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Math in our madressahs?

Updated Jul 20, 2015 01:04pm


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The writer teaches mathematics and physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches mathematics and physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

EARLIER this month, Maharashtra’s BJP government voted to derecognise schools that teach religion without also teaching the primary subjects: mathematics, science, and English.

Although a few Vedic schools are likely to be classified as ‘non-schools’, this step is primarily directed towards the state’s madressahs.

To be eligible for state grants, they must now teach primary subjects in addition to traditional madressah subjects.

By this decision any child, male or female, will officially be considered uneducated and out-of-school if enrolled in an institution that does not follow the state’s formal school syllabus in these subjects.

Is this good or bad? Predictably, Indian Muslims have protested this as anti-Muslim. Indeed, given the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, to be suspicious of underlying motives is reasonable.

But let us set this aside and judge this new development at face value. It is a fact that children who do not know English, math, or science cannot compete in the job market or benefit from university-level education.

They become the victim of conspiracy theories, pseudo-scientific nonsense, and various forms of illogic. Madressah graduates can become maulvis and qazis but not engineers, scientists, or doctors. India sees its madressahs as posing a serious education problem but not — at least officially — as a terrorism problem.

This view must be contrasted against Pakistan’s which now sees its madressahs entirely through a security lens.

From the 1980s, these institutions had been used to provide expendable warriors for use in Afghanistan and then later in Kashmir.

Although government-sponsored radicalisation tapered off after 9/11, putting the genie back in the bottle has proved difficult. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of madressahs now generate militancy mostly directed against the Pakistan Army and ordinary Pakistanis.

In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madressahs.

There are many instances where accidental detonations inside madressah premises have killed would-be suicide attackers.

Special Branch has identified dozens of madressahs that are linked to militant groups.

Nevertheless a state of denial had persisted and the public was largely inclined towards seeing madressahs as peaceful religious institutions.

Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger.

This changed, at least for a while, after the Army Public School massacre on Dec 16, 2014. Over the protestations of the JUI and Jamaat-i-Islami, parliament approved the National Action Plan (NAP) a month later.

This plan included insistence upon madressah reform as a means of controlling religious extremism. Hitherto unregistered madressahs were to be registered, hate speech and militant activities stopped, and funding sources uncovered.

But NAP did not call for a revamping of the content taught in madressahs, and did not insist upon the inclusion of primary subjects. This is a serious omission.

Even if by some miracle NAP’s idea of madressah reform could be implemented, it would scarcely change the worldview that makes militancy attractive.

Living in a primitive world where he is cut off from modern thought and almost all sources of authentic information, the madressah student can be made to believe anything.

Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger to state and society. Paradoxically, the BJP’s approach to madressah reform is the more enlightened one!

Nevertheless, I have no illusions on how difficult a task this will be. On the request of the-then minister for education, Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali, the five heads of Pakistan’s wafaqs (madressah boards) and their deputies had gathered around a conference table.

The wafaqs are divided along political and sectarian lines. I was charged with enthusing them into teaching science and math in their institutions.

After expressing due deference to these powerful men who control what is taught to millions of students, I then proceeded to give a 20-minute lecture on how Muslim scientific achievements in the Golden Age had established Islam as a great world civilisation.

The bearded gentlemen were unimpressed. If you want to teach science and engineering in your universities that is your business, they said, but leave matters of faith to us.

The head of one wafaq said his branch of madressahs already taught science and math, and was not interested in further changes.

When the minister offered large sums of money if they modified their curricula, they unanimously said they would welcome the money — but only if it was unconditional. The meeting was a failure.

So what is to be done? As it stands, although faced by NAP, madressah heads have flatly refused to discuss their funding sources or show accounts to the government, and there are probably more unregistered madressahs than registered ones.

According to a report in this newspaper (July 16), law-enforcement officials are admitting helplessness in closing down even a single one of the 579 unregistered madressahs in Karachi because of their enormous street power, and the backing provided by religious political parties.

Curriculum reform may, therefore, appear even more difficult. But, in fact, unexploited opportunities are available to the authorities.

In 1981 Gen Ziaul Haq had ordered that various levels of madressah asnad (certificates) be equivalenced with regular certificates and degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, PhD), and the University Grants Commission (now called HEC) was empowered to determine equivalency requirements.

This gives the HEC leverage over quality: if madressahs are to teach English, math, and science, they must be tested by the same standards as in public schools.

