2007: Baton-wielding students of Jamia Hafsa guard the main gate of the Lal Masjid, Islamabad while their male counterparts attack a police van in front of the mosque —File photo

The madressa mix: Genesis and growth

In the first of a two-part series, we examine the evolution and scope of the madressa network phenomenon
Published March 1, 2015

In the first of a two-part series, we examine the evolution and scope of the madressa network phenomenon.

By Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

In the aftermath of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, and the National Action Plan against terrorism that was put in place thereafter, focus seems to have turned on the individual: hate-spewing clerics needed to be arrested, for their venom was insulting to the memory of those who died on December 16, 2014 and counter-productive for any national resolve to fight off terror.

But few are asking the fundamental question, which is if the real issue is the individual or the institution that he represents? Maulana Abdul Aziz can be arrested and removed from Lal Masjid, for example, but would that translate into removing his spirit and footprints from Jamia Hafsa? Can the two even be separated? How entrenched is the individual in the politics and practice of his institution? Is there a linear relationship between madressas and militancy? Is reform of madressas simply a lofty, unattainable ideal?

Madressas in Pakistan have managed to historically construct a position of sanctity for themselves in society, many times aided and abetted by the state and government. This is partly due to a general confusion whether the madressa as an institution is generally harmless and benign or whether there is more to it. Today, madressas go beyond a single institute of learning: many madressas are now part of a network of institutions that are loosely connected with a mother organisation, and are sponsoring a particular ideology of a particular group.

2007: Dars-i-Nizami exams at Jamia Binoria, Karachi—Reuters file photo
2007: Dars-i-Nizami exams at Jamia Binoria, Karachi—Reuters file photo

In truth, madressas are one of the biggest unregulated sectors in Pakistan, with scholars estimating 16,000 to 20,000 registered madressas operating in the country. Official sources, meanwhile, recently disclosed a figure of 25,000 registered madressas, while it is also believed that were unregistered madressas taken into account, the total would be around 40,000. A couple of years ago, a senior Sindh Police officer confided that there was a monthly expansion of two to three madressas in the province. The trend continues.

In Pakistan today, there are four kinds of madressas: large sized maktabs, mid-sized madressas, large elite madressas, and hybrid madressa schools. These are different from the historical institution of the madressa; in fact, the madressa is undergoing transformation even today, with the institution now also catering to the middle and upper-middle class.

In rural areas, landlords set up madressas on their land and send their children to these for education and awareness about religion. In urban centres, larger madressas cater to the more affluent segments of society.

The absence of an immediate alternative to madressas tends to make both the state and a burgeoning civil society shy away from actively engaging with the process of reforms. Perhaps, this should in fact be a starting point for discussions on madressas and militancy in Pakistan.

Quantitative versus qualitative frameworks

There are several figures for how big the madressa network/industry is. A study published in 2007 claimed that there were 16,000 madressas registered with the five wafaqs (boards), out of which 9,500 were Deobandi, 4,500 Barelvi, 1,000 run by Jamaat-i-Islami, 500 Ahl-i-Hadith, and 500 Ahl-i-Tashi.

In another study, published in 2008 by Jaddon Park and Sarfaroz Niyozov, the number of madressas was put at 13,000. The authors also claimed that these institutions enrolled anything between 0.3 per cent to 33 per cent of children from the ages of five to 19 across Pakistan.

The quantitative paradigm, however, is illusive, as it does not help capture the real essence of this phenomenon.

A 2001 study by Tahir Andarabi for the World Bank dispelled the notion that the majority of Pakistani children went to madressas. His claim was that it was just one per cent of the total school going population. This argument challenged the popular perception that madressas produced militants, as they had done in the case of the Taliban, who were largely trained and indoctrinated in Pakistani seminaries.

Some suggested that while not all seminaries were bad, those representing a certain ideology were more troublesome. Fingers were pointed at Deobandi seminaries in the country. But then some academics also challenged the linear link between militancy and madressas.

Chaman, 2004: Activists of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance of religious parties, attend a rally to protest raids on madressas—AFP file photo
Chaman, 2004: Activists of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance of religious parties, attend a rally to protest raids on madressas—AFP file photo

In her study based on 141 jihadis, American academic C. Christine Fair concluded that the majority of her sample was not “madressa trained”. In her sample, only 12 per cent were madressa trained — of these, 60 per cent were Deobandi, 22 per cent Jamaat-i-Islami, and six per cent Ahl-i-Hadith. As far as recruitment to militancy is concerned, 35 per cent were inducted through family and friends, 19 per cent through tableegh, a quarter from mosques, and only 13 per cent through the madressa channel.

