From Wired, comes an article on the adoption of computers in Madrasas in Lahore. A couple of weeks ago, Boston Globe ran an article that also tackled the modernization of syllabus in Deobandi madrasas in India. Both of these articles point towards external and internal reform pressures on the madrasa system. The impression is that the madrasas teach nothing besides the rote memorization of the Qur’an (picture boys in caps on floor swaying back and forth). The further implication is that the madrasa system in Pakistan is a breeding ground of terror and extremism. Hence, reform must come by reforming the curriculum of these schools.

As Bush/Musharraf spoke in a2002 press conference:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me first — and I’d like the President to speak on this, basically on the madrasa school issue in Pakistan. One of the things that most impressed me about President Musharraf, that gives me confidence in his vision, is that the last time we met in New York City, we spent a fair amount of time talking about education reform. And the President has placed a very intriguing and very interesting woman in charge of the education system in Pakistan. She used to work in rural areas, a rural province of the country. He’s elevated her to Cabinet position because she’s a reformer. She understands the modern world requires an education system that trains children in basic sciences and reading and math and the history of Pakistan. [snip]

PRESIDENT MUSHARRAF: Madrasas, we must understand, are basically — there are about 600,000 to 800,000 students here in madrasas. Now, the positive aspect of the madrasa — which I did lay out in my speech also, I would like to highlight for everyone to hear — is that they are a welfare — they have a welfare and humanitarian aspect to them. They feed and house the poorest of the poor children. So this is the positive aspect of their providing free board and lodge to the poorest of the poor. Now, the weaknesses of some of the madrasas only teaching religious — giving religious education to the children has to be removed. And the children in these madrasas need to be brought into the mainstream of life. And that is what we are doing.

The word “Madrasa” comes from the same arabic root as “dars” which means a lesson or a lecture. With the famous dictum to “pursue knowledge, even if it takes you to China”, the role of education has been central in any Islamic polity. Madrasa, as traditionally constructed in Islam, is an institution where any one of the four schools of religion in Islam – the madhhab – along with Arabic grammar, the traditions of the Prophet –hadith, history, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, and astronomy are taught. They emerged in the early tenth century in Iran although we have reports as early as ‘Abdul Malik (c.685-705) of Quranic teachings done in two type of settings:

– The first was the maktab which was geared towards the illiterate and primarily to teach the Qur’an. This was done anywhere – private house, shop etc. presided over by an alim.

– The second was the majlis, which rose out of a gathering of scholars in the mosque and was dedicated to more specialized study.

There are the famous examples of funded institutions of higher learning such as al-Rashid’s (c.764≠809) Bait ul Hikmah (house of wisdom). Other examples are the Jami’a Masjids – large mosques – that served as centers of learning. The chief among them being the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca that was seen as the most sacred institute. Figures such as Shah Waliullah, Abdul Wahab, Ubaidullah Sindhi studied here in the early 19th century.

The establishment of the current model of the madrasa can be traced to Nizam ul Mulk (c.1018≠92), the Grand Vizier under two Seljuk Sultans. He wrote the influential Siyasat Namah – The Book of Government and founded a series of madrasas all over Iraq and Khurusan (Iran). The biggest of the them was the Nazimiya in Baghdad (c.1065). In his book, as in the establishment of these madrasas, Nizam ul Mulk sought to train a cadre of intellectuals and theologians that would guide the Sultans in their governance over the Muslim lands. Nizam ul Mulk’s reforms instituted a state-funded (through waqf – land endownment) institute of higher learning that was responsible for creating a new elite.

The madrasa system spread throughout Fatimid and Mamluk Egypt, Iraq, Safavid Iran and India. In India, the Delhi sultanate and the Mughals continued their patronage of madrasas all over the land. They served as counter-balances in some areas (such as Bengal) to the ever-popular Sufi Khanaqas (communal housing and learning centers). The importance of fiqh (religious law), history, sciences was well established by the 16th and 17th centuries. The ‘alims who came out of these madrasas were polyglot, erudite intellectuals who sought high offices.

The British in India were responsible for both the diminuation of the syllabi of madrasas as well as their spread as a counter-British institution. After the 1857 war, the language of the courts was shifted from Persian to English. The Muslim elites who were trained at home and in madrasas in the “classical” subjects were loathe to join the english grammar schools. While people like Syed Ahmed Khan, argued for a modernization of the Islamic knowledge systems and founded Aligarh University in 1864. Others like Thanawi, Maududi, Nanotovi etc. opted for enshrining Arabic and the Qur’an at the heart of any system of Muslim knowledge in India. The effect was the growth of two separate strains of Muslim thought in India. In pre-colonial India, the ‘alim had to know fiqh, history, sciences, archery etc. to be an effective administrator or jurist, but the colonial counterpart needed only English language and English Law. As a reult, the curriculums in the madrasas deteriorated down to just religious law.

Children were sent to madrasas in their earliest age to learn to read the Qur’an and other religious rituals. A minority, only those persuing a religious living, went on to studying fiqh etc. and the rest went to public or private secular schools. The madrasas existed not in competition with secular Urdu, Hindi or English medium schools but as optional supplements.

In the 80s, the Afghani conflict forced the migration of millions of refugees into Pakistan. The madrasas were one venue where children and young adults found refuge. The got home and boarding and were schooled in Qur’an and Arabic. This is the time-frame where the politicization and militarization of the madrasas in rural and semi-urban regions of Pakistan. It was NOT a uniform phenomenon and neither was it a programmed one. Many have pointed to Zia ul Haq’s Islamization as responsible for this but I would like to differ mainly because the state control over these institutions has been virtually negligible.

