Do madrassas need revamping?
Are seminaries in Pakistan really breeding violence and hatred, and not imparting education?
By Dr Noman Ahmed; The News, April 20, 2008
In his inaugural speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced the setting up of a Madrassa Regulatory Authority to oversee the functioning of seminaries across the country. It goes without saying that madrassas have been a hot topic of discussion for about a decade. The previous regime had also undertaken a number of initiatives to reform madrassas, but on the whole these efforts failed to bring about the desired changes. Therefore, it is necessary that the current effort is guided by a full understanding and analysis of the situation.
The image of madrassas has changed drastically over time. Once, they were considered as the ideological flag-bearers of the state. As a 'holy war' against the Soviet Union was to be fuelled by a zealot crop of recruits, all kind of state patronage was extended to madrassas. All that was associated with them was held in high esteem. Components of the establishment, predominantly the armed forces, carved a special niche for madrassas in their operation manuals. After the Soviet retreat in the late 1980s, however, the Western perception changed. Influenced by the West and irked by the misdeeds of the mercenaries disguised as clerics, the Pakistani establishment also took a U-turn in the late 1990s.
As far as the syllabus is concerned, the centuries-old Dars-e-Nizamiya is still taught in most Pakistani madrassas. Demands of reforms, therefore, are being made by different quarters, mainly because this syllabus is outdated and not in line with the contemporary educational needs. The state has also started exerting pressure in a bid to diffuse the potential threat of militarism, thought to be evolving due to obscurantist policies and practices of the past. The clerics, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge the need for reforms, at least those fostered by the state.
The liberal elements are viewed as the arch-rivals of madrassas in Pakistan. In their pursuit to foster liberal thinking and attitude, they consider madrassas as the harbingers of retrogression and orthodoxy. Madrassas and clerics, in turn, denounce the liberals, terming them promoters of evil. Both the camps refuse to recognise the existence and subsequent validity of each other's school of thought, modus operandi of learning and the overall ideology of life. In comparison, academics and scholars have a mixed approach. Skeptical of the liberals, who demand dissent from the conventions, they mostly mend fences with the clerics and share some wavelength, at least on controversial issues, with them.
The media, especially international outfits, paint a very negative picture of madrassas and their activities. More often than not, madrassas are shown as sites brewing anti-social activities. Brainwashing for suicide bombings, attacks on civilian targets hosting Western interests and other such happenings are all shown with madrassas in the background. The print media, especially the English press, is especially hostile to madrassas. Urdu newspapers, however, are not hostile to madrassas, and provide wide coverage to their activities and outlook. Similarly, feudals and landed aristocracy hold madrassas and clerics in high esteem, as they normally share the common perception of anti-progressivism. On the other hand, women's and human rights groups are suspicious of madrassas and clerics.
In our society, barring a few exceptions, the bright students focus their attention on those disciplines that offer lucrative employment and posh lifestyle. Thus, they adopt the fashionable channels of learning right from the beginning to be prepared for future challenges. On the other hand, madrassas receive the bottom strata of the youth. There are several reasons for this, as elucidated in the following:
One, the parents who cannot afford to raise their children -- let alone bear their educational expenses -- are left with no choice but to send them to madrassas. They, at least, have the consolation that madrassas shall house the child, and provide for his or her food, boarding and lodging. The parents also draw satisfaction from the assumption that because of their child acquiring religious education, the way to Heaven would be opened for them as well as the child.
Two, destitute children and orphans who do not have any relative to look after them normally end up in a madrassa. The whole Taliban syndrome is an exemplification of how a sizable number of these orphans and destitute children joined madrassas as the only choice. According to famous journalist, Ahmed Rashid, the Taliban primarily evolved from the dozens of madrassas established in the refugee camps along the Pak-Afghan border territories. Besides teachings, these children received hands-on training on some of the most lethal weapons in the world. The Taliban, as a result, soon became an invincible force.
Three, urban ultra-orthodox families send their children to madrassas to learn Nazra Quran or for Hifzul Quran. However, since most of these students do not have any other choice or outlet available to them, they become the captive clientelle of madrassas.
Several issues are vital for consideration with respect to madrassas / traditional system of education. The pattern and system is in need of a dire change, at least in response to the sea changes that have occurred in the society in the past several decades. The doctrine that the religious corollaries and axioms are static, and thus do not need a change over, itself requires a review. By taking this stubborn stand, madrassas are likely to lose their very relevance to the society in which they operate. In this rapidly changing world, an impartial assessment of the situation seems to be a pre-requisite for a beginning towards change. Besides, madrassa administrations follow a very introvert pattern of operation. They are reluctant to engage into dialogue and discussion even with other components of the education sector.
By taking this isolationist stand, madrassas seem to be losing the traditional sympathy that the masses in general and middle classes in particular used to have for them. Skill development with particular reference to the prevailing circumstances is non-existent. Former students of madrassas have almost no avenue for gainful employment. Either they opt for becoming prayer leaders (pesh imams) or prayer callers (moazzins); both jobs available in extremely limited numbers. Due to this supply side pressure, more and more mosques are being built -- some often at sites not legally allocated to them. Some of these students start offering tuitions to neighbourhood children of middle- and upper-income groups. But all these choices are temporary, and limited in scale and operation.
There are many ways forward: the ulema / madrassa administrators need to analyse the prevailing circumstances in an impartial and honest manner. The harsh realities of both the local society and global environment must be understood to equate the potentials and threats. Unless this is done, very little improvement can be expected. The clerics need to open up to the outside world, so that people can freely access their viewpoints and vice-versa. They need to see the important realities of life as they stand today and put their acts together accordingly.