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.

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.

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.

“I want to change the society and bring it in line with the rules of the Sharia.  I know society is completely different from how we lead our lives, but using force to change the society will be counter-productive,” says Hamza. Such a cautious statement is generally not expected from a madarsa student on Pakistan. Perhaps the troubles of Jamia Faridia have made its students and teachersmore articulate.

From their role in sectarian violence and the propagation of hate literature, to their part in jihad in Afghanistan, and more recently, involvement of some madarsa students in acts of terrorism—controversies have shrouded these institutions.

When Pakistani security officials interrogated the madarsa students arrested in connection with the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the students said they killed her because she supported the military operations against Lal Masjid and Jamia Faridia students in July 2007.

Top among the government’s concerns is the increasing number of cases of terrorism and sectarian violence linked to the madarsas in Pakistan. Pakistani security officials are convinced that all the eight suicide bombings in Rawalpindi—in which military installations were targeted—were a reaction to the Lal Masjid incident. The second major concern is the increasing number of cases of sectarian violence in the country in which madarsa students have been found involved. Though official figures for this are yet to be revealed, cases have been reported by the media. What students learn in the madarsas is a part of this problem.

All seminaries, regardless of their sect, follow the curriculum based on the obscure Dar-e-Nazami (DeN) system, developed in 18th century British India. Though it has undergone periodic changes, nevertheless the DeN has retained its central character: imparting knowledge deemed essential for understanding the religious scriptures.

DeN was designed at a time when Muslim political power was on the decline in the Indian subcontinent, the British were assuming political and military control, and the Mughal empire was on its last legs. Religious scholars say that DeN is the product of a period in time when educated Muslim men were trying to preserve the Islamic intellectual heritage in India.

The Mughal state, though powerless by then, had retained its identity and the Ulema of the Farhangi Mahal family (accredited with the development of this curriculum) designed DeN with the objective of providing the Mughal administrative system and regional Muslim states with administrative officials such as judges, revenue collectors, etc.

How did an 18th century religious text evolve to train scions of educated families for princely service find its way to Pakistani madarsas, particularly when there appears to be no clear linkage between the ulema of the Farhangi Mahal family and the ulema who are running the madarsas in Pakistan today?

Farhangi Mahalis of Lucknow were closely associated with the later Mughals, and were engaged in translating classics from Persian and Arabic into regional languages.  When the British colonialists purchased the Dewani (revenue collection) of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, one of the clauses in the agreement was that the legal system of these provinces would continue to be governed in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence. Hence the British were obliged to open many educational schools based on DeN in their areas of governance in order to ensure the availability of learned men for the smooth functioning of the administrative system.

The prime objective of the ulema of Farangi Mahal in evolving the DeN, as discerned by many historians, was to prepare students for service in the princely states, which were emerging throughout the sub-continent as a result of collapse of Mughal state. For this purpose they included those subjects in the curriculum thought essential for training students in Islamic jurisprudence and courtly languages including Persian and Arabic.

It is to the Deobandi school of thought that most madarsas in Pakistan owe their allegiance. The Deobandi Ulema were successful in establishing a network of madarsa in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even in Afghanistan long before partition.

Mullah Nizam-ud-din, an 18th century religious scholar, is recognised as the author of DeN that expanded to include a number of books on each of the various subjects of Maqulat (human reasoning): Arabic grammar, logic, philosophy, mathematics, fiqh (jurisprudence) and theology.  “The Quran and Hadith were only marginally studied; the former via two commentaries, the latter through one abridgement,” says Barbara Metcalf, in her book Islamic Revival in British India. Later scholars reversed the emphasis from Maqulat to Manqulat (transcribed knowledge); however, the basic framework of the curriculum has been retained to this day.

