According to many security analysts and world leaders, Pakistan is the global centre of extremist Islam. Much of that reputation has been built upon the country’s madaris, or religious seminaries (also sometimes referred to as madrassas), which have been described as jihadi factories spreading terrorism internationally.
Read stories about Pakistan in the newspaper and you may very well start picturing young men being trained to wage religious war against the world. Such stories include that of Shehzad Tanweer, one of four young men who blew themselves up in the London underground four years ago. He had spent several weeks in a Pakistani madari.
One cannot deny the very real role played by madaris in fomenting extremism in Pakistan. I have met several members of the Taliban and a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative. All had either been recruited or taught at madaris.
But such blanket stereotyping hides a more complex reality.
Madaris come in many shapes and sizes: just as Christians go to Sunday school, almost all Muslims have learnt to read the Koran in a madrassa. Some of these seminaries consist only of a single classroom. Others, like Mufti Usmani‘s Darul-Uloom in Karachi are more like universities. These larger schools are typically well funded thanks to tax-free donations by wealthy individuals and organisations that claim donations as their "zakaat", part of their obligation as Muslims to give alms to the poor.
According to the political scientist Christopher Candland there are some two million madari students in several thousand seminaries throughout Pakistan. Precise numbers are impossible to verify, however, as most operate independently of direct government supervision.
For the poorest families madaris play an important role in ensuring children are supervised, fed and taught to read and write, while parents, often illiterate and incapable of providing these skills, are busy working long hours. Madaris have had this function in the subcontinent since at least the 11th century when the faith spread to the region on a mass level.
In more recent centuries they have bred what are now major schools of Islamic interpretation. The towns of Bareilly and Deoband, both in modern-day India, for example, are where two of the most influential schools of Islamic thought in South Asia were founded. Indeed Deoband, and the Deobandi stream of Islam established there, became vanguards of Muslim resistance to the British rule from the 19th century onwards. At the time many madari clerics were critical of the way self-appointed religious leaders in their communities were toadying to their British occupiers. In that way, madaris quickly became a focal point for charged discussion and debate.
Today, the Taliban invokes Deobandi doctrine in its condemnation of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. They, and other religious militant groups, consider themselves a vanguard for threatened Muslim values. (Though it should be noted that the Deobandi school itself has condemned all forms of terrorism, saying that "Islam sternly condemns all kinds of oppression, violence and terrorism," and that "Islam prohibits killing of innocent people.")
Yet despite their widespread presence and historic influence, the subcontinent’s madaris, for centuries the keepers of a rich heritage of Islamic philosophy, have been in serious decline for some time.
This decline may have something to do with the significant narrowing of the madari’s function over time. In centuries past, before the establishment of secular educational institutions, madaris were the primary centres of law scholarship as well as scientific and philosophical learning. These days, however, they are most likely to limit their syllabus to Koranic Arabic or the well worn rituals of Islamic practice. Such a restricted outlook may be partly to blame for the absolutist attitudes of that truly tiny percentage of their graduates who later engage in terrorist activity.
Another factor which arguably increases the number of armed, madari-schooled militants is the series of leaders in Pakistan who have promoted a more radical Islamic unitarism in various ways in institutions right across the education sector. The puritanical madaris where almost all of these militants were schooled have existed in Pakistan from its founding. But they proliferated under General Zia ul Haq, the United States-sponsored military dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1978 to 1988.
Zia’s rule coincided with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a conflict that saw the most rapid radicalisation of the region’s Muslim societies in modern history. Madaris received generous funding from Zia and the states of the Arabian Peninsula. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, they sought to entrench a militant form of Salafist Islamic doctrines that would later gain notoriety under the Taliban. In this, Zia was developing on a trend already started by his predecessor Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had initiated this process by corrupting the ostensibly secular government education system, promoting a singular view of Pakistan as a Muslim country, and writing minorities out of school textbooks.
These harder doctrines developed to the extent that today the more fundamentalist, puritanical views of Salafist Islam, while not inherently synonymous with extremism, are the most organised, vocal and hence powerful religious voices in Pakistani politics and society. They have historically been the greatest apologists for Taliban violence, especially during their rule in Afghanistan before September 2001.
The truth then about Pakistan’s madaris is not that they are all hotbeds of terrorist indoctrination. Most do an important job in educating many of Pakistan’s poorest people — people who might have no other access to education. It must be said, however, that many do not offer a robust anti-terrorist environment.
In recent years there have been increasing attempts to reform Pakistan’s madaris. At a recent conference in Islamabad, I spoke to religious scholars and teachers about their attempts to broaden the scope of the education provided by Pakistan’s seminaries. The program, funded by the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) based in Washington DC, seeks in particular to promote the teaching of scientific and social disciplines, as well as critical thinking among students, and to foster dialogue among the different Muslim sects in Pakistan.
It’s a fairly unique approach to the situation, one of the few coordinated attempts to improve the quality of teaching in Pakistan’s madaris. According to the ICRD, over 2000 madrassa teachers have joined the program and there are ambitious plans to expand it to some of the most volatile parts of the country.
You can hear my interviews with the religious scholars and teachers at the conference in the two-part audio recording below (each part approx. four minutes).
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