12/04: Inside the Madrassas

I just finished reading an article on madrassas in Pakistan (the main focus) and India (toward the end). It provides an insightful look into the madrassa system. What sets this article apart from others is that it claims that there is little relation between the often demonized madrassas and those responsible for 9/11 and 7/7. This article was written in 2005 and in the following two years, there have been significant improvements regarding education in Pakistan. These improvements include a significant increase in the education budget (evident from the high number of HEC scholarships) and free education up to matriculation in at least one province.

There are often huge debates about these madrassas. From where I stand and view them, I consider them essential considering the environment and dynamics in Pakistan. These madrassas house a huge number of children and young adults who would otherwise be roaming the streets and indulging in social ills. What I would emphasize and support is a more stricter control over the curriculum taught at these madrassas. While steps have been taken in this regard, they have been left hanging and not taken to the conclusion. I fully believe that religious education in itself, is not enough to survive in today's competitive world. Science subjects should be taught alongside religious subjects to enable these students to survive in the real world outside these madrassas. Even the beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasized and stressed the importance of education and knowledge [the acquisition of which should start from the cradle and end at the grave] for Muslims. Who are we to limit the knowledge and education any Muslim acquires [or wants to acquire]?

The credit and all rights for the article lie with William Dalrymple. Without further ado...

Inside the Madrassas

by William Dalrymple

Shortly before four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, blew themselves up in the London Underground on July 7, I travelled along the Indus River to Akora Khattak in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the religious schools called madrassas.

Many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were trained at this institution. If its teachings have been blamed for inspiring the brutal, ultra-conservative incarnation of Islamic law that that regime presided over, there is no sign that the Haqqania is ashamed of its former pupils: instead, the madrassa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, still proudly boasts that whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, he would simply close down the madrassa and send his students off to fight. In many ways, then, Akora Khattak represents everything that US policy makers most fear and dislike in this region, a bastion of religious, intellectual, and sometimes - in the form of the Taliban - military resistance to Pax Americana and all it represents.

A dust storm was blowing as we crossed the Indus just below the massive ramparts of the fortress of Attock, once the great bulwark protecting India against incursions from Afghanistan. The road was lined with poplars. In the distance towered the jagged dragons' backs of the blue Margalla Hills; a graveyard lay to one side, its green grave flags fluttering in the breeze. A few kilometers beyond the river stood a ramshackle line of buildings, all built in a crude modern concrete version of Mughal architecture. Washing was hanging up to dry from the roofs and verandas of the dormitory blocks, and in the main courtyard students were bustling around. All were male, all wore turbans, and all were heavily bearded.

Maulana Sami proved, however, to be an unexpectedly dapper and cheery figure for a man supposed to be such an icon of anti-Western hatred. He wore a blue frock coat of vaguely Dickensian cut, and his neatly trimmed beard was raffishly dyed with henna. He had a craggy face, a large outcrop of nose, and the corners of his eyes were contoured with laughter lines. I was ushered into his office and introduced to his two-year-old granddaughter, who was playing happily with a yellow helium balloon. I remarked that there did not seem to be much evidence of the Haqqania suffering from the crackdown on centers of radicalism promised by President Pervez Musharraf. Sami's face lit up:

"That is for American consumption only," he laughed cheerfully. "It is only statements to the newspapers. Nothing has happened."

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