The madarsa system in Pakistan is flourishing, a fact which makes the government uneasy. Their role in jihad, mysterious sources of funding, and above all an education system that rejects plurality and modernity is shaping the worldview of 33 lakh students in Pakistan.
BY UMER FAROOQ
Muhammad Hamza, a 21-year-old student of Jamia Faridia, one of the largest seminaries in Islamabad, doesn’t think his degree in religious sciences will give him money in life. He belongs to Rawalakot, a major town in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and joined Jamia Faridia four years ago. Four more years and he will complete his studies at the seminary. Four more years will make him eligible to apply for a job as an Imam (prayer leader) in government-run mosques anywhere in the country, or he can join a madarsa as a teacher. But he won’t do any of these things.
“I am not studying here because I expect a job after the completion of the degree course,” says Hamza, sitting at the lawns of his hostel, adjacent to the main campus. “I am studying in the madarsa because it will give me a clear understanding of religion and I will be able to serve ‘God’s religion’ in the light of this true understanding… I’m doing it because I want to earn God’s favour.”
Madarsa education is not for his livelihood. “For a living, I will be starting some kind of business in my home town.” Hamza is not a rich man. His father was a factory worker in Karachi before he retired to Rawalakot. Hamza passed matriculation exams from his village school in Abbaspur in “secular subjects” like mathematics, English and Pakistan studies. There he came under the influence of his Arabic teacher—a middle-aged man in his mid-40s, Hamza’s teacher was a member of Jamat-e-Ulema Islam, a prominent religio-political party in Pakistan.
“He used to tell us about Islam… he was a very pious man. Under his influence I decided to discontinue my studies in government school and get enrolled in a madarsa,” says Hamza.
Hamza is part of the first batch of students who joined Jamia Faridia (located on the foot of the Margalla Hills that surround Islamabad on three sides) after a showdown between Jamia Faridia and the government in July 2007. More than 100 students of the seminary were killed in the military operation that was launched to clear the Lal Masjid (the Red mosque) in the heart of Islamabad of unruly and armed madarsa students.
The showdown between the government and Red mosque (and the seminary, Jamia Faridia, associated with it) attracted international media focus when two cleric brothers, Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Aziz started to enforce a strict moral code in the environs of the mosque. This led to attacks on video shops and kidnapping of workers in the city’s beauty parlours.
At present, Jamia Faridia hosts a substantially lower number of students than it can. In the wake of 2007 military operation, Jamia Faridia remained closed for more than a year. It was re-opened only after intensive negotiations between the government and madarsa administration. In the talks, the prime demand of Pakistan’s interior ministry was that the seminary would allow a substantially lower number of students to be enrolled in one academic year.
“There are only 1,000 students in Jamia Faridia at present,” says Hamza. The interior ministry’s demand was based on the fear that larger the number of students, the greater the chances of them becoming unruly and causing law and order situations in Islamabad.
According to the administration of the seminary, prior to its closure, Jamia Faridia had more than 3,000 students. Many of them joined Lal Masjid clerics when the military operation against the holed up militants started in July 2007.
The changed circumstances and strict government surveillance have hardly changed the way students think of the world outside. For them, Islamabad’s cosmopolitan culture does not match the requirements of the Sharia, the tenets of which must be enforced in the society. However, students are now more circumspect in their assertions than they were five years ago.
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