Madrassas and militancy

Published: February 15, 2015
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The writer is the Executive Director of Iqbal International Institute for Research & Dialogue at the International Islamic University, Islamabad

The writer is the Executive Director of Iqbal International Institute for Research & Dialogue at the International Islamic University, Islamabad

The tragedy of Peshawar that resulted in the death of students of the Army Public School has once again brought the issue of madrassa reforms into sharp focus. The National Action Plan, announced by the prime minister to combat extremism and terrorism in the country, makes two points about madrassas: to register and regulate them and to introduce curriculum reform. While very few people will disagree with the first point — the imperative need for the registration of madrassas and transparency of their funding sources — we are not quite sure about the causal relationships between madrassa curriculum on the one hand and extremism and terrorism, on the other.

The debate on madrassa curriculum before the 9/11 attacks focused mainly on issues of pedagogy — its intellectual orientation; the structure of its content; methodology of teaching; and the relevance of the madrassa curriculum to the educational needs of a modern Muslim society. Most critics of madrassa education contended that madrassa curriculum was outdated, narrowly focused on issues of fiqh and its most literalist interpretations, and based on religio-intellectual formulations and controversies that are no longer relevant.

In the context of South Asian Islam, the debate on the continued relevance and efficacy of madrassa education became more intense in the wake of the introduction of modern institutions of secondary and post-secondary education by the British. Muslim reformers and modernists, starting from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, found madrassa curriculum doctrinally rigid, intellectually superficial, organisationally archaic and socially cliquish. They considered the entire curriculum as retrogressive, reactionary and antithetical to the needs of modern times.

While the earlier critiques of madrassa curriculum focused on its out-datedness, its lack of socio-political concerns and its failure to provide religio-intellectual leadership for Islamic revival, the primary emphasis of the post-9/11 debate has been on its alleged relationship with the rise of extremism and militancy. It has become conventional wisdom among a circle of scholars, journalists and policymakers to believe that there is an inherent relationship between madrassa curriculum and religious extremism, militancy, Talibanisation and terrorism.

The core curriculum taught in madrassas of the South Asian subcontinent, known as Dars-e-Nizami, consists of about 80 books in 20 subject areas, broadly divided into: 1) “received” or revealed knowledge (the Quranic exegesis, Hadith, and Fiqh); and 2) rational sciences (Arabic language and literature, grammar, prosody, rhetoric logic, philosophy, dialectical theology, mathematics and medicine). It is important to note that out of the 20 subject areas of the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum, only eight can be considered as solely ‘religious’. The remaining subjects are otherwise ‘secular’ subjects intended as aids to the understanding of religious texts.

A close scrutiny of madrassa curriculum does not, in any way, indicate anything that can even remotely be considered as inciting to, or inculcating, violence and militancy in students. However, like all curricula in religious seminaries — whether Christian or Jewish — madrassa curriculum remains exclusivist and does not entertain the possibility of any doubt in the truthfulness of its theological claims. It is in this sense, at the most, that one can describe madrassa curriculum as ‘extremist’, that is, its emphatic and absolute affirmation of the truth of its own claims. To expect madrassas to subscribe to the ideas of ‘pluralism’ or ‘relativism’ in the context of the belief in the essential truth of Islam would be a sheer anathema to the ulema. What we can expect — and demand — from the ulema is to inculcate a spirit of tolerance for other faiths and different interpretations of religious texts among their students.

In many respects, the current debate on the relationship between madrassa curriculum and militancy is reminiscent of a similar debate among Middle Eastern scholars on what caused the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. At the time, it was argued by a number of scholars that the root cause of the revolution was Shia theology and the political theory that inculcated among the ulema and the faithful the spirit of revolution and the desire for martyrdom. But, as Leonard Binder has argued, it was the same Shia theology and political theory that existed in “good times and bad times”. The important question that needed to be addressed was: why and how a particular theological system that sustains political quietism at one time becomes a source of revolutionary upheaval at another?

It is precisely this question that needs to be raised with regard to the role of madrassas and their curriculum in radical politics and militancy. Our contention here is that it was the constellation of several domestic, regional and international political developments that created conditions that became conducive for the radicalisation of the religious sector in Pakistan which, in turn, employed all of its normative (religious texts) and institutional (mosques and madrassas) resources to advance its religio-political goals. It was in this context that a politically pacifist and religiously conservative madrassa curriculum was pressed into the service of radical political goals. In other words, militancy did not emerge from within the madrassa tradition; it was brought into madrassas by extraneous forces, especially the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s.

