The Call for Madrassa Reforms

The Pakistani parliament has recently been involved in the debate surrounding the reformation of Madrassas in Pakistan. For this purpose, the government has setup an investigation team to examine the existing methods of teaching and curriculum followed by these seminaries. The high importance attached to this investigation stems from the fact that a cleric’s function in a Muslim society is pivotal: They are perceived as guardians of the Quran and Hadith. They derive great authority and following from being the custodians of religious knowledge and have the ability to shape and mould minds and hearts of millions of people. The government felt it is its responsibility to ensure that these sources of authority pass through a certain rational process of education before they practice their clerical functions. However, this endeavor by the government wasn’t taken too positively by some of the religious establishments and was seen as encroachment on their exclusive domain of authority. What they failed to acknowledge was that the government had the right to inspect the functions of these institutions like it had the right to in case of all other units functioning in its domain of authority. If they were to resist and not co-operate, it would amount to challenging the writ of the state and would then have to be dealt with accordingly.

In order for these reforms to make inroads and bring about change, it is absolutely necessary for people to feel, realize, and understand the need for such reforms. Change can only be effective if it is felt from within. If the perception amongst the public is that the cause of reformation is some outside source, the United States, then the true outcome of such reforms cannot be actualized.

How to bring about change in the existing Madrassas? I propose tackling the problem at two fronts. The first important, yet drastic, measure should be the eliminating of the first 12 years of the existing education in these Madrassas and replacing them by a broad-based education system that is no different from what is being taught to all other young people of the country. A child at the tender age of five does not have the reasoning ability to think critically; to entrust him to such institutions with a decision that he is destined to become a religious scholar is a unique and absurd way of creating specialists. Young men and women should get the opportunity to choose independently after they complete twelve years of broad-based education, like they do in any other profession. Why isn’t Religious Studies in Madrassas treated like other disciplines? It is a matter of human rights. The government has the right as well a duty to take away the authority to impart specialist education to make scholars from the age of five years. It is only at the age of seventeen, or after twelve years of broad-based education, that a young individual should be given the right to choose his or her career. If innocent children are being forced to become scholars without them even realizing it, the government should intervene to undo the process.

Another important policy reform should be to ban the affiliation of any religious group to any Madrassa. The labeling of Deobandi, Shia, Brailvi, Ahle Hadith, and Jama’ate Islami Madrassas should come to a stop and the focus should rather be towards imparting higher quality education to the students than on injecting a one-sided point of view that only fuels sectarian bigotry if not tension and violence. Do we allow only Classical, Neo-classical, Keynesian, or Marxian Economics to be taught in institutions specializing in these schools of understanding? Why do we allow such an absurdity to flourish in our religious seminaries? I, therefore, suggest a diverse faculty, encompassing a range of scholars from different religious orientations, exposing a plethora of ideas to the students. This will not only broaden the horizon for these young students but will also allow them to respect and tolerate people with different views and beliefs.

Is it realistic to expect that such reforms would see the light of the day? Are the Madrassas ever going to be ready to accept such proposals? Very unlikely! However, we mustn’t lose hope. If we are able to construct a system parallel to the existing one, I’m hopeful that change can be brought about. If we are able to establish new institutions that incorporate the policies and suggestions that I have put forward, I’m positive that the new crop of scholars produced by it will be more appealing to the masses. With a proper base, I don’t see why the Madrassas won’t die a silent death.

9 thoughts on “The Call for Madrassa Reforms

  1. Haider

    A group of people think that broad based education would hurt the insulation of piety minded group of young recurits that works as a devout moulvis in far of places as a selfless endeavour to rescue Islamic polity (whatever the system of thought it may be or maktaba fikar or madhab) since the 18th century. A rather broad based movement or movements had been started since long, but this may be a wrong assumption taken by those who may think that change may ruin the system instead of improving the quality of education, so fear of eliminating the 12 years of education is there. Question is what we want to produce? “A particular mind set” immersed deep in the struggles among various literary efforts of muslim thought specially in indo pak or a system of education imparting healthy “holistic approach” towards understanding of islam, its history of education, muslim culure, sciences, et all with specialization on Islamic subjects like Quran, Arabic, hadeeth, fiqah, other languages et all. Personally, I believe more emphasis in such kind of seminaries may also be given to the history of Islamic phillosophy & history as an advance subject, with the other subjects of choice too, making whole of scholar for some and for others as diploma holder of scholarship in Islamic learning with credential as young scientist/doctors/or economists/sociologist too.

