Can madrassas counter extremism?

Reforming madrassa curriculim would thus have much more positive impact on students than regulating their activities

Syed Mohammad Ali January 15, 2015
The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at McGill University

Ever since the Peshawar massacre this past month, the Pakistani civil and military leadership has expressed a resolve of tackling the underlying extremism, which is fueling the existing menace of terrorism in our country. Besides establishing military courts and lifting the moratorium on executions for those convicted on terrorism charges, attention has also been drawn to the need for longer term measures, particularly the reform of madrassas to counter the growing militancy in our midst.

Undertaking effective madrassa reforms, however, is not going to be easy. Right-wing religious parties have already expressed staunch opposition to madrassa reforms, considering any such effort an attempt to encroach upon their sphere of influence. Moreover, there is a prevalent lack of clarity regarding what sort of madrassa reforms need to be implemented.

Much of the current emphasis on the need for reforming madrassas is focused on administrative measures, such as the need for ensuring their registration, identifying their sources of funding, or else trying to provide more functional education through madrassas by introducing secular subjects alongside the existing religious curriculum. Yet, the fact that madrassa education has become increasingly myopic over the past few decades and thus needs to be reinvigorated has not received the attention it deserves.

Past attempts at madrassa reforms have not proven to be very successful. Former president Pervez Musharraf tried to regularise and register madrassas through the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, something which was widely resisted. The estimated number of madrassas in the country, including those which remain unregistered, varies. Some recent estimates claim the number of madrassas in the country to be around 20,000, and as many as a fourth of these are presumably unregistered. A newly reported survey, carried out by the police and the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration, found 401 seminaries within the capital city’s territorial limits alone, out of which 160 madrassas and 72 day scholar Quranic institutes were not registered with relevant government agencies.

Given this situation, the need to register all madrassas operating across the country or even to determine their sources of funding remain pressing issues. According to the interior minister, 10 per cent of madrassas in the country directly promote militancy and violence. Others, however, estimate that the existing myopia in our society is being encouraged much more rampantly. Nonetheless, overcoming the problem of extremist mindsets is a challenging objective. How the existing curriculum of religious education can be modified to provide a counter-narrative to extremism needs careful deliberation as well.

Suggestions emphasising that madrassas should provide functional education so that their graduates have the hope of securing more employment options will not necessarily lessen intolerance. There is need to counter the myopia and sectarian intolerance, which has crept into madrassa education through the existing madrassa syllabus and through the worldview being inculcated by their teachers. There is thus a pressing need to develop a culture of tolerance and pluralism within madrassas based on Islamic traditions themselves, which many other Muslim countries have successfully been able to do.

There is no reason why our madrassas cannot be used to help promote social justice in our society based on accepted Islamic injunctions, which for instance, forbid denying women their rightful share of property, which in turn could go a long way in ensuring women’s economic empowerment in our country. Many other similar Islamic injunctions can be emphasised to promote a sense of civic and social responsibility through the madrassa system, instead of using madrassas to achieve narrow sectarian or strategic objectives. Reforming what madrassas teach would thus have a much more positive impact on their students than trying to regulate their activities through administrative controls alone.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 16th, 2015.

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Faseeh ur Rehman | 8 years ago | Reply

Seminary system of education has its root from the time immemorial. The major drawback of the seminary system is that the curriculum was never updated once developed. There is need to update the curriculum of these seminaries to bring the student to the mainstream of the educational standards. I do not agree with the view that these seminaries are opted by the people for their children when they cannot afford them to send public or private school. This view is based on ignorance, as one can see the children of rich families getting education from these seminaries because they consider it the way to satisfy their religious duties by contributing one of their child in the way of God. This is considered an act of piety and call for admiration from the common folk. We need reformed and updated religious educational institutions, equipped with tolerance, to give place the interpretations of all Mazhabs(Sects or the Schools of thought). The problem we are facing now a day is that seminaries are confined, rather stuck, to the single interpretation and are reactant to the interpretation of other schools of thought, in so doing they do not give respect the life of a human being, that is, the most sacred trust created by the Almighty.

Dilip | 8 years ago | Reply

The reform process should start with the so called "teachers", then only will the children learn to be productive Pakistanis. The whole question lies in the perception of TRUTH. Why was Pakistan Created ? What is the history of Pakistan ? What were the reasons of the wars that were fought with India? What were the outcome of the wars ? Why did the Bengali's opt for a separation ? Why is the school curriculum tainted with hatred ?

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