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Myths, half-truths and reality-Madrissah Education

Pakistan’s education system has come under close observation and scrutiny since 9/11 as it was blamed for promoting militancy and fanning hatred and bigotry. Perhaps ours is the only country whose education policy and system has generated so much worry globally. Something’s got to be drastically wrong with it.

The educational system has three streams, i.e., private, public and madressah that serve different sections of society. The private sector is basically for those who can afford to pay for educating; the government schools are for the lower income groups that are unable to afford the high fees and related expenditure; the madressah education is availed by those who can’t afford even the nominal fees charged by the public sector schools and the expenses incurred.

Many in abject poverty look to these seminaries which provide free boarding and lodging facilities along with free education which is a big relief for the poverty-stricken. Of course, exceptions are there whereby some better off religious-minded people may also choose to enroll their child in a madressah; indeed, many such people are among the donors to seminaries.

Madressah as an institution started in the 11th century by Nizamul Mulk in Khorasan (Iran), hence the name Dars-i-Nizami, to train bureaucrats for the Seljuk empire. At that time it had a modern syllabus that included logic, grammar, mathematics, history, law and administration. After the Mongol attack in the 13th century, it collapsed like other institutions.

However, in contemporary Pakistan, religious seminaries are blamed to hold a very traditionalist and mediaeval worldview.
The faculty and the students are said to be hostile to the notions of globalisation and diversity as they don’t adhere to the principles of modern statehood like secular democracy. Many may disown secular laws, the writ of the state, pluralism, tolerance, gender equality and the separation of public and private spheres in individual life, as dictated by secular law.

Whenever the madressah system is discussed, two pertinent questions about its functioning and utility are raised. These are:
whether the syllabus is keeping up with the changing times; and, what are the prospects of employment for its graduates (as their degree is officially equivalent to graduation in Pakistan).

As far as the first question is concerned, it can be said safely that notwithstanding the tall claims by the successive governments and the regulatory and monitoring bodies, there is a very little substantial change in the system and, by and large, it remains the same old system.

Maulana Asadullah Bhutto, former MNA and the president of Jamat-i-Islami, Sindh, believes that the syllabus of the religious schools is compatible with the present-day demands, and imparts quality education. To elaborate his point, he says, “When a student enrolls in a madressah he comes there to get religious education and it is clear that he is not interested in other subjects, so why should he be expected to be well versed in other subjects too?”

He explains that there are three types of madressahs: they are called Nazara, Hifz and Deeni. The last mentioned specifically imparts religious education and trains future scholars. They are in the eye of the storm as all controversy revolves around them; many of them are blamed for promoting intolerance, sectarian violence and militancy. Maulana Bhutto firmly rejects the notion that madressah students lack creative and rational thinking and considers these allegations as part of the misinformation campaign to defame the institution.

However, on the other side of the fence, there is a common perception that madressah education is faring badly due to a lack of scientific curriculum and emphasis on social sciences. Madressah students can’t base their studies on reason and logic; instead, they rely on tenets of the faith which do not allow for reasoning.

Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, dean and professor, faculty of management and social sciences, Biztek Institute of Business and Technology, Karachi, elucidates, “This factor is responsible for their rigidity of thought and rejection of the notions of tolerance, diversity and respect for difference of opinion. In order to bring the education level of the seminaries on a par with the other educational systems, there is a need to cultivate empirical thinking in students.”

Coming to the second question, about the employment prospects of madressah students, there is a divided opinion. One school of thought believes that students graduating from the seminaries can find jobs very easily and become part of the mainstream. As Qari Mohammad Usman, belonging to Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (F) and the Ameer of Karachi city, explains, “There is a huge demand for our graduates and most of them opt for teaching and usually open new madressahs. This way there is continuity in the process. They are also hired to teach Arabic and Islamiat in private schools due to their deep and profound knowledge.”

He strongly refutes the generally held view that madressah students are involved in terrorist activities, suicide bombings and sectarian violence and regards it as propaganda by their opponents.

Taking the debate to the next level, A.H. Nayyar, an academician associated with the Lahore University of Management Sciences, explains that an ordinary madressah graduate would seek to establish a new mosque, such as one at a construction site where labourers camp, needing a small space for daily prayers. A maulvi would look after this modest space, keeping it clean and conducting prayers. Once a functioning mosque, he places a collection box outside and in the nearby marketplace for donations, which he gets generously. This secures his bread and butter.

“The donation also goes into further construction of the mosque, which now far exceeds the original area of a rudimentary structure, and includes the construction of living quarters for the maulvi. The mosque will eventually grow into a fine permanent structure with electricity, running water, internal furnishing, a good number of loudspeakers, and finally may evolve into a madressah. The modest maulvi sahib, too, now becomes a maulana or an allama; the madressah employs many more graduates as teachers. Even when a mosque does not grow into a madressah, it will most certainly act as an elementary Quran school, which nearly every neighbourhood needs,” adds Nayyar.

Conversely, many madressah graduates also go for business and trade because trading is looked at as the vocation of the Prophet (PBUH). This is also a reason why seminaries and religio-political parties enjoy substantial support amongst the trading classes.

Madressahs and related issues are more often than not associated with hunger, poverty and the rise in population. An overwhelming number of those sending their children to seminaries are the ones who can’t provide two square meals and education. Therefore, madressahs somewhat fill the gap left behind by the state; many say that they are here to stay and grow in number as long as there is poverty, rich and poor divide, food insecurity, limited job opportunities and inequality in society.

Ahmed Salim, a senior research advisor at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, who has done extensive research on the topic, endorses this observation and articulates that this whole debate boils down to the policy issues of successive governments which lack the political will to change the dynamics of governance.

It can be concluded that in order to streamline madressah education and bring it more in sync with the job market, the basic approach should be changed in the acquisition of knowledge. Emphasis should be placed on teaching market-oriented and skill-based subjects in the madressahs. This will help the students find jobs in the market and thus develop a stake in being part of the mainstream society instead of being on a parallel, alternative path.

Moniza Inam explores the employment options that are available to those graduating from madressahs: 'Myths, half-truths and reality'.
The madissah graduates do serve the religious needs of common public up to great extent, especially in normal ritualistic routine, however they do not perform well to satisfy the intellectual and theosophical challenges faced by educated lot. They can not even communicate at same pedestal. The modern modes of communication in cyber world provide much more but pearls  have  to be separated from trash. Some Madrissah students should also get in to field of Information Technology, Medicine, Science, Engineering and so on.. This shall have positive effects in making a pluralist modern  Muslim society.[ Aftab Khan]

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