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Analysis
Last Updated: 12/04/2007
Battling against Religious Extremism: The State of Madrassah Reforms in Pakistan
Zahid Shahab Ahmed

It is ironic that in the centralized education system of Pakistan, there are educational institutions with different curricula. This results from the existence of three main educational systems; public, private and madrassahs. The private system is expensive and out of the reach of majority of children in Pakistan. Therefore, public schools and madrassahs provide education to most Pakistani children, where some students are exposed to Islamic fundamentalism. While there was a shift in media and governmental policies towards Pakistani madrassahs after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, it seems as though international interest in madrassah reforms in Pakistan has faded away recently, even though this issue still exists in all its severity as has been clearly illustrated by recent radical and furious actions from the Islamabad-based madrassahs.


Madrassahs (Islamic Religious Schools) are traditional Islamic learning institutions, aimed at building Islamic scholars and leaders. In Pakistan, some madrassahs shifted towards extremism in the early 1980s, due to some external influences. This fed into a culture of violence throughout the country, in the form of national and international terrorism. More recently, the world media started pointing out this problem, particularly after the terrorist attacks in New York (2001) and London (2005). At this time, the Pakistani government began looking at these non-monitored and non-accountable educational institutions. To be clear, only a minority of these madrassahs serve the purposes of religious and political extremists in Pakistan.

The word “madrassah” means “center of learning” in Arabic. (The Arabic plural form is “madaris”, but for the sake of clarity we will use the English equivalent plural form “madrassahs” here). Madrassahs provide free religious education, boarding and lodging. For these reasons, they are essentially schools for the poor. A madrassah student learns how to read, memorize and recite the Qur’an properly. Madrassahs issue certificates of various levels. A madrassah University is called Dar Ul Ulum, (usually having hundreds of students) a primary school is a Maktab, (up to fifty students) and an integrated school with various levels is simply called a madrassah. The graduating students are called Haffiz-ul-Qur’an (those who memorize the Arabic text of the Qur’an) or Qaris (those who can recite Qur’anic verses with proper Arabic pronunciation). And those with advanced theological training are known as Ulema (Religious Scholar).

Following the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan in 1947, a number of Ulema (Islamic scholars) from Deoband (a place presently in India) migrated to Pakistan and established seminaries in the new country. Two of these madrassahs played a prominent role in bringing a rigorous form of Islam to Pakistan: one in Akora Khattak (Darul Uloom Haqqania) and another in the Banori township of Karachi. Along with these migrations, Islam was brought to the areas that now constitute the state of Pakistan by a number of Sufi saints from Afghanistan and Central Asia. The spread of Islam by Sufis was not by the force of arms, but by setting personal examples of piety, simplicity, and respect for believers of other faiths.[i]

The changing face of the madrassah and the proliferation of these schools in Pakistan can be directly traced to Zia-ul-Haq's rule, when the students of the seminaries were indoctrinated with a jihadi ideology and sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupiers. The same war-hardened zealots were used by Zia's military establishment in Indian-occupied Kashmir.[ii] With state patronage in the beginning, madrassahs were established in an unregulated and fertile environment. Therefore, intentionally and unintentionally, the number of these religious institutions started growing.  Quraishi (2002) reports that there are around 10,000 madrassah all over Pakistan offering free education to over a million children who have been neglected by the government’s failing school system.[iii]

Islamic educational institutions have come under intense public scrutiny in recent years because of their perceived linkage to militancy. However, much of the research thus far has relied only on anecdotal accounts and investigative journalism. Interestingly, much of this media coverage has focused on Pakistani madrassahs in particular.[iv]

In the aftermath of 9-11, Pakistanis were shocked by the news that some of the alleged hijackers were identified as British of Pakistani origin. It was also reported that one of them was trained in a Pakistani madrassah. This apparent link between radical madrassahs and aggressive behaviors against Western interests motivated many development agencies to focus on madrassah reforms.[v] It has to be highlighted that some madrassahs in Pakistan have been training militants not only for Pakistan but to be sent to other countries, such as Afghanistan and India.

