unnamedBy Mumtaz Ahmad Published: February 15, 2015

The tragedy of Peshawar that resulted in the death of students of the Army Public School has once again brought the issue of madrassa reforms into sharp focus. The National Action Plan, announced by the prime minister to combat extremism and terrorism in the country, makes two points about madrassas: to register and regulate them and to introduce curriculum reform. While very few people will disagree with the first point — the imperative need for the registration of madrassas and transparency of their funding sources — we are not quite sure about the causal relationships between madrassa curriculum on the one hand and extremism and terrorism, on the other.

The debate on madrassa curriculum before the 9/11 attacks focused mainly on issues of pedagogy — its intellectual orientation; the structure of its content; methodology of teaching; and the relevance of the madrassa curriculum to the educational needs of a modern Muslim society. Most critics of madrassa education contended that madrassa curriculum was outdated, narrowly focused on issues of fiqh and its most literalist interpretations, and based on religio-intellectual formulations and controversies that are no longer relevant.

In the context of South Asian Islam, the debate on the continued relevance and efficacy of madrassa education became more intense in the wake of the introduction of modern institutions of secondary and post-secondary education by the British. Muslim reformers and modernists, starting from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, found madrassa curriculum doctrinally rigid, intellectually superficial, organisationally archaic and socially cliquish. They considered the entire curriculum as retrogressive, reactionary and antithetical to the needs of modern times.

While the earlier critiques of madrassa curriculum focused on its out-datedness, its lack of socio-political concerns and its failure to provide religio-intellectual leadership for Islamic revival, the primary emphasis of the post-9/11 debate has been on its alleged relationship with the rise of extremism and militancy. It has become conventional wisdom among a circle of scholars, journalists and policymakers to believe that there is an inherent relationship between madrassa curriculum and religious extremism, militancy, Talibanisation and terrorism.

The core curriculum taught in madrassas of the South Asian subcontinent, known as Dars-e-Nizami, consists of about 80 books in 20 subject areas, broadly divided into: 1) “received” or revealed knowledge (the Quranic exegesis, Hadith, and Fiqh); and 2) rational sciences (Arabic language and literature, grammar, prosody, rhetoric logic, philosophy, dialectical theology, mathematics and medicine). It is important to note that out of the 20 subject areas of the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum, only eight can be considered as solely ‘religious’. The remaining subjects are otherwise ‘secular’ subjects intended as aids to the understanding of religious texts.

A close scrutiny of madrassa curriculum does not, in any way, indicate anything that can even remotely be considered as inciting to, or inculcating, violence and militancy in students. However, like all curricula in religious seminaries — whether Christian or Jewish — madrassa curriculum remains exclusivist and does not entertain the possibility of any doubt in the truthfulness of its theological claims. It is in this sense, at the most, that one can describe madrassa curriculum as ‘extremist’, that is, its emphatic and absolute affirmation of the truth of its own claims. To expect madrassas to subscribe to the ideas of ‘pluralism’ or ‘relativism’ in the context of the belief in the essential truth of Islam would be a sheer anathema to the ulema. What we can expect — and demand — from the ulema is to inculcate a spirit of tolerance for other faiths and different interpretations of religious texts among their students.

In many respects, the current debate on the relationship between madrassa curriculum and militancy is reminiscent of a similar debate among Middle Eastern scholars on what caused the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. At the time, it was argued by a number of scholars that the root cause of the revolution was Shia theology and the political theory that inculcated among the ulema and the faithful the spirit of revolution and the desire for martyrdom. But, as Leonard Binder has argued, it was the same Shia theology and political theory that existed in “good times and bad times”. The important question that needed to be addressed was: why and how a particular theological system that sustains political quietism at one time becomes a source of revolutionary upheaval at another?

It is precisely this question that needs to be raised with regard to the role of madrassas and their curriculum in radical politics and militancy. Our contention here is that it was the constellation of several domestic, regional and international political developments that created conditions that became conducive for the radicalisation of the religious sector in Pakistan which, in turn, employed all of its normative (religious texts) and institutional (mosques and madrassas) resources to advance its religio-political goals. It was in this context that a politically pacifist and religiously conservative madrassa curriculum was pressed into the service of radical political goals. In other words, militancy did not emerge from within the madrassa tradition; it was brought into madrassas by extraneous forces, especially the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s.

It is true that the exclusivist religious discourse in madrassa education draws clear boundaries between what is the truth and what is falsehood. But in ‘ordinary’ times, this exclusivist orientation remains quiescent and is invoked only in scholarly disputations. However, given the ‘right’ configuration of political circumstances, this exclusivist orientation may lead to sectarian violence and hostility towards the followers of other faiths. Scholarly discourses in the exclusionary tradition, therefore, may translate, in certain specific circumstances, into much more sinister religious and political choices by interested actors.

It is also important to note that madrassas belonging to different schools of thought inhabit the same theological-legal space as defined by the Dars-e-Nizami curriculum, and yet madrassas belonging to one particular school of thought have rarely, if ever, been involved in extremist politics, militancy and what has come to be known as jihadi activism. If it is the curriculum and pedagogy of the madrassas alone that produce religio-political extremism, militancy and anti-Western attitudes, then the ‘exceptionalism’ of madrassas belonging to this particular school of thought becomes problematic.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2015