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Madaris Reforms: PTI’s Big Challenge

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Muhammad Arshad is a young mufti who has spent over 15 years in religious seminaries to become a cleric. He was 13 when his father Juma Khan enrolled him in a local seminary of Madoki, a village 15km south of Jhang — birthplace of banned sectarian outfit Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

Arshad learnt the Holy Quran by heart in five years and then got admission in Jamia Mahmoodia Deoband Jhang. The seminary was founded in 1980s by SSP’s slain founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and named after JUI-F President Maulnana Fazlur Rahman’s father Mufti Mahmood.

Wafaqul Madaris, the board that governs all Deoband seminaries in Pakistan, conducted Arshad’s exam after eight years of education in 2018 to award him Shahadatul Aalmia degree. The degree course is called Darse Nizami — a Sunni Islamic learning in Sub-continent.

Adopted in India three centuries before and named after its founder and designer Mullah Nizam Uddin, Darse Nizami course includes Arabic grammar, Hadith, Logic and Oratory etc. Students are taught Islamic jurisprudence of Imam Abu Hanifa, one of the four Sunni Imams who explained religious laws in light of Quran and Hadith.

Sunni students are briefly taught Shariah (Islamic laws) of Imam Malik, Imam Shafi and Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal but they are strictly prohibited to study Shia laws, Islamic history and other subjects during the study period.

The eight years course is divided into Sanavia Aaama (initial two years of Darse Nizami), Sanvia Khasa (four years), Shahadatul Aalia (six years) and Shahadatul Aalimia (eight years education for completion of seminary degree).

Arshad was not charged any fee during his schooling period. The Jamia also provided him free food and shelter. And this is not because his father has years-long association with former SSP and now Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, but all students are provided the same facilities.

“Jamia Mahmoodia never demanded a penny from me for my son’s education but what I offered in donation was with my own free will,”  Juma, a wealthy livestock farmer, often makes this announcement in local mosque and appeals people to come forward with their donations to seek Allah’s forgiveness.

Around 150km south-west of Juma’s home in Madoki, Allah Wasaya lives in village near to Jamia Khalid Bin Waleed Vehari. A tailor and father of four boys and two girls, Wasaya has a plan for his kids after class eight: One of his sons will learn tailoring, other will work at a motorcycle workshop, while two will become scholars (Muftis) from Jamia Khalid. He cited example of his younger brother Abdus Sattar who is also a Mufti and teaches in the same Jamia from where he completed degree three years ago.

Mufti Arshad and Mufti Abdus Sattar are Deobandi scholars. They have never met but have the same thinking that Ahmadis don’t have right to work at high posts in Pakistan, Shias are kafirs (heretic), Barelvis/Sunnis are mushriks and biddaties (those who associate partners with the Almighty and make addition by their own in Islamic teachings), and Ahle Hadith/Sunni/Salafi are ghair muqalid (those who don’t believe in laws explained by four Imams) and hence will face wrath of Allah.

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Both Muftis believe in struggle for Islamic supremacy in the world and are ready to die for the cause which they call Jihad. Those who dare to talk against Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are also liable to be killed, according to their faith. They believe they are born to defend “Islamic identity of Pakistan where no secular value and right to debate could be allowed to promote.”

The two Muftis will pass the same to their families, friends, students and people around them. This is not the case of only two young Deobandi clerics but around 40,000 Sunni and Shia seminaries stretched from Kashmir to Karachi produce similar mindsets.

Government departments don’t have the exact data but according to some estimates, more than 3.5 million students in Pakistan are receiving religious education in seminaries run under five federations (Wafaqs), Wafaqul Madaris al-Arbia of Deobandi school of thought being most powerful of them. The other four are Tanzeemul Madaris Ehle-Sunnat (Barelvi school of thought), Wafaqul Madaris Al-Salfia (Ahle-Hadith/Salafi), Wafaqul Madaris (Al-Shia) and Rabtatul Madaris (run under the banner of Jamaat-e-Islami).

These religious schools enjoy backing of some powerful Muslim countries and wealthy individuals across the world. Pakistan’s religious parties also provide shelter to the seminaries and in exchange receive students’ participation in their rallies and political programs.

Although debates and actions to introduce reforms in these seminaries started in early 2000, Pakistan still has not made any progress despite two-decade-long off and on negotiations with the Ittehad Tanzeemul Madaris, the union of five federations. Reforms in the Madaris curriculum, their registration, donations regulations and bringing them into national mainstream through legislation remains a big challenge for every government.

The governments of Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and PPP (2008-13) remained actively involved in talks with the Tanzeem but failed to reach a conclusion.

PML-N government, following the deadly Army Public School (APS) Peshawar attack came up with National Action Plan, a roadmap prepared by the government in consensus with all political and religious parties in January 2015 to curb terrorism and extremism. The government failed to take any practical steps towards Madaris reforms which were the crucial part of NAP’s 20 points agenda.

Interestingly, the government and Tanzeem agreed in 2016 to introduce an act of parliament to bring religious schools in national mainstream but no practical step was taken to this end.  It was then agreed that the country’s educational boards and universities will also hold examinations of compulsory subjects (English, Match, Pak Studies) for the seminary students to issue them certificates and degrees. Madaris were asked to hire teachers of modern subjects. Religious boards were supposed to fulfill all requirements proposed by the government to get legal status of issuing degrees and certificates to their students by conducting their own examinations of modern subjects as well.

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It was agreed that separate committees will be formed for registration of seminaries and for introducing reforms in their curricula. A curricula reforms committee, having representations of the religious affairs ministry, Madaris and provincial governments, was tasked to propose changes in the curricula to counter extremism while a Madaris registration committee was established to prepare a registration form to get credentials of unregistered religious schools.

The two sides also agreed to establish a coordination mechanism between Madaris and the government to ensure joint efforts against terrorism. According to new arrangements, Madaris were to receive foreign financial aid only through the government – a move aimed at ensuring proper audit of their funds.

Despite presence of lacunas in the agreement, it was then hoped that things will improve. But, unfortunately, no progress was seen on the issue. The world largely considers students of the Madaris at a potential security risk. Observers say that students of seminaries have been involved in terror activities and they are brainwashed to be violent during their studies, something contradicted by the religious circles who bitterly oppose state interference in their business. Madaris are not ready to compromise their autonomy.

They are independent schools run under private ownership and they called themselves ‘the biggest NGOs who provide free food, education and shelter to millions.’ On the other hand, the state could not adopt these schools due to capacity issue. Since the previous governments could not find solutions to the end, this is both a big opportunity and a challenge for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government to do something that has never been done before.

Iftikhar Alam is a Lahore based journalist. He writes about religion, politics, culture, agriculture and 1947’s Indo-Pak partition. Twitter: @imiftikharalam

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