EducationVolume 14 Issue # 13

Mainstreaming madrassas yet again

He was a good-looking teenager. With bright big eyes and very fair complexion, he appeared to be a young version of Pakistan film industry’s legendary actor Waheed Murad. Ali Hasan’s roommate at Karachi University’s hostel, Muhammad Suleman, introduced the teenager as Mr. Ansaruddin Madni, a boy from his village in Gilgit district of Northern Areas. He was a madrassa student, and had come to Karachi after completing his “Sanvia Aama” (equivalent to matriculation) education at a madrasa in his hometown.

The word “Madni” was added to his name by Mr. Ansaruddin himself to show his respects for Madina-tun-Nabi, a city in the then Hijaz and now Saudi Arabia, to where Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (Peace be upon him) had migrated in the early years of Islam.

Ansaruddin was a brilliant student at madrassa, as he told Ali Hasan, and his father, a small farmer in his village, wanted him “to pass the highest exams at the biggest madrassa of Karachi to become an aalim-e-deen” (religious scholar). His target was now, as stated by his teachers back in town, to pass various exams in Karachi including “Sanvia Khasa”, “Shahadat-ul-Aaalia”, and “Shahadat-ul-Aalmia”, the last one recognised by the Pakistani government as equivalent to an MA.

On his second visit to the hostel, while his host Gilgiti guy was not present, Madni asked Ali Hasan if he could get admission to the university. “I can do anything to reach this university, if there is any way out,” the young boy told Ali Hasan in a firm voice.

“My father wants me to complete madrassa education to the highest level, but I don’t. I want to study in college, and in university like this” Madni said in a voice full of hope and enthusiasm.

“I had asked Suleman Sahib about studying here, at Karachi University, but he flatly refused, saying madrassa students are not given admission by the university administration. “But, I know, there must be a way out,” Madni said confidently.

“Yes you can also study at this university,” Ali told Madni, seeing his eyes becoming even brighter.

In the next few months, Ansaruddin Madni sat in the secondary school certificate Karachi board examination to pass the English language paper. After passing the Sanvia Aama, it was the only subject to be passed by Madni to become eligible for appearing in the FA examination, a prerequisite to get admission to any BA Honours programme at Karachi University.

Ali Hasan offered Madni to come to the hostel every Friday to get English lessons till the paper date. The target was achieved.

Meanwhile, Madni continued his Sanvia Khasa studies at a madrassa in Karachi, as he needed free boarding and lodging till he got admission to university after passing his FA exams from the Karachi Board of Intermediate Education.

The two years were really tough for the ambitious young boy. He would study very difficult Sanvia Khasa courses, almost all in Arabic, the whole day, go to three different homes in the evening to teach Quran to young children for earning some money, and visit Ali Hasan’s hostel on Fridays to get English language lessons.

The day Ansaruddin Madni passed his FA exam in first division in the year 1990 was the most joyous day in the lives of Madni and Ali Hasan. The young man got admission to the Islamic Learning Department of Karachi University very easily the same year. He also passed his Sanvia Khasa exams from his madrassa, meanwhile. The same year Ali Hasan got his Master’s degree and left university, leaving behind Madni to earn his BA Honours, Master’s, MPhil and then PhD degrees in his pursuit of becoming a real Aalim-e-Deen. As it was his ambition to get education at university, he passed both his BA Honours and Master’s exams with distinction, and started teaching at Greenwich University, a private higher education institution in Karachi. After he acquired his PhD degree, he was appointed chairperson of the Department of Islamic Learning and then Dean Faculty of Islamic Learning, Greenwich University.

Madni is very active in social work in his hometown, Gilgit. He is a member of various organisations working for the conservation of nature, as well as a preacher of inter faith and inter religion harmony.

“Had I not opted for mainstream education, I would have ended up as a madrassa teacher or an imam masjid in any city or town of the country,” Ansaruddin Madni tells the Cutting Edge from Karachi by telephone. He believes the madrassa alumni have very limited options as far as making a reasonable living is concerned.

He is appreciative of the current federal government’s plans to mainstreaming madrassa education in the country. “At least 6.4% of our children (1.72 million) are enrolled in madrassas, and over 200,000 of them are females, according to official figures, shared by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on the party website,” says Mr. Madni. “How can any government ignore them? They are in such a great number. You will have to make a policy for them,” adds the dean Faculty of Islamic Learning.

Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary, says lack of job opportunities can push those completing madrassa education to some dangerous zones. He says that a majority of madrassas are narrowly focused on promoting sectarianism. What is further worrisome is that their number is growing faster than schools and there is little effort at improving their quality, he adds.

According to the latest government figures, there are 32,000 madrassas, including the unregistered ones, and approximately 3.5 million students are enrolled in them, claims Talat Masood. Another weakness of madrassas, observed by the analyst, is the absence of a financial oversight. All educational institutions, including madrassas, should comply with the financial regulations and their curriculum and overall teaching standards must meet minimum standards. At present, there is no uniformity in the syllabus of madrassas, he regrets. The emphasis on learning by rote is highly damaging, especially in madrassas, as students do not develop the habit of thinking critically, the analyst says, adding that a more pressing issue is that few madrassas are being used to advance the militant agenda of certain schools of thought, which need immediate attention of the authorities concerned.

Talat Masood says our schools are already overcrowded and the government is unable to increase their number due to limitations of funds and capacity problems. Therefore, madrassas would remain an important component of the education system. However, the government should take a more proactive and supportive attitude towards them in raising their overall educational standards. This will instil greater confidence in madrassa students, provide them with new employment opportunities and a broader thinking paradigm, believes Mr. Masood.

However, this is not for the first time that the federal government has unveiled its plans to mainstream madrassa education, says Saad Rasool, a lawyer who earned his Master’s degree in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. An Ordinance titled Pakistan Madrasa Education “(Establishment and Affiliation of Modern Deeni Madaris) Board, Ordinance, 2001”, was promulgated to bring the madrassa curriculum in conformity with secular modern education being taught across the public and private schools of Pakistan, Saad tells the Cutting Edge. Soon thereafter, the “Voluntary Registration and Regulation Ordinance, 2002” was promulgated to control and regulate the admission of foreigners to madrassas in Pakistan, and to keep a close eye on their activities. Sadly, these initiatives failed to produce results as most of madrassas rejected them on the pretext that ulema want no state interference in the affairs of religious education, he regrets.

However, there’s another viewpoint also, which merits a mention here. Yaseen Zafar, head of the Wafaqul Madaris Al Salfia — the board of seminaries representing the Salafi school of thought — says that Imran Khan’s government and past leaders, including former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto “were also sincere in their efforts to mainstream the seminaries,” adding that the madrassas had never opposed the plans either. However, he tells the Cutting Edge by telephone, “It’s the bureaucracy that hampers the process by raising objections to the key demand of registration of the board.” Zafar feared that Khan’s plans would also meet the similar fate due to insincere plans and advice of the bureaucracy.