REVIEW: New Islamic Schools by Sanaa Riaz

26 Jul 2015


Madressahs and Islamic education have become the focus of extensive policy and academic discourse. 	— AP
Madressahs and Islamic education have become the focus of extensive policy and academic discourse. — AP
New Islamic Schools: Tradition, Modernity, and Class in Urban Pakistan

By Sanaa Riaz
New Islamic Schools: Tradition, Modernity, and Class in Urban Pakistan By Sanaa Riaz

EDUCATION in Pakistan has become an international political issue. Since at least the 1980s, involvement in schooling and curricula in Pakistan has formed part of a strategy of governments (and not just the Pakistani government) towards achieving their ends — whether for war (as in the 1980s during the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan) or peace (as in the post 9/11 drive towards ‘development’). Thus the madressah, an otherwise innocuous local entity, and Islamic education more generally, became the site of extensive policy and academic discourse. Sanaa Riaz, a Pakistani-American anthropologist, widens the scope of the discourse on Islamic education in her first book, New Islamic Schools: Tradition, Modernity, and Class in Urban Pakistan.

Keeping in mind sociopolitical changes in these last 30 years, Riaz challenges some of the assumptions of this discourse in her exploration of an emergent and local form of a global phenomenon: private Islamic schooling. A new but far from monolithic form of education, the author understands this form of school as both modern and Islamic, not to mention distinct from madressahs. Where, then, does this phenomenon stand in relation to the Pakistani madressah? And what, for Riaz, constitutes this type of schooling?

The received wisdom in Pakistan is that there are three types of schooling that correspond to class divisions. Islamic education — that is what is offered at madressahs — is conventionally associated with the bottom bracket. The middle class is associated with the matriculation system of public education, and the upper class with the Cambridge system offered in private schools. By contrast, Riaz shows how private Islamic schools fuse religious education with secular education and its associated curricula and pedagogy. With respect to the education landscape in Pakistan, Islamic schooling as she shows, straddles the conventional categories of schooling. Why, then, are families attracted to these schools? What kind of education is offered? How are ‘traditional’ and secular Cambridge-based schooling synthesised?

In a study of 15 schools in different areas of Karachi which she labels lower, middle, and upper class, Riaz finds diversity in that Islamic education reflects the ethnic, linguistic, class, political, and sectarian concerns of parents, administrators and entrepreneurs. She provides perspective through a comparative study of three types of schools. The first type of private Islamic school is run by entrepreneurs, while the second by madressah alumni. A third, albeit explored briefly in the book, is the madressah itself. She uses a number of methods including surveys, interviews, and observations of schooling — from assembly, classrooms, and even lunch time. The author thus illustrates how each of the schools bring together their faith and secular education a little differently, recreating Islamic ‘tradition’ in ways that reflect the diversity of Karachi’s different classes, sects, and ethnic groups, cultivating not just moral but other types of subjectivities. Thus, this new Islamic tradition, borrowing anthropologist Talal Asad’s terminology, uses the Quran and Hadith as a reference point but encompasses contemporary concerns with prestige, sect, career, and so on. What attracts parents is the status and prestige of a secular O-level system, and the ‘Islamic’ environment and moral emphasis.

For Riaz, the significance of the environment and moral code as well as Quranic training illustrate what function Islam plays for parents, administrators and students in fashioning a synthesis in which there is both rejection and accommodation of modernity as represented by a secular O-level education. Here her argument about the synthesis is that while secular education inculcates active learning and critical minds, it is done in the interests of shaping careers as much as it in shaping moral subjectivity. In other words, Islam is utilised in fashioning moral subjectivity in concert with preparation for the job market. The synthesis is neither a replication of colonial education nor former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s idea of ‘moderation’ but an alternative mode of understanding the fusion of modernisation and the Islamic faith. As Riaz points out, “Private Islamic schooling represents an alternate educational tradition that seeks to define modernity and religion in accordance with the prevailing socioeconomic needs and political conditions”. What exactly modernisation means is left up to the reader to interpret.

Further, she reflects on what private Islamic schooling means for understanding the place of Islam today in Pakistani society, and raises questions about the changing role of religion in urban Pakistan: “While attempting to revive traditional Islamic knowledge, the schools are also democratising it and allowing the students to conceptualise it based on their own intellect”. She speaks to the remaking of tradition, taking on critiques of consequences of the Islamisation and radicalisation of Pakistani society.

Though Riaz considers herself a ‘native’ researcher, her anthropological approach stands apart from recent work on education. Recent research in Pakistan on education by economists, political scientists, and linguists has shed light on how class divisions are formed. With a mixed-methods approach, including ethnography, Riaz brings a different mode of analysis to explore questions related to how these barriers are overcome, and in some sense, how these boundaries are being reshaped. Her approach is broader than both scholars and policymakers in that she looks at political history, pedagogy, and even geography in exploring the desire for education through the perspectives of students, parents, administrators, and teachers.

While the author’s starting point is the politics of Islamic education, it also serves to weaken her argument. In framing private Islamic education as ‘moderate’ in contradistinction to madressahs which are ‘extremist’, Riaz’s historical and political analysis only obfuscates an important segment of the education sector. In addressing the discourse on Islamic education as lacking nuance, she paints a picture of the madressah as dark, authoritarian, violent, and lacking any form of reasoning without presenting data to substantiate the claim. This is unusual because the data she uses to address this issue could come from her research but instead she inexplicably relies on American ‘experts’ like PW Singer. By not explaining what she means by ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ the author ducks the challenge of responding to an obtuse discourse on Islamic education and perhaps Islam more generally.

Further, Riaz’s discussion of the crackdown on madressahs during Mr Musharraf’s government deserves more attention as it plays such a central role in her argument. This speaks to the complexity of the politics of education in Pakistan in which the crackdown plays just one part. In this binary that she reifies, there are similarities and differences between private Islamic schools and madressahs that could be explored. Though she employs some rich ethnographic material, the reader is left without much context or descriptive detail about education imparted in madressahs.

New Islamic Schools is a must for those interested in the debates about education but also about the role of religion in Pakistan today. While its link with local research about education, history, and politics could be stronger, it sheds light on an important contemporary phenomenon that extends beyond Pakistan.

New Islamic Schools: Tradition, Modernity, and Class in Urban Pakistan


By Sanaa Riaz

Palgrave MacMillan

ISBN 978-1137382474