After the evening prayer at a local mosque in a small town of Punjab, I could not help but to overhear a chatter between a small group of seminary students. They were discussing how a local cleric had entered into Islam by embracing their sect. Upon an inquiry as to what makes a person Muslim, they said “according to our teacher, anyone outside our sect is a heretic and will burn in hell”. 

Further observation brought forth the gravity of the problem. For a decade or so, a new generation of students, imbued with sectarian hatred and fanaticism, is getting ready in our madrassas, and its shocks are now being felt nationwide, in the form of sectarian violence, the fresh wave of which, began from Rawalpindi on this Asura.

Like many problems, the seeds of sectarianism were sown during Zia’s era of islamization. The situation worsened as state’s education system collapsed and seminaries offered a better alternative to the less privileged. With no state oversight, madrassas have turned  into a hub of militancy and sectarian hatred. If situation is not redressed soon, we may end up rending the national fabric, already polarised over ethnic and linguistic lines.

Historically, Madrassas have played an essential role in the development of Islamic scholarship. After the advent of Islam, the elementary education in Islamic world was offered by mosques and maktabs. These institutions had limited scope, and to fulfill the need of higher education with religious and secular content, madrassa came into existence.

The most famous of these were Al-Azhar in Cairo, Nizamiyyah in Baghdad and Jamiat al-Qarawiyin in Fas, Morocco. These institutions, produced the greatest and most illustrious names in Mediaeval Islamic Scholarship.

It was madrassas where Alhazen wrote his seminal book of optics,  Rehzes researched on paediatrics,  Avicenna authored treatises on healing, Averroes reconciled classical Greek thought with Islam, and among others, Avempace toiled decrypting the secrets of heaven. Knowledge produced in the medieval Islamic madrassas  paved the way for European Renaissance.

During the birth of Pakistan, there were 137 madrassas . By 1970’s this number grew into thousands owing to two reasons. First was General Zia’s educational policy, encouraging the establishment of madrassas with the mosques, and their integration  into the  mainstream educational system.

Second factor, providing impetus to seminary growth, was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Foreign donors poured billions through Pakistani intelligence agencies into madrassas, making them a recruiting and training ground for Jihadis.

The corp of students, emerging from these institutions, not only fought in Afghanistan, but in late 80’s and early 90’s, carried jihad to Kashmir, and out of these came entities  such as Taliban, LeT, Jaish-e- Muhammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) now active under the name of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat(ASWJ). The later being allegedly involved in most incidents of sectarian violence. In the Rawalpindi incident, many of those killed in  sectarian clashes, belonged to seminaries run by ASWJ.

According to official estimates, there are around 10,000 to 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan, 8970 of these are registered, while 500 are considered as a high risk, which according to a report  published in daily Nation, “are involved in fomenting extremism besides accepting huge funds from donors abroad.”

The curriculum of most of the seminaries are designed in line with sectarian affiliations, added with bigotry and inflexibility, it encourages intolerance and  sectarianism, as Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies stated in one of its studies, “Sectarian-oriented curricula and publications of madrassas are considered a key factor in promotion of sectarianism in Pakistan.”

To thwart rising sectarianism, firstly , all rhetoric, oral or written, against any sect or any other faith should be strictly prohibited. Mosques and seminaries should not be used for inciting sectarian or religious violence nor they be used for congregation of militants. Criminal proceedings should be initiated against those who spread the message of hate and create commotion in society.

Secondly, all seminaries should be registered, and their curriculum should be scrutinized. In addition to religious education, it should be made compulsory for all seminaries to make science and humanities a permanent part of their curricula.

For long, madrassa reforms  have lingered on the agenda of the previous governments and because of influence and nuisance of religious groups, nothing much has emerged  from it.  The current government is considering a host of reforms, and it should be it’s priority to regulate and modernise the madrassa system in our country.

When Seljuq Vizier, Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk Tusi founded  Al-Nizamiyyah at Baghdad in 1065, he intended to establish a model of higher learning that went on to produce luminaries like Persian poet Saadi Shirazi. Our state institutions wanted our madrassas to produce jihadis who could fight a foreign proxy war, and therefore, our seminaries produced “prodigal sons” like Mullah Fazlullah. The twin challenges of militancy and sectarianism cannot be properly addressed, without a promise, on the part of our ruling elite that never again would they use social institutions such as  madrassas for geopolitical gains.

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.

adnanfalak@gmail.com

tueets at:@adnanfsher