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M. Ahmad: Traditional Islamic Education in Pakistan

Thomas Friedman, the well-known columnist for the New York Times, wrote a memo in the New York Times addressed to King Fahd, asking him to totally reorganize and restructure the education curriculum in Saudi Arabia that produces terrorists. I suggested to him, “Why don’t you write another letter to Tony Blair, asking him to restructure the education system of the London School of Economics, which produced another terrorist?”

The persistence of traditional Islam as a significant cultural alternative and as an intellectual mode of very vital religious institutions is nowhere more evident than in the asa educational system. Asas have long been centers of classical Islamic studies and guardians of Islamic orthodoxy. The ulama, as bearers of the legal and political tradition of the later Abbasid period, developed four primary concerns that are reflected in the asa education: (1) the unity and integrity of the Islamic ummah as a universal religious community; (2) maintaining the integrity of the orthodox beliefs and practices of Islam as articulated by the classical jurists and theologians; (3) the preservation of the shari’ah, particularly is it concerns Islamic personal law; and (4) the dissemination of the Islamic religious sciences.

There are about 6,000 secondary and higher level asas in Pakistan today, and according to one estimate there are 10,000 asas at all levels. They represent the spectacular legacy of the 19th-century Islamic resurgence, or Islamic renaissance. Since then, the model has been followed in all the countries of South Asia, and thousands and thousands of asas were established in India and Pakistan. Also, Bangladesh is now replicating the model.

Out of 20 subjects, six can be considered purely Islamic sciences, such as the study of the Qur’an and religious sciences. But the remaining 16 essentially include philosophy, logic, Arabic language, Arabic grammar, literature, dialectical reasoning, rhetoric, elementary mathematics, and traditional medicine. 

People talk about the asas as jihad factories, but when the ulama instruct students, the chapter on jihad is not studied at all. Mostly they are concerned about the issue of ablution (wudu) and other minor things. The textbooks used in these asas are about 500 to 600 years old. The most modern book used in the madrasas was written 500 years ago.

A majority of the families who send their children to asas in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, and in India cannot afford to send their children to modern schools. In most cases these modern schools do not exist, they are not at an accessible distance, they are too expensive, they are elitist, or there is no space. And if there were no asas in India, 95 percent of the Muslim nation there would remain illiterate.

Education has been one of the most important means of social mobility in Pakistan. Because no matter where you stood before going to a madrasa, you will be a step higher on the ladder of social hierarchy after you complete the madrasa education. Similarly, while you will see thousands and thousands of modern, educated, unemployed young men and women in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, you will never find an unemployed mullah.

Several asas teach English now. In fact, before the general education system in Pakistan had computers, I saw computers in several asas in Pakistan and in Bangladesh.

[Source: Islamic Perspectives on Peace. Tarrytown, NY: Universal Peace Federation, 2006.]