An Interview with
Prof. Dr Ashraf Shaheen Qaisrani
Former Head, Islamic Studies Department, University of Balochistan
Muhammad Atif Sheikh
Prof. Dr Ashraf Shaheen Qaisrani is popular among intellectual circles of Balochistan. He has remained head of the Islamic Studies department at the University of Balochistan and also the head of its Seerat Chair and retired in 2012 from the post of Dean (Research) Faculty of Arts. He holds a PhD awarded to him on his work “Muslim Culture of Balochistan”. Apart from educational services, Dr Qaisrani has also supervised numerous research theses on important subjects for MA, MPhil and PhD degrees. Seerat-un-Nabi (Life of the Prophet) is his forte and he has been awarded ten times with certificate of distinction and cash prizes by the Government of Pakistan. Besides authoring four books, Dr Qaisrani has published at least 36 research articles in journals of international repute. Moreover, ha has also participated as a research scholar and delegate in various international seminars, conferences and forums. Jahangir’s World Times recently had the honour to interview Dr Qaisrani on the issue of mainstreaming of madaris. Some excerpts from his conversation are being presented here:
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): What benefits the enlightening of the students of religious Madaris with contemporary knowledge bring about?
Prof. Dr Ashraf Shaheen Qaisrani (ASQ): No doubt, the basic objective of seminaries (madaris) is only to produce religious scholars, i.e. Ulema. However, if one wants to excel in any field of life, one cannot stay aloof to contemporary knowledge. Educating the seminary students on modern subjects will not only improve their scholarship in religion but will also bring about moderation in their thinking. An added advantage of this would be that they will not remain limited to mosque or madaris; rather, they will connect to the mainstream society and every segment will benefit from their knowledge. Furthermore, they will have a large number of employment opportunities available to them.
JWT: What changes do you suggest to the madaris curriculum to make them impregnable to criticism while at the same time they may also contribute to the renaissance of madaris?
ASQ: This question warrants answer from two perspectives: (i) analysis of current curriculum taught at madaris; and (ii) restructuring of that scheme.
As for the first perspective, there are no two opinions that the curriculum being taught in madaris across Pakistan needs a serious review, rather a critical appraisal with regard to its structure. A lot of work has already been produced on that and the quest is still on. In my opinion, it requires a comprehensive research and robust planning. In this brief interview, I can only say that the basic sources of religion and shariah are only two: Quran and Hadith. In our madaris, students do study all authentic books of Hadith, but their grip over Asma al-Rijal (biography of the narrators of traditions), Jirh and Ta’deel (Criticism and Praise), Riwayah and Dirayah (critical appraisal of authenticity and accuracy of narration and context of a tradition) and other aspects of classification of hadith is almost zero. As far as Quran and its exegesis are concerned, the curriculum is not so robust. Neither the principles nor the history of exegesis is part of the syllabus nor is there any provision of comparative study of old and new exegeses. Only a few parts of Tafsir Baidawi and Tafsir Jalalain are taught, and that’s it. But, there is a pressing need to understand the real spirit and soul of Quran. Studying Quran and exegesis at all levels of education is inevitable as it is the only way to comprehend the holy script. A lot more emphasis is laid on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence); students learn some topics of fiqh by heart but do not know what the opinions of jurists from various schools of thought are.
Moreover, the books they are taught are ages-old which do not complement the modern-day issues. Resultantly, Ijtihad has been totally absent in their discourses. Even if people ask queries on modern issues, they are answered by resorting strictly to those old scripts, without adequately comprehending the real nature of the problem; hence, the querent remains unsatisfied.
The fourth main pillar of the syllabus is the Arabic language but that too is taught on same old patterns – rote-learning. In this way, students cannot have a grip over spoken Arabic, though they get some knowledge of Arabic grammar and composition. It results in below-par translation of Arabic texts of Quran, Hadith and Fiqh. Another perplexing thing is that students are taught even those subjects that are not needed in the modern-day world. Take, for example, philosophy, logic, old mathematics, astronomy. In this way, madrassah students cannot get acquainted with history or with geography, let alone modern languages and problems and needs of contemporary society. Teaching about world religions or even the languages is like touching a forbidden tree.