    (December 13, 2009: Updated comment to fix a typo at the request of the poster: ‘pity’ was changed to ‘piety’ in the first line — Admin.)

  2. Slman Ahmed


    I have had 6 years of education in Madarsa. I have studied in Dar-ul-Uloom. Dar-ul-uloom Karachi now has a school Hira Foundation where O levels and A levels have been started as well. They have plans to open a college as well as a university. Madarsa is the only institution in Pakistan where students from abroad come here and study. Students from Madarsas of Pakistan have progressed to Saudi Arabia and have became very good scholars there as well.

    Dar-ul-uloom has an Islamic Economics institute i.e. Centre of Islamic Economics. It offers PGD in Islamic Banking and Finance. It has strong collaborations with Harvard Islamic Finance Department and other universities abroad. Dr. Imran Usmani, Dr. Ijaz Samdani, Dr. Mehboob-ul-Hassan are all PhDs and a product of Jamia Dar-ul-uloom.

    Students in Dar-ul-uloom are inducted each year after an entry test. Entry test is conducted each year to keep students on their twose to get to the next level. It is unlike in universitiies where an undergraduate automatically gets into graduate program.

    Madarsa Students are taught Farsi, Arabic, Urdu and English as well. Moreover, it has received huge support from general public solely because of their transparent financial and accounting system and the character and nobility of their goals.

    There is no concept of ghost Madarsas. School teachers even when they get paid, do not come to schools and hence the term ghost schools. A hifz-e-Quran teacher gets 4,000/month on average and Dars-e-Nizami teacher gets 6,000 per month on average. But, they give their lives and even prepare food for their students.

    Mannerism and values are best protected by the students of Madarsas and they have progressed to do PhDs and excelled in fields like Engineering, Medical science etc.

    For shortcomings, its part of the game anyways in any field in a developing country. But, Madarsas, by and large have proven to be very good NGOs and educational institutions. Computers and Maths are being taught in most Madarsas now.

    Madarsas have now offered variety of programs to educate masses like summer courses, 2 year courses, 3 year courses (Dirasat). Specialization is also offered in Fiqh, Islamic Economics, Hadith and other areas.

    I hope this is also to be realized than just plain recommendation of overhauling a system which has many merits.

    Does IBA/LUMS approve their course outlines, or disburse the funds effieicntly they receive from HEC on providing scholarships. They are just minting money and selling the brand. If you see the scope of research, its all just directed towards a secular view of life, a fact aptly described by Javed Sahab as well.

    Finally, most of these recommendations were first given by Javed Sahab. His work should have been quoted in reference.

    Thanks for the Article and Recommendations. Many points have merits and we need to discuss them to create synergy.

    May Allah Bless Us All

    Allah Hafiz

  3. Tariq Ali

    I will try to be precise and simple in my response. It’s a known fact that education has never been the priority of Pakistan’s ruling class since its creation for obvious reasons. I believe concerned Pakistanis, in particular those dealing with educational matters, are well aware of the consequences we have been and are facing today because of not making education our top priority from Day One. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we are simply facing the outcome of our own doings. That’s enough about the reality. Now let’s explore the solution.

    I do understand the logic of your perspective but it’s like teaching engineering in a medical school. Logic does not work when the huge majority of a nation is engaged in a survival struggle. I believe it’s time to recognize that we are ourselves our worst enemies. The solution is simple but extremely difficult in the absence of genuine commitment. The government, in the first place, must provide a school facility for every child. It’s a basic right of every Pakistani. And we can discuss “Madrassa Reforms” later. My point is that we must, as a nation, make a commitment to educating every Pakistani first and everything else will fall in place subsequently. Incidentally, the religious class under the prevailing circumstances does understand how to safeguard its interests just like the ruling class of Pakistan. Solutions need the solid foundation of commitment to work.

  4. Aurangzeb Haque

    I must register my surprise over this naïve essay by Dr. sahib.

    Government does not have the right ‘Niyat’ in respect of these institutions. It is not a hidden fact that madrissahs are considered to be a source of unrest which is currently ‘rocking the boat (read status-quo)’. So it is considered necessary to bring these institutions into the ‘main-stream’. Of- course here I need not elaborate what the ‘main-stream’ is, and as such the outcome of such an enterprise.

