Inside Pakistan’s Madrasas

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 1

In the northern hills of Quetta, girls from the ages of eight to their early twenties study the holy Qur’an in Madrasa Tul Banat (literally, an all-girls seminary), the oldest religious school for girls with nearly 900 students. Established in 1989 by a graduate from Cairo’s infamous Al-Azhar University, Qari Abdul Rashid opened the seminary to provide predominantly Afghan girls more than just a free Islamic education. “When I looked around me, I realized that there was nothing for these girls,” he said. “They were not permitted to go outside their homes, even if the school was in front of their house. When the madrasa opened, I convinced the men—mostly of Afghan origin from the Pathan tribe—to allow their girls to study behind closed doors.”

An encounter with these girls is like revisiting a period in ancient history. Some girls from distant villages never leave the seminary, except for the two Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. They also receive room and board, in addition to an education in Islam, which includes memorization of the Qur’an for younger girls, and lessons in history and the Arabic language for older students. Not every girl lives in the compound, nor is from a poor family—a Western misperception. Many students come in vans provided by the madrasa and some belong to affluent families, including the daughters of Quetta’s high-ranking officials and army officers. The Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University, Dr. Qari Abdul Rasheed, dispelled the myth that madrasas are factories for the poor. He insisted that the hostel for Karachi’s Dar ul-Uloom seminary is “not below a four star hotel.” Rasheed indicated that at least 25 percent of all madrasa students are from well-to-do families, which contradicts the picture of madrasas as “free” educational institutes for boys and girls living below or at the poverty line.

Most of the money that supports madrasa activities comes from the “public.” The public could include several sources, from the richest families of Pakistan to local organizations. As one Deobandi madrasa leader explained to me, “we offer free education to the public, and receive monthly gifts from the parents. We accept whatever the public wants to give.” The public gives freely to the madrasas in the form of charity, which means that madrasas seldom have to write it down. Accordingly, madrasas are not held accountable by the government for gifts they receive. This holds true even for madrasas who have registered with the Pakistani government in support of President Pervez Musharraf’s new madrasa reform law.

What these students do with their religious education is a personal or family decision. Girls in Quetta and Rawalpindi, a congested town outside of Islamabad, reveal that after graduation they intend to open madrasas in their villages to teach others what they have learned. Whether the more conservative men will allow the female graduates to continue their education is a separate issue, but most girls (and boys) seek to establish their own Islamic networks and schools. Others have high hopes. For example, boys in the Dar ul-Uloom Naeemia seminary, one of Karachi’s largest, aspire to be Islamic scholars (‘alim), while others understand the need for secular education. A senior student and manager of the computer lab at the Naeemia School is pursuing an advanced degree in computer science at Karachi University.

When asked about the madrasas’ links to al-Qaeda—a common Western fallacy and accepted truth—every imam or hafiz (one who has completely memorized the Qur’an) boldly told me, “there is no link, and if there is, where is the proof?” A teacher at Karachi’s Dar ul-Uloom Amjaddia madrasa, a boys school with nearly 1,000 students, insists that “international propaganda wrongly accuse Pakistan’s madrasas of supporting terrorist networks, and we have no resources to defend ourselves.” Absent evidence from the U.S. government, teachers and students alike refuse to accept that violent jihad is propagated behind closed doors of the madrasas. That is not to say that jihad is absent from the curriculum. “It is in our religion,” said one madrasa leader, “but it is defensive jihad—the same jihad that we fought against the Soviets with the support of the Americans.”

Conspiracy theories abound; it is not difficult to understand why many seminaries respect bin Laden, though reject his call for arbitrary violence. Al-Qaeda expert and talk-show host in Islamabad, Hamid Mir, says that “bin Laden is the hero by default,” or according to a madrasa manager from an Ahl al-Sunna School, “he is the lesser of two evils.” Many madrasas in Pakistan, particularly those in the Northwest Frontier Province, blame the U.S. for failing to secure Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and argue that U.S. foreign policies, such as the war in Iraq, continue to fuel the fire for jihad.

The other problem lies with definition. Several religious leaders contend that terrorism has different meanings for different individuals and states. The chairman of the national madrasa society declared, “reactionaries are called terrorists, but freedom fighters are not terrorists.” He, like others, also says with a wry smile that Al-Qaeda and the jihadi organizations in Pakistan are the creation of “agencies,” and dismiss the U.S. Department of State’s list of terrorist organizations, of which Al Rashid Trust and Jama’at al-Dawa, formerly Lashkar e-Taiba, are included. The general argument offered is that “there is no proof.”

The danger in Pakistan is that everyone acknowledges that the various jihadi outfits, most of which the government banned after 9/11, continue to exist. With only a name change, their central leadership and organizational structure remains. Why they exist and how they garner support is a subject of debate among researchers and concerned citizens, but a problem no one can resolve. According to the leader of the Naeemia School, the only solution to eradicating terrorism is “to negotiate with the Muslim world,” but what that involves is an open question.