Pakistan has a very high number of out-of-school children despite the fact that country’s constitution makes it mandatory for the government to educate all citizens. Expenditure on education in the country has historically remained the lowest in the South Asian region. As an alternate to formal education, religious seminaries (Madaris) have offered education to a large segment of society, especially the poor. Apart from education, Madaris also provide a source of sustenance to children, belonging mostly to poor class, by taking care of their food, clothing and shelter. However Madaris are perceived – and the perception is largely debatable – as a medium for promoting extreme religious, sectarian, social and political views that can potentially lead to militancy. To say that the ideological orientation of Madrassah education is conservative is to state the obvious: they are supposed to be conservative as the very reason of their existence is to preserve the integrity of the tradition.
Genesis of Madaris runs deep in Islamic history. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) initiated his teachings in 611AD (in the beginning secretly) in the house of one of his companions Zaid Ibn Arqum, which may be regarded as the most primitive form of Madrassah in Islam. After his migration to Madina, a place was fixed for education purposes in the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid-e-Nabavi). This place was called Suffa. However, the formal institution of Madrassah was established in Baghdad (1067) under the patronage of Nizamul Mulk Toosi, who was the vizier of Seljuk rulers. These Madaris produced Khateebs (sermonizers), Imams (prayer leaders), Qazis (judges), Mudarris (teachers), Muftis (issuers of religious edicts), clerks, accountants, geographers, astronomers, bureaucrats and statesmen. Sultan Muhammad Ghauri established first Madrassah of aforesaid kind in the Subcontinent at Ajmair around 1210 AD. During the British period, Muslim Ulema (theologians) decided to oppose British culture, language and educational hegemony. They did not adopt English as the language in existing Madaris and multiplied number of conventional Madaris in their bid to save their distinct identity, religion and culture. The syllabus of these conventional Madaris was named Dars-e-Nizami, after Mullah Nizam-ud-Din of Lucknow (d. 1748). The curriculum of these Madaris laid greater emphasis on the study of logic, philosophy, grammar, literature, principles of Islamic law, Quranic commentary (Tafseer or Exegesis), Hadith, mysticism and religious philosophy. In this period, Darul Uloom Deoband (1866), Nadwatul Ulama (1894) and Darul Uloom Mazahirul Uloom were established.
Before independence, Madaris on the pattern of Darul Uloom Deoband Lucknow and Saharanpur existed in Pakistan. However, after independence, they got dissociated administratively from their mother institutions and started functioning as independent entities with the help of local communities – and absence of state patronage. The number of such Madaris in 1947, according to Saleem H. Ali’s “Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan,” was 137. The present number of Madaris in Pakistan, however, is unknown as even the data available with Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA), Ministry of Interior (MoI) and National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) tell differing number of Madaris from different sources, with the differences being quite significant, as provided in Table 1.
Apart from these glaring numerical differences, the number of unregistered Madaris is also alarmingly high. Number of foreign-funded Madaris in Balochistan is significantly high relative to other provinces and analysis of this aspect assumes added significance given the continued unrest in the province, sectarian terrorism and reports of involvement of many foreign intelligence agencies, including those of neighbouring Iran and Gulf States. Among the 7,754 foreign students studying in Madaris in Pakistan, most are Afghans and their complete whereabouts is also not available with any government agency. Actual number of foreign students is generally perceived to be much higher than this.
Affiliation of Madaris is also an important aspect to explore. Madaris are regulated by five independent boards, based on the sects or doctrinal affiliation. Each has established its own federation (Wafaq) of affiliated Madaris that prescribes curriculum, establishes standards, conducts examinations and issues diplomas/degrees. In his study titled “Madaris: The Potential for Violence in Pakistan,” Dr Tariq Rahman gives the following figures:
Historically, there has not been much cooperation between these organizations representing different schools of religious thought. In times of external threats, however, they have been quick to join hands and form a united front against any government attempt to introduce Madrassah reforms or curb their autonomy. Thus, Madaris of all schools of thought joined together to oppose Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s attempt to bring them under government control in 1976. Similarly, when the Musharraf government announced its intention in August 2001 (i.e., four weeks before the events of September 11) to modernize Madrassah education, all five Wafaqs formed a representative body with the name of Ittehad Tanzeemat-e-Madaris-e-Diniya (ITMD) to oppose any such move by the government that may affect their autonomy. The Wafaqs have been so averse to any government regulation and monitoring mechanism that they never accepted the establishment of Pakistan Madrassah Education Board (PMEB) and despite having representation in the Board of Governors (BoG) of PMEB, none of the Wafaqs or ITMD representatives ever attended any of PMEB meetings.
The equivalence of diplomas and degrees awarded by these Wafaq-ul-Madaris with formal education system starts with a Tanviah-e-Aamah (Matriculation), Tanviah-e-Khasa (Intermediate), Shahadat-e-Aaliya (Bachelors – on passing three compulsory BA courses of any recognized university) and Shahadat-e-Aalmia (Masters – on passing compulsory MA courses of any recognized university). The equivalence is awarded by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). It is critical to note that Madaris, however, ensure that their students do not get equivalence at Amah, Khasa and Aaliya levels, fearing that such students may get admissions in formal colleges / universities and hence they may be deprived of a large chunk of students.