In another study of 50 jihadis by Pakistani scholar Masooda Bano, it was claimed that 60 per cent of the sample was from relatively affluent social backgrounds and 30 per cent had even studied abroad.

This led to the perception that perhaps there was more hype about religious seminaries than was deserved. The political leadership is divided on the issue, with many supporting the conclusion that since madressas are not linked with terrorism, they should not be examined or brought under any kind of accountability net.

Lately, the madressa is considered as a necessity for the poor. Since the state has failed to provide education for everyone, particularly the poor, parents find it convenient to send their children to madressas. A senior officer of the Punjab police I spoke to even suggested that religious seminaries performed social welfare activity, i.e. they provide free food, shelter and activity for the dispossessed. A Pakistani academic even claimed that seminaries contribute positively to socioeconomic development.

Such arguments are linear and static, and tend to not notice the structuraland intellectual dynamism of the madressa,. In the words of Tajik scholar Sarfaroz Niyozov: “…though Islamic teaching has remained static, institutions through which it is carried out has undergone dynamic change”.

Madressas as manufacturing systems

The best way to understand the madressa phenomenon is comparing it with the Japanese Kanban (Just-in-Time) manufacturing system, which comprises an extremely efficient supply chain to sustain production.

Religious seminaries are not significant due to the number of jihadis they produce but are central to the production of the ideology that feeds the jihadi, even if said jihadi is in fact educated in public schools and universities. The madressa denotes an essential power base that contributes ideology and the sustained supply of a narrative into society, which in turn, feeds both radicalism and militancy in Pakistan.

Madressas are where ideological indoctrination rejecting all opposing ideas is born. Sectarian violence, therefore, is one by-product of this manufacture of ideology and indoctrination.

In Punjab, for example, the provincial government has had access to information and data regarding the sharp sectarian divide in the madressa sector for a long time. Much of this information is ignored primarily because of the state’s attitude towards sectarian tension and militancy. When police officers are questioned about the dynamics of sectarian killings, most retort that “this is sectarian violence and not terrorism” — almost as if the former is more organic.

Madressas are an instrument for the ghettoisation of Islam to build a power centre within society which can challenge the legitimacy of the state or other competing societal stakeholders. Intra-society competition is normal except that in this case one group claims to have divine sanction. The issue here is not of militancy but the legitimising of radicalism through institutional means. Madressas cannot be seen individually but as a network used for ideological transmission.

Islamabad, 2005: Girls from a madressa display posters during a protest against raids on seminaries in Islamabad. These protests were held in connection with the London blasts that year —Reuters file photo
Islamabad, 2005: Girls from a madressa display posters during a protest against raids on seminaries in Islamabad. These protests were held in connection with the London blasts that year —Reuters file photo

In fact, the post-1947 madressa in Pakistan has built ghettos within a ghetto — these emphasise a sectarian divide. Every sectarian group and its madressa aim for maximising power. In more recent years, this has translated into the increased propensity for all sects to use violence to negotiate with the state, for which legitimacy is sought through religion and textual interpretation.

Therefore, the individual jihadi may not have come from a madressa but their guide and teacher, the one who radicalised them, often does.

The radicalisation process goes and stays deeper; it is separate from recruitment for jihad, the patterns for which have undergone some change in the past decade or more.

Pakistan-based jihadi organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and a few others have become more selective in their recruitment process. They now prefer better-educated militants. The JeM, for example, has long been recruiting from public sector schools. Most militant groups have also set a foothold in public sector universities to draw the more literate segment of the youth into their fold.

None of this makes madressas less relevant.

Madressas still serve as ideological power centres used to gain legitimacy for an ideological-militant group and build a community around it. The Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) madressas in Muridke, Lahore and Karachi thus resemble a central nervous system.

Drawing power from creating an ideal

Seminaries are a source of political power for its leadership, through their ability to bring hundreds of committed youth onto the street. These are dedicated beings who would not challenge the teacher or their organisational hierarchy. They believe that they have the formula for an ideal society and are fighting evil in pursuance of this ideal.

Put another way, the girls and young women at Jamia Hafsa believed that Maulana Aziz’s 2007 agitation was to target corrupt and inefficient governments, and to bring society in line with the tenets of Islam. The women couldn’t care less about the consequences of their rebellion, nor did their passion dissipate even after the military operation.

Scholar Masooda Bano categorised these madressa pupils as “rational believers” who added up the benefits of the life hereafter, possibly subtracted the perils of the material world and found that they ended up with a net gain. The in-charge of logistics at Bahria Town Rawalpindi, where these girls were kept after the operation, described them as restless and angry.

