Can fundamentalism in Pakistan be traced back to madrassas?

Published: July 8, 2015

Pakistani students of a madrassa at their seminary in Islamabad. PHOTO: AFP

This photograph shows students of a madrassah or Islamic school attend a class at their seminary in Islamabad. PHOTO: AFP Pakistani students of a madrassa at their seminary in Islamabad. PHOTO: AFP

In Pakistan, certain madrassas have a knack for producing terrorists. The government is aware of this yet it does not have a consistent stance regarding such madrassas. After the Peshawar school attack in December, the government made it a priority to regulate madrassas, but when the information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, spoke out against them last month, not a single member of government publicly supported him.

This conflicting treatment did not happen overnight. Fundamentalism in Pakistan can be traced back to Former Prime Ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq who wanted to ‘Islamicise’ the state. Zia’s 1979 education policy highlighted the priority to reorganise the state curricula around Islamic thought, which still permeates the textbooks used today. This is inconsistent with founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s dream for Pakistan: all citizens, irrespective of their faith, should be treated as equals. On the contrary, Islamisation has empowered radical mullahs and enabled certain madrassas to fuel extremist ideology.

In 1947, when Pakistan was created, there were only 189 madrassas; there are now an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 madrassas in Pakistan educating an estimated 1.8 million to 3.5 million children (exact numbers don’t exist as not all madrassas are registered). An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of madrassas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups but as per the government, only 3 to 4 per cent have links to terrorism.

The majority of madrassas follow the Deobandi doctrine of Islam — an orthodox Sunni school of thought heavily influenced by Wahhabism. Most organisations that adhere to Deobandi — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Majlis-e-Ahrar, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Taliban — have been proven to be part of terrorist activities.

Pakistani author and physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote:

“The greatest threat to Pakistan may be its abysmal education system.”

Madrassas are the most accessible source of education for many children, especially families in rural areas where public schools, if they exist at all, are under-resourced and under-staffed. Madrassas provide families with a solution; they often feed and house the students and tend to be free of cost. Even the 9/11 Commission found that many madrassas are “the only opportunity available for an education”. The state’s inability to provide accessible education to the general public is the crux of the problem.

Examination of madrassa curriculum incontrovertibly reveals intolerance and speaks volumes about the direction that Pakistan is headed. Instead of studying math, science, writing, and reading comprehension, students spend large portions of their days memorising religious materials, chanting war songs, and venerating the state. Religious doctrine even permeated the traditional material students did learn — science, geography, English, Urdu. A US diplomat commented saying:

“Children [at radical madrassas] are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy.”

Such madrassas, teaching a distorted version of Islam, indoctrinate children to discriminate against non-Muslims, raising children to classify non-Muslims and Muslims outside their sects as kafirs (infidels), mushrakeen (pagans), dhimmis (non-Muslims), murtids (apostates), and enemies of the state. As a result, many of these madrassas produce graduates who lack critical and analytical thinking and are intolerant to others; graduates who go on to become maulvis who issue irrational fatwas and spew hate speech against minority groups.

Islam is a religion of many sects and exposing children to only a narrow mind-set strengthens the breeding ground for future intolerance and an endless cycle of sectarian violence. This problem runs deeper than sectarian violence; it impacts all minority religious and ethnic groups as well as the majority of Pakistan. Militant madrassas have educated Umar Mansoor, the mastermind behind the Peshawar school massacre, as well as Taliban apologist and hate speech aficionado Abdul Aziz.

How can Pakistan tease out the religious biases so deeply rooted in its society when many madrassas perpetuate them? Attempted many times, madrassa reform remains a myth. The government has taken little action to regulate madrassas linked to terrorism. The 2006 Madrassa Reform Project aimed to reform 8,000 schools by integrating a balance between formal and religious education and expanding curricula to include the teaching of social and hard sciences, religious tolerance, and human rights. Only 6.3% of the targeted madrassas were reached. In 2008, the education ministry reported it had only spent $4 million of the allotted $100 million for madrassa reform over the past six years. There has also been talk of a “madrassa reform committee” but little has been said about implementation.

One of the clauses from the National Action Plan (NAP) that debuted in December states:

“The registration and regulation of seminaries (madrassas) is being planned.”

And just this month, the Sindh government stated it will crackdown on 48 madrassas involved in terrorism. It may sound like progress is being made but these madrassas that have been reached are only a few of the thousands of madrassas that exist.

