Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs

Author: Saleem H. Ali

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi

Year: 2009

Pages: 214

ISBN: 978-0-19-547672-9

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Much has been written about the role of madrasas, or Islamic schools, in fomenting sectarian violence and terrorism in Pakistan. Today, large parts of Pakistan are faced with the alarming rise of armed vigilante groups, often led and manned by madrasa-trained maulvis, some of which are presently involved in warring against their own government. The link that numerous commentators have made between madrasas and violence in Pakistan is what this book is all about. Based on investigations and comparisons drawn from two selected areas in Pakistan, Ahmedpur East, in the southern Punjab, and Islamabad, the country’s capital, the author seeks to explore if and how madrasas are involved in promoting terrorism, which today threatens to drown Pakistan in the throes of a bloody and seemingly never-ending civil war.

Ahmedpur East is a largely rural area, where landholdings are extremely skewed. Much of the land in the area is owned by ‘high’ caste Shia landlords, while the bulk of the peasantry are from the rival Sunni sect. As in much of rural Pakistan, state services are sorely lacking in the area. The public education system is in a shambles, and in many places landlords do not even allow government schools to function for fear that education will make their peasants restive. This particular context, Ali argues, has provided fertile ground for a rapid rise in the number of madrasas in the area, most of which provide free boarding, lodging and education and so attract students mainly from poor and lower-middle class families. In other words, the pathetic failure of the Pakistani state to provide decent education to the country’s poor is one of the most salient reasons for the mushrooming of madrasas all over the country, including in Ahmedpur East, in recent years.

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the madrasas of Ahmedpur East are not simply Islamic institutions pure and simple. Rather, each of them represents a particular sectarian brand or version of Islam. One of the many tasks of a madrasa is precisely to articulate and champion the version of Islam that the sect it is affiliated to adheres to, in the face of competing versions. In seeking to do this, madrasas routinely denounce other sectarian versions of Islam as ‘un-Islamic’ and even ‘anti-Islamic’. Sectarianism, therefore, Ali indicates, is endemic, indeed central, to the madrasa system as it presently exists. Not surprisingly, the sectarian hatred actively taught by many madrasas often gets translated into sectarian violence in Pakistan. Ali notes the involvement of various madrasas, belonging to different Muslim sects, particularly the Deobandis, the Barelvis and Shias, in instigating sectarian conflict in Ahmedpur East, which sometimes takes overtly physical forms. Sectarian rivalries in the region are compounded by complex class factors. Since most of the large landlords belong to the Shia minority, Sunni-Shia conflict, instigated by radical Sunni groups that are led by madrasa graduates and leaders, can also be seen as an expression of severe class antagonisms.

It is, however, not simply poverty that has led to the mushrooming of madrasas in Pakistan, Ali notes. Nor is it true that material deprivation necessarily leads to radicalism and violence. Ali compares the madrasas of Ahmedpur East to those in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, a city with modern amenities and services, and finds that there, too, sectarianism is endemic to the madrasas in terms of their self-representation. He also notes that the growth of madrasas in Islamabad has actually been facilitated by the state, rather than fuelled by local demand. Almost all the city’s madrasas have been built on state-owned land, many of them illegally, and the vast majority of their students are not from the city, but, rather, from impoverished parts of the North-West Frontier Province, who live, Ali writes, like aliens in the city. Ali mentions various measures taken by successive Pakistani rulers, starting with the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, to curry favour with the ulema or clerics of the madrasas, which must be taken into account in seeking to understand the enormous growth in the number of madrasas all over Pakistan, including in Islamabad, where, he says, demand for madrasa education now far outstrips supply. In Islamabad, as in Ahmedpur East, Ali notes, numerous cases have been reported of madrasa teachers and students being actively involved in violent political demonstrations, sectarian clashes, bombings and providing refuge to suspected terrorists.

It is not Ali’s case that madrasas are necessarily, and by definition, hubs of terror. Indeed, he argues, relatively few madrasas in Pakistan are actually involved in violent activities or in providing armed training to their students. Yet, he says, this should not cause us to overlook the fact that stern opposition to, or even hatred of, rival Muslim sects and other religions and their adherents is actively instilled in most madrasas, along with a pervasive sense of supremacy of the particular sectarian version of Islam that each madrasa is associated with. This is further reinforced by so-called jihadist literature, websites and mosque sermons that many Pakistani madrasa students are exposed to. It is thus not surprising, Ali tells us, that the majority of the students and teachers in the madrasas that he surveyed favoured violent revolution as an instrument for political change in Pakistan, supported war as a means for resolving Pakistan’s disputes with India, considered women as inferior to men, had extremely negative views about other religions and their adherents, and, in the case of Deobandi madrasas, favoured the Taliban as their role model for what they called the ‘Islamization’ of Pakistan.