    In the past there were attempts at madrissah reforms using funding from int’l donors. The programs offered a number of enticements in the form of financial (what else) lures to bring the madrissahs into the so called mainstream. One is reminded of the events that led to the revelation of Surah Kafiroon to the Prophet. It is exactly in the same story being repeated here. Does Dr. sahib seriously think that any good will come out of this?

    Fortunately the divide between the madrissah’s and the forces of status quo has become so wide that it is impossible to bridge it. This is probably a blessing from Allah as it insulates these institutions from being pulled into the realm of what is the current Godless system of organizing things about us. I hope Dr. sahib would not, in his zeal as a reformer, become a proponent of helping such an even to occur. If it happens it will deal a death blow to one of the critical bastions and hope of return to His system in this World.

  5. Khalid Zaheer

    Assalamo Alaikum

    I have been privileged by the comments of some intelligent supporters of the madrassah system. I must admit that I am guilty of what Javed Ghamidi Sahib has been saying for sometime. Thank you for pointing that out! It’s just that most of what I say was learned courtesy my ustadh, so I didn’t bother mentioning it. But you are right in pointing it out.

    It is quite surprising that the comments do not talk about the real problem in the madrassah system I had pointed out. I would have loved to hear that the Darul Ulooms of our country were no more following Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahle Hadith, Jama’at Islami, or Shi’ah points of view. They are simply educational institutions of Muslims for teaching Islam. What the present scenario does is that young minds are informed beforehand what their point of view is. What a stark contrast from the understanding that Islam is the religion of truth which teaches its followers to always acknowledge what is correct even if in doing so they have to say something against their parents or other close ones!

    Should I believe then that the supporters of the madrassah system are satisfied with the present division of religious groupings and that they don’t think it was the duty of an individual, especially a religious scholar, to know objectively what the truth was.

    If in support of the system that preaches blind following of elders one only has to say that it has produced some PhDs as well, I must criticize myself only for not communicating my point well in my blog.

    I don’t mind being categorized as naive if what I am saying is clear and in line with the teachings of the Qur’an.

    I acknowledge that many people associated with madrassahs are honest in their dealings. But they are not prepared to admit for a moment that their elders could have been wrong. Their stubbornness is a part of their faith. I want to clarify loud and clear that this approach is anything but Islam.

    I know that criticizing a system that has millions of adherents is not an easy task. That is why I proposed that we have a parallel system of education which offers to the Pakistani Muslims and indeed to the world at large an alternative approach of providing religious leadership to Muslims. Let other voices be heard and let God decide their fate. Our religious seminaries abhor the kind of freedom of thought and expression that could challenge their traditions. They believe that their traditions are the real Islam even though the real Islam is to be found only in the Qur’an and the authentic sunnah that was transmitted by one entire generation to another.

    Lastly, when one pleads for better health of the members of a society, it doesn’t necessarily entail that their food problems have already been solved. The ailments of a society are not necessarily corrected in a strict sequential flow. There are many ailments threatening our society. They need to be addressed simultaneously. Religious bigotry is one of them. It would a little strange (I don’t want to say naive) to propose that we should address the issue of bigotry after we are done with the issue of poverty.

  6. Aurangzeb Haque

    It is interesting to get Dr. sahib’s response choke full of Galbraithian ‘conventional wisdoms and clichés.

    Saying that there are ‘problems’ in the madrassah system is a non-starter. The madrassah-wallah can come back and say – no, the problems are in fact on your side. He has a point there. Can anyone in his right mind present our mainstream education in the country, as something worth adopting or emulating? It would be the joke of the century if someone was to suggest something like this. I recall when I was involved in implementing devolution reforms in FATA, in the nineties; the first question the tribesmen would place before us is ‘are you going to give us the thanaedar and the patwari. No thank you’. In effect ‘baksho bee billi, choohaa landora hee bhalaa.’ Same here.

    The problem is that reform has to be a two way process. I might like to remind you that ALL IS NOT WELL on the ‘Mainstream’ side of the dividing line. Looked at dispassionately, it is the Mainstream that needs reform not the madrassahs. Unfortunately the mainstream’s enterprise is nothing but to bring ‘the dark other’ to THEIR way of life. As I said earlier, taken mutatis mutandii, Surah Kafiroon (and the events and circumstances that led to its revelation) are an excellent metaphor for this zeal to reform the madrassahs.