More importantly, HEC can insist on curriculum changes and require that at least some mind-broadening subjects be taught.

Difficult or not, ultimately there is no alternative but for the Pakistani state to bring madressah and mosque under its control. Mere policing will not do.

Instead, the content of instruction must be shifted away from a paranoid and destructive vision of the world towards an inclusive and reasoned one.

Pakistan must do so even in the face of street power, as well as disapproval by Arab countries that fund those brands of madressahs which serve their narrow ideological interests.

Therefore reform must be done incrementally and carefully, and without provoking a massive backlash. But it has to be done.

The writer teaches mathematics and physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2015

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (58) Closed

FutureWizard Jul 18, 2015 01:24am

I agree with Prof. Hoodbhoy's analysis. One of those sane voices in Pakistan It is my pleasure to listen prof. in Ted and understand his point of view. In today's work, without knowing Math, Science and English you can not understand global view and their perspective and on the other hand can't express your view.

John Dsouza Jul 18, 2015 01:32am

I agree with Prof. Hoodbhoy's analysis. By ignoring science and math, the law makers of Pakistan are hell-bent upon dropping boulders on their own feet. Sad but there is no future for bright children in Pakistan.

Ali S Jul 18, 2015 01:34am

There's another, less confrontational way of undercutting the madrassa problem: fix the public education system - build proper school buildings, regular teachers who actually do their job, provide free meals.

Even an illiterate layman with minimal worldly knowledge can see how many doctors, engineers, bankers and white-collar professionals are the product of madrassas - he sends his children to madrassas because he has no other choice.

Madrassas feed off this helplessness - the day any layman sees kids from his village who went to free govt schools becoming doctors, engineers or bankers, he'll tell his entire village to send their kids there instead of madrassas and the madrassas will melt away.

Woz Ahmed Jul 18, 2015 02:03am


You are a sane voice amongst so much madness.

i feel despair at the young minds we are poisoning, leaving them vulnerable to grooming by unsavoury elements.

The fact the government is using people like you to get a message across is the only encouraging thing from this article.

Strategic Asset Jul 18, 2015 02:52am

I, a Catholic, studied in a convent, yet my parents would never have enrolled me there if they knew that the school did not teach a modern curricula. Why should madrassahs (or madaris as is called in plural in Pakistan) be any different?

PS: It rankles me that we, the people of the subcontinent, have regressed so far back that we no longer take pride in the Kerala school of Mathematics or the Hindu numeral system or the Fibonacci series/Golden Ratio attributed to Pingala nor do we pay any reverence to Madhava, Bhaskara, et al.

Harmony-1 Jul 18, 2015 03:09am

That would be the way to reform madressahs.

Salim Alvi Jul 18, 2015 03:44am

Author need to know more about India, Hindu and Vedic Science. Even the greatest Mathematician of last century, Ramanujam, was partly a product of his Ved PathShala and upbringing as a priest. Later formalized western education, in fact, curtailed his ingenious Math creativity. Hindu numerals (erroniously called arabic because Europens learned them from Arabs) and decimal system were developed in Hindu temples and ashram, just as astronomy, Ayurved, Chemistry and metallurgy. Hindus knew how to extract lead from its ore, build iron pillars which do not rust and knew that earth was round and revolved around the sun thousands of years before Arabs and Europeans. Today there are coaching classes for Vedic Maths which gives adanatage to the students who appear for competitive entrance exams of IIMs. Author should demand banning Hate from curriculum. But Hate is taught even through so called secular text books of government schools.

JB Jul 18, 2015 05:01am

Whole heartedly agree with the authors suggestions. Madressehs which fail to teach Science, English and Maths should be shut down. Mullahs cannot be allowed to ruins thousands of lives. The indoctrination of young minds by a poisonous ideology should stop forthwith. A broad national curriculum needs to be enforced and implemented

Rahul Jul 18, 2015 05:26am

There are two ways to address this issue of madras a reform. First is to go all out in enforcing the writ of the state. This will be fast but counterproductive. The second way is to creat a more affordable and quality education system. This will be long drawn but the impact will be long lasting.

Shan Jul 18, 2015 05:48am

One of the many changes needed to bring masses of our community out of the morass they are in.

Though I agree fully, I wonder why the well educated engineering graduates, born and bred in Liberal western societies are opting for such a radical anti world view?