The curriculum evolved by the ulema of Farhangi Mahal was later adopted by those who established Darul Uloom Deoband in 1867, and from here the syllabus spread to most of the subcontinent. “It is to the Deobandi school of thought that most madarsas in Pakistan owe their allegiance. The Deobandi Ulema were successful in establishing a network of madarsa in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even in Afghanistan long before partition,” says Amir Rana, expert on religious extremism, who runs the Islamabad Institute of Peace (IIP).

Post-Partition the madarsa system retained the DeN curriculum, however in some cases it was greatly amended to suit the requirements of whichever religious sect the madrassas owed allegiance to.

Religious scholars maintain that the changes introduced in the post-Independence period are not substantial and relate to adding some books and increasing the emphasis on religious subjects.

However, the students inside Jamia Faridia (or in any other madarsa in Pakistan) seem to be oblivious to the history of their curriculum. A group of 12 senior students, specialising in Fiqh-e-Hanfi (Hanfi jurisprudence), gathered in a small class room to talk with me. “We are taught the same subjects which were being taught since the early period of Islam,” said one student.

In recent times there have been attempts to reform the madarsa education system, efforts which were aimed at seeking recognition for the madarsa degree at the government level. For instance, some secular subjects were introduced in the system in 1980s with the intention of making the madarsa degree equivalent to a Master’s degree. Even now any talk of reform is focused either on “how to enhance the status of the madarsa degree,” or how to secure more jobs for madarsa trained clerics.

At least this is how most of the students at Jamia Faridia see their future, “When I was a boy, I used to admire the Imam who used to come to our village in the month of Ramzan and recite the Holy Quran,” says Irfan Abbasi, a student. “Later I came to know that they were not qualified religious scholars but madarsa students. I decided that I would also join the madarsa.”

Most madarsa administrators and leaders will not publicly admit that they teach refutation of beliefs of other sects as part of the curriculum. However, most madarsa libraries are filled with books that contribute towards spread of sectarian hatred.

Many madarsas located in Pakistani provinces close to the Afghanistan border played an important role in supporting the Taliban during the formative phase, and even after the US attack on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Some of the major madarsas had then declared holidays so that their students could join the Taliban and fight against the US attacks. Ironically, the number of madarsas had increased during General Zia Ul-Haq’s rule (1977-1988) when the US money, arms and ammunition were routed through Pakistan to Afghanistan to help the fight the Soviet occupation. Some of that money is said to have supported the madarsas as well.

In the wake of the London bombing in July 2005, the government of Pakistan started coaxing the madarsa leadership to run a parallel system of education in the seminaries based on secular studies. In the same year the government launched a madarsa reform project to introduce secular subjects like the English language, mathematics, science, computer sciences and history of Pakistan up to graduation level

Senior teacher of Jamia Faridia, Maulana Abdul Ghaffar, told me that students who graduate from the seminary can do a number of  jobs.

“They join the primary and secondary government schools as religious teachers. Some of them join madarsas as teachers and some others serve as Maulvi in the mosque and they can also do preaching.”  But this statement is true only for a small fraction of the total 3.3 million madarsa students that, according to government estimates, are now studying in seminaries across Pakistan.

The Central Planning Commission of Pakistan, in its report to the prime minister in 2007, said that there was an approximately 13 per cent increase in the enrolment of madarsa students every year from 2003 to 2007.  During the same period there was an 8 per cent increase in the number of madarsas.

“If this trend continues for another five years the madarsa enrolment would be expected to reach 3.3 million by 2012 and the number of madarsa would rise to 23,800 during the same period from the existing 17,000,” says the report.

Where do the majority of these students go after completing their studies? Experts say madarsas provide support base to purely sectarian organisations like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).

“Wherever there are Deobandi madarsa and mosques it is the constituency of ASWJ, and its constituency is spread all across Pakistan,” says  Rana.

The students of Jamia Faridia, perhaps, provide the best clue in this regard. Muhammad Irfan Abbasi, 18,  student of second year hails from Murree, a hill station near Islamabad. In his conversation with me he was an advocate for Sunni (the largest sect of Islam) unity in the face of growing American interference in the country.