Unfortunately media propaganda has reinforced a blame which links terrorism and Pakistan’s madrassahs, targeting all madrassahs. In reality, studies have found only a minority of madrassahs were involved in these activities.[vi] We must keep in mind that madrassahs were originally created to transfer the true essence of Islam, so as to preserve this religion by transferring it successfully to the younger generations. The threat arose when some radical groups made their interventions into the education system of madrassahs, the same way some politicians have intervened in public schools, damaging the contents of textbooks and teaching pedagogies.

Overall, only 10-15% of the madrassahs in Pakistan are found to be affiliated with extremist religious/political groups who have co-opted education for their own purposes.[vii] Pluralism and secularism have been neglected by the radical madrassahs in Pakistan, preaching religious extremism and intolerance to their students.

Madrassahs are the only hope of education for economically deprived children, mostly boys. Students between the ages of five and 25 pay nominal fees of 100 rupees per month (approximately one and a half US dollars).[viii] When poor children see their basic needs being fulfilled at the madrassah then it is nearly impossible for them to rebel from the madrassah culture; therefore they can be easily exploited by negative pedagogies. According to a BBC report, people trained in radical madrassahs in Pakistan have also been a part of sectarian violence over the last decade, during which hundreds of Shias and Sunnis have been killed.[ix]

There are five distinct types of madrassahs in Pakistan, divided among sectarian and political lines. The two main branches of Sunni Islam in South Asia, Deobandi and Barelvi, dominate this sector. Ahle Hadith/Salafi Muslims have their own schools, as do the Shias.  The doctrinal differences between these schools often seem irreconcilable in an educational setting. The difference in demographically targeted recruitment and placement between these sects has not been evaluated, and deserves close attention.[x] For example the largest group of madrassahs are of the Barelvi sect, known to be diametrically opposed to the Wahabbi doctrine as propagated by Saudi Arabia (that has received much media coverage), and yet they have been linked to the Kashmiri conflict by the Indian government. Understanding the dynamics of madrassah recruitment, funding sources and curricular differences between sectarian schools is critically important. There has been a long debate over the true meaning of Jehad vs. what the extremists are preaching about Islam. There are dark ideologies of violent minds which are responsible for exploiting religious concepts; and they use faith for the purposes of their wicked missions. Therefore, there is an ideology behind the wrong use of the term Jehad, distorting its meaning are people with skewed imaginations and hatred (terrorists). They are using Islam as a stepping stone. Islam in Qur’an condemns killing innocent civilians and damaging properties in war.  Therefore, terrorism has no place in Islam.[xi] 

Pedagogies, Environment and their Influences

Curricular content plays a crucial role in influencing young mindsets. However, the pedagogies practiced by teachers also ensures that students in fact learn what they are intended to learn. The aim here is to highlight the influences of pedagogies used in the madrassahs. Individual madrassahs decide independently what to teach and preach. Many provide only religious subjects to their students, focusing on rote memorization of Arabic texts. This can even take place to the exclusion of basic skills such as simple math, science, or geography.[xii] As a result, most graduates of these madrassahs do not fit into the larger world, which is progressing at a higher rate, and where the job market demands certain skills.

Research on the reaction of madrassah students to certain issues could be one way to evaluate the influence of pedagogies used in such institutions. In a study[xiii] that gathered views of madrassah students from Pakistan, a fifteen-year-old Afghan refugee, Javed Ullah was interviewed. This student said that he wished to fight against infidels. Another student, Javed, was among 600 students who completed studies in different fields over the past year. Wearing white turbans and dress, all the new graduates looked satisfied and seemed to brim with hope for a bright future. Javed expressed aggression against USA, saying he would like to fight against the Americans. He added, "I can't wait anymore." Furthermore, his Pakistani classmate had a similar desire: “I will dedicate my whole life for jihad. It is compulsory for Muslims. I will kill enemies of Islam”.[xiv]

The definition of Jihad has been distorted by extremists to manipulate young students for their own agendas.  This happens not only outside Pakistan but also inside the country, in the form of violence against minorities and sectarianism. Shia-Sunni disputes in Pakistan also have its roots in the madrassah education system. Pakistani madrassah students with an extremist mission have become the primary soldiers in the internal sectarian conflicts that have reached increasing levels of violence.

