Saturday, August 06, 2005

Pakistan's madrassas: education or brainwashing?

A few days ago, the BBC ran an interesting article called Views from Inside Islam's Schools, in which they interview five young men studying at madrassas in Pakistan. On reading this article, I could not help but shake my head and wonder how what these students were describing could be considered education in any modern sense of the word.

One student described the curriculum at his madrassa, which included:

  • Hiffaz (memorizing the entire Quran from cover to cover)
  • Islamiyat (history of Islam)
  • Arabic grammar
  • Usool-e-Fiqa (Islamic jurisprudence)
  • Hadith (the teachings of Mohammed other than what are in the Quran)
  • Usool al-Hadith (the history and historical context of al-Hadith)
  • Mantiq (Logic)
  • A cursory study in mathematics and English

The value of some of these subjects is questionable. For example, does it really help someone to understand Islam by memorizing word for word the entire contents of the Quran? I think not. In Christianity, I've never heard of anyone trying to memorize the whole bible - instead, biblical scholars try to study the meaning behind each of the chapters. Likewise in Islam, trying to memorize the Quran word-for-word would not help a student understand the true meaning behind those words.

What is interesting in this madrassa's curriculum is not just what it contains, it is what is missing: chemistry, physics, biology, world history, geography, computer science, etc.. With these key subjects missing, and just a bare scratching of the surface of mathematics and English, students would graduate such a madrassa lacking the basic skills needed for gainful employment.

We have a saying in English, "the devil makes work for idle hands." A student could graduate a madrassa like this as a Quran-reciting automaton, with no logical thinking, no practical knowledge, no job prospects, and no forseeable future. After a couple of months of unemployment, these madrassa graduates will be feeling frustrated and disillusioned, and could easily be a prime recruiting ground for extremist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

What is sad is that the regular mainstream education system in Pakistan is quite good, and gives a solid foundation in mathematics and sciences. I have worked with a number of technical professionals from Pakistan and have been frequently impressed by their skills. However, schools in Pakistan are not free, and many parents cannot afford the school fees required to allow their children to complete their formal schooling. With some madrassas providing free education, they are viewed by some parents as an adequate substitute.

In the aftermath of the London bombings and the news that at least one of the bombers had studied at a Pakistani madrassa, the government of Pakistan took some steps this week, ordering all foreigners studying at Pakistani madrassas to leave the country. This does not fix the domestic problem, however, as there are still many Pakistani children enrolled in madrassas.

Pakistan seems to be shying away from fixing the real problem, which is the curricula of these schools. A madrassa should be required to teach the same core subjects as a regular school (science, math, English, history, geography, etc.), and should be prohibited from filling their students' heads with anti-Western vitriol and other hatemongering. Madrassas that do not comply should be shut down. As long as Pakistan shies away from fixing this real root cause, these madrassas will continue to deliver a constant stream of unemployable misfits into the arms of extremist and terrorist groups.

Author's note: According to one of my Arabic-speaking friends, the correct plural for "madrassa" is "madaris", but since the BBC and other mainstream media use "madrassas" as the plural, I've used it here also to reduce confusion.