The Bane of Madrasas

By: Naseeb Ullah Shakhail

MSc Pakistan Studies QAU Islamabad


Seminaries in Muslim world are popularly known as "Madrasas" which impart Islamic religious learning. These madrasas created by religious establishment exert tremendous influence over religious and secular people alike. The madressas have been existing in our society from centuries. Their role in the past was to provide moral guidance to the society besides providing prayer leaders for the mosques all around the country. Traditionally Madressas were spaces of learning where religion was taught in the spirit of inquiry and objectivity.

Historically speaking men of wisdom courage and understanding took pride in their association with religious centers of learning popularly known as madressas, Abdul Kalam Azad is the obvious example. There was no acrimony among the madressas belonging to different sects. Whatever differences they had were confined to making fun of one another. If one side called the other parrots of the heaven the other responded by dubbing the former as crows of the hell.

This was the state of affairs until 1977 when General Ziaull-ul-Haque ascended to the position of power in Pakistan. During the same period other dramatic international developments completely changed the Geo-strategic and Geo-political landscape of the region with implications that were totally unforeseen at the time. In a world radically polarized around the cold war rivalry these developments reconstructed the whole social- religious and political fabric of Pakistani society.

The year 1979 is remembered for some of the gigantic changes of the modern history. This was the year of the Revolution of Iran and USSR's entry into Afghanistan. Whereas the revolution of Iran presented an ideological threat to the Sheikhdoms of Arabia who started a world wide campaign of countering Shi'ism with the Saudi State creed of Wahabism by encouraging the growth of madressa, the entry of USSR into Afghanistan provided the Saud-i's with a new impetus to heavily invest in the rising phenomenon of political Islam.

It was during the same period that the number of politically motivated madressas rosed in a dramatic manner. Kamila Hayat in her article, "No room for doubt and division", published in The News, writes that, "In 1947 there were only 189 madrasas in Pakistan. Today, some estimates place the number at over 40,000, at least 80 of these functions in Islamabad.”

In 1971, the number of Pakistani madrasas was only 900 hundreds but at the end of 1988 (The time when Zia was removed from power by an air crash) 8000 thousand new madrasas were registered with an other 25000 thousand unregistered ones. More than fifty thousands students are enrolled in these seminaries.

It was in this backdrop that traditional religious madressas were supplanted by the politically inspired Saudi funded Wahabbi madressas in and around the Pakistan and Afghanistan border. General Zia-ul-Haque COAS cum president of Pakistan welcomed their mushrooming growth as it provided him with legitimacy at home and appreciation from US and Saudi sheikhs abroad.

For US the growth of madressas came with more and more recruits against its enemy number one the USSR. The USA department of information spent lavishly over the publications of religious literature including books, journals, magazines and pamphlets that preached Jihad or war against the infidels. The Holy book of Islam (the Koran) was translated into central Asian languages for distribution in those republics. The responsibility for the publications of these material laid with the university of Nebraska of USA.

The growth of these madressas also filled the vacuum left behind by the modern schooling system. As these seminaries provided with free meals, cloths and hostels. They even paid the pocket money to the students commonly called taliban for traveling back to home during holidays. As most of the children enrolled in madressas come from the lower income families therefore the ranks of taliban (students of madressas) rose rapidly.

These madrasas were skillfully used to play an important role in the Afghan war against USSR in 1980s. The western block lead by the USA in a close nexus with Pakistan and Arab world and their respective intelligence agencies provided heavy weaponry and and training to these taliban and other volunteers from Islamic countries. .

According to Ahmed Rasheed, "the effort of the two (CIA-ISI) was to turn afghan jihad into a global war waged by all Muslims states against the Soviet Union (Ahmed Rasheed, 1999). On political spectrum the Taliban (then called Mujahideen) from these madresas established close links with JUI a political organization adhering to Deobandism. It was coupled by closer alliance with religio-political establishment Saudi Arabia for their political and financial support.

On domestic scene of Pakistani politics these Madrasas proved themselves as still wall to the secular forces and parties of Pakistan. The ultimate result of the state sponsorship and encouragement of these religious seminaries is the spate of intolerance, sectarianism, extremism and terrorism that our state and society is faced with.

Therefore any strategy seeking peace and harmony should take into account the very roots of the violence. The whole madressas system should be reformed in a manner that it regain its old values of religious centers of learning that preach peace, harmony and reconciliation with other sects, creeds and religions. This should be accompanied by a grand scheme of economic development of the impoverished regions that boosts enrollment to Madressas. All of this off course requires political will and readiness to reform with an open mind. Renaissance of the pre-Zia era values that surrounded these madressas is the need of the hour. French philosopher J.J Rousseau rightly puts it, “Give us back our ignorance, innocence and poverty which alone can make us happy”.