Madness in the madrassa

Published: July 7, 2011
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Children who have nowhere to go, live in madrassas and eventually become the religious elite of the country. PHOTO: EPA

It was a regular day, I had offered my prayers in the mosque next-door in Rawalpindi. But, as I was about to leave, someone called out to me:

Bhai, one minute, have you come from abroad?

Yes, I said.

A bearded 20-something guy, named Mujahid asked me with pleading eyes:

Kia aap humein angrezi sikhain ge?” (Would you teach us English?)

Perplexed, I agreed.

The word ‘madrassa’ to most of us is similar to the words ‘extremists,’ ‘terrorism’ and ‘fear.’

Every other documentary and report tries to prove that the people of madrassas are a threat to humanity. I had a similar belief about them too. Those who have read “Dulla Shah” by Javed Chaudhry or watched the Karachi Kids documentary would have an idea of what kind of people live in a madrassa – mostly orphans or physically/mentally handicapped children who can’t compete in  life – these people later go on to become our religious elite.

To know the reality of it all, I agreed to meet Mujahid every evening at his madrassa.

The first day was a bit strange for me. My jeans and T-shirt looked weird to them. Even the little kids were whispering among each other.

I greeted them:

“Assalamoalikum!”

A loud voice answered in return:

“Walaikumasalam”

“My name is Saif and I’ll be teaching you English.”

Everyone held their breath and listened carefully.

“Ok, can I have your names please?”

Kashif, Osama , Obaidur Rehman and almost 20 other people, ages ranging from six-years-old to 26-years-old introduced themselves. After that, the learning started.

The alphabets and their sounds were simply a chore. However, the next stage proved to be quite intricate as I moved to “A for apple.” I was shocked and felt miserable to find that many of the students were from such poor families that they hadn’t even seen an apple in their lives.

What could you expect from such people when they become the religious leaders of the country? Of course they would take revenge from the society for its neglect towards them.

I asked Mujahid:

“Why do you want to learn English?”

Mujahid, whose cheeks turned red every time we studied “G for girl” said in an unyielding voice:

“I want to compete with the Americans. I want to understand them and I want to fight with them.”

Mohammad and Abdul Samad, the two siblings of five and six years from Swat intrigued me the most. With light brown sparkling eyes and fair complexion, if they were well dressed, one wouldn’t be able to tell if they were from a remote area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or if they were British. It felt awful to see them mopping the mosque’s floor and washing utensils.

I taught there for almost two months – basic English reading and writing. Sometimes even the maulana, who was in his late forties, joined us for writing classes . His name was Maulana Fazl e Wahab.

Given that his children go to an English medium school, one day I asked him:

“Why don’t you give them pencils and notebooks to read and write?”

I heard the most dreadful answer of my life:

“If we give them pencils they write on the walls and make them dirty, they are here to get religious education and they are getting that.”

He had no answer to how they would compete in this age of information and technology when they leave.

Sometimes it feels really strange that in technology we are always looking for the best – when purchasing a cell phone we Google its features and options first, but when it comes to religion, we listen to and blindly follow, a person who can’t even spell his own name.

When a child is born, every parent wants him/her to be a doctor, engineer or a banker, but not a maulvi.

Why do only orphans, blind or physically/mentally challenged children come to this field?

What do we expect from a socially isolated person, who has been outlawed from watching movies or listening to music all his life?

Can someone who has been trained to beg in the name of zakat really help us to understand the concept of jihad?

What do you expect from someone who is labelled ‘mullah’ and ‘maulvi’ and discouraged from wearing western clothes or using good perfumes?

Can you expect him to reveal the real Islam to us?

No. He will have his revenge.

The day is not far when the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will take form in every madrassa around this country. And, we all will be responsible for that.

Saif Tahir

Saif Tahir

The writer is an academic who likes to capture life through both the lens and the pen.

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