If follows, therefore, that it is not for nothing that big madressas are now found at the entry points to just about every big and small town and city in Punjab and Sindh. Imagine the tremendous capacity to block a communication channel that main roads represent. If madressas were not an important part of this supply-chain, their mushrooming in a province like Sindh —reputed for its multi-culturalism and plurality — would not take place. Eventually, these religious seminaries in Sindh will contribute tremendously to transforming the socio-political culture of Sindh, as has happened years ago in southern Punjab. It certainly has captured the imagination of the upcoming middle class. Not surprisingly, tension vis-à-vis religious minorities or instances of Eid Miladun Nabi festivals being forcibly stopped have increased.

The concentration of LeT/JuD schools along the border with India in Sindh, or in areas with Hindu population, or Deobandi madressas opened with funding from the Gulf across upper Sindh, all become contributory factors in the process of social conversion.

Therefore, it is flawed to measure the influence of religious seminaries in quantitative terms based on the number of students. The impact of these is widespread as a child going to a seminary has an impact on the thinking of other members of the family. People would be familiar with, for instance, a daughter going to an Al-Huda madressa changing the mother and eventually the entire household. This dynamic is mirrored in more traditional seminaries as well.

Four generations of madressas

A common and often misplaced understanding is that madressas represent historical cultural traditions. In fact, the madressa structure is dynamic and has evolved historically to become the behemoth that it is today. The contemporary madressa in Pakistan and a lot of other Muslim countries does not compare with the madressa born at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century.

The first formal madressa in Nishapur, Khorasan or others like Al-Azhar in Egypt or Nizamiyah in Baghdad were based on a different concept from the seminaries that exist today. Educational systems in Islam were first developed by the Ummayads and later evolved by the Abbasids.

Rulers would provide patronage to ulema, who were associated with one seminary or the other, to seek political legitimacy. More importantly, these were centres of learning that not only excelled in religion but also other subjects.

Typically, these madressas taught “Quranic” sciences, hadith, methods of fiqh, but also rational sciences like arithmetic, sciences and literature. This was revolutionary as it established institutionalised education, something that was not seen in Europe until the 13th century.

Religious studies normally reflected particular jurisprudence and propagated certain ideological narratives. An important feature of this system was that these were personalised institutions, operationally and financially. These depended on waqf from the social elite, while the quality of learning depended on association with the teacher or the sheikh.

This pattern was later followed in India as well. Barring Akbar, most Mughal rulers were mindful of the ulema for reasons of political legitimacy. This meant creating waqf, or properties attached to madressas for their upkeep. These madressas were attached with mosques and taught subjects such as geometry, mathematics, civil engineering and others.

These were first generation madressas, which enjoyed a functional relationship with society at large. Some of the 137 madressas that Pakistan inherited in 1947 included this type of seminary, which were attached with a particular ideological school or shrine. Almost all shrines had maktabs or madressas, an instrument that was gradually abandoned by pirs and sajjada nashins.

The second generation of madressas began with Deoband, which was established in 1867, a few years after the first war of independence in 1857. This was also the beginning of a process of formalisation of the madressa structure in the Indian Subcontinent. Although Deobandi ideology is considered as revisionist, the genesis of the madressa and the underlying concept was reformist and modern.

Kotri, 2007: Police personnel seize posters and literature from a madressa—Reuters file photo
Kotri, 2007: Police personnel seize posters and literature from a madressa—Reuters file photo

It was a deviation from the pattern of older established madressas such as Farangi Mahal that was run on waqf. Deoband established a more independent pattern of financing in which they were dependent on contributions from the public rather than the state or the elite. They taught Dars-e-Nizami which was developed in madressa Farangi Mahal.

But Deoband was different in more than one way. It was a more bureaucratic structure than other madressas at that time, almost on the British educational pattern. However, Deoband’s reformism unfortunately confined itself to religion; prominent ulema like Rashid Gangohi considered teaching other subjects, including traditional medicine or tibb, as a diversion from the main focus of the institution. Thus the teaching of hadith was developed as its main forte. It was this tradition which was carried on in which rational sciences were almost totally abandoned.

Barbara Metcalf, who is known for her work on Deoband, believes that this was to protect Muslim identity and was a reaction to British colonialism. Arshad Alam, who also blames the British for the evolution of this kind of dedicated madressas, is of the view that the colonial policy of separating religion from education meant that religion developed a definite space and the Muslim religious clergy engaged in a ‘hegemonic representation of masses’. The inspiration, of course, was Shah Waliullah who wanted ulema to play a distinctive role in the development of Muslim identity. Other reformist movements also followed this pattern of religious education.