Now, let’s discuss the second aspect of the question, i.e. how to restructure the curriculum.
I have answered almost half the question in the above conversation; however, I would like to mention some other things in this respect.
There is a pressing need to not only include contemporary sciences in the curriculum of madaris, but also to review and revise the current syllabus. Pedagogy must also be tailored according to the modern-day demands. Evaluating teachers and instructors and including modern subjects in the curriculum is as important as never before. Here, I want to clear one thing: modern education does not mean that we have to produce doctors and engineers from madaris; it actually means that we have to make amends to the syllabus so as to enable it to produce ulema, scholars, mufassirs (interpreters), Mujtahids (those who perform Ijtihad), Mohaddis (hadith scholars), fuqaha (jurists), Qazi (justices), Muftis (those who give religious edicts), Khateeb and Waiz (sermonizers), and Mubaligh (preachers) in order to transform the society into a moderate one in the light of real teachings of Islam with their correct interpretations as the modern world requires. So, in my opinion, we need to introduce subjects like Seerat (Life of the Prophet (SAWW)), history, geography, comparative study of world religions, economics, science, modern mathematics, computer and English and Arabic languages is essential. Moreover, outdated subjects like logic, astronomy and ancient philosophy and mathematics will have to be weeded out of the syllabus as studying them is nothing more than a waste of time. And, the thing that is most important of all is to contour Quran and its exegesis as well as Quranic science on modern lines because only an in-depth study of Quran and its exegeses can help us understand the real spirit of the religion as only Quran is the fountainhead of all knowledge.
You have also asked as to which contemporary fields of knowledge should be taught and at which levels. I think, if madaris take upon themselves to provide education up to primary level, they should teach only Arabic, English, mathematics and reading or learning the holy Quran by heart. Subjects like Hadith, Seerah, science, computer and history should be added for middle level and some additions should be made up to the matriculation level. Another viable option is that the eligibility criterion for admission to a madrassah should be matriculation at least n second division. During the next six years, only Quran, Hadith, exegesis, jurisprudence, comparative study of religions, Seerah, Arabic, economics and computers should be the major subjects, and it should be followed by a specialization of one year in any Islamic field. Nevertheless, a board should be established to decide whether there should be an annual examination or the semester system should be adopted; what subjects, both Islamic and contemporary, should be taught and on which level and what should be the mode of examination; whether the madaris should be affiliated with a board of intermediate and secondary education or not and should BISEs and universities create separate departments for madaris examinations or not. These are the things that can be amicably decided by taking madaris and Wifaq-ul-Madaris on board, but to make it happen, the government should be keenly involved and madaris should be ready to enter into the mainstream.
JWT: How research activities can be promoted at madaris and how research standards can be brought at par with the international level?
ASQ: This is a very important question because, unfortunately, there is no concept of research at madaris. Although ulema and teachers associated some renowned madaris do have some interest in conducting research, it is limited to translation of some Arabic books, exegesis or for issuing some edicts. There is a need to teach research methodology to students and to make it mandatory for an aspirant to specialization that he must produce a research work to get his master’s degree. Research in madaris should be purely intellectual and upon approval, the researcher should be awarded an MPhil degree. In order to promote intellectual research, a viable option is that the teachers and students should be made to take part in co-curricular activities so that their interest is developed in conducting research and produce excellent written works. In this way, they will have a mastery over research methodology without putting in any extra efforts. Books should be written, quarterly, half-yearly or annual research journals, just like other universities, should be published and, believe me, it is the only way to break the ages-old stalemate of research in our madaris.
JWT: Do you think that teaching methodology used at madaris also needs a radical reform?
