By Syed Mohammad Ali
February 23, 2018
The question of what to do with Pakistani madrasas keeps re-emerging. The Punjab government recently announced plans to take over seminaries run by JuD. Last year, the army chief even called for the need to revisit the very concept and function of madrasas in Pakistani society. Yet, efforts made thus far to implement madrasa reforms leave much to be desired.
Existing madrasa reform efforts remain piecemeal and sporadic. The role and reform of madrasas needs innovative, acceptable and more doable strategies.
The role of madrasas in contemporary Pakistani society has become increasingly problematic. There was a time, however, when madrasas inculcated the knowhow needed not only to fulfil religious functions but to run the administrative machinery of vast Muslim empires, including that of the Indian subcontinent. It also played a significant role in the anti-colonial movement in the same region.
Post 9/11, madrasas have been increasingly scrutinised, although their role in terrorist activities has been refuted by several researchers. Madrasas do however exacerbate sectarian strife and overall myopia in our society, with the students gaining little functional literacy and other skills needed for becoming productive citizens.
Since Musharraf’s era, the attempts to reform madrasas have focused on either trying to infuse religious curricula with mainstream subjects, or to register and regulate them by conducting their audits to track sources of funding. The National Action Plan also reiterated the state’s resolve to register and regulate madrasas. Yet, madrasa reforms have not been effectively implemented, partially due to resistance by madrasas and religious leaders, who view reforms as part of a Western agenda to control them.
Some experts and policymakers argue in favour of growing section of religious leaders willing to take up opportunities to impart vocational skills or teach modern subjects in madrasas, if provided state recognition of their degrees. Plans to widen and mainstream the madrasa curricula are however a tall order, given the dismal quality of education being imparted within mainstream public schools. Moreover, even if madrasas start teaching secular subjects in earnest, this measure alone cannot address the intolerance and sectarianism being reinforced within madrasas.
The current syllabus in almost all traditional madrasas conforms to the basic structure of the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum established 500 years ago, which is in fact a narrowed version of the original curriculum, leading to increased rote learning, and a neglect of subjects in which analytical and language skills are developed.
To make our society more progressive and tolerant, the Islamic curriculum currently being taught within madrasas must be reviewed. This curriculum needs to be reformed using Islamic precepts themselves which can help deliver important social benefits. There is a rich tradition of Islamic knowledge which is acceptable to different schools of religious thought, which may be infused into the existing religious curriculum to help expand the worldview of madrasa students, to draw links between Islam and environmentalism, or to ensure protection of gender rights.
Devising relevant content based educational materials to inculcate tolerance in Pakistani madrasas and maximise their social capital alongside other reform efforts is not hard to do.
Some years ago, several religious scholars and major madrasas heads identified several issues on which lessons could easily be developed and used to achieve important social benefits. For example, encouraging madrasas to emphasise the need for women to be given their inheritance right who often forfeit it in favour of their brothers could in turn help bring about many other positive socio-economic changes.
Several other positive messages can be reinforced by madrasas using Islamic precepts to build much-needed civic sense within the country. Doing so may be easier than turning madrasas into providers of functional education, which is a goal that our public schools themselves have not been able to deliver.