The vagueness regarding political placement of religion in the new state of Pakistan meant that while political leadership remained largely secular, religion was left to ulema and pirs. The state engaged with both with different consequences. The ulema, in particular, adopted a power maximization strategy to silence any alternative voice by labelling it apostate and anti-Islamic. They also became a source of political legitimisation for the rulers.

In this socio-political background, madaris became centres to maintain the purity of Islam. According to a prominent Sindhi Barelvi cleric and mufti, Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair: “Madressas save people from a life of sin, by advising them according to the Qur’an and Sunnah”.

In an urge to enhance the power of revivalist movements such as those of the Deobandi and Barelvi, the madressa system was turned static, and rational sciences were excluded. Unlike older madressas that taught philosophy and logic these madressas were restricted in their imagination. They certainly cannot transform into the ‘Oxford and Cambridge’ of the future as Bano has argued in her work mainly because of an inherent dislike for rational sciences. This even applies to cases where non-religious subjects are included.

Unlike Oxford or Cambridge, where rational sciences were important in debating matters of faith, these madressas do not encourage any deviation from the core religious explanation adopted by its management. The teaching of English or computers is mainly to increase employability. Today, madressa trained teachers have greater absorption capacity due to ‘Arabization’ of Islamic studies in schools. An increase in the Arabic component of the text and inclusion of Arabic in the curriculum by several private schools opens up job opportunities for madressa-trained people. Obviously, they also take their ideology along even to the schools.

Logic, for instance, was taught only in reference to the various kinds of hadith or with regard to the interpretation of the Quran. This continues to be the case. The teaching process does not consider the need to nourish pupils intellectually, socially, and physically. Due to the centrality of this education system for the maintenance of the ulema’s power, they tend to protect it against any introspection or reform by using the argument of “tradition.” Institutional power was further consolidated with the creation of the four wafaqs (boards) in 1958/59 on sectarian basis.

But many believe that what empowered both the ulema and the madressas was the State’s alignment with these to gain geo-strategic advantages.

Approximately 5,000 madressas were established after 1982 during the period of US-Pak strategic alignment. This compares with the figure of 150 new seminaries that were added between 1977 and 1979. Before that, there was controlled proliferation. From 1960-71, for instance, only 482 new madressas were established. The numbers increased to 852 new ones during the 1970s.

It was during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime that agreements were signed with some Arab states for the promotion of Arabic, as a result of which madressas were set up in South Punjab. However, some suggest that a real shift insofar as madressas in southern Punjab go came after Mirza Aslam Beg’s appointment as GoC Okara. Not surprisingly, many commanders of the armies of Afghan mujahideen and later warlords were drawn from southern Punjab. These people were ideologically motivated and trained in madressas.

During the Zia period, madressas became powerful centres for different ideological groups. There were two other significant things which happened during this period. First, the Halepoto report on madressa reform recommended improving economic conditions of the madressas. The government began providing financial help by diverting zakat funds. It was believed that the ulema were poorly paid and that students were in poor condition.

According to a report in the early 1990s regarding Bahawalpur, the government knew exactly the sectarian divide that existed in madressas and knew which madressas were engaged in fanning sectarian hatred. This formula was later replicated across Punjab. Despite this, funds were never discontinued until Benazir Bhutto’s government came to power.

Second, the Zia regime developed a system of educational equivalence that recognised madressa qualification as equivalent to secular education. The idea was to modernise religious seminaries and encourage them to teach non-religious subjects.

Thus was born the 3rd generation of madressas, which were a merger of traditional and modern. The bigger or elite madressas offered Ph.D., M.A, B.A, and secondary certificates. Many madressas also teach English and computer sciences.

Due to internal adjustments, three different kinds of madressas emerged: the elite, which also taught secular subjects; the traditional, which only taught the Quran and hadith; and then the lowest, the maktab-madressa.

The 1990s and 2000s saw both a vertical and horizontal expansion of madressas. From distant geographical areas to middle class and elite, or women, madressas expanded in all directions. The elite madressas were critical in producing teachers that then went and opened their own madressas.

Thus, this became an umbrella-like structure with each ideological system breeding its own nursery of madressas and maktabs. The issue is not of what subjects or books are taught but the manner in which the minds of students who would later become teachers themselves are trained. These madressas were further modernised with the introduction of a pre-requisite for admission being matriculation and/or intermediate, which also means some integration with the non-religious schooling system.