I have definite information that the American embassy in Islamabad is soon going to become headquarters of the CIA in the region from where they will control South Asia and Central Asia.

“Sometimes we discuss sectarian violence. I tell my fellow students that the difference between sub-sects of Sunni Islam are minor, and in fact I would like all the Sunnis to come together on one platform,” says Abbasi. He sees a clear political objective behind his desire to see the Sunnis of Pakistan united.

“I have definite information that the American embassy in Islamabad is soon going to become headquarters of the CIA in the region from where they will control South Asia and Central Asia,” he says. He is dismissive of the allegations that increasingly the religious extremist groups are now involved in acts of terrorism across the country. “Religious people are not involved in terrorism, it is primarily the American Blackwater (a private security company that the Pakistani religious right accuses of involvement in acts of terrorism in Pakistan) which is carrying out terrorism inside Pakistan,” he says.

Hamza, too, is clear about his future: He will join Jamat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) after completing his studies at Jamia Faridia. “I want all the religious forces to get united on one platform for strengthening the country, for the enforcement of Sharia in the country and to resist American influence in the country.”

Hamza had spent some time under the influence of the revivalist and fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami before he finally developed an inclination towards the more traditionalist Jamat-e-Ulema Islam. In his student days in the government school, he was a member of the Islami Jamiat Taluba (Student wing of Jamat-e-Islami), “I still attend functions of IJT when I am in my hometown and I still sympathise with their cause,” he says. “I don’t support any one of the sects or its interpretation of Islamic law, I want true Islam enforced in Pakistan.”

Muhammad Hamza doesn’t see any contradiction in his purportedly non-sectarian worldview and the fact that at Jamia Faridia only the  Fiqa-e-Hanifi (one of the four canonical schools of law strongly associated with Sunni Islam) is taught, and there exists a course to reject the teachings of other sects and or schools of law of Islam.

This, however, is the main point of contention between the madarsa leadership and the government of Pakistan.

In the wake of the London bombing in July 2005, the government of Pakistan started coaxing the madarsa leadership to run a parallel system of education in the seminaries based on secular studies. That year the government launched a madarsa reform project to introduce secular subjects like the English language, mathematics, science, computer sciences and history of Pakistan up to graduation level.

The government of former president Pervez Musharraf launched a well funded project to reform the madarsa system. It was a miserable failure, though. At the start of the project, the government set a target of educating 1.5 million madarsa students in formal subjects including English, mathematics, Pakistan studies and general science. By the time the government decided to abandon the project only 50,000  students were covered.

The resistance of the madarsa leaderships killed the project.  Under the banner of Wafq-e-Madarsa Arabia they rejected the reforms on the ground that it was a way to introduce western influence in the madarsa.

“They want to monitor the functioning of the madarsas and want to secularise our education system,” said Hanif Jallandari, secretary general of Wafq-e-Madarsa Arabia.

With this mindset the impact of educational reforms in the seminary hardly produced any results. Hamza, in a  two-hour long conversation, showed little interest in science as a subject and failed to describe even a single concept from his science text book when asked.

“I studied English, Arabic, Pakistan studies and maths when I was in government school,”  he says.

“I am here to spend my eight years to develop expertise on Fiqa and Hadith literature and I want to focus on that.”

Ghafoor rejects the charge. “It is baseless to say that madarsas are spreading militancy and extremism. There is nothing in the syllabus which can help in the spread of militancy.”

Pakistan’s present government strongly disagrees with what Ghafoor has to say. It is primarily because of the concerns about madarsas’ role in spread of militancy and extremism that the government decided to establish a Madarsa Reform Authority. One of the things it wants the madarsas to do is to give their students leisure time to take part in sports. The government is ready to finance the madarsas to buy sports equipment for their students, especially for cricket and football. 

“We have two playing grounds in our campus and after Asar prayers the playing grounds are full of students playing cricket and football,” says  Ghafoor. “There are no restrictions on the students they can take part in healthy activities”.

