A perusal of the history of Islamic civilization bears testament to a time when educational systems across the Muslim world, the ‘madrassas’, were unchallenged 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 harshness of the desert and perilous months long travel to flock to Isfahan and learn from Ibn Sina himself at the leading madrassa of the time. Here 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, even at the 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 the solar system. They wrote one of the defining treaties of Muslim history. They wrote a philosophical treatise on the meaning and interpretation of the verses of the Quran. And through the spread of this knowledge, not only were they able to unlock some of the mysteries of this universe but were also able to convert non-Muslims into the fold of Islam through the sheer glint of knowledge and education.
We, in the present day Pakistan, have travelled an enormous distance from this awe-inspiring Islamic history.
Today, in Pakistan, we have close to twenty thousand madrassas (according to a recent World Bank study), with a student enrollment that exceeds one million ‘children’. These madrassas, registered as NGOs, primarily under either the Societies Act, 1925, or the Trust Act, 1882, 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 Jamaate-e-Islami Pakistan. Generally, as part of their structure, madrassas charge a nominal admission fee and no tuition fee from the enrolled students. Consequently, these madrassas attract, for the most part, 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 (including the time of Ibn Sina), 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 the glorious past, the expansion of madrassa curriculum to subjects other than doctrinal religion has altogether vanished from the present day madrassa (with a very few notable exceptions).
Governed, regulated, and funded by different sects within Islam, each madrassa seems to have developed a culture of sectarian divide. The curriculum being taught within any given madrassa has become the subjective (sometimes nefarious) interpretation of our ‘religion of peace’, which best suits the political and theological agenda of one of the affiliated regulating central boards. This influence colors the manner in which students are taught ‘history’ of Pakistan as well as Islam, the forms of literature (if any) that are permitted, the strict bounds of science and discovery, and perhaps most importantly, the restrictive manner in which the human rights discourse is viewed. Unsurprisingly, the students within each madrassa are taught to view other sects of Islam with suspicion and minorities with contempt.
Year after year those who ‘graduate’ from these madrassas go on to serve as mullahs and clerics, in local mosques all across Pakistan, stamping a bigoted ideology upon their hegemony of religion. As a natural consequence, this tainted philosophy of religion seeps into our mainstream culture, particularly among the impressionable young minds, when announced in a sermon through a loudspeaker during Jummah prayers. And, bit by bit, the moderate voices of Pakistan, who unfortunately have remained unschooled in the philosophy 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 in order to reclaim ground in the ongoing clash between progress and conservatism.
To this end, under the Musharaf regime, several initiatives to reform the madrassas were instituted in the year 2001 funded, in part by international donors, a total of Rs. 5.7 billion were allocated to different projects, with a singular mindset of introducing modernity and de-radicalization into our madrassa culture. To date, however, only about 30% of this allocated budget has been spent on projects aimed at introducing madrassa students to the progress and knowledge of the modern world. Most of these projects, sadly, have met an unsuccessful fate, owing primarily to a nationwide rejection, by the different sects of madrassas, of the reform agenda.
In terms of the law, in August 2001, 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 (through introduction of subjects such as English, Mathematics, Computer Science, Economics, Political Science, Law and Pakistan Studies). 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. All 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.
We must, all of us, wake up to the reality that the promulgation of toothless laws, or the funding of spineless programs 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 patronizes certain sects and their madrassas, at the expense of others will not succeed in uprooting the rhetoric of extremism. That the religion of tauheed (oneness of God) will forever remain divided in sectarian battles till such time there our children are taught to view fellow Muslims as enemies. That the message of peace will forever remain confused so long as it is colored by the green, black, and white turbans. That the modern world will never accept Pakistan in the comity of nations till such time that suicide attacks remain the identifying feature of our divided religious culture.
For us to claw back from here to the path of light, for us to banish the darkness of our days through the lamp of Ibn Sina’s library, for us to reclaim our heritage of peace, acceptance, and progress, each one of us will have to play a part in this larger jihad for peace. Each one 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 tranquility 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 loft faith that our Creator has placed on us.

n The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.