Book Review:  Madrasas in South Asia: Teaching Terror? (Jamal Malik ed.)

Book Review:  Madrasas in South Asia: Teaching Terror? (Jamal Malik ed.)

by Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: Madrasas in South Asia: Teaching Terror?

Edited by: Jamal Malik

Publisher: Routledge, London and New York

Year: 2008

Pp: 190

ISBN: 10:0-415-44247-8

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

South Asia’s madrasas have increasingly come to be discussed in terms of their real or alleged security implications. This owes to numerous factors, particularly to America’s so-called ‘War on Terror’. Yet, surprisingly little empirical research has been done on the madrasas in the region. Wild generalizations, based on sensational exceptions, have led to untenable conclusions about all madrasas. This timely book discusses various aspects of madrasas in contemporary South Asia, warning us against making any facile assumptions.

In his introduction, the Germany-based Pakistani scholar Jamal Malik argues that far from being monolithic, South Asia’s madrasas display considerable variety: in terms of sectarian affiliation, approaches to ‘modernity’ and ‘modern’ knowledge, and relations with the state and non-Muslims. Hence the hazards of making any generalizations about them. Malik’s analysis is heavily Pakistan-centric, and he refers only in passing to madrasas in other South Asian countries. He points out that while some madrasas indeed have been associated with terrorism, particularly in Pakistan, this owes much more to the particular socio-political context in which they operate than to any inherent radical tendency in the madrasa system as such. Radicalism in the case of some Pakistani madrasas owes principally to their use by the United States and Pakistan in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Pakistani state’s use of Islamist groups, including select madrasas, in its war in Kashmir and increasing resistance to American aggression in Afghanistan and elsewhere. America’s so-called ‘War on Terror’, which has resulted in unimaginable loss of life and destruction in many Muslim lands, and has been used by ruling regimes in many Muslim countries to clamp down on internal dissent, has further fuelled radical tendencies in several madrasas.

Malik also makes the debatable claim that due to their ‘increasing economic and social pauperization’, sections of the ulema ‘tend to become increasingly radical’. He mentions only in passing, without elaborating, the crucial role of the ‘globalization’ agenda of Western powers, in which comprador regimes in Muslim countries play the role of subservient lackeys, and the mounting internal class and cultural contradictions within Muslim countries as key factors propelling radical resistance in selected madrasas. ‘Globalisation’, a euphemism for the contemporary form of Western imperialism, comes along with pauperisation of vast numbers of people in so-called ‘Third World’ countries and the imposition of Western consumerist and hedonistic culture. This is perceived as threatening the cultural integrity of Muslim (and other non-Western