The air is humid as the blades of the ceiling fans rotate, giving some respite to the occupants of a mosque tucked away in the back lanes of a muddy village in central Pakistan.
Heads shaven and bowed, several boys in the mosque repeat by rote the verses
of the Arabic scriptures before them. It is doubtful whether they understand
what they read.
The teacher brings the reading to an end, ordering the boys to go into the
village and beg for food for their supper, or better still, money or even
There are thousands of madrasas, or religious schools, in Pakistan where
education in Islamic theology and religious law is imparted to the students.
Their exact number is not known although, according to President Pervez
Musharraf, they total 10,000 -- an understated figure that fails to take
into account the number of mosques offering the same religious education,
A government drive for their registration has not evoked the desired
response, and these schools continue to function with little outside
"We do not accept the government syllabus," says Allah Ditta, a teacher at
the Jamia Qurania Arabia Madrasa in the village of Macchikay in Pakistan's
central Punjab province. "Their syllabus does not make a man religious. The
aim of our religion is to reach god."
Coming from poverty-stricken homes, Ditta's pupils have acquired little
contemporary knowledge. Their future expertise lies in another, more
Madrasas in Pakistan, say critics, are hotbeds of religious fundamentalism
and a training ground for militants. Inevitably, their graduates are blinded
by intolerance, prejudice and backward thinking.
In this regard, experts cite the examples of seminaries like the Darul Uloom
Haqqania near Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province, and patronized
by Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads a faction of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.
This seminary has allegedly served as a training ground for militants now in
Kashmir and Central Asia, and those belonging to Afghanistan's ruling
Taliban militia. It is similar to religious schools sponsored by the
Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami and the
But Samiul Haq has said, "We only impart religious education here. The
students later take up guns on their own."
His views are echoed by the Pakistan president, who in an interview with an
Indian journalist, said, "There is no military training going on in any
madrasa. There may be very few such seminaries where military training is
going on. Keeping arms in madrasas is banned."
Liberals and NGOs advocating greater economic freedom, emancipation of women
and adherence to Western secular norms have come in for considerable flak at
the hands of the clergy who run these madrasas.
Says Mutiur Rahman Nizami, a cleric, "NGOs threaten family cohesion because
they give employment to women and tempt them to disobey their husbands."
A number of madrasas do teach subjects besides religion, including
computers, among them the Darul Uloom Taqviatul Islam, also known as the
"Religious graduates need regular degrees to be able to earn their living in
a respectful fashion and serve their religion with their self-esteem
intact," says Syed Junaid Ghaznavi, who heads the board of governors that
runs the seminary.
He explains how graduates from the madrasa later assume posts as mosque
leaders or schoolteachers. "We also impart education that prepares pupils
for matriculation, bachelors and masters degrees."
"Also, we have evolved a method of teaching that strictly shuns sectarianism
and inter-sect hatred. Breeding hatred only damages religion. Jehad is not
only holy war, it is a struggle against social evils."
Ghaznavi denies the use of physical punishment that madrasas in Pakistan are
notorious for. "This makes teaching difficult," says Ghaznavi. "The students
would run away. We have evolved a persuasive method of teaching."
But not every one agrees that madrasa students get the right training to
join the mainstream. Critics also point to the "concentration camp like"
conditions prevailing in most seminaries where teachers physically and
verbally abuse scores of children.
"They are dungeons run apparently by these men of religion," says social
scientist Amjad Iqbal, adding: "Such inhumanity can only breed criminals."
Indo-Asian News Service
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