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Madrassa Reforms And The Single National Curriculum

Amid the debate on Single National Curriculum, an initiative of the federal education ministry aimed at ending educational apartheid in the country through a uniform nationwide syllabus, the madrassa education has also come into the limelight. But the debate surrounding the education system in madrassas is filled with longstanding prejudices, mainly because of a lack of knowledge and gaps of communication.

Some critics opine that the SNC is designed in such a way that it will only serve to increase extremism. They have reservations over the Islamic literature introduced in the books. Such critics, who deem Islamic literature as the cause of extremism and intolerance, seem unaware of the dynamics of the subject. Most of the information they have about madrassas is from uncredible sources.

Consider the argument that the reforms aimed at improving madrassa education in Pakistan haven’t yielded any good results. However, this is easily explained: it isn’t so much a fault of the intent behind madrassa reforms than a failure of governance and management which has kept these reforms from bearing fruit. For example, during Musharraf’s regime, the ministry of religious affairs was dealing with madrassas affairs. When Pakistan People’s Party’s government came to power in 2008, the responsibility was shifted to the Interior Ministry. Later the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s government again handed it to another body: this time, the National Counter Terrorism Authority, the country’s counter-terrorism body, along with the education ministry. Such shifting of madrassa affairs in between ministries have undermined the progress of madrassa reforms badly. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s government and establishment have utilised their efforts in affiliating madrassa with the education ministry.

Next, consider the confusing statistics about the number of madrasas in the country. This confusion largely stems from the fact that people are unsure whether to include local mosques in the list of madrassas together with the larger, more established facilities.

Official statistics in 2017 showed that the number of madrassas in Pakistan was 32,272, while according to the five madrasa boards, the number was 30,286. Similarly, a total of 2,257,253 students are enrolled in the madrassas, according to government statistics while madrasa boards say that the number is 2,545,341. Such disagreements and lack of consensus on statistical data add more to the misunderstanding about madrassas in the country.

In Pakistan, there are five major boards of madrassas that register the religious seminaries on the basis of sects and schools of thought. If we split the number of madrassas on the basis of sect, 86 percent of the madrassas are registered with Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan, a Deobandi madrassa board.  Tanzeem Ul Madaris Ahle-Sunnat Pakistan (Barelvi) has registered seven percent, Rabita Ul Madaris Al-Islamia Pakistan (Jamaat-e-Islami) has 3.4 percent, Wafaqul Madaris Al-Salafia Pakistan (Ahle-Hadith) has 2.1 percent and Wafaqul Madaris Al-Shia Pakistan (Shias) have a mere 0.7 percent. The government’s setting up of these boards on the basis of sects clearly disregards the argument that these differences will elevate sectarian violence. When I studied the curriculum of all these boards, I found that there is a lot of similarity between their curriculums and if the government had made an effort at that time to encourage the establishment of a unified platform, the result could have been larger integration between the different schools of thought.

The curriculum taught at madrassas itself is the subject of intense debate and criticism. Many contend that the syllabus taught at the madrassas promote extremist ideologies. However, most people making such assertions are unaware of the fact that the madrassa syllabus has a lot of diversity. For example, madrassa students use the Arabic dictionary of a Christian orientalist Loes Moluf. Also, in the Arabic classic literature, the poetry of Al-Mutanabbi, who was an alleged blasphemer, is taught. The students also keenly study the works of Omra-ul-Qais who was an atheist. After 1857, most of the madrassa curriculum books were published by Munshi Nawal Kishore, a Hindu publisher from India. In fact, for research purposes, I closely studied the curriculum of Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania, a Nowshera-based religious seminary that is notorious for being the nursery of Jihadist Ideologies, and came across some shocking facts about the curriculum. The syllabus of ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Logic’ being taught there contains at least seven books, mostly written by Shia scholars!

The modern madrassas curriculum was devised by Mulla Nizamuddin Sihalvi in 1748. Students of all sects used to study in his madrassa. Having a common origin, today’s syllabuses of Deobandi and Barelvi madrassas have an up to 95 percent similarity rate, while those of Shia and Sunni sects are about 45 percent similar. It’s unfortunate that today Sunni students are unable to get admission in Shia madrassas, while Shia students can’t enter Sunni madrassas.

Given these observations, it should be clear that the rectification of the current state of education in madrassa depends largely on serious and diligent reforms. Every wifaq (madrassa board) has a curriculum reforms committee but it needs the government’s support to build its capacity. Unfortunately, every government fails to engage the wifaqs meaningfully, leaving successive governments no choice but to restart the process all over again. However, a lot can be done even now:

1- Offering jobs to madrasa graduates, and recognising their qualifications, will be a positive step towards a major change. The madrassa degree isn’t accepted by the provincial government as of yet. The result is that madrassa students don’t get government jobs.

2- There is a need to design online courses for madrassa students and the setting up of online exams.

3- Some madrassas have started higher and secondary education affiliated with provincial universities. By taking this model further, some large madrassas can also be converted into university and postgraduate colleges.

4- As per the agreement with the government, the government should start providing technical education to madrassa students by establishing technical institutes and vocational centers in the madrassa.

5- The madrassa registration process should be completed immediately.

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