It is true that the exclusivist religious discourse in madrassa education draws clear boundaries between what is the truth and what is falsehood. But in ‘ordinary’ times, this exclusivist orientation remains quiescent and is invoked only in scholarly disputations. However, given the ‘right’ configuration of political circumstances, this exclusivist orientation may lead to sectarian violence and hostility towards the followers of other faiths. Scholarly discourses in the exclusionary tradition, therefore, may translate, in certain specific circumstances, into much more sinister religious and political choices by interested actors.

It is also important to note that madrassas belonging to different schools of thought inhabit the same theological-legal space as defined by the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum, and yet madrassas belonging to one particular school of thought have rarely, if ever, been involved in extremist politics, militancy and what has come to be known as jihadi activism. If it is the curriculum and pedagogy of the madrassas alone that produce religio-political extremism, militancy and anti-Western attitudes, then the ‘exceptionalism’ of madrassas belonging to this particular school of thought becomes problematic.

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

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 16, 2015 - 12:57AM

    It is precisely this question that needs to be raised with regard to the role of madrassas and their curriculum in radical politics and militancy!

    The author has touched upon the sensitive and an important point! Politics must be excluded as far as possible from the Madrassa curriculum, replaced with science subject. Leonard Binder is not the authority on Islam or Madrassas. The author should also know that the world elite universities in Oxford and Harvard were first established as Madrassas teaching christianity prior to additional of other subjects.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • John B
    Feb 16, 2015 - 2:04AM

    The origin of Islam and the spread of Islam is based on regio-political environment. It is hard to separate the revelations and theology of islam from the political narrative. Since its begining many scholars have pointed out the contradictions especially when it is placed among the context of other religious beliefs. In the subcontinent context, the famous Mugul emperor Akbar have understood this during his later years and tried to form the new theological discourse of e-ni-Akbari but he was accused as infidel by the Ulema. Then came Ahmadians and we know where they stand.

    Hence, the militancy from Madrassas is a result of Afghan -Soviet politics is ill founded in conclusion. What the author is trying to empahsize here can be summarized as whether the Madrassa education should be based on the “Contextual theology” or “Literal theology”. Since the revelations are inviolable in nature, literal theology appeals to those who seek Islamization principle, whereas Contextualists try to synchronize the revelations with the modern times but have been failing. Contextualists eventually leave the Islamic land, if they can.

    Not a sermon in the mosque is without a political narrative. We don’t see such mixing of religion and politics in the church or synagogue sermons. The mullahs always bring in the events of the Mecca or Medina to justify the present events and where applicable they bring the narration of caliphs. So, here we are still discussing the same issue for 1300 years. Recommend

  • vaqas
    Feb 16, 2015 - 4:31AM

    You have tried to paint a picture with the colors of your words on a canvas that is black. And as we all know that black is all consuming, so is the religious fanaticism stemming from the religiopolitical groups overflowing in this country. I was willing to buy your argument initially, atleast till when you referred to the Afghan war as the inciting factor of hooliganism in the religious fraternity, because of my lack of knowledge about the curricula in madressahs. But we all know that is a lie. Sure the extremist elements became much more visible during the Afghan war, and our dear general Zia ul haqs patronage is to share the blame, but let’s be honest, was the jamateislami not prone to violence before the war? Were they not on the streets ransacking and vandalizing during Bhutto’s time and before whenever they found something not to their liking? Has violence not been the way of our religious forces to make people submit to their will whenever these mullahs perceived a threat, more usually concocted in their own heads than in real life? No mister writer, when Taliban come out of madressahs with bombs and guns instead of books and pencils, spilling blood on the streets and justifying their heinous acts with their version of religion, it is time to put an end to all such madressahs and rid the country of the mullah infestation. If after more than 50000 deaths you still can find a way to defend these barbarians, then you also are part of the problem and not the solution.Recommend

  • C. M. Naim
    Feb 16, 2015 - 1:09PM

    What is that particular school of thought that is an exception? Why this censorship?Recommend

  • Ali S
    Feb 17, 2015 - 12:53PM

    A better question to ask would be “why are so many children studying in madaris and not in regular primary schools?” And why isn’t there a jump-off point for madrassa students to join the mainstream education system and break the cycle of exclusionism? It’s not like most parents from poor backgrounds prefer their kids to be studying in madrassas rather than schools, most of them don’t have a choice. Madrassas’ enrollment is largely driven by socioeconomic factors rather than ideology – they’re the symptom of a much larger problem.Recommend

  • Solomon2
    Feb 17, 2015 - 10:40PM

    “However, like all curricula in religious seminaries — whether Christian or Jewish — madrassa curriculum remains exclusivist and does not entertain the possibility of any doubt in the truthfulness of its theological claims.”

    With all due respect, this claim about Christian and Jewish religious seminaries is mostly untrue. Jesuit schools probably dominate in Christian schools and are noted for exploring freethinking, whereas Jewish seminaries study Talmud where doubt is embraced as a tool of analysis.Recommend

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