In any case, Pakistan’s public and even private sector schooling is today far more integrated with the madressa system. There is a provision that allows students to leave school in third grade for hifz (memorising Quran) and rejoin after three years in grade 5. Serious educators say that the absence from school leaves a gap that often doesn’t get filled.

A fourth generation madressa — the hybrid-madressa — seems to have evolved during the mid-1990s and expanded after the mid-2000s. These teach secular subjects, have English as the medium of instruction and function almost like a regular school. Many even offer GCSE O’ and A’ levels, and have uniforms that make them hard to distinguish them from secular schools. Superficially, a minor distinguishing mark is their insistence on even kindergarten girls wearing hijab. They also provide facility for hifz. Students opting for this skip regular classes and are gently taught a couple of other subjects but with much less rigour.

Generally, purity of religious teaching is maintained by instruction in the correct recitation of Quran and the teaching of hadith. While describing the Islamic content in teaching, the teacher of one such school explained how they ensure from Montessori that children’s drawings of any living being should not have eyes, ears and mouth — features that “put humans at par with God”.

Many of these are linked with particular militant organisations or related groups. For example, the JuD has about 295 schools and five colleges. There are others that are linked with some Deobandi groups and the Tableeghi Jamaat. Most of these hybrid-madressa schools are concentrated in major urban centres to attract middle-middle and upper-middle class students.

Another significant pattern that has emerged pertains to the development of a madressa network in which some madressa-schools share administration with third generation madressas and their boards. The development of this category coincided with the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. This is when religious parties and religious-militant leadership realised the need to produce qualified but ideologically committed human resource.

Whither reform?

The issue here is not the structure, but of reform in the core subjects and values that ulema don’t allow anyone to touch. The state did engage on a reform agenda starting from the 1960s, and as part of the process Jamia Islamia Bahawalpur was established in 1963 to harmonise modern and traditional education. The Jamia would award degrees and bring madressas under its training umbrella. However, the programme eventually fell prey to bureaucratic inertia.

2007: Baton-wielding students of Jamia Hafsa guard the main gate of the Lal Masjid, Islamabad while their male counterparts attack a police van in front of the mosque —File photo
2007: Baton-wielding students of Jamia Hafsa guard the main gate of the Lal Masjid, Islamabad while their male counterparts attack a police van in front of the mosque —File photo

Another effort was made in 1970 to establish an ulema academy to train and educate imams and khateebs. The program was abruptly discontinued in 1982 due to internal ideological rivalry.

Although no scheme for reform was launched during the 1990s, Benazir Bhutto’s government changed some rules, such as banning foreign students from studying in Pakistani madressas without obtaining a no-objection certificate. She also discontinued the investment of zakat in seminaries.

The Musharraf government seemed keen on madressa reforms, for which a Pakistan Madressa Education Board (PMEB) was set up in 2001.

However, the process focused mainly on peripheral subjects and improving technological infrastructure, for which money was also available from foreign donors. The British and the Americans were enthused by the idea of engaging with madressas, but the process again fell short of touching core subjects.

Every time modernisation of madressas is mentioned, it is limited to peripheral activities. But as pointed out in the report on madressas by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “the madressa problem is beyond militancy. This is about kids being indoctrinated with a limited worldview.”

Far from teaching Islamic history, the little that is taught at these seminaries reaffirms notions of lost grandeur and creates a worldview of constant conflict with other civilisations. Some of the bigger seminaries also develop literature that is extremely lethal, encouraging a constant conflict with the “other” until the latter is vanquished. According to this apocalyptic worldview, no other culture and civilisation will survive at the end of times but their own.

A friend heading an NGO once suggested undertaking a project of teaching children how to make computer presentations. During the process, she argued, they would gently insert new ideas and push children to explore new concepts. She didn’t seem to realise that clerics jealously guard this turf because it is fundamental to their power. They will allow English, science and computers but no intrusion into the core subjects that build their ideological base.

The ideal recipe, however, is not closing down madressas altogether mainly because the government lacks the infrastructure, and perhaps the commitment, to replace seminaries with something else. There is a need for reforming the syllabi, but that is not possible without a system of accountability of religious seminaries and engaging them in a dialogue first.

This may not happen without revamping the entire education system, especially bringing private schools under the state’s regulatory purview. There has to be a single formula for all, else all efforts at regulation will collapse.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent scholar, author of Military Inc, and is currently working on a new book on the sociology of militancy. Connect with her on Twitter @iamthedrifter or email: ayesha.ibd@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 1st, 2015

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