There is one big attraction in the pedagogy of madrassahs: it goes beyond theory. Some radical madrassahs involve youngsters in actions, such as protest, lectures, sermons, militancy etc. This is totally different from the formal education system where students remain only in the classrooms. This influences students very quickly and lets them feel that they are doing something and are not idle. The radical groups (madrassah administrations) are following the successful model, used in revolution from China to Cuba, of replacing government institutions with ones linked to their own groups. As people become both more reliant upon and even integrated within private social service systems provided by these groups, their reasons for loyalty to the state are diminished. These new, parallel institutions also provide a means to mobilize against the state by lobbying against state policies. The case of madrassahs in Pakistan illustrates this, with students being exploited and pitted against government authorities as revolutionist and reform agents, while the reality is these youngsters are becoming extremists and terrorists.

Various pedagogies used in madrassahs induce a sense of superiority in the minds of students regarding Islam. This happens at the cost of others, inducing a lack of respect for different beliefs. This results in creating greater animosity toward other beliefs. The ‘infidels’ are defined, discussed, understood, and criticized in madrassahs within the global political frame and in terms of local community relations. This is where the sectarian literature becomes instrumental in Pakistani madrassahs. Examination of the syllabi and curriculum of the Pakistani madrassahs shows that in the name of refutation, potent criticism of the other sects and religious minorities, hatred towards other sect members, and a siege mentality are imparted from the very beginning of the schooling.[xv]

Now let us focus on Jamia Hafsa, a madrassah attached to the central mosque Lal Masjid in Islamabad. It is first time that the girl students of any madrassah came out of their school territories for the enforcement of Islamic law, and many Pakistanis really felt a cultural shock inside their own country. Farhat Taj, a researcher based in Norway, wrote in one of her articles that the girl students of Jamia Hafsa are groomed as wives and mothers for jihadis and suicide bombers. Students of the Jamia Hafsa wake up every morning at five in the morning. They are not allowed any games, out door trips or TV. They live in strict gender segregation and believe in the subordination of woman and man. They study Islam in its most extremis form.[xvi]

External and Internal Donors

The origin of sectarian violence in Pakistan can be traced back to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During that time, American funding and Pakistani assistance promoted the proliferation of a large number of militant Islamist groups and madrassahs in Pakistan. The USA needed the Islamic fundamentalists to 'wage jihad' against the Soviets in Afghanistan and thus provided substantial funding to Pakistan entrusted to its leader at that time, General Zia ul Haq. Owing to their strategic calculations of the times, the governments of Pakistan and the USA neglected the radical ideology and methods employed by the madrassahs’. All of this resulted in the formation of Taliban in Afghanistan, and extremists groups in Pakistan, which led to the production and spread of sectarianism.  Furthermore, each act of sectarian killing provoked a cycle of revenge killings. Civilian governments failed to curb the violence, either because they wanted the militants to fight Pakistan's corner in Indian Kashmir, or because they lacked the will and the strength to do so. That failure in turn allowed the religious militants to flourish and grow in strength.[xvii]  

Who funded madrassahs and why? Madrassahs, mainly are/were funded by the USA and Saudi Arabia. The US government of that time funded an Afghan war against Soviets, and Saudi Arabia funded the anti-Shia Islam in Pakistan.[xviii] Some local philanthropists also sponsored madrassahs. Financial inputs from Zakat and the Islamic ritual of Eid ul Azha can’t be neglected. In principle Zakat is given directly to the entitled individual beneficiary. However in case of the madrassahs, the quantity of funding is decided on the basis of student enrollment, with funds given not to individual students, but to the manager of the madrassah. This system gives an authority to madrassah officials over the use of Zakat money.