ASQ: Although the level of pedagogy even at our modern universities is not satisfactory, yet that adopted at madaris is in dire need of review and reform. In some madaris, corporal punishment, even imprisoning the students, is a normal routine. Rote-learning, discouraging students who ask questions, making them sit on floor—even teachers have to sit on the floor while teaching their students—no use of black or whiteboard, absence of modern devices, and inflicting serious punishment if one fails to learn a lesson are some examples which not only harm a student’s personality and self-respect, but also cause psychological disorders in them. Moreover, the one-way transfer of knowledge—from teacher to student, without latter’s involvement—is another grave problem as in this way students are made to learn only the prescribed single book; they are neither told about nor encouraged to consult other books on similar subjects. Resultantly, students fail to develop a proclivity toward research or in-depth study as they don’t look into the opinions of other jurists and scholars and it ensues in a rigid sectarian thinking.
JWT: Are the living standards of madaris teachers at par with those of other teachers?
ASQ: This is indeed a riddle as these people are usually very contented with what they have. An insignificant remuneration, very simple lifestyles, a tendency to always remain thankful to Allah Almighty and patience is what they are characterized with. But, this contentedness makes them stay aloof from ordinary members of the society. They are the servants of Islam but they are considered deserving Zakat, donations, charity, alms, etc. Save some renowned madaris, almost all run their expenses from money coming in from these sources. A huge demerit of such a situation is that those ulema who happen to be somewhat well-off tend to stay away from serving madaris as teachers. In this way, only mediocrity prevails as far as teachers are concerned, which is always detrimental to the quality of education. In this connection, the government is solely responsible of providing perks and privileges to madaris teachers at par with those of other institutions but the problem is that madaris are hesitant to accept government’s patronage as they think it is like compromising in their independence.
JWT: Are students of madaris given a respectable status in the society?
ASQ: No doubt, religious-minded people do respect and honour them but the situation is directly opposite, when it comes to those who do not subscribe to religious thought as much. Moreover, a trend of looking down upon seminary students, owing to their looks, is gaining ground in our society. West’s negative portrayal of madaris—very unfair, negative and far from reality though—has also contributed to this situation. Let me quote an example here to explain my point. In January 2018, Royal Danish Defence College published a report titled “The Role of Madrasas” in which a 2006 research by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey has been quoted. These researchers examined the educational backgrounds of 79 of the terrorists behind some of the most significant terrorist attacks against Westerners and found that the majority of the terrorists were college-educated and only nine of them had attended madrasas. So, looking at all madaris and all their students with one eye is sheer injustice and ignorance. Moreover, there can be no two opinions that violence and punishment and taunts of receiving zakat or charity do harm a person’s self-respect and, unfortunately, our madrasa students are also not immune to these.
JWT: Form mainstreaming of madaris, what steps would you suggest the government, madaris and the citizens of society should take?
ASQ: Although numerous efforts have been made at mainstreaming the madaris but it’s a complicated issue. Madaris are not ready to compromise on their independence. On the other hand, steps taken by the government are also insufficient while common people are also getting alienated from the religious people. So at all three levels, i.e. troika of government, madaris and common people, there is a glaring mistrust. On their part, madaris will have to reform their syllabi, examination mode, qualifications of teachers, overall environment and the way of thinking. The government must patronize these madaris the way it does in the case of colleges and universities. As for the common people, I would say that they still look to religious scholars and ulema to seek religious guidance on various issues, even religious rites are performed in the light of what they tell. Sp, the people should demand the government to provide financial assistance to madaris and resolve all their issues while, at the same time, also urging madaris that they transform themselves according to the modern-day needs and also enter the mainstream. In other words, if the government patronages the madaris which, in turn, tailor their education to the demands of the contemporary world, there is no reason why people won’t repose trust in them and give them the honour and prestige they deserve. By doing so, the gulf between the seminaries and the institutions of contemporary education would also be bridged.