R.Kannan Jul 18, 2015 06:26am

For any kid to succeed, in future, knowledge of arithmetic is important. It is desirable to know English as well. The sad part of the Indian system is that many kids do not have basic proficiency in either resulting in their leading poor lives.

Tousif Latif Jul 18, 2015 07:03am

Due to sheer neglect of education sector in Pakistan now most of our schools and colleges too, have embraced that madrassa culture. Since at primary level we lack quality teachers in government schools. This has severely damaged the system and it is in no way better than madrassas. We need to redesign our education system to make it equal to the demands of the current age.

tahir rasul Jul 18, 2015 07:16am

very true; however these guys that we are dealing with are the type about whom it can be said that, "they cannot get anything into their heads except through a fracture"

Tariq K Sami Jul 18, 2015 08:25am

Professor; we all know Money makes the world go round. If Federal Government Grants are made available changes will happen. It works even in the USA where even the Red States are now accepting the "common core"curriculum advocated by Bill Gates. The problem in Pakistan is the lack of will on the part of the Government. The Mullah knows this. That is why they look upon you and liberals like you with disdain.

Babu Jul 18, 2015 08:33am

Zindagi Ho Meri Parwane Ki Surat Ya Rab Ilm Ki Shamma Se Ho Mujh ko Mohabbat Ya Rab!

Eid mubarak!

Nizamuddin Jul 18, 2015 08:42am

One hundred percent correct - A reasonable sane voice .

HUMAN Jul 18, 2015 09:34am

Dear Prof....don't suspect BJP.... try to understand why M. J. Akbar joined it....

Waheednoor Jul 18, 2015 09:35am

English is not important but Maths and Science are, whichever language they are taught in.

Random Jul 18, 2015 11:35am

One retardant is lack of educational facilities. The second is the diversion of resources to Madrassahs. Third is that those who graduate from Madrassahs cannot develop further education in Universities and their qualification does not ensure employment safeguards.

Sandeep Jul 18, 2015 11:54am

Very well written article by Dr.Hoodbhoy. Yet I haven't come across a single Vedic school in India. If at all they are there, one could count them on finger tips. Someone can enlighten me on this.

NORI Jul 18, 2015 12:47pm

As always, Sir, you are rational and analyzed the issue using a logic, not religion. Madressahas may not producing terrorists now in India, but if no other employment is available, the Madressah graduates are easy targets of anti-social elements.

In Pakistan, declaring a Madressah graduate as equal to University graduate is a joke.

Shamsunder Datar Jul 18, 2015 01:10pm

Mr. Hoodbhoy, sir, you are not merely a professor. You are a hope and icon of secularism, wherever it is practised, especially in Indian sub continent in

dev Jul 18, 2015 02:10pm

I know what the difficulty is for the madressahs to allow Maths and Science to be taught in them. If they start teaching Maths and Science than it would develop rational thinking in the students and I am pretty sure, if that happens atleast half of them, if not more would stop going to the madressahs.

Sunil Jul 18, 2015 02:15pm

Hats off to Dr.Hoodbhoy Sir! I wonder what could be the source of your courage. I only hope your writing is also carried in Urdu and Punjabi press

Shakeel Ahmed Jul 18, 2015 02:51pm

The Madressah situation in Pakistan is going to stay with us for ever, whether one likes it or not. However, "..reform must be done incrementally and carefully, and without provoking a massive backlash. But it has to be done." Very true. But first the whole country's mindset and the disarrayed ideology needs to be changed outright. Even our so called refined educated public are simply intolerant and sensitive if their religious sentiments are challenged.

Maths and Science must be drilled in as a necessity from the time a child starts school. Curriculum and text books should teach that our idols are Salam, Munir Khan, Mazhar Quraishi, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, Hoodbhoy etc. and not the glorified televangelists who appear on our TV channels.

Let us put the nation first before religion.

Hopeful Jul 18, 2015 02:56pm

Professor Hoodbhoy is right on spot.Reforming of Madrassah or rather confronting Madrassah issue be done on priority basis. Any further delay will be diasterous

socho Jul 18, 2015 04:31pm

is he the only sane and analytical person in pak?

Hoodbhoy Clones. Jul 18, 2015 04:47pm

With Maths and astronomy taught in Madressah's the need for moon sightings thru the naked eye will become will become irrelevant. Many in the Muslim world already follow the proven scientific means available. The question is not Maths or Science, it is the perceived threat that the clergy thinks it will loose, i.e. its strangle hold on the masses with scientific proven knowledge as opposed to what their version on others dictate. The clergy will have to learn maths, science, physics, chemistry, astronomy, material science, not everyone has the brains of Pervez Hoodbhoy!!!. as much as they would wish.

