Is the Madrassah a School?

By Anjum Altaf

An argument is being advanced that the madrassah is just another type of school and that the objective of the state is to integrate it into the mainstream of the educational system using the newly announced Single National Curriculum. There is some support for this narrative from those who assert that the madrassah is here to stay and it would be to the advantage of society to facilitate its mainstreaming by offering help in the teaching of subjects like mathematics, English, etc.

There are some grey areas in this narrative that can be best illustrated by considering schools run by orders of other religions. There is no dearth of such schools in Europe, North America and  South Asia.

The most salient point to note is that while these schools are run by religious orders, they are regular schools in every sense of the term. The proof of this assertion is that their product is indistinguishable from that of a regular secular school and is often better in quality. The acid test of the last claim is that non-Christians go to any length to get their children into one of these schools.

Now consider the madrassah in this light. Would non-Muslims send their children there? This is not just a matter of the quality of the education. The question could be sharpened to ask if non-Muslims would send their children there even if the quality was better than that of a secular school?

But the most important question is the following: Would a madrassah accept a non-Muslim child? The answer to this question should tell us that there is something special about the madrassah that keeps it from being a substitute for a regular public school. It should alert us that the madrassah might not be a regular school but rather a seminary aiming to produce a professional starting from grade 1 and not from grade 10 as public schools do with their branching into pre-medicine and pre-engineering.

It is claimed there are madrassahs that require an education upto grade 8 in accordance with the regular public school curriculum before admitting students in the theological stream but it is not known what percentage of madrassahs adhere to this protocol. This information needs verification before a policy of mainstreaming can be finalized.

In any case, the professional that a madrassah intends to produce is an Islamic scholar, not a scholar specializing in the religion of Islam, which is why it would not make sense for it to admit a non-Muslim. On top of all that, it intends to produce a scholar whose talents are devoted to refuting all differing points of view, an aim that is completely contrary to that of a regular school.

To further understand the difference between a school and a seminary, consider some parallels. Conservatories are institutions dedicated to the teaching of music. Imagine a conservatory that admits students in grade 1 with the intention of turning them into professional musicians after 16 years. This seems absurd but in fact a form of this existed in South Asia till very recently with very young children being entrusted into the custody of Ustads for lifelong learning during which the student served the teacher in many other ways as well. There is a lot of nostalgia for this guru-shishya-parampara.

In fact, this system lives on for many others in a country where half the population is below or just above the poverty line. Young children (chotas) are apprenticed to master craftsmen of various sorts to learn their trades. This kind of specialized training, considered quite acceptable, can in no way be considered the equivalent of a school.

Consider along the same lines the institution of the military academy (Kakul in Pakistan; Dehra Dun in India) where students are taught the art of warfare. Now the army in Pakistan has also entered the field of primary education starting schools like the Army Public School in Peshawar. Imagine if students entering grade 1 in an APS were taught only how to fire rifles, throw grenades and practice war games. Would it be considered a school? Would parents wanting a general education for their children admit them to such an institution?

Given the above, it seems naive to think that those running a madrassah need the help of empathetic outsiders to teach mathematics or English which are not rocket science by any stretch. They already teach whatever they feel is needed to produce the kind of graduate they want to produce. The proof of this claim is that many a madrassah graduate is quite up to speed in information technology because the madrassah values the skill to disseminate its message on social media. If a madrassah can impart knowledge of IT it can pretty much do so for anything else it considers useful.

The entire discussion above is to question the facile proposition that a madrassah is just another private school and that parents would be indifferent between the two if they were of equal quality. No verdict is intended on whether the madrassah is good or bad for society. That aspect merits independent analysis. We know that schools of the type mentioned earlier, run by other religious orders inside or outside South Asia, are considered neutral, intrinsically neither good or bad.

The impact on society of any institution depends on how it is used by the state. Think back how the adherents of religious orders in Europe were used during the Crusades a thousand years ago. In this perspective, there is little doubt that the Pakistani state has used the madrassah for political ends to the detriment of society. In this context, one should also wonder why foreign powers have poured huge amounts of money into institutions providing such poor general education to a minority instead of supporting the public schools that cater to the majority of children.

The knowledge that the state has used the madrassah for political ends is small comfort because many would claim, with much justification, that especially post-Zia ul Haq, it has also used the public school system for political ends though nowhere to the same extent. This should alert civil society that the ongoing attempt to bring the madrassah into the public school via the Single National Curriculum is a danger signal that can only be ignored at a huge social cost.

Needless to say, the madrassah has every right to exist, as it has for considerable time, as long as a genuine demand exists for its product and there are parents who wish to enroll their children in it out of considered choice. It remains the duty of the state to ensure that no child goes to a madrassah because of poverty and the lack of an affordable preferred alternative. It is a duty in which the sate has failed abysmally, advertently or inadvertently.

There is no reason to oppose the desire to improve the standard of education in madrassahs as long as there is a demand for it. But it should not be overlooked that there are about 50 million children of school-going age in Pakistan of which about 20 million are out of school. The number of students enrolled in madrassahs range from an estimated 200,000 to a reported upper-bound of 2 million. Addressing the madrassah ‘problem’ by importing it into regular schools would be a case of the tail wagging the dog.

‘Helping’ the madrassah requires the recognition that it is a marginal educational institution with a legitimate function in society but one that has been endowed an outsized political significance embodied in its dharna-power which frequently comes in handy for secular parties. The political issue has to be addressed on its own terms. It is naive to think that curricular tinkering would make it go away.

If the state really wishes to mainstream the madrassah in the social interest, as it proclaims, it can mandate some minimum educational standards for the certification of its graduates. With such a requirement in place, the madrassah itself, being flush with funds, would do what it takes without needing any help from the outside. A very different pathway to rapid improvement of the madrassah would be a requirement for all political office holders to enroll their children in one. Without the one or the other, the big talk is just big talk.

This opinion was published in Naya Daur on September 17, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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