There is no doubt though that, in the 90s, hardline jihadi talk was gaining momentum in the madrasas in Pakistan – this time due to the Kashmiri conflict.

Today, the majority of madrasas in Pakistan are tiny nickle and dime operations. Led by one solitary imam in a neighborhood, housed inside a mosque, they are the maktabs of early Islam. The powerhouses, like the Jamia Ashrafia are too prominent to openly preach jihad. The culprits are the madrasas run by jihadist organizations themselves. To stop them, one needs to root out the organizations such as Jaish Muhammad etc. It is common knowledge which are of the madrasas that are the radical ones. Taking away the funding of such organizations will do enough to break such madrasas. The neighborhood ones will never have the funds or personnel to “modernize”. They exist not to trains jihadists but to teach children Arabic and the Qur’an. They are regulated in the sense that the neighborhood hires the imam who leads the prayer and teaches there. These imams have to conform to the local standards and ideologies and radical ones are often booted out — at least in Lahore.

ok. i am out of breath now.

11 Replies to “Madrasas”

  1. dear sir or madam !

    asslam_o_alaikum !

    mera name mudassar hussain hy aur muje daswen k leye parhai chahye aisaley sawab k leye ap ka bht shurya ho ga muje ap se bht umeed hy k ap muje parhai zaror send kren ge therefore meri umeed zaror pori kijye ga !is thirsday (jumyrat) 10-11-2011 ko daswan hy…………………….

    thanks alot………………………..!

    best regard……………………………………!

    Mudassar Hussain.

  2. why the people send their children to madrasa because they cant effort the formal education
    the donation which given to the government or NGOs they totally used by the employee salaries i-e in million and nothing was spend on the education. to uproot the madrasa system
    one have to stablished free good formal education with free dinning facilities then after 5 to 10 years this madrasa system will be uprooted not with a 3 or 4 months, the main cause of terrorisum produce from the Madrasas and the IQRA school system formed in pakistan who are the main root of terrorisum who give fresh blood to the terrorist working
    i am runing an NGO with the name of ESAW (Educational Skill Development of women)
    but lack of funding i fail to run this free education for the children

  3. strange 2 know it all abt madrisas.when other systems of schools with different mindsets/other missionary schools etc can work then why madrisas are so criticised. For all religions the seminaries/pesantrens are working almost every where ..its critical to think abt it

  4. Really appreciated your article on madarsas.
    I work with a hyderabad based non-profit called the Naandi Foundation. We have several initiatives in education and are looking to work with madarsas in Bihar and M.P on expanding the range of subjects taught in madarsas.I’m looking for more information on people working in this area in India and abroad. If you know about people, initiaves, research reports or articles that deal with issue, i’d be grateful if you could pass on the info,


  5. The problem is not with the madrassah themselves. The problem is with ‘Islamic education’ which simply juxtaposes ‘religious’ subjects with ‘secular’ subjects. There is no coherency, no structure; and certainly no ‘critical’ thought induced into students. I went to a Deobandi madrassah over here, run by austere Gujratis, set up and run in exactly the same fashion as in India. Apart from rote memorisation of Qur’an (with little or no Arabic), some Urdu to read some Hanafi fiqh texts, I don’t recall a single time we were taught anything!

  6. de godt comment shakir!!
    The Madrasa situation is not so bad in Lahore and especially in Karachi. One is surprised to see some very ‘uptodate’ Madrasas in Karachi, giving degrees in computer sciences along with Fiqa (Jurispurdism)/Islam. this trend is now coming to Lahore and Islamabad.

    But the credit for this ‘sectorianism’/’fanatic jihad concept’ in Madrasas, goes to one of the dictator in Pakistan, GENERAL ZIA UL HAQ!!! He was the one who used Islam as a tool to stabilize his dictatorship in the country and diverted ppl’s attention to Jihad in afghanistan , in 1979 ; so much so that he cheated the nation in Dec.1984’s referendum , by saying : if u want ISLAM in the country , then vote for ‘yes’ (me)..
    long story,but we fell for it, and he literally destroyed us !!

    So basically ,it was more after 1970’s (in PK)the Madrasas became a religo-political tool to gain supremacy in the society..

    Even now, many political and religious figures are just famous/respected for their ‘special’ association to one of those Madrasas!!

  7. Thumbs up for writing a detailed blog on Madrasas. After living in Peshawar (Northern PK) for almost 5 yrs, i can safely conclude few things about the Madarsa situations:i.e:

    1. Like the sepoy wrote: almost all the madrasas are filled with either, orphans, refugee kids, or childern from poorest families

    2. Almost 80% of them preach nothing but JIHAD..Especially the one in Akora Khattak (45mins from Attock city) known as the Taleban Factory. Nearly all the graduates from these madrasas were ending up in Kabul with Talebans.

    3. At the downfall of taleban regime, there were almost 20,000 missing pakistani , mostly youth and and from these madrasas.

    4. Madrasas which are equipped with proper sllybus and computers are too expensive for the general public to afford, but thanks to Mess-a-raff new policies, there are now some good changes.

    5.Also most of the Madrasas are/were nothing but good businesses and money laundering factories. Few of them were under ISI control for shipping fresh lots of ‘mujahideen’ into kashmir and afghanistan.

    6.then there are these Madrases which are based on some specific sects and do nothing but sectorianism…diverting poeple from real virtues of Islam and pushing them into sect wars , like shia-sunni riots.

    But all this mentioned above do not potray the true concept and spirits of Madrasas which were based on the true intentions of spreading knowledge, from religion to sciences…some thousands years ago…

    P.S: But still many poeple thinks its appropriate to donate generous amounts to these madrasas!

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