The religious seminaries educating more than four million students, often from poor backgrounds, have long been accused of links to extremism. But there is more to meet the eye.
KARACHI— Mukaram Ali, a 28-year-old madrassa student, graduated on May 5, completing a seven-year course following the 18th-century syllabus on Islamic studies. His relatives and neighbours visited his house in Karachi's low-income neighbourhood Orangi Town to congratulate him on his feat.
“I know tough time is ahead," Ali told TRT World. "It would be difficult to find a job in current circumstances."
The Pakistani government, mainly under pressure from the international community, has continuously been making efforts to regulate madrassas - some of them are accused of promoting radical ideologies and having links with terrorist networks – and bring them under the government's control.
Most recently, on April 30, military spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor told reporters more than 30,000 madrassas will soon be brought into the "mainstream" fold and overseen by the ministry of education. “An Islamic education will continue to be provided but there will be no hate speech,” Ghafoor said.
His call – not the first from a Pakistan official – demonstrated decades of the government's anxiety around madrassas. But at the same time, they are indispensable in South Asian societies. Deeply entrenched in Pakistan's Muslim-majority society, the religious schools are the only option available to millions of children from economically poor communities.
“For centuries, the madrassas in the sub-continent are passing along the heritage of Islamic knowledge to future generations,” said Maulana Tahla Rehmani, a religious scholar and official of the Jamia Uloom Islami, the country’s leading seminary in Karachi.
Ali graduated from the same seminary, where courses ranging from the memorisation of the Holy Quran to specialisation in Arabic literature and Islamic jurisprudence are offered.
Rehmani said that with times changing, the seminary is trying to include some "worldly knowledge" so that the students can survive in "modern pluralistic societies".
Independent researchers and madrassa bodies however regularly raise questions over the government’s intentions behind the centuries-old institution, raising doubts about whether the motive is to assuage Western fears and misconceptions about Islamic knowledge being regressive and fuel for violent armed groups.
“We need to think beyond terrorism-based reforms,” said Azmat Abbas, a researcher and author of Madrassa mirage: A contemporary history of Islamic schools in Pakistan. “Factors such as free education, respect for Islamic knowledge and teachers, active role in community life, preservation of tradition and the use of charity make the madrassas unique institutions.”
In Ali’s case, enrolling him in a madrassa was his parents’ choice. His father – a daily-waged textile worker – was elated when Ali was accepted into the seminary. “It is our faith that a scholar who memorises the Holy Quran would take 10 persons of his or her family to heaven,” Ali's father said.
But the madrassa have almost always faced a range of criticism, from sticking to old concepts to having links with terror groups and offering differing worldviews, limited economic and academic opportunities.
“Many issues of concern, knotted to the madrassas, are based on politics rather than any facets inherent in the system,”Abbas told TRT World.
The popularity of madrassas, he said, has grown over the years. They are seen as institutions of upward mobility by the poorest of the poor and orphans, as most of the madrassas offer free education, food, and shelter.
According to various reports, there are at least 4.1 million students enrolled in several thousands of seminaries throughout Pakistan. Almost all of these madrassas are privately funded and fall outside the government's control.
As there has long been a concern that the madrassas produce unskilled graduates who espouse intolerant misinterpretations of Islam, many organised attempts have already been made to "modernise" them.
Amir Tuaseen, a Karachi-based analyst and former head of the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board (PMEB), a state-run body aimed at modernising traditional madrassas in the country, said that successive Pakistani governments – both civilian and military – had attempted to reform madrassas but each time ended up surrendering more authority.
“Even today, several ministries, such as religious affairs, education, interior, and commerce, and law enforcement and counter-terrorism bodies, have been dealing with the madrassa issue separately, making it more complicated,” Tuaseen told TRT World.
The government also tried to convince the madrassas to affiliate themselves with the government-run PMEB that was formed in 2003, asking them to use the syllabus vetted by the state, but the traditional madrassa bodies opposed it.
The government also planned to set up a ‘Imam Hatip’ schooling system based on the pattern of Turkey and offer a mix of religious and worldly education to young men and women who want to become Islamic scholars and preachers. It was never introduced, though.
Following its newly-adopted counter-terrorism policy in January 2015, soon after the deadly attack on a school in Peshawar that killed over 150 school children, the government launched the registration and regulation of madrassas across the country.
Madrassa bodies however alleged that the government was not looking at organising the traditional system but making it difficult for them to collect funds.
“The madrassas now face difficulties in opening new bank accounts," Rehmani said, adding that many schools have accused the security agencies of "pursuing a policy of harassing the teachers and students in the name of collecting information”.
But as the government recently announced an aim to bring the madrassas under the federal control through the ministry of education, many researchers and clerics have welcomed the move.
On May 6, Pakistan's Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood met some influential madrassa leaders in Islamabad to discuss the planned reforms. Both sides agreed on having at least 30,000 madrassas registered by the government.
“The ministry will open 10 regional centers in various states where the madrassa registration will be offered and those madrassas which will not meet requirements for registration will be closed,” Mehmood told the media after the meeting.
Experts say that the government must take the madrassa reforms to their logical conclusion this time, but in the same breath they believe most of the madrassa graduates are unemployable, making it difficult for the government to bring down the unemployment numbers. While the jobless rate is at 5.7 percent, the unemployment rate among graduates is 16.3 percent.
Most of the madrassa graduates end up teaching Islamic studies or Arabic in various schools and madrassas or becoming paish-e-Imams (mosque prayer leaders) and Muezzins (a person who recites the call to prayer).
Ali is likely to follow the same path, though the supply of madrassa graduates has far surpassed demand.
“A large number of madrassa graduates passed out in past few years are jobless or working on low wages. All mosques and madrassas are full and they do not need paish-e-Imams and teachers,” Ali said.
Facing an uncertain future, he's left everything up to God, a common response Muslims have in times of crisis.