Qari Abdur-Raheem Salfi is worried about his “mission” and the future of his students. He’s Mohtemum Aala of his madrasa in Sabzazar area of Lahore, and his “mission” is to “equip all Muslim children of Pakistan with religious education, only to please my Allah”.
Starting from one madrasa in Dholanwal area along Bund Road, Lahore, he’s currently running three in the semi-slum neighbourhood. His main seminary is situated in Sabzazar area now, where at least 450 students are getting religious education.
All his three madrasas are registered with Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia under the Societies Registration (Amendment) Ordinance 2005, which is an amended form of the Societies Registration Act 1860.
Qari Abdur-Raheem, himself has an MA in Islamic Studies from Shaikh Zayed Islamic Centre of Karachi University, believes in following the law of the land. His madrasas are open to any government authorities any time, as his students study a government-approved syllabus.
However, during the past over one year, he feels threatened, as the visits by officials of different government departments, including security agencies personnel, have increased manifold. He, himself, and his students are questioned about their studies, syllabus and their religious affiliations with religious groups repeatedly.
“It is really disturbing and annoying. Parents of many of my students have been asking for withdrawing their children. They fear taking away of their children by the security agencies one day for questioning, on one pretext or the other,” a worried Qari says.
A few months back, the National Assembly was informed that the government had shut down hundreds of suspected and unregistered madrasas across the country, under the National Action Plan (NAP) implementation. The Plan was finalised by the government in January 2015, to crack down on terrorism and to supplement the ongoing anti-terrorist offensive in the country. It is considered as a major coordinated state reaction following the deadly Peshawar school attack.
Point number 10 of the Plan directly deals with madrasas, pledging regularisation and reformation of seminaries across Pakistan. The House was told that 167 suspected seminaries were shut down in Sindh, 13 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, two in Punjab, and 72 unregistered madrasas in Sindh were closed. Also, 102 madrasas were sealed for stoking sectarianism, 2,471 cases registered, 2,345 people arrested and 73 shops involved in the business were sealed.
All these news stories appearing in the media from time to time add to the worries of the Qari. He is not convinced that madrasas are engaged in promotion of extremism and terrorism. “And if there’s any truth in this claim, only a very small number of madrasas might be involved in such activities,” he claims.
Now, one seldom finds any news item in the press that a madrasa student was found involved in any anti-state, or extremism activity, Qari Abdur-Raheem Salfi says. But in the recent past, people learn from a number of stories on the mainstream media that university students and those from higher education institutions were joining the ranks of international terrorist groups. The Qari asks, “Would you shut down those universities and colleges?
A report recently published by the Dawn newspaper indicated that education did not prevent militancy: Sindh’s Counter Terrorism Department said that out of 500 militants currently held in Sindh’s jails, 64 hold a master’s degree and 70 have a bachelor’s.
Sociologists believe the deprived and confused youth, particularly those who can’t find answers to their problems, are most vulnerable to fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as IS, which is highly tech-savvy and relies heavily on cyberspace to provide hardline narratives that glorify terrorism. Other factors include political disillusionment, increasing militancy in the country, and poor security measures.
Another incident shook the nation in the middle of the current year. Naureen Leghari, a bright, 20-year-old medical student from a well-educated family in Sindh province, joined a group and was planning a suicide attack on Lahore’s Christian community. She had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
These incidents aside, Qari Abdur-Raheem’s question has relevance in the current circumstances of Pakistan. Seminaries are supplementing government efforts to help meet the education needs of an estimated 50 million school-age children. Despite 220,000 schools nationwide, more than 20 million children are not in school, according to the official data.
The federal and provincial governments are continuously hiking the budget for the education sector, but efforts are not producing the desired results. The United Nations estimates Pakistan’s current education budget at 2.65 per cent of GDP, roughly US$8 billion, or around US$150 per student.
In such circumstances, madrasas appear to be part of the solution, instead of a problem. A large number of poor families send their children to madrasas, where they live and receive Islamic education.
Qari says madrasas provide shelter, three full meals, and a good education to young people whose families are unable to make ends meet. As such, these centres of learning share the state responsibility of providing free education to its children.
Since independence, Pakistan has seen gradual increase in the number of seminaries. In 1947, Pakistan had less than 300 madrasas. By 1988, it had less than 3,000, but now we have around 26,000 registered ones. Estimates on unregistered madrasas vary from 10,000 to 15,000 across the country.
According to Qari Abdur-Raheem, madrasas mostly teach Islamic subjects such as memorization of the Quran, Tafseer (interpretation of the Holy Quran), Hadith (thousands of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH), Usool-ul-Hadith (rules of Hadith), Fiqh and Usool-ul-Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence and principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), Sarf and Nahw (branches of Arabic grammar), Arabic language, Islamic finance, Mantiq (logic), philosophy, classic Arabic literature and eloquence. Mastery of these subjects qualifies a student to become an Islamic scholar.
However, various madrasas now teach other subjects also. About 12 years back, the federal government introduced the Government Madrasa Reforms Programme 2004, under which the seminaries were bound to teach their students English, Mathematics, Social Studies and General Science, from primary to secondary level. Also, English, computer sciences, economics and Pakistan studies were to be taught at the higher level. This programme was only partially implemented.
Various plans and policies approved in the past are already in hand, says the Qari. Instead of closing down madrasas, or taking any adverse action against them, the government should implement its policies and let them play their role in increasing the literacy rate in the country.
In June 2002, the government drafted the Voluntarily Registration of Regulations Ordinance 2002 and passed it through the federal cabinet. Also, the government had promulgated the Societies Registration (Amendment) Ordinance 2005 for the registration of seminaries.
However, the ordinance did not work out in its intended spirit and the madrasas rejected survey forms from the office of the interior ministry on the grounds of non-fulfilment of the agreed conditions. The Ittehad Tanzeemat Madaris Pakistan (ITMP), the umbrella body representing madrasas, resented the perceived intervention by the government, claiming that the government was seeking credentials from the seminaries.
Qari believes the issue needs to be resolved through talks with all stakeholders, as the cause should be greater than ego. The state had already reiterated its resolve earlier in the form of the National Internal Security Policy (NISP), promulgated more than a year ago. Under this, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was mandated to carry out the registration of madrasas.
It was believed that NAP would build upon this, but the reality is that NACTA, till date, remains powerless and without resources, an organisation on paper. The issue of illiteracy could be resolved to a great extent if madrasas and the boards regulating them are taken on board, and various policies and programmes made to date are implemented with sincerity, believes Qari Abdur-Raheem.