NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 04

Madrasa reforms is the answer!

Israrullah Ahmadani has three sons and a daughter. He lives in Khuzdar, a city of about 142,000 people in Balochistan province, and sells vegetables in streets to make a living. His two elder sons are getting religious education in a local madrasa, while two younger ones go to a government primary school. However, Israrullah is planning to shift them to madrasa also for certain reasons.

When his eldest son, Abdullah Ahmadani, used to go to a government primary school in his locality about eight years ago, most of the time the teacher was not available there to teach the students. Israrullah also had to spend money on his uniform, stationery and some books. Therefore, when he was asked by the area Imam masjid to shift his son to his madrasa for a totally free education as well as a three-time meal, he readily agreed to the suggestion. He not only shifted his son Abdullah but also admitted the second one, Ameerullah, to the madrasa.

Later, he admitted his younger two sons to the government primary school on the insistence of his wife. A convincing speech on television by the education minister also motivated him to make his sons get “free-of-cost quality education by highly qualified teachers in the government school”. However, experience again proved that no change had taken place in the school during the last 7-8 years and that’s why he is thinking of shifting his younger sons to the madrasa also.

Israrullah Ahmadani’s case is not unique in nature. There are hundreds of thousands of parents in the country who still prefer madrasas over government schools. Tall claims aside, this is a ground reality that education authorities, appointed by successive governments in the country, have failed to convince parents to send their children to government schools.

The Economic Survey of Pakistan reveals that despite the government claims of free education in its schools, madrasas are still an attraction for poor parents. The survey showed that the number of students enrolled in seminaries across the country increased from 9% in 2010 to 21% in 2022. The 2017-2018 Pakistan Education Statistics survey reported a total of 31,115 madrasas operating in the country, with a total enrolment of 4.099 million, and employing 0.179 million teachers. Although research on madrasa enrolment remains scant, recent survey data suggest that apart from a preference for religious education, the primary reason parents enrol their children in madrasas is economic hardship.

A book on the state of affairs of education in Pakistan, ‘Education: Problems and Solutions’, by Dr. Jaffar Ahmed, gives a blunt picture of deterioration in the field of education through decades. The writer, through various essays compiled in the book, talked about class disparity, lack of research in universities and the utter negligence on part of the state when it comes to education.

Madrasas have always been part and parcel of the education system in Pakistan. From an estimated 150 at Pakistan’s independence in 1947, there are now some 32,000 madrasas, attended by some 2.5 million students, according to Azmat Abbas, author of ‘Madrassah Mirage: A Contemporary History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan’. Other studies suggest there are more than 40,000 madrasas operating in the country currently.

Dr. Jaffar Ahmed writes in his book that the enrolment of students in seminaries has been on the rise even during the past two decades with Balochistan leading all other provinces in that regard. That means the phenomenon and the role of madrasas in promotion of education in the country could not be ignored at all, especially keeping in view the fact that a large majority of madrasas have no link with promotion of extremism, and they impart only religious education.

A research, conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School as part of the Learning and Educational Attainment in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) project some years back, revealed that children who attend madrasas do not come from particularly “radicalised” families. Another research, done by the Pakistan-based Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC), showed that only 6% of students cite religious reasons for attending madrasas, while 89% cited economic reasons.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), there is no automatic (and necessary) link between madrasas and militancy.

According to Maulana Abdur-Rehman, the Muhtamam (principal) of a madrasa in the Sabzazar area of Lahore, there are five main types of madrassas in the country: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia, Ahle-Hadith and Jamaat-e-Islami. The largest number of madrasas belong to Deobandis (almost 70%) and Barelvis.

The Maulana told Cutting Edge that each madrasa is affiliated with five boards: Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia (Deobandi), Tanzimul Madaris Ahle Sunnah Wa Jama’a (Barelvi), Wafaqul Madaris Shia Pakistan (Shia), Wafaqul Madaris Al-Salafia (Ahle-Hadith) and Rabtatul Madaris Al-Islamia (Jamaat-e-Islami), each of which is responsible for setting the madrasa curriculum.

Unlike in public and private schools, the language of instruction in madrasas is Arabic and the syllabus focuses solely on Quranic teachings, interpretation of the Holy Quran and Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, Arabic literature and grammar.

The Maulana said that currently there was no uniform curriculum or set of teachings across the five types of madrasas. While officially there is a standard madrasa curriculum known as the Dars-e-Nizami, each type of madrasa follows its own exclusive textbooks with their specific interpretations of Islamic teachings.

However, added the Maulana, in the recent past many madrasas have incorporated modern subjects such as science, computer and mathematics.

There is no denying the fact that madrasas contribute to increasing the literacy rate in the country and shutting them down completely is neither advisable nor possible. However, the Islamic centres of learning need to be brought into mainstream education. The need for reforming, regularising and standardising madrasas was especially felt in Pakistan during the last two decades.

However, it is a pity that no sincere and concrete efforts have been made to regulate and mainstream madrasas. While all provincial governments are taking various steps to enhance the literacy rate in their respective provinces, it is the need of the hour that the issue of madrasa regularisation and standardisation is taken seriously.