    Dr. sahib, please don’t bore us with this (now outdated) debate between taqlid and ijtehad – it is now become a conventional wisdom and a cliché. I needn’t recount that this must necessarily be an internal debate, principally at the individual level, and that too, for those are competent enough to indulge in it. In any case any external advice for ‘change’ particularly when the change requested makes the madrassah-wallah more ACCEPTABLE to the Mainstream, is insulting the madrassah-wallah’s intelligence. This free advice for reform that you are ready to give to the madrassahs so generously; have you thought about giving to the Mainstream? In all fairness, is the need for reform higher in the madrassahs or in the Mainstream? I am sure you can honestly answer this question to yourself.

    Need I continue. I don’t think so. To go back to your original suggestion about reforming the madrassahs – I suggest that it must be supplemented by some suggestions as to how the Mainstream should reform itself. Maybe these will help to resolve some of the economic problems that you have alluded to and the religious bigotry that arises as a result thereof.



  7. salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Dr. Sahab:

    Maulana Mufti Taqi Usmani is the student of Maulana Saleemullah. But, he got more respect than his teacher and is a more respected authority than him. Similarly, on the issue of Islamic banking, we have seen that criticism can be made and it is accepted as such. Increasingly, we are seeing that religious tolerance is coming in. By the way, in a two year Mufti course, other fiqhs are also taught in detail. Infact, if you read the literature on Islamic banking, Mufti Taqi sahab took many views of other Fuqahas other than Imam Abu Hanifa. As for the tolerance, I have seen and observed that true religious scholars not just their followers and adherents do not intervene in one’s personal life and views. TV channels are full of programs where a Shia Alim and Sunni Alim sit together and give their own views. Exceptions and shortcomings do exist as they do among our Al-Mawrid school of thought as well where religious scholars are often made fun of. But, that is definitely not what you and Javed Sahab preach and recommend.

    The people who are not the scholars and just followers and inspired ones can not be taken as representative of any school of thought.

    I hope you agree with me on this.


  8. Saher

    Well I would say that first of all that yes the mainstream education needs to be cured but nowhere is it even close to the madrasah system. They definitely need to be revised asap. About the fact that people by inspired by scholars I don’t understand because for me it really sounds like a matter of convenience that we all do pretty much everyday in every field of life which includes our work life. About what sir is saying that we need to have different opinions I mean why can’t we have people of two opposite views teaching students together. And despite all things said about LUMS, I have been a student at LUMS and yes I have had the privilege of studying from professors who are poles apart and I will cherish that experience all my life. Getting back to a few facts lately research from empirical economics has shown that madrassahs are such a small proportion of the total number of schools in Pakistan. And so far as ghost schools and ghost madrassahs are concerned they do exist and again I am not making any judgment call here, just pure facts from education census that I have had the chance to study fortunately. There are schools with zero enrollment and hence ghost schools.

  9. salman Ahmed


    You confirm that from your reading of a study (the reference to which you have not mentioned), there are ghost schools. What does empirical economics has to do with any of this. I am an Economist myself and fails to understand any logic behind this. Proportion is not under discussion here. It is the presence of ghost madarsas which you are proposing. But, you have not mentioned any ghost Madarsa. Brother, ghost educational institutions exist when the funding provided is public and is not utilized properly and it creates a free rider problem. Madarsa are funded by local people in their local area i.e. they run in private sector not in public sector. That is why, ghost Madarsa are logically not possible. Infact, Khalid sahib is proposing that they be brought in public sector net.

    In specialization, Madarsa students learn various schools of Fiqh and Infact make use of other jurists’ work. In Islamic banking’s academic literature, one can see how much variety of jurists from different schools of thought are quoted. That is, when some unbiased purposeful research is undertaken.

    I am a former Madarsa student, as well as a reader of all books of Al-Mawrid school of thought (and pretty much in agreement with them), I can say that Al-Mawrid school of thought is equally short in giving due credit to difference of opinion, not ridiculing other scholars’ works and not making fun of them.

    Regarding your other points, brother, they are judgements and not based on facts. You can give reference and talk based on facts. I am available to understand your viewpoint if you can convince me otherwise.

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