Islam in the 21st Century

A special report in The Nation brought the forgotten issue of Madrassah Reforms back in focus. As it turns out, like on other points of the National Action Plan, the government has been sleeping on it as well. The last meeting it had with the representatives of seminaries was in April and it has not got back to them since. These reforms are crucial for winning the long-term war against pseudo-Islamic extremism and militancy, but what does our oh-so-democratic government care.

This is not only about rescuing the 3.5 million children being brainwashed in more than 35,000 seminaries as we speak. Madrassah Reforms should be viewed in the larger context of a national initiative for reclaiming our religion from the clutches of professional peddlers of faith, the maulvis and maulanas in our midst. How can we allow these donor-driven clerics with their medieval syllabi to define Islam for us in the 21st century? Surely, we could do better than that.

Friends in their secular bubble think the solution to extremism is as simple as taking religion out of the public discourse and making it a purely personal matter, as if with a magic wand. Outside in the real world, more and more people are turning to religion to make sense of lives hollowed out of meaning by hyper-materialism. In a world being divided on religious lines, they are turning to religion for identity. The fact is that, whether we like it or not, religion is a growing part of public discourse and it must be addressed.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with religion itself, or the fact that an increasing number of people are turning to it. It is the distorted discourse around religion that makes it a problem. The religious sentiment could be channelized in positive ways with enlightened interpretations and it could contribute to making our world a better place but something completely opposite is happening. It is amazing that though we celebrate Allama Iqbal as our national poet, we have outsourced the public discourse on Islam to professional peddlers of faith, people he warned us about, people even Quran clearly warns us about.

As it is, mega-bucks are being spent to hijack the message of Islam, to make it into a tool of retrogressive politics and imperial wars. These billions and trillions are spent not only to arm and assist pseudo-Islamic militants around the world, but also to shape mindsets and to create an enabling social environment for perpetrating evil crimes in the name of Islam; to spawn brainwashed young men who are more susceptible to recruitment in militant outfits and to train others to see these proxies as heroes fighting for Islam.

Let us not forget that back in the 1970s, the CIA worked with the Saudis to fine-tune the syllabi for seminaries sponsored by Arab monarchies that cropped up all over Pakistan in large numbers at the time. They were to serve as factories of Afghan mujahedin and their sympathizers. The US has since used the pseudo-Islamist proxies to advance its geopolitical and military objectives in Kosovo, Chechnya, Libya and Syria, to name just a few.

More recently, on his trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. Given the long history of their partnership in spreading extremist ideology and given the fact that they continue to spawn pseudo-Islamist proxies and play them as pieces of chess to destabilize countries and change unfavorable regimes, it was interesting to say the least. The two main sponsors of pseudo-Islamic extremism and militancy are clearly not done with their dirty tricks. Will we be duped again?

The so-called Afghan jihad ended decades ago but when it comes to our seminaries, we haven’t moved on. New ones have joined in with their intolerant and violent brands sponsored by various sects and schools. The maulvis and maulanas still enjoy a virtual monopoly over religion. Even educated Muslims defer to them on religious matters and are afraid to question their views and authority. The government refuses to rein them in.

At the last meeting on Madrassah Reforms in April, the government seemed more interested in appeasing the maulanas rather than holding them to account for what they teach our children and how they fund their establishments. The malvis and maulanas refused to bring their curricula and funding under any meaningful regulation. After all, the madrassahs are their bread and butter. They would not let go of their profitable authority so easily. The government will have to take a tougher stance.

When it comes to reforming the madrassahs and what they teach to our children on the behest of their sponsors, we must look at the broader picture. It is not just the 3.5 million children who are being brainwashed in intolerance and violence as we speak. These children are being trained to become maulvis and maulanas and tell people what God wants. And what would they tell them? Should we not care about what they are being taught?

In place of the clear teachings of Quran, the seminaries focus on imparting convoluted sectarian dogma to their students. Rather than teaching them to study the Quran with a view to understand it and seek guidance from it, they teach them to parrot divisive trivia derived from selective jurisprudence from medieval times as the absolute truth. They teach them to see Islam through the lens of secondary sources and controversial traditions, superstitions and ignorance. It is amazing that we allow the maulvis and maulanas in our midst to monopolize our religion even as we proudly claim that there is no concept of clergy in Islam.

The madrassahs need to be reformed in a meaningful way and turned into public schools where the unfortunate children from poor families enrolled there are taught skills to become productive members of society rather than add to maulvis and maulanas in our midst. But before that, what we need is a social revolution where educated Muslims turn to Quran themselves to seek guidance rather than relying on maulvis and maulanas to tell them what God wants.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be contacted at

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