many
senior Taliban leaders are the products of madrassas in Pakistan, focusing on madrassa reforms in
Pakistan is particularly important. Not all madrassas in the country overtly promote militancy. Many,
however, have a sectarian outlook, and their students are often trained to counter rival sects with fierce
polemic. This is partly responsible for sectarian strife and violence in Pakistan (Winthrop and Graff,
Although madrassa education has a long and important history in the context of promoting education in
South Asia, secular schools began replacing madrassas as Britain colonized India, and in the period
following Partition in 1947. It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that led to a spike in
funding for madrassas in Pakistan and supplied a steady stream of ideologically-motivated students for
the US-backed insurgency across the border. US and Pakistani use of madrassa students in the proxy
war in Afghanistan, promoting them as mujahideen, holy warriors fighting in the name of Islam, led to a
disturbing trend of growing militancy in such schools. This has become a major problem both for the
international community and for Pakistan today.
According to research conducted by the World Bank, the current number of madrassas is small
compared to Pakistan’s public and private schools, accounting for less than 200,000 full-time students,
or less than one percent of all students enrolled across Pakistan. (Andrabi et al, 2010) The International
Crisis Group factors in students that attend madrassas in the evenings, and estimates enrolment to be
close to 1.5 million. (ICG, 2002)
It is interesting to note that madrassas vary in their ideological character and the education they impart,
from neighborhood evening religious schools to those incorporating a more radical or militant
viewpoint. Yet none of the existing data sources distinguish between types of madrassas.
Nonetheless, with rising militancy and extremist violence, Pakistan’s government has been struggling to
bring madrassas under its control. Emphasis was also placed on the need for them to begin teaching
mainstream subjects like mathematics, science and social studies in accordance with the syllabus
prescribed by the government. (Shah, 2006) Yet attempts to register and scrutinize madrassa finances
are met with ongoing resistance.
At the end of 2011, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior concluded yet another agreement with the Ittihad-i-
Tanzeemat-i-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP), a coalition of five major madrassa boards, granting them
independence in designing the religious curriculum. This agreement, however, did not clarify exactly
what the religious curriculum for madrassas would encompass. This is worrying since the inclusion of
modern subjects alone is not sufficient to prevent intolerance, given that even secular textbooks in
Pakistan are criticized for being biased against other religions (Hinduism in particular), especially if
madrassas continue to propound myopic worldviews. (Hoodbhoy, 199

Besides these, there are also independent institutions, which have their own madrassas. The most
prominent of which are the Jamia Islamia Minhaj-ul-Quran, Jamia Taleemat-e-Islamia, Jamia Ashrafia,
Dar-ul-Uloom and Darul-ul-uloom Mohammadia Ghousia. These independent institutions are also
recognized by the government and tend to have linkages with the above-mentioned wafaqs, following
the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum. Besides curriculum guidance, all these entities also provide varying levels
of additional support, such as prescribing supplementary materials to reinforce their particular
interpretation of Islam, and emphasize the work of scholars recognized by their respective schools of
thought. Before identifying potential opportunities for reform interventions, it is important to take a
closer look at madrassa curricula.
Most prominent madrassas affiliated with the major waqafs in Pakistan follow a curriculum called ‘Darse-
Nizami’, named after the Indian curriculum expert Maulana Nizamuddin Sehalvi (d. 1747 AD). In the
earlier stages of madrassa education, the emphasis is on the recitation and memorization of the.
However, induction into the Dars-e-Nizami occurs after Class 8, provided a child has memorized the
Quran already, or else after getting the Higher Secondary Certificate (a public school degree equivalent
to Grade 10).
The stated purpose of the Dars-e-Nizami is to introduce a blend of Islamic teachings with social/natural
sciences so that the subsequent graduates can enter a range of professions, and become lawyers, judges
and administrators of the state. Based on this broader goal, the curriculum comprises 54 subjects to be
covered over a period of eight years, and includes Arabic grammar and literature, Islamic jurisprudence
(fiqh), the Hadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet PBUH), and interpretation of the Quran. (Islam, 2010)
The Dars-e-Nizami has been modified over time.. While canonical texts are still used as a for continuity,
more modern books are now used instead for some subjects. Arabic, for instance, is taught through
modern and more accessible texts. (Ibid) However, subjects like history, the comparative study of
religions, social sciences, politics, international affairs, economics or business studies (even from an
Islamic perspective) are not included.
Besides adhering to the Dars-e-Nizami, madrassas from different schools of thought also prescribe
supplemental materials. For instance, the syllabus (dated 2002) of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the oldest and
most prominent Islamist political party in the country, mentions additional books by party founder
Maulana Abul-Ala Maududi and other Jamaat intellectuals on a number of subjects, including Hadith. No
madrassa teacher or administrator will readily confess to teaching any text which refutes the beliefs of
other sects. However, despite the denials, the printed syllabi of many sects refute the beliefs of other
sects, often rather harshly. On the other hand, some positive examples were also identified. The Quran
Academy, for instance, denounces sectarianism (within the Sunni schools of thought at least) and has
hired Ahle Hadith and Barelvi mosque leaders and teachers in their own school and mosques to offset
such differences.

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