Thus far, any substantive, permanent reform has yet to occur. Government authorities hesitate to take action out of fear of backlash from religious authorities, and as a result, have institutionalised the madrassa system. Rubina Saigol, an education expert, said:

“I have been arguing for the longest time that in fact our state system is the biggest madrasa.”

But in order to end extremist indoctrination, stop the spread of sectarian violence, and counter Pakistan’s narrative of violence, the state must provide proper alternatives to madrassa education and regulate the curriculum. By devoting more money and resources to the education system, Pakistan can break its path of extremism and violence. Without these critical reforms, Pakistan is nothing more than an fundamentalist state that does not protect its minorities — a far cry from Jinnah’s founding vision.

This post originally appeared here

Dania Ahmed

Dania Ahmed

A media analyst on counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategies for Pakistan. She is graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. She tweets @daniahmed_ (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Amrutam Aparya

    Wonderful article. Kudos to Dania. Will the authorities wake up to the reality and stop all such madarassahs which teach hatred and terrorism on their track. Last week a state in India (Maharashtra) conducted a survey to identify “non-School going children, rightly declared the “students’ of Madarassahs which do not offer formal education also are classified as Non-school going children. There is a hue and cry from certain Muslim organisations. I hope the Government stands firm on this and encourage all Madarassahs to offer formal education also.Recommend

  • Critical

    Recently,Maharashtra govt decided to derecognize those religious institutions which dont teach Math,Science.. The Vedic schools were ok with the move but as usual the madrassa promoters were outraged…

    owaisi as usual started shouting about religious freedom etc even though he was educated in London..

    I was educated in a convent school where praising Jesus was our school prayer and Bible studies were a subject and neither me nor my parents had any issue as they were providing the best education in my area and it enabled me get into a top college..

    what job can you get after finishing course in madrassa without math and science???

    Would Azim Premji,the richest muslim in India,who has millions of educated people working under him hire madrassa graduates??? or will Mohammed Younus,the CEO of Cipla?? Leave all of them,will the Gulf countries hire madrassa graduates for jobs which require technical skill??

    Muslims cry that they are being underrepresented in govt jobs and IT companies but they dont understand that noone wants technically incompetent resources .. The sooner Muslims understand they will develop better but they always have these politicians and mullahs who want to keep them uneducated so that they can use them as vote bankRecommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    Madrasas are the symptoms, not the disease. You say in your article that there were 189 madrasas in 1947 which have increased to between 20,000 and 40,000. Why? The real disease is the ideology of Pakistan. The ideology that states that Muslims cannot live as a minority. The ideology that defined Islam as a state religion, disenfranchising all the non-Muslims. When the state starts sponsoring religion there is competition to define who represents the true religion. Initially the Shias, Ahmedis, Barelvis were accepted as Muslims but now they are considered apostate. Irony should not be lost that Quad-E-Azam would be considered apostate today. You can close a few madrasas, proscribe a few groups, punish a few hatemongers but the faulty ideology will keep giving birth to new ( and possibly more radical) ideologies.Recommend

  • Justin

    Talk about skewed analysis. No wonder the quotes are from Hoodhboy, US diplomat and Rubina Saigol. I am sure they are well acquainted with the madrassa curriculum and what goes in an average madrassa. How about counter factual info for objectivity?Recommend

  • Parvez

    Excellent……..what needs to be done, needs to be done…..what up to now seemed to be lacking was the will to do it….and even now exercises like the NAP has proved to be an exercise of ‘ look busy but really do nothing ‘ .Recommend

  • BlackHat

    There are madrassas in many other countries. Many of them teach some useful subjects at a rudimentary level, not just religion. Obviously, no one with madrassa education has ever been a rocket scientist or a Nobel Laureate. Though most of them can not be productive citizens, they don’t become terrorists. I suppose it just depends on national agenda – like population control!Recommend

  • Jasvinder Singh Marwaha

    One of my Facebook friends has asked the following questions :

    “Have you ever seen madarsa passout youths indulging in hooliganism, rampaging, ransacking, urinating in open, hurling foul-mouthed abuses in the streets, or eve teasing !?”

    Request response. In India, mostly the answer is ‘no’.Recommend

  • Union Jack

    Every country loves their founding nation and cannot tolerate criticism. Hence I will allow you to research on “Direct Action Day” called by Jinnah. Hopefully the article is not blocked in Pakistan. This will give you more insight to the genesis of the violent mindset in current day Pakistan. Zia was last nail on coffin already laid down by Jinnah in 1947.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Of course this is not news,notable scientist Pervez hoodbhoy said ‘madrassas in Pakistan are bomb making factories’

    Even analysts like Christine fair and Ayesha siddiqa have said madrassas produce nothing but a jihad mindset.