Naseer Jul 18, 2015 06:07pm

Dear Doctor Hoobhoy, Dr. Iqbal was a great thinker and I think your sincerity and thought puts you next to Dr. Allam Iqbal. Unfortunately these Madersahs get enough Saudi funding, so they are not dependent on any money from the Government of Pakistan. And Saudi pressure will not let Pakistani government take any meaningful action against any Madersah.

vasan Jul 18, 2015 06:50pm

@Sandeep There are a few vedic schools around in India. For example I can think of one in Kumbakonam in Tamilnadu. No more in South

rehan Jul 18, 2015 07:45pm

What about the Safoora incident ? It had some pretty highly "educated" terrorists !

Farooq Moazam Jul 18, 2015 07:48pm

Mr Hoodboy, your direct and pramatic approach is always enlightening and appreciable. The problems in particular surrounding us and Muslim nations all together is primarily is the rule of clerks plus clerics. A true pragmatic direction must be enforced by the able governments (huge?) that can ensure guaging value addition of such elements or individuals for well being on humans .. whereas knowledge of science has unquestionably improved the world and continues to do so. Regards

Spyrogyra Jul 18, 2015 08:02pm

@Tariq K Sami: Correct, but the problem is they don't need the government's money, being well funded by charities and other countries. Once this funding is stopped, the government will be in a better negotiating position.

Abraham Haque Jul 18, 2015 08:23pm

When you take other peoples money they will tell you what to do and how to do it

AB, US Jul 18, 2015 09:05pm

Well thought article. Pakistan is blessed with intellectual writers like Dr. Hoodbhoy and Mr. Husain. I wish they were in India and bring all ills of my native country's on the forefront to analyze so we can work towards betterment of our nation. Long Live your Tribe!

Commitment Commitment Commitment. Jul 18, 2015 10:29pm

This nation has to provide alternatives. Not just bribes. Provide for workshops like "Hunar foundation" build schools like "Citizens Foundation Schools". There are many ways both private and government can work to improve. It is not just about Maths, or English or whatever, it is how one see our fellow citizens who are not as fortunate to have studied in MIT or Harvard, or Karachi Grammar School. This nation has to have a commitment, we do not, and that is a block , we are not a nation, another block, we have sub-divided ourselves into convenient groupings. Although the above article on face value is true, and correct, the reasoning is very questionable. Give every child the same opportunity and notice the difference, until then at least try to narrow the differences in society, this nation as whole has to commit itself not just individual institutions such as Dawn and well meaning individuals such as Mr. Hoodbhoy.

ali Jul 18, 2015 10:34pm

It's a well written article. Since 1980s, recognizing the importance of registered Madrasa as an alternative means of imparting education, Bangladesh has also made a historical reforms by introducing Science, Maths, English , Bangla (Bengali), in addition to perennial subjects in place that resulted dividends to the Madrasa students in particular, and the county as a whole. Now they can compete with the general students in getting admitted into higher education in engineering, medical, law, business, or any other disciplines.

Azhar Yousazai Jul 18, 2015 10:39pm

Very objective and to the point. The right course of action suggested

Salman Jul 20, 2015 01:08pm

FYI, many madaris teaches Science, Mathematics and English.

Khalid Jul 20, 2015 02:05pm

Professor always makes plenty of sense to most educated people. Madrassas have destroyed the learning culture we used to have and we are now restricted to religious education which is primarily the responsibility of the parents. While we are happy sending our children to Madrassas, the world is teaching their children Physics, Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine. I recently came across statistics that blew my mind.Followers of the Jewish religion make up 0.2% of the world population but in the last 50 years or so, 25% nobel prizes have gone to Jews. On the other hand, Muslims make up 23% of the world population and have nothing to show for it in terms of excellenece at eduation. Do we really believe we deserve to progress with this attitude?. Our priorities are wrong. Our living has gone down and our children's brains are rusting away.

Khalid Jul 20, 2015 02:27pm

@Salman This is fantastic news. I am sure you attended a good Madrassa!. We are however talking about the other 99% of Madrassas that only teach hatred and twisted version of Islam. As far as I know, their main messages are death to Amrica, death to Israel and death to India!!. Sadly, these countries are sensible enough to keep religion away from the goverment and have made enough progress to rule the world by educating their children. What have we done to counter that?.

