Mainstreaming Madrasas: Obstacles and Prospects

Mainstreaming Madrasas: Obstacles and Prospects


The madrasah is one of the oldest institutions of learning in Islamic history. Apart from religious identity, it also offers temporal education in subjects that emerge prominent in every age — philosophy, history, science, and astronomy. Before the destruction of Baghdad by Mongol hordes, the madrasas functioned like modern day colleges and universities that attracted students from all over the world. 
The Western world began to change after the renaissance period and religious reformism and produced the separation of two spheres of human knowledge — religious and temporal. Never did the two streams of knowledge meet, and they have remained parallel to each other, offering two very dialectical world-views.
For the Muslims in the subcontinent, there was hardly any local community without a maktab — a primary unit of Qur’anic education, while the madrasa offered a much larger canvas of religious learning, including philosophy, history, medicine and languages.
The advent of the British imperialism in the subcontinent changed the very structure of society from economy and politics to education. Logically, the biggest questions on the minds of the Muslim reformers were how to regain their lost glory, empower Muslims and be relevant to the new age of British rule. How one answered these questions defined the path of reforms. 
One thing important here is that well before the establishment of British rule, reforms within Islamic thought and practices had begun. As the British introduced modern educational institutions, the Muslims first refused to be part of them. Rather, they clung to their traditional institution of madrasas and focused more on religious education, fearing they would lose religion and identity under British rule. It was a way of cultural resistance.
While the modernist Muslims embraced the English educational institutions and started establishing colleges and universities to produce scientists, lawyers, judges and medical doctors, the conservative sections of society opted for religious education by establishing madrasas. 
The Aligarh Muslim University and the Darul-Uloom Deoband represented two different strategies for the revival of Muslim influence, and the sub-continental Muslims separated the religious and secular branches of knowledge.

The recent effort in Pakistan to mainstream madrasa education is not new. Many such initiatives have been taken during the past two decades due to religious extremism, intolerance and terrorism.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The recent effort in Pakistan to mainstream madrasa education is not new. Many such initiatives have been taken during the past two decades due to religious extremism, intolerance and terrorism.
The link between terrorists and madrasas is neither well-established nor without controversy. If we look at the profiles of militants throughout the Muslim and Western worlds, it is not the type of education, but rather a process of indoctrination and influence of certain militant groups that is observed. 
Nonetheless, the National Action Plan, Pakistan’s primary counter-terrorism blueprint highlights madrasa reforms as one of its objectives. 
Apart from suggested links of terrorism to the madrasa, there are other, more solid reasons for reforms. First, the madrasa curriculum is frozen in time. Hardly anything has changed in its content, pedagogy and philosophy. It makes the graduates of the madrasa irrelevant to the modern economy and to the job market, which is driven by skills and science. 
Second is the issue of equity and fairness. It is generally the poorest of the poor that get enrolled in madrasas. Currently, there are 3.5 million students getting educated in 32,000 madrasas in the country. While the Constitution of Pakistan recognizes education as a fundamental right, governments have abysmally failed in providing this basic service to the poor, leaving it to the mercy of private charities or the madrasas.
Third, the proliferation of the madrasas in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet war about forty years back, got linked with the Mujahedeen and later with Taliban militias. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also has its roots in madrasas, especially its ideologues and leaders. Internal and international security concerns have also grown about the madrasas in recent decades because of the flow of unreported monies from foreign sources. That has put Pakistan in the grey-list of the international watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force.
The biggest challenge is the conventional autonomy of the madrasas, their federation and street power. They want to be consulted and any reforms, they insist, must be sensitive to their autonomy and identity.
In the past, they have resisted reforms enforced from above, but gradually, the madrasas are embracing new ideas, like introducing a national curriculum in addition to their regular studies. 
An increasing number of madrasa graduates have been entering mainstream national education institutions, and there is a growing trend for schools or colleges to be built adjacent to the madrasas. If the government comes up with sufficient funding to provide modern educational facilities at madrasas, like teachers, libraries, buildings and laboratories— a gigantic task— not too many of them will refuse. It cannot be easily done during an economic crunch, but Pakistan has to start somewhere and continue with a consistent policy.
One thing is clear. It will take time, a lot of persuasion, financial resources and general consensus to bridge the historical gap between modern education and the madrasas, and the two streams of education are not likely to merge in the foreseeable future.
– Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais 

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