    With 0 scientific progress and a literacy of just over 50% No surprise that Pakistan is well on its way to becoming a failed stateRecommend

  • Ot

    Totally rubbish ….
    Whatever written reflects writer’s ignorance about madaris ….Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Right on. Absolutely critical to have a uniform system of education for all children and break this perpetual cycle of violence. Our future depends on it. Need more such blogs and discussions.Recommend

  • Jagmohan Trivedi

    Improvement in madarsa education system is possible through……..
    a] let government take madarsas under its control and also financial assistance
    flowing in from international and domestic sources and contribute difference from
    its own budget.
    b]introduce modern subjects with core religion content,exclude hate coontent.
    c]Existing teachers and maulvies mind set may be reoriented by refresher courses.
    d.]New teachers may be provided to teach new subjects.
    e] Lodging and boarding to poor students may also be given.
    f] senior class students may be given work based training,like earning while learing.
    g] Last but not the least….government must decide beforehand that madarsas are
    not source of strategic assets.Recommend

  • saswath

    Sorry, there are many indeed, lets remind our-self for 1 only this time – Mumbai Azad maidan incident, protest march against a cartoon published in another country. They destroyed many public properties.Recommend

  • saswath

    Sorry, there are many indeed, lets remind our-self for 1 only this time – Mumbai Azad maidan incident, protest march against a cartoon published in another country. They destroyed many public properties.Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    ““I have been arguing for the longest time that in fact our state system is the biggest madrasa.”

    Best line ever heard/read so far, which describes perfectly the inherent problem in Pakistani system. The discrimination against minorities on religious grounds starts right from the constitution.Recommend

  • rationalist

    “Can fundamentalism in Pakistan be traced back to madrassas?”

    That is a very narrow and superficial question just like the person who misses the forest from the trees.

    Pakistan’s religious fundamentalism can in fact be traced back to the Pakistan Movement and the Two Nation theory which defined Islam as the defining ideology. The rest, including madrassas, ar just mere inevitable consequence of the underlying embrace of the religious ideology of the new nation. So, why blame Madrassas alone? Why not dig deeper into much broader reasons and atavistic malaise of the seeds that were sown over 100 years ago?Recommend

  • seismann

    And you will send your children to madaris?Right!!Recommend

  • Gratgy

    Just one exampleRecommend

  • Alann

    Can anyone see the difference between the two nations formed on the basis of religions: Israel & Pakistan?
    => One has produced researchers and scientists, while the other has produced mullahs and maulvis.
    => One enabled its citizens to move up status-wise in the economic world and be a respectable figure with things like morals, dignity & honour, etc. While the other enabled its citizens to move up status-wise up amongst the militants of the world, a large chunk of whom live within its own boundaries.
    =>One is fast developing and trying to move in the future faster than most of the countries in the world. While the other is fast progressing backwards towards the 7th century, much faster than even Saudi Arabia.

    P.S.: If anyone were to reply to this, please don’t bother talking about India’s rapes and poverty figures which you magically gathered from thin air and your madrassa books. I have heard them many times so far, with different numbers & %ages every time.Recommend

  • indi

    How low one can go.These religion brainwashed much can never come out and join the mainstream.Thse scums need good dose of danda.Recommend

  • abeer

    It seems to be that you take Islam as taboo.terrorism has its roots irrespective of madrasaa or religious roots.there are many incidents in usa and other countries of mass shootings.will you hold any institute responsible for that?if you have so much complaint about learning religious books in madrasa ,to how much extent you believe in Qura’n and know the reward of memorizing it?it all deals with faith no are right that institutes should be reformed including subjects as islam urges us to get both worldly and religious knowledge. Lashkar e taiba,sipahe sahabaa are such a group who destroy peoples’ safety and dignity and that has nothing to do who study Qur’an and Hadith in madrasa.they are wrong themselves and they are responsible for killings. It’s like i can’t blame a university for a group of killers…Recommend

  • Labeeb Zaman

    It’s a well written article. Couldn’t agree more. Though I wouldn’t agree on blaming all the Sunis since I personally know some who aren’t extremists in their thinking but a very nice article.Recommend