In the aftermath of the Taliban government’s takeover of Kabul, many in Pakistan fear a ‘fundamentalist spillover’ in our country. Whether these fears end up manifesting in an actual problem is hard to speculate—especially since Pakistan has repeatedly resisted and repelled such eventualities over the past twenty years. However, precautionary steps must be taken by the State of Pakistan, to prevent a possible slide towards religious fanaticism and intolerance.

And this can only be done through an effective reform of our madrassa system and its regulation.

This worthy endeavour, attempted (unsuccessfully) by various governments over the past few decades, requires experienced policymakers to come up with a deliberate and comprehensive reform agenda. To begin with, it is important to ask what would be the desired outcome of such reform, and who (within the civilian government) would be responsible for it. Also, since reform of the madrassas’ is already an express objective of the National Action Plan, why have successive governments not made any tangible advances in this regard? What sort of legislative framework can be conceived to achieve this objective? How will the Single National Curriculum feed into and modernise madrassas education? Also, how will the mullahs be taken on board for this purpose? Will they willingly surrender their entrenched fiefdom over the nurseries of religious conservatism?

To better understand these issues, it is necessary to first review the importance of madrassas in our religio-cultural history. In this regard, a perusal of our history of Islamic civilisation bears testament to a time when educational systems across the Muslim world (i.e. the ‘madrassas’) were undisputed cathedrals of religious and scientific advancement.

We are told of a time, at the turn of the eleventh century, when Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and even atheist scholars, from the farthest corners of the world, would brave the harshness of the desert and perilous travel to flock to Isfahan, in order to learn from Ibn Sina himself, who taught at the leading madrassa of his time. There under the tutelage of the great Ibn Sina, they would study mathematics, medicine, and astronomy, in addition to the study of religion and theology. Within the corridors of this great Islamic madrassa, the first human surgery was conducted—at a time when it was banned by orthodox religion. Here under the blanket of the night stars, Ibn Sina and his students calculated the orbital movement of all the known planets of our solar system. They wrote one of the defining treaties on Muslim history, and a philosophical discourse on the meaning and interpretation of the Quran. And this pursuit of knowledge not only unlocked some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, but also converted non-Muslims into the fold of Islam through the sheer glint of knowledge and education.

We, in the present day Pakistan, have regressed an enormous distance from this awe-inspiring Islamic history.

Today, in Pakistan, we have over 30,000 madrassas, with a student enrolment that exceeds 2.5 million ‘children’. These madrassas, primarily registered as NGOs, are regulated by one of five central boards, representing the different sects/sub-sects of Islamic thought including Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahle-Hadith, Ahle-Tashih, and the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan. Generally, these madrassas charge a nominal admission fee and no tuition fee from the enrolled students. Consequently, for the most part, these madrassas attract children of rural and impoverished families, who otherwise are unable to afford any other kind of education.

In line with practices that date back to the very inception of Islamic teachings, madrassas in Pakistan regard the imparting of religious teaching to be the central theme of the education system. However, as a tragic break from the practices of our glorious past, the expansion of madrassa curriculum to subjects other than doctrinal religion, has altogether vanished in Pakistan (with a very few notable exceptions).

Governed, regulated, and funded by different sects within Islam, most madrassas have developed a culture of sectarian divide. The curriculum being taught within any given madrassa reflects a subjective (read: nefarious) interpretation of Islam, which best suits the political and theological agenda of the affiliated regulating central board. This (sectarian) influence colours the manner in which students are taught the ‘history’ of Pakistan as well as Islam, and influences the form of literature (if any) that is permitted—including constricted contours of scientific study, and the restrictive manner in which the human rights discourse is viewed.

Year after year, those who ‘graduate’ from these madrassas go on to serve as mullahs and clerics, in local mosques all across Pakistan. And as a natural consequence, this tainted philosophy of religion seeps into our mainstream culture, when announced through the loudspeaker during a Jummah sermon. And, bit by bit, the moderate voices of Pakistan, who unfortunately remain unschooled in the theology of religion, have surrendered their autonomous space in the temple of God to the vicious agenda of sectarian religious divide.

In this backdrop, it has become essential to reform both the structure and curriculum of the madrassas.

To this end, under the Musharaf regime, several initiatives to reform the madrassas were instituted in the year 2001. In part funded by international donors, a total of Rs. 5.7 billion were allocated to different projects, with the aim of introducing modernity and de-radicalisation into our madrassa culture. Additionally, an ordinance titled ‘Pakistan Madrassa Education (Establishment and Affiliation of Modern Deeni Madaris) Board, Ordinance, 2001’ was promulgated to bring the madrassa curriculum in step with the secular modern education being taught across the public and private schools of Pakistan.

Soon thereafter, the ‘Voluntary Registration and Regulation Ordinance, 2002’ was promulgated in order to control and regulate the admission of foreigners into the madrassas of Pakistan, and to keep a close tab on their activities. Sadly, these initiatives have been vociferously rejected by most of the madrassas, on the pretext that the ‘ulema’ want no State interference in the affairs of religious education.

A fresh endeavour to carry out madrassa reforms must not repeat the mistakes of our past. Our State must realise that promulgation of toothless laws, or the funding of spineless programmes, will not be sufficient in reclaiming the lost ground in the battle between modernity and conservatism. That those who have constructed their fiefdoms on the rhetoric of bigotry and religious violence will not surrender their hegemony over the Divine, simply because we ask them to. That the State’s policy of duplicity, which patronises certain sects and their madrassas, at the expense of others, will not succeed in uprooting the rhetoric of extremism. That the message of peace will remain unfulfilled so long as it is coloured by the green, black, and white turbans.

Any madrassa reform policy must find its way back to Ibn Sina’s lamp, which lit the path of a knowledge revolution in its time. And for this to happen, each of us must play a part in this larger jihad for knowledge and peace. Each of us will have to confront ideas of violence and sectarian religious divide through our words and our actions. Each one of us will have to educate ourselves not only in our respective modern fields, but also in the dialect of Islam that preaches truth and tranquillity before any other lesson. We will have to embody that undying spirit of learning (all learning) that rests at the heart of our religion whose first commandment was ‘Iqra’.

And till such time that we muster the courage to confront the madrassa culture, at every corner, every turn, every local mosque, and every rural madrassa, we cannot hope to redeem the lofty faith that our Creator has placed in us.