30 Sep 2018


Students of a religious seminary take part in a calligraphy contest organised by the Peace Education and Development Foundation in collaboration with Unicef at Nishtar Hall, 
Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt/White Star
Students of a religious seminary take part in a calligraphy contest organised by the Peace Education and Development Foundation in collaboration with Unicef at Nishtar Hall, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt/White Star

The madressah debate in Pakistan mostly revolves around two critical areas: religion and security. Policymakers — and even some educationists — hesitate to reorient the debate around education. As a result, though the madressah sector is catering to more than 15 percent of the needs of basic education in Pakistan, it doesn’t fit into the mainstream educational political economy of the country.

However, in his account of madressahs, or institutions of religious education, Azmat Abbas has attempted to keep the debate in its context. His remarkable anthology, Madrassah Mirage: A Contemporary History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan, argues the case of madressahs in the context of the general failure of the state to ensure education for all.

Abbas has worked as a journalist for more than two decades, mostly covering religious and militant organisations. He has some extensively researched articles on these issues to his credit and Madrassah Mirage seems to be a compilation of his past work, but with updated details and an extended scope.

A book argues that seminaries need to be viewed as an educational challenge rather than be looked at through the prism of security

The author does not agree with a widely held perception that madressahs are a source of sectarianism in Pakistan. Instead, he argues that these religious institutions are indeed themselves victim of the existing sectarian discord in the country. In his view, madressahs were deliberately kept limited to religious education by the British Raj with a view to keeping them under control and to prevent a greater role in education. Successive Pakistani governments have failed to change that approach towards madressahs. Abbas holds the security establishment, bureaucracy and clergy itself responsible for that failure.

In Abbas’s opinion, most of the reform attempts failed because these were politically motivated and lacked sincerity to mainstream these institutions. The state’s failure to address the educational needs and problems of the poor, as well as the growth of private and ‘secular’ educational institutions, has, in fact, contributed to the expansion of the madressah networks. He criticises the security-driven approach towards madressahs and suggests that they should be considered educational institutions and dealt with as an educational problem. He argues that the government questions the standard of the madressah education and teachers as well as the curriculum taught there, while it completely ignores the same for the state-run educational institutions. Attempting to reform religious education in the absence of an enviable public education system is perhaps not a wise approach.

Seminary students hard at work memorising the Holy Quran | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Seminary students hard at work memorising the Holy Quran | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

A chapter about the statistics on madressahs further exposes the state’s failed approach. The chapter titled ‘The Confusing Numbers’ underscores that more than expansion of the madressahs, it was the state institutions’ inability to develop a proper registration and monitoring mechanism which has been compounding the problem. The chapter also reveals interesting facts about the growth of madressahs in the country. For one, at the time of independence in 1947, there was no system of maintaining a record of religious schools and there were no more than 150 madressahs in both East and West Pakistan. However, Abbas states that the ‘record’ currently available with the religious and education ministries of the government of Pakistan provides a province-wise breakup of a total of 245 madressahs in 1947. Azmat recommends concentrated efforts at the national level to establish credible data on the present status of madressahs and regular monitoring to follow the gradual growth.

Another interesting chapter, ‘Money Matters’, explores the political economy of religious schools in the country. The author explains different sources of funding of madressahs, including indirect support through zakat, religious charity, sacrificial animals’ hides, the Pakistani diaspora across the globe and funds from foreign sources to promote a particular brand of Islam, as well as official patronage of a specific breed of madressahs through land and financial support. According to him, the unexplored dynamics of the political economy of the madressahs and madressah elites’ refusal to allow a public audit of the sources and utilisation of the funds create a lot of doubts about the religious education sector in the country. The situation becomes more complicated in the absence of a credible mechanism requiring financial reporting from the madressahs.

Azmat also presents viewpoints of madressah administrators who claim that all the funding for religious schools comes from the affluent people of Pakistan whose identities are kept hidden and not shared with the government because of privacy concerns. However, Abbas’s key argument is that the major funding for madressahs comes from the Pakistani diaspora’s philanthropy. Thousands of people of Pakistani origin regularly send huge amounts of money back home for charitable purposes, most of which goes to mosques or madressahs. Second, the local donation base is also huge and has not yet been measured scientifically. Revealing a few details of the Pakistani donation base, Abbas claims that zakat and non-zakat donations accounted for 11 percent or Rs26 billion, and 30 percent or Rs71 billion, respectively, while in-kind giving stood at 14 percent or Rs35 billion, usher at Rs14 billion or six percent, sacrificial animal hides at two percent or Rs5 billion, and money given to shrines at three percent or Rs6.5 billion.

Abbas has also touched upon on few other issues linked to madressahs, including their role in the Afghan and Kashmir militancies, sectarianism, and the curriculum debate and their socio-cultural impact on society. All these aspects have been investigated and researched thoroughly in a few other publications as well, such as The Role of Madrasas: Assessing Parental Choice, Financial Pipelines and Recent Developments in Religious Education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, edited by David Vestenskov of Royal Danish Defence College; After Study Hours: Exploring the Madrassah Mindset by Pak Institute for Peace Studies; What is a Madrasa? by Ebrahim Moosa; Politics of Madrassa Reforms in Pakistan: Islamisation and Enlightened Moderation by Maryam Siddiqa; and Madrasah-Extremism Nexus: Text, Context and Contemporary Debates by Muhammad Rashid. The increasing volume of literature on madressahs shows the interest of the academic and policy circles in the subject. However, Abbas’s work is distinguished mainly because it explores the political economy of the madressahs and discusses them as an educational rather than a security challenge.

These particular aspects of the religious schools need more in-depth inquiry and perhaps Abbas will have to expand the study further.

The reviewer is a security analyst and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad

Madrassah Mirage: A Contemporary
History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan
By Azmat Abbas
Emel, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9699556456

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 30th, 2018