This leads Ali to argue that, ‘It is high time that we become more aware of the perils of extremist educational institutions, which have a far broader base in Pakistan than we care to admit. The only way to address the problem is by […] ensuring curricular development in partnership with the reformist ulema’ (176). In this regard, he advocates the inclusion of ‘peace education’ in the madrasa curriculum and the promotion of inter-sectarian and inter-religious dialogue, in which the ulema should be actively involved. That, however, is easier said than done. Ali offers no practical suggestions as to precisely how this should be attempted and how the ulema of the madrasas can be convinced to get involved in these benign activities.

Ali makes a brief survey of the various measures that the Pakistani Government claims to have adopted, particularly after 9/11 and under American pressure, to ‘reform’ the country’s madrasas. He concludes that these measures have been half-hearted and not seriously pursued, and that, consequently, they have miserably failed. That very few madrasas have chosen to register themselves with the government authorities is a sign of the considerable resistance on the part of those who control the madrasas to what they see as unwarranted American and Pakistani Government interference in the realm of Islamic education. Likewise, the few ‘model’ madrasas that the Pakistani Government recently set up, combining secular and religious education, have also had few takers. Matters have been made worse by bureaucratic wrangling and gross mismanagement in the Government-appointed Madrasa Board, which was meant to oversee the process of madrasa ‘reforms’. Ali writes that the Board’s very rationale has been seriously undermined with the Government’s announcement that curricular reform is not part of its mandate. Ironically, Ali adds, Lt. Gen. (retd.) Javed Ashraf Qazi, the person appointed as the head of the Board, whose task is to de-radicalise the militant madrasas, is the former head of Pakistan’s notorious secret services agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who had himself supervised the recruitment of students from Pakistani madrasas for the radical Taliban in Afghanistan. So much, then, for the Pakistani Government’s ostensible commitment to madrasa ‘reform’ and to clamping down on terrorism in the name of Islam.

Ali wisely remarks that it is not simply religious bigotry that has led to a mounting sense of anti-Americanism and radicalism among large numbers of madrasa students and teachers (besides many other Muslims). Rather, a host of unresolved regional conflicts involving Muslim groups, particularly Palestine, but including other trouble-spots, such as Kashmir, southern Thailand, Chechenya, Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to cause deep resentment among many Muslims. He rightly remarks that solving these conflicts is inextricably linked to countering radicalism in Pakistan’s madrasas.

At the same time, and very lamentably, Ali displays a pathetic optimism in American Government efforts to ‘reform’ the madrasas. He cites, with uncritical approval, the instance of American state funding of Islamic educational institutions in countries such as Indonesia and Uganda, holding these out as examples of positive collaboration for the production and dissemination of ‘moderate’ Islam. Given the fact that Ali’s study was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, known for its close links with the American establishment, it is perhaps not surprising that Ali should laud such cosmetic efforts while ignoring both the politics of this funding and the earlier American funding and support for Islamist radicalism in Pakistan and elsewhere against the erstwhile Soviet Union. Likewise, his argument that American intentions must not be suspected or questioned, even in the face of the record of American support to dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world and elsewhere and the nefarious role of the CIA, is quite unforgivable. So, too, is his claim that ‘The United States has probably learned from its past mistakes and is willing to change’ (142).

As a basic introductory text to some aspects of madrasa education in contemporary Pakistan, this book makes interesting reading, although it fails to provide any new information or arguments. The author claims to have done intensive fieldwork, but the perspective from the field is almost wholly absent—all we have are long tables with cold statistics. The book lacks a central focus and many of its various sections seem hopelessly disjointed. These many lacunae may, however, be forgiven when considered in the light of the pathetic state of social science research in Pakistan.

2 thoughts on “Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs

  1. Dr. Sikand’s criticism can be considered on its own merit. He is clearly a notable scholar of madrassas. However, the suggestion that somehow the US Institute of Peace affected the author’s output is unacceptable. The integrity of the research was never affected by the source of funding and the comment rather suggests the worthy reviewer’s own biases against any association with the United States. Furthermore, Dr. Sikand’s contention that social science research in Pakistan is “pathetic” sadly reinforces the negative stereotype that Indian scholars tend to dismiss Pakistani research summarily.

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