Qamar Ahmed Jul 20, 2015 02:33pm

Ours is a society of built on double standards. One for Rich and other for poor. If a society fails to provide justice that society goes to oblivion. Therefore, go to should provide equal education system and ban elite schools. And also stop corruption at high level especially in Sindh and Balochistan.

Naseem Altaf Jul 20, 2015 02:40pm

Need of the hour is to afford universal quality education to every child ,as a basic fundamental right. The schools have to teach the kids HOW TO THINK and not WHAT TO THINK. Emphasis on Sciences,Maths, and Humanities , besides language, is essential. It requires commitment, and material/ financial resources to budget the system. Are we ready to recognise that universal quality education is no less important than the guns in the defence of the nation ?? And are we ready to allocate funds accordingly?

Jamhoor Jul 20, 2015 02:51pm

It is in madarassah students' favour to have worldly education too as Islam doesn't stop them to get Maths, Science and English education.

SUNIL Jul 20, 2015 03:55pm

Prof. Hoodbhoy is a great analyst and many people in India respect him for his rational thinking.

We wish him safe environment in an intolerant and violent society.

Sadhu Jul 20, 2015 04:07pm

Very good article and appreciate Dawn news to publish the same.

M. Siddique Jul 20, 2015 04:49pm

In Pakistan, any madrassah does not teach Math & Science subjects must be closed and no questions asked. ALSO, their religious syllabus must also be monitored very closely.

M. Siddique Jul 20, 2015 04:51pm

@Ali S, agreed with your suggestion but we cannot have terrorist-producing factories within our communities. Shut them down along with fixing the main school system.

Abdula Sipai Jul 20, 2015 05:44pm

The question of including maths in madressahs itself shows how this community is still in 10th century.

Gen Akthar retd Jul 20, 2015 06:44pm

Let's put the blame were it is deserved - Zia and Bhutto both nurtured extremism and we are now paying the consequences. If it was up to me I would impound their lands and family wealth and distribute it to victims of terrorism

Khalid Jul 20, 2015 08:38pm

@Gen Akthar retd And if it was upto me Sir, I would beg India to allow Pakistani students, only on merit, to attend IITs and IIMs and I know both of our countries will benefit from this.

Human Voice Jul 20, 2015 09:59pm

Prof. Hoodbhoy's article is commendable. India should provide free education to deserving Pakistani Students so that they could return back to Pakistan & contribute to Pakistan's Economy contribute towards creating a 21st Century Pakistan as well . Cheers!

ROHIT PANDEY Jul 20, 2015 10:10pm

@Khalid It might be of interest to you,to know that Dr Manmohan Singh wanted Pakistani students to attend IIT's.I don't think the present BJP government will remotely move in that direction?

I met an Iranian here in Canada who had studied Electronics at IIT-Madras and who told me that it is standing in very good stead in his career!:):):)

FAROOQ MOAZAM Jul 20, 2015 10:26pm

Mr Hoodboy, your direct and pramatic approach is always enlightening and appreciable. The problems in particular surrounding us and Muslim nations all together is primarily is the rule of clerks plus clerics.

A true pragmatic direction must be enforced by the able governments (huge?) that can ensure gauging value addition of such elements or individuals for well being for humans .. whereas knowledge of science has unquestionably improved the world and continues to do so.

In my opinion religiously overdosed Pakistanis (majority) cannot comprehend this approach, therefore solution remains a tedious question to be answered by secular intelligentsia of PAKISTAN Jul 21, 2015 01:42am

@ROHIT PANDEY Dear Rohit, I am not surprised as I have a lot of respect for Dr. Manmohan Singh. Who wouldn't?. Studied at Cambridge and got a Phd from Oxford. The man had lot of qualities not just degrees. Unfortunately, he belonged to the wrong party. I have about a dozen close friends (all from IIT in Mumbai) and I can see why it is so difficult to get into IITs. I really hope Pakistanis would one day realise they have the best educational institutions in the world, right next door.

Farooq Moazam Jul 21, 2015 02:18am

@ROHIT PANDEY I see many of your friends in coporaye sector your comment is remotely true

ROHIT PANDEY Jul 21, 2015 06:40am

@Farooq Moazam What is coporaye sector?:):):):)

Awais Imran Jul 21, 2015 01:20pm

Must Watch this video, two forms of knowledge