It has been mentioned before that the USA has been dominating the decisions of governments in Pakistan, by being a superpower and the biggest donor to Pakistan. Washington has been changing its association with Pakistan from time to time based on its own needs, and that is how the nation of Pakistan is being exploited by outsiders.

The idea of Jehad was incorporated into the Pakistani curriculum after the Afghan war. At that point it suited Washington and their most allied of allies, Pakistan, to encourage and glorify the Mujahideen (the ones who perform Jehad), or holy warriors. A university in the United States was asked to formulate textbooks for Pakistani schools accordingly. Since the Soviets are no more, the Mujahideen have not only mutated into Taliban but have also outlived their usefulness. So the same American university has been given the task of removing glorified references to the Mujahideen,[xix] under the cover of educational reforms. These constantly changing educational interventions have exposed US motives and have resulted in greater resistance from Pakistanis towards such reforms. 

Madrassah Reforms and Recommendations

The Government of Pakistan is taking major steps towards creating an integrated and improved system of national education. This started with the increased allocation of funds in the new budget (2003-2004) for universal primary education and literacy, and was intended to strengthen the existing education system and allow new schools to be opened. This will provide students with an alternative to the madrassahs. The envisioned program aimed at facilitating the introduction of modern subjects such as English, mathematics, Pakistan studies, social studies, and general sciences from a primary to a secondary level. At the intermediate level, English, economics, Pakistan studies, and computer studies shall be made an integral part of the madrassah curriculum. In total, this program expected to reach some 8000 madrassahs.[xx] Moreover, the project for the integration of the religious education system with the mainstream general education system aimed at; establishing and strengthening the lines of communication between the madrassahs and the Government; educating about 800,000 students (male and female) of 8000 madrassahs in modern subjects from a primary to a secondary level, enabling them to reach colleges and universities, and also to impart training to 28,000 teachers to improve and update their knowledge of modern subjects and expose them to modern teaching methods and the use of audio-visual aids.[xxi] Somewhat related to this, the government intends to eradicate sectarianism and extremism in order to develop a tolerant and friendly atmosphere that is congenial for national cohesion and social harmony.

It was hoped that through this new madrassah reform program, the government will be able to address the challenges of extremism and sectarianism in Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Education, has also implemented its somewhat ‘secular’ curriculum in the Qur’anic schools and madrassahs in Pakistan. It is important to mention that not all Qur’anic schools and madrassahs are registered with the Ministry of Education of Pakistan. Efforts are still in progress to register as many madrassahs as possible, and to introduce some secular subjects into that type of education system.[xxii]

The recent proactive actions from the madrassahs in Islamabad, for the enforcement of Islamic law in Pakistan, have once against raised concerns in the government and civil society circles to evaluate the performance of madrassah reforms in Pakistan. As it has clearly depicted that if religious extremism is present in the heart of this country with its spreading influence, then no part of this country is out of the reach of religious extremism. Therefore, hereby, some observations and recommendations are presented, on the basis of critical analysis of the madrassah reform policies of Pakistan:

In order to be effective, the government should strictly monitor the activities of all madrassahs in the country and have close working association with the madrassah administrations. Presently, the madrassah reform programs have to step beyond the limits of merely registering these Islamic schools with the governmental authorities, as for any quick solutions there is a need to develop a code of ethics for all of these madrassahs. And for the development of such a framework there is a need to involve heads of most of these madrassahs.

As madrassah students are currently insulated from the external world, it is essential to connect these madrassah students with children from other schools, introducing them to the issues of the outer world. The availability of media-generated information is also important. Therefore madrassah administration should provide television and newspaper resources to children, helping them to develop critical empowerment.

The government should try and involve all madrassah students in social work, which will induce a sense of universal responsibility in them. It would also be effective for students to explore other religions/faiths and cultures through books, or through direct exposure to those groups. This will help madrassah students in understanding the asset of diversity on earth. There is a need to develop an effective action plan for the madrassah reform program.

