Madrassas: Knowledge or The Shade of Swords

The Daily Star, April 21 , 2004

From Morocco to Indonesia to Muslim emigrant communities in Europe and America, madrassas, in this case schools for religious teaching, are a major source of radical influence on the thinking of the world’s 1 billion Muslims.

Most madrassas teach a relatively benign brand of fundamentalist Islam. However, a significant minority acts as recruiting centers for violent radicals who not only reject the West but also seek to attack it by whatever means possible. The US has included madrassa reform in its agenda for change in the Muslim world. It assumes that taking out religious hatred and violent opposition to modernity from the curricula of religious schools would dampen the fervor of militancy that seems to be sweeping many Muslim countries.

As a young boy, I attended a madrassa in my hometown of Karachi. On one of the walls, someone had hand-written a hadith, or tradition of the Prophet’s sayings and actions: “Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China.” Across the road from one of the radical madrassas spawned by the Afghan war was scrawled another hadith: “Paradise lies under the shade of swords.”

The remarkable global spread of madrassas during the 1980s and 1990s owed much to geopolitics and sectarian struggles. Madrassas in Pakistan, in particular, were used as places to enroll mujahideen trained by the American and Pakistani intelligence services to fight the Soviet Army then occupying Afghanistan.

The influence and staying power of madrassas worldwide derive from deep-rooted socioeconomic conditions that have so far proved resistant to change. In some ways, the madrassas are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world. Westernized, usually affluent Muslims often lack an interest in religious matters while the ulama, or religious scholars, marginalized by modernization, seek to assert their relevance by insisting on orthodoxy. A regular school education costs money and is often inaccessible to the poor, but madrassas are generally free. The poor students attending madrassas find it easy to believe that the West, allied to their own uncaring rulers, is responsible for their misery and that Islam, as practiced by its earliest exponents, can deliver them.

Madrassas have been around since the 11th century, when the Seljuk Vizier Nizam-ul-Mulk Hasan bin Ali Tusi founded a seminary in Baghdad to train experts in Islamic law. Islam had become the religion of a large community, stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. But, apart from the Koran, there were no definitive theological texts. The dominant Muslim sect, the Sunnis, did not have a clerical class, leaving groups of believers to follow whomever inspired them in religious matters. Sunni Muslim rulers legitimated their rule through religion, depending primarily on an injunction in the Koran binding believers to obey the righteous ruler. Over time, it became important to seek religious conformity and to define dogma to ensure the obedience of subjects, as well as to protect rulers from rebellion. Nizam-ul-Mulk’s madrassa was intended to create a class of ulama, qadis (judges) and muftis (jurists) that would administer the Muslim empire, legitimize its rulers as righteous and define an unalterable version of Islam.

The dogma adopted for this new madrassa, and the tens of thousands that would follow, was defined by the 9th century theologian Abu al-Hassan al-Ashaari in several polemical texts, including The Detailed Explanation in Refutation of the People of Perdition and The Sparks: Refutation of Heretics and Innovators. It rejected any significant role for reason in religious matters and declared that religion be considered the focus of a Muslim’s existence. The madrassas adopted a core curriculum that divided knowledge between “revealed sciences” and “rational sciences.” The revealed sciences included study of the Koran, the Hadith, Koranic commentary and Islamic jurisprudence. The “rational sciences” included Arabic language and grammar to help understand the Koran, logic, rhetoric and philosophy.

Largely unchanged and unchallenged, this approach to education dominated the Islamic world for centuries, until the advent of colonial rule when Western education penetrated countries previously ruled by Muslims. Throughout the Middle East, as well as in British India and Dutch-ruled Indonesia, modernization marginalized the madrassas. Their graduates were no longer employable as judges or administrators as the Islamic legal system gave way to Western jurisprudence. Muslim societies became polarized between economically prosperous Western-educated individuals attending modern schools and colleges and madrassa-educated mullahs. But the poor remained faithful. The failings of the post-colonial elite in almost all Muslim countries paved the way for Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, the Islamic Party (Jamaat-e-Islami) in South Asia, and the Nahdatul Ulema (the Movement for religious scholars) in Indonesia. These movements questioned the legitimacy of the Westernized elite, created reminders of Islam’s past glory and played on hopes for an Islamic utopia.

In most cases the founder of Islamic political movements were religiously inclined politicians with a modern education. But the rank and file was sometimes provided by the madrassas. Madrassas proliferated through the provision of zakat, or tithes, and financial assistance from the Gulf states. More often than not today, madrassas are tied to Islamist political movements.

Most Muslim countries allocate insignificant portions of their budgets to education, leaving large segments of their growing populations without schooling. The madrassas fill that gap, especially for the poor. The poorest countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Yemen and Indonesia, have the largest madrassa enrollment.

An estimated 6 million Muslims study in madrassas around the world, and twice that number attend maktabs or kuttab (small Koranic schools attached to village mosques). An overwhelming majority of these madrassas follow the quietist tradition, teaching rejection of Western ways without calling on believers to fight the unbelievers. But the few that teach violence drill in such beliefs firmly. The militant madrassa is a relatively new phenomenon, the product of mistakes committed in fighting Communism in Afghanistan. But even the quietist madrassa teaches a rejection of modernity while emphasizing conformity and a medieval mindset.

The Muslim world is divided between the rich and the powerful, often aligned with the West, and impoverished masses that turn to religion in the absence of adequate means of livelihood. This social reality makes it difficult for the madrassas to remain unaffected by radical ideas, even if the militancy introduced during the last two decades is taken away. Cutting off outside funding might help, but because of their modest expenses, madrassas can survive without assistance from oil-producing states.

Western involvement in the rekindling of Jihadist ideology during the war in Afghanistan led to the growth of radical movements throughout the Muslim world. Any attempt by the US to “reform” the madrassas could, similarly, have unforeseen consequences. The Muslim world needs to be encouraged to embrace modern education and undertake ijtihad (mental exertion to find solutions to problems) on its own. Proposals such as adding the learning of science and mathematics to the theology of conformity taught at traditional madrassas are hardly solutions to the Muslim world’s knowledge deficit.