Historically, madaris were registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, as charity organizations. During the Benazir Bhutto era, the government banned the registration of seminaries because it wanted to change the system, but it could not do so. Resultantly, registration remained closed for many years. During the Musharraf era, negotiations started with the Madaris in the ambit of the Societies Registration Act, 1860, under which they had been registered since 1950. In the backdrop of reforms, the government initially drafted the Model Deeni (Religious) Madaris and Madrassah Board Ordinance 2001, and the federal cabinet passed it on June 21, 2002. According to the Ordinance, the government issued a gazette notification for the establishment of the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, which was to ostensibly modernize the education system, setting up model religious schools and approving their affiliations on the recommendations of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the official mouthpiece of the state on religious matters. The board visualized getting authority to set curriculum and examination systems, and to hold teacher training programmes. However, implementation remained dismal; only 500 Madaris applied for registration under this law out of the almost 25,000, while only three model Madaris could be established throughout Pakistan. In June 2002, the government drafted the Deeni Madaris (Voluntary Registration and Regulation) Ordinance 2002 and passed it through the federal cabinet but it could not be promulgated due to strong resistance from the Madaris. Through this ordinance, the Madaris would have been asked to register themselves voluntarily while foreign financial assistance was banned for them. In October 2004, as a next step, the government introduced the Government Madrassah Reforms Program 2004 which enunciated that besides religious subjects, English, Mathematics, Social Studies and General Science must also be taught from primary to secondary level while English, Computer Sciences, Economics and Pakistan Studies were to be taught at the higher levels. The programme remained unsuccessful. After a long discussion amongst the stakeholders, the government promulgated the Societies Registration (Amendment) Ordinance 2005 for the registration of seminaries. This ordinance was the amended form of the Societies Registration Act 1860. Under the Societies Registration (Amendment) Ordinance, 2005 Madaris could neither be established nor operated without registration and it was mandatory to maintain their accounts; and regular audits by the government.
In 2009, government introduced Madrassah Regulatory Authority under MoI but it, too, was rejected by the ITMP. In 2010, government inked an agreement with ITMP to introduce contemporary subjects in their syllabus but the draft legislation was not shared by the government with ITMP, hence agreement never materialized. Under NAP, focus on Madaris’ registration and regulation has again become a buzzword; however, material progress on this aspect is yet to be seen. According to media reports, ITMP provided a draft form for registration of Madaris to NACTA in mid-2015 but the government has not made any progress on that form so far.
It is also important to analyze an existing yet overlooked institutional mechanism i.e. PMEB, that could solve many an issue facing the Madrassah education. Established under the PMEB Ordinance, 2001, PMEB’s basic objective was to improve and secure uniformity of standards of education and to integrate Madaris in the formal education system of the country by introducing one curriculum, one exam and dual education i.e. formal plus Islamic. PMEB was mandated to award equivalence to degrees of Madaris and hence it was envisaged to be HEC for Madaris.
Second objective of PMEB was to establish model Madaris at the official level across Pakistan. During the years 2001-2003, three model Madaris were established – one for girls in Islamabad, second in Sukkur and the third in Karachi; all three model Madaris are adjacent to Haji camps as the then Religious Affairs Minister, Dr. Mehmood Ahmed Ghazi, envisioned that it would result in better utilization of the facility of Haji camps that remain idle after the two months of Hajj season.
Despite the fact that the PMEB has not been able to objectively perform its functions during the last 14 years, rationale behind the establishment of the Board cannot be underestimated. Matters relating to Madaris could have taken a different course if the regulatory mechanism visualized in the PMEB Ordinance had been put in place. The inability of PMEB to perform its function does not mean that rationale behind the scheme was flawed.
The discussions in preceding sections lead to conclusion that over time Madaris have assumed added significance in country’s education and social system – providing religious education as well as food and shelter to millions of children, most of them coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Yet there are no two opinions on the fact that reforms should be introduced in Madrassah system because even though a majority of Madaris have no direct links with militancy or extremism, intensive religious worldview and narrow frame of mind given to students, coupled with no employability and social integration, make contribution of Madaris a zero–sum game. Curriculum, approach and other aspects of Madrassah education lack critically as compared to modern education system. Madrassah degrees, certificates and Asnad only serve the purpose to a very limited scope of respective Wafaq-ul-Madaris and that too only for employment within the ambit of religious teaching jobs in the Madaris, which, in effect, is a big hurdle in overall employability of Madrassah students as well as integration of Madaris as useful institutes in the social construct of the country. This neglect manifests in numerous challenges, including absolute lack of authentic data on number, characteristics, students, teachers, funding and curriculum of Madaris, their vulnerability to foreign influence, their leniency towards extremism and sectarian orientation.
There has not been lack of intended reforms and initiatives by governments for Madaris but what has really been the weak area is strong commitment, resolve and persistence for implementation of these reforms and initiatives. The approach by the government can be characterized as half-hearted; too little, too late; and one step forward, two steps back instead of the required thrust of tackling it as the topmost national priority. Institutional mechanisms, such as PMEB, which could serve as the lynchpin for bringing Madaris into mainstream education system and truly harnessing their potential as educational institutes of not only religious education but also as socioeconomic support to the children from poor segments of society, have been left in the lurch, further exacerbating the situation.