Madrassahs in India and Pakistan can help the South Asian peacebuilding process; and a first step towards this mission could be through history. History is known to have been used as a means to poison the minds of youngsters in India and Pakistan. Therefore, madrassahs from both countries can start a combined project with people from multiple religions to create a common history text. By this endeavor, madrassahs will get the opportunity to remain in the lives of students rather than leaving them mid-way towards the shared goal of peace.

Madrassah reforms are crucial for the development and progress of Pakistan, because graduates of most madrassahs (despite going to school for eight years) have no acquaintance with important subjects like economics, science, or computing. While this was not a concern when the schools were fulfilling their intended purpose of training religious scholars and leaders, such restricted education is not optimal for the general populace. As of now, most madrassah students graduate outside the mainstream of the 21st century. Furthermore, the cost of education should be reduced to free, to offer all children the benefit of quality education institutions.




[i] Burki, S. J. “What we teach and how”, Dawn, May 3, 2005.

[ii] Mir, A. (2005). “Test of will”, Newsline, August 2005. Retrieved on January 11, 2006 from http://www.newsline.com.pk/NewsAug2005/newsbeataug2005.htm

[iii] Quraishi, A. (2002). Pakistan’s religious schools under fire, CNN World: http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/south/09/13/pakistan.madrassah/index.html

[iv] Ali, S. H. (2005). Islamic education and conflict: understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan, submitted to Oxford University Press for publication.

[v] Looney, R. (2002). A U.S. Strategy for Achieving Stability in Pakistan: Expanding Educational Opportunities. Center for Contemporary Conflicts, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA.

[vi] Singer, R. S. (2001). Pakistan’s Madrassah: ensuring a system of education not Jihad. Analysis paper. Brooking Institutions, Washington DC.

[vii] Singer, R. S. (2001). Pakistan’s Madrassah: ensuring a system of education not Jihad. Analysis paper. Brooking Institutions. Washington DC.

[viii] Harding, L. (2001). Pupils at schools of hardliners seek war. Retrieved on February 11, 2006 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/pakistan/Story/0,2763,554835,00.html

[ix] BBC News (2005). Pakistan’s Islamic schools in the spotlight. Retrieved on January 1, 2006 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4683073.stm

[x] Ali, S. H. (2005). Islamic education and conflict: understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan, submitted to Oxford University Press for publication.

[xi] Malik, K. “Madrisas and enlightened moderation”, Pak Tribune, September 20, 2005. Retrieved on February 10, 2006 from http://paktribune.com/news/index.php?id=119691

[xii] Singer, R. S. (2001). Pakistan’s Madrassah: ensuring a system of education not Jihad. Analysis paper. Brooking Institutions. Washington DC.

[xiii] Rashid, H. “The ‘university of holy war’. BBC News, October 2, 2003. Retrieved on April 2, 2006 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/3155112.stm

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Riaz, A. (2005). Global jihad, sectarianism and the madrassahs in Pakistan. Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore.

[xvi] ‘Islamabad’s Lal Mosque grooming jihadis: Research scholar’:    http://in.rediff.com/cms/print.jsp?docpath=//news/2007/feb/03pak1.htm

[xvii] Idris, I. (2003). Pakistan’s sectarian menace. Retrieved on March 2, 2006 from http://www.countercurrents.org/ipk-idris210803.htm

[xviii] Kamath, M. V.  “Pakistan: eye of the storm”, The Free Press Journal, April 27, 2003.

[xix] Sarwar, B. “Jehad and the curriculum”, She Magazine, March 31, 2004.

[xx] Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (2005). Madrassah reform in Pakistan. Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Washington DC, USA.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] In Qur’anic schools children learn by reading Arabic and memorizing the Qur’an. On the other hand madrassahs are more of a academic nature, where they make children know about Islam from the Qur’an and  the Hadith (the teachings of Holy Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him), And some of the madrassahs have also introduced other subjects such as science, math, social studies etc.


Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a scholar in international relations and conflict transformation based in Islamabad. He co-authored WISCOMP collaborative study-I, titled “Attitudes of Teachers in India and Pakistan: Texts and Contexts”. Zahid has graduated from the United Nations mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica, with a major in Peace Education.
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