Posted by sepoy on April 26, 2004 · 10 mins read

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.