Life in a madrassa

The economics of religious education in Pakistan

Life in a madrassa
It was a sunny Friday afternoon and a large number of people had gathered at the mosque. Once the prayers were over, they started moving in two different directions. Some were on their way out of the mosque, while the others headed towards a room on the other side.

In this well-furnished room, a middle-aged man with a long black beard with tinges of white in it, was sitting on a carpet, leaning against a traditional round pillow.

One by one, the students of the madrassa moved forward, shook hands with the man, bowed in respect and walked backwards so they did not turn their backs towards him. The man had led the prayers before he came to the room. The ritual took a long time. A large number of students had queued up outside the room.

The relatives and acquaintances of these students had also joined them to show respect to the cleric who they said showed them the path to paradise. It was binding on the students, according the code of the madrassa, to show respect to the prayer leader, who was also the administrator by default.
It was disgraceful to collect leftover food like a beggar

The cleric, who wants to be identified as Mufti Sahib (a title, not his name) feels proud to have a squad of loyal students and followers who always obey his orders and can go to any extent to execute his command. He relishes the feeling of being in command of these “clear-headed” souls and says he had earned this status after a life-long series of trials and tribulations.

In a special sitting with me, he spoke about the life of a madrassa student.

“When I was seven, my parents had nothing to give to me and my eight siblings. We were underfed and sometimes had to sleep hungry.”

One day, his parents decided to get him admitted to a madrassa in a nearby village. It was a hard decision, especially for the mother, who could not hold back her tears when her boy was being taken away. The only consolation for her was that her son would not have to sleep hungry any longer, and he will get religious education for free.

Things were not that simple. Confinement and corporal punishment were quite common in the madrassa. It was difficult for him to follow the stern rules in the beginning.

“We had to wake up very early in the morning,” he recalled. “After the morning prayers, we had to learn verses of the Holy Quran by heart. At around 10am, we were sent out to beg for food.”

It was disgraceful, said Mufti Sahib, to collect leftover food like a beggar. When he refused, he was beaten up by the cleric.

He decided to leave the Barelvi madrassa and join another one of the Wahabi sect after his friend told him they give out free clothes, some pocket money, and don’t make their students beg. When he had his self-respect back, he began to progress.

Thousands of students like Mufti Sahib, especially those belonging to the rural areas of South Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, enroll in such madrassas. The formal literacy rate in these areas is less than the rest of Pakistan, mainly because there aren’t enough schools.

Because of concerns about their links to violent extremism and their sources of funding, the government has recently announced it will register all madrassas, monitor their activities and accounts, and reform their syllabus to remove hate material. While it insists it does not look at all madrassas with suspicion, and praises many of them for their services, it vows to take stern action against those that violate the law.

But little has been done to address the reasons why such a large number of children depend on madrassas for education and sustenance.

I spoke to Asmatullah, a 17 year old boy from Swabi, who lives in the Jamia Muhammadia madrassa. His career goals are clear.  He wants to become a cleric or an administrator at a madrassa, after completing his education. He says he will be able to sustain himself that way and also fulfill his parents’ dream. Asmatullah believes he will also be able to save 70 sinners on the Day of Judgement, and take them along with him to paradise. He wishes to die in Jihad.

Asmatullah is convinced that the downfall of Muslims began when they ignored Jihad, which his teachers tell him is obligatory for every Muslim.

A large number of parents send their children to madrassas due to poverty, but there are some who have other reasons. Mohammad Talha, a financially sound parent, has sent his son to a madrassa to study Dars-e-Nizami, a syllabus he thinks is far superior to the one taught in formal schools.

“I am a great sinner,” he says, “but I am sure my son will rescue me from the fire of hell.”

It is while they are getting their religious education that students begin to learn about the differences in the beliefs of their own sect and those of others. This happens during the frequent debates between madrassas. Debating is an essential part of their curriculum, and that is why they are great orators. Some use this skill against rival sects.

Maulana Abdul Sattar Shakir, who teaches Aloom-e-Asria (current affairs) at Jamia Naeemia in Lahore, says madrassas do not propagate hatred. A number of books written by rival sects contain objectionable and derogatory content, he admits, and although many of these books are banned, the contents are transferred orally and have to be countered.

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Ulema Council, also admits madrassas have been linked to terrorist activities in the past, and says the government will have to take serious, stern action to implement its National Action Plan against terrorism and extremism on madrassas.  “There should be a ruthless operation against clerics who issue decrees asking their followers to kill people after calling them infidels,” he says.  Ashrafi also thinks there is a need for curriculum reform.

There is a lot of stress in the current madrassa syllabi on confronting dissenters and proving them wrong, says a police officer who has looked at the matter closely. The more well-versed and articulate a madrassa pass-out is, the more are his chances of success in life, he says. In rural, semi-urban and even urban areas, bashing other sects is the only means of gaining popularity, and earning money.

This entire economy of religious education and employability will have to be changed in order to get the desired results, he asserts. “And one way to achieve this end is to impart employable vocational and technical skills to madrassa students so that they can find respectable jobs.”