A Nuanced Approach to Understanding Pakistans Madrassa System

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By Umair Qazi

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Muslim world has been bombarded with hate and resentment. In some cases, the stereotype of angry bearded men in correct but to associate it with all Muslims is akin to declaring every Chinese is a kung fu master.

Among the criticism Islam has received, a significant portion of it has been directed at madrassas (Muslim religious schools), the so called ‘training grounds’ of terrorists. In recent years, the condemnation has shifted increasingly towards Pakistan. The 2007 siege of Lal Masjid and suicide attacks remove any doubt of extremist absence within the country. Thus the paranoia of the west is only natural, especially since Pakistan is a nuclear power. But this militant force can only do so much. The main concern lies with the perspective of the masses.

For this reason, the madrassas in Pakistan have received a lot of heat for molding young minds against the west and teaching intolerance towards other faiths. While it’s true that certain madrassas do in fact support the extremist cause, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the majority of madrassas are simply educational facilities with a strong emphasis on religious education . A small fraction of them are in fact dangerous but we cannot let that overshadow the reality that a large number of them provide education to children that would otherwise be illiterate. As it is the literacy rate in Pakistan is just 34% according to the Government official report, which makes the figure not completely believable. With proper reforms and regulation of the madrassa system, it can no doubt be an extremely effective means to provide education to a nation in dire need of it.

Literally, a madrassa is a place of learning however distortion of its actual purpose over the years has changed its connotation.  A report by the Express Tribune found that there are about 18,000 to 24,000 registered madrassas in the country. Disturbingly however, in a 2008 report, the Urdu language newspaper, Roznama Jasarat, estimated that there about 70,000 unregistered madrassas in the country which grossly outnumber registered madrassas. The madrassas that are known are registered with the ministry of religious affairs and are supposed to follow a common curriculum. In chapter 4 of the national education policy of 2009 , five main topics of the curriculum are stated which are: Al- Quran Al Kareem, Imaniyat and Ibadat, Seerat-e-Tayyiba, Ethics and good behavior, and prominent personalities of Islam. It is also stated that no learning materials should contain anything repugnant against religious / ethnic minorities. Other goals of this policy seek to modernize the madrassa system by introducing subjects such as math and science.

These madrassas operate under Ittehad Tanzimat Madaris-e-Deeniya and are divided into 5 different schools of thought: AhleSunnat (Barelwi), Deobandi, Ahl-e HadithShia and Jamaat-e-Islami. The interior ministry estimates that these madrassas serve over 3 million student. Most of them cater to sunni Muslims, which comes under the Deobandi school of thought, and only 4-10% of these madrassas cater to the shias.

Thus at first glance there seems to be no cause for concern. The madrassa system seems to be a neatly organized education system much like Christian Parochial schools. However, the problem begins with unregistered madrassas. Since there is no way to estimate the quantity and locations of these ghost madrassas, it is next to impossible to supervise what is being taught inside. Many of them operate under the guise of simply being group Quran study session. An example of this is the ‘madrassa’ the police raided in Sahiwal in January this year where 13 Afghan children were receiving religious education. Others are successful because they are the closest thing to a school in the region. Being outside the law, these madrassas are free to do whatever they please with their students. Such “Islamic schools” have been reported to violate the rights of the students in multiple ways including torture and sexual harassment.Madrassa Al Arabia Al Uloom is an example of the brutality within these schools. In this madrassa 56 boys and men were chained in the basement and tortured.

Like all products in a free market system, the success of madrassas depends on the wants of the customers. For better or for worse, madrassas are wanted so they prevail. In 2003, Mathew J Nelson of University of London, conducted a survey in Pakistan to analyze the demands of madrassas and what parents considered a good education. All the 112 respondents of this interview  were of varying educational and economic backgrounds but the focus was people from lower middle and middle class. When these respondents were asked if they would be happy if their children had the opportunity to attend any school in Pakistan except for madrassas, a whopping 60% of them replied with “No”. This came as quite a surprise to the donors who were supporting these families. These same respondents also placed “religious education” as their top priority of a good education. The respondents with higher education however answered quite differently. They were more inclined towards a “liberal” education and expected the same from the lower class given their poverty.

Nevertheless, the fact is that religious education is of the utmost importance to the masses and they would not be happy without madrassas. Hence it is unrealistic to work towards eliminating madrassas altogether. However, we should note that madrassa graduates don’t have the best employment records. Since religion educated is given top priority, vocational training and subjects such as science and math take a backseat. Thus these madrassa graduates often become frustrated with their prospects and that’s where they become liable to digressing into the wrong hands. The extremist organizations welcome them with open arms and with promises of a good life, why wouldn’t these disgruntled young men join them?