Madarsa leaders say they are opposed to government interference in their internal affairs. “The government is speaking the language of western powers and this is not acceptable to us,” says Ghafoor. However, things are more complicated than the madarsa leaders would have everyone believe.

For instance, the textbooks prepared by the madarsa textbook authority contain subjects which come into conflict with the government’s version of teaching secular subjects like English language and the history of Pakistan.

In a book on the history of Pakistan, the madarsa textbook authority has introduced a special chapter on the role of religious scholars in the political movement which led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. It is a recognised historical fact that the prominent religious scholars opposed the political movement which led to the creation of Pakistan. Similarly the textbooks prepared by the  madarsa text book authority on English language primarily contain chapters on early Islamic history. Whereas the official textbooks on English contain chapters on lighter subjects like going on a picnic and having a party at home.

In the view of educationists, however, the introduction of secular subjects like English and computer science will hardly change the extremist mindset that is created in the madarsas.

“Elementary computer training can hardly take students away from the mindset that is created by the rest of the curriculum in the madarsas, and secondly the modern day extremists and militants are at times the most talented technologists and professional individuals,” says A H  Nayyar, a professor in the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

The finances of madarsas are a mystery. Not even the government knows. Four years ago, the ministry of religious affairs started a campaign to register all the seminaries in Pakistan. They were asked to submit their accounts to the ministry or face legal action. They simply refused to cooperate with the government.

The madarsa leadership claims that the finances of most of  the 17,000 institutions  is primarily based on charities they receive from within the country and from overseas. “We don’t receive a penny from the government in running our madarsa,” says Ghafoor, “It all comes to us in the form of charities from the Muslims of Pakistan”.

Like most other seminaries in Pakistan, Jamia Faridia also doesn’t charge a single penny from its students for their education, lodging and food. “You go into the academic section and ask any student whether we charge anything from them, we don’t charge a penny,” says Ghafoor.

The madarsa boom in Pakistan took place in the 1980s when both the United States and oil-rich Arab countries were supporting the Afghan Jihad against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Despite that fact the most of the madarsas in Pakistan belong to the Deobandi school of thought (which is religiously distinct from Salafism), these madarsa received cash from oil-rich Arab countries as part of the finance that these countries were providing to those fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Experts say that the Salafist influence on Pakistani madarsas dates back to that era when a whole bunch of Jihadi organisations were providing a support base to Afghan mujahideen and Pakistan’s Deobandi madarsas were proving to be the backbone of this campaign.

However, in the last ten years, the madarsa leadership seems to have reasserted its Deobandi identity.

“We have got nothing to do with the Salafist, they have their own madarsas in Pakistan which are very small in number,” says Jallandari. 

What the Deobandi seminaries are imparting may be religiously distinct from Salafist brand of Islam, but they are essentially promoting the same kind of intolerance that has come to be identified with Salafism.

Most of the students of Jamia Faridia interviewed by me put on a display of tolerance which, they say, was being taught to them at the seminary. “Islam gives equal rights to the non-Muslims,” says Hamza.

But their tolerance seems more like a concept from a book than a principle to live by. Abbasi shrugged off the possibility of sharing a prayer mat with a Shia or an Ahmedi (heterodox sect which were declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani Parliament in 1974).

“I am ready to sit with all Sunni sub-sects, but Shias and Ahmedis are a different issue,” he says.

Years of indoctrination have produced a mindset that is not ready to accept anything which is unfamiliar. Take, for instance, the case of how the students of Jamia Faridia react when asked if they have they have ever watched a Hindi movie. “I don’t watch Indian movies because watching them leads one to lose his soul and values,” says Abbasi.

Hindi movies are immensely popular in Pakistan and a young man’s claim that he has never watched an Indian movie would always be taken with a liberal pinch of salt.

“The only movie I have watched in my whole life is the Hollywood movie Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert (based on the story of the Libyan freedom movement against Italian occupation before World War I) on the condition that there would no obscenity in the movie” he says.