What do we do then? Close down all madrassas by force? In an underdeveloped country like Pakistan, madrassas are the only educational facilities available in the most flung back areas. If individuals from these areas were to receive no educations at all, wouldn’t they be just as likely to be radicalized? We can see from Mathew Nelsons study  that individuals that are less educated, are more enthusiastic about madrassas while individuals with more education give a higher priority to liberal education. This direct correlation between education and liberalism shows that education is vital in eradicating extremism. Thus our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate madrassas but to fix them.

As mentioned earlier, madrassas are technically places of learning but currently they are under the ministry of religious affairs, upholding a connotation of a place of worship. Under the ministry of education however, it can be seen more in the light of the educational facility that it’s supposed to be. Being a religious school, there is some ambiguity regarding its classification. However it should be kept into consideration that the ministry of religious affairs is responsible for pilgrimage and protection of the Muslim community in general. Madrassas, even in their current state, are educational facilities therefore, other than the appeasement of mullahs, it makes no sense for them to not be under the ministry of education.

Naturally, the first step in reforming the madrassa system is to make sure that no madrassa goes unaccounted for and we can see the from the figures stated earlier how alarming the ratio of registered to unregistered madrassas is.  The education policy has established a curriculum for madrassas but organizations operating outside the governments control are under no pressure to follow. The local leaders determine what is to be taught and this creates deep rooted intolerance in young minds.

What’s even more disturbing is that these ‘unregistered’ madrassas are actually not completely invisible to the government. In an article for the express tribune, Imtiaz Gul states that the interior ministry has provided up to 50 illegal structures with walk through gates and a minimum of 2 police officials for security. The reason why this irregularity prevails is because government officials know it’s in their best interest to back off when religion is involved. The Lal masjid incident is an example of how things get messy when radicals are opposed. Unfortunately, the fact remains that these extremists will need to be opposed sooner or later. Things will get ugly but if the current precedent the government has set remains unchanged, we are only moving closer to anarchy.

So what can be done about this ticking time bomb? The masses want madrassas and give religious education top priority. The government is afraid to touch illegal institutes. Game over then? No, the game isn’t over but it’s not an easy win either. Madrassas aren’t unique to Pakistan. They exist in a number of countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iran but the state controls the religious learning in these nations to prevent sectarian disharmony . Brining all the madrassas and centers of religious education under control needs to be the chief priority of the government. Some form of violent reaction is inevitable but for the long term stability of the nation, it’s necessary to bite the bullet.

The numbers vary from source to source but it’s clear that the majority of madrassas are unregistered which indicates a serious shortfall in the governments vigilance and sense of responsibility. Once madrassas are in the government’s control, the curriculum taught needs to be regulated. This curriculum needs to include subjects that will allow graduates to get employed and be able to seek higher education. On a brighter note, the government has started providing private madrassas with fully paid teachers for subjects such as English but this needs to be done on a larger scale . If an individual is employed, it will be far less likely that he is attracted to an extremist party. In addition, higher education translates to a more liberal and progressive outlook of the world according to Nelsons findings .

The problem with madrassas in Pakistan doesn’t exist because of lack of policies. It exists because laws are not enforced and the government officials are too meek to challenge the mullahs. The reality remains that the current madrassa system is doing little more than destabilizing the state as a result of the intolerance being taught and producing graduates that are liable to extremist influence. Eliminating the madrassa system isn’t the solution. It would upset a large number of people and would take away the little education children in rural areas can get. The answer then is to reform the madrassas to be more progressive and open minded. The question however remains, will this actually happen? Can the government muster the courage to reverse its current non- interventionist attitude? Time will tell if correct measures aren’t taken in the initial stage of the crisis, it will surely develop in to something much bigger and more dangerous that might not be easy to control.


1. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 2006), pp. 9-16
2. National Education Policy 2009, Ministry of Education – Government of Pakistan, pp. 24
3. Asian Survey, Vol. 46, No. 5 (September/October 2006), pp. 707 – 712
4. Asian Survey, Vol. 46, No. 5 (September/October 2006), pp. 709
5. http://tribune.com.pk/story/326941/the-trouble-with-madrassas-in-pakistan/
6. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 2006), pp. 15
7. Asian Survey, Vol. 46, No. 5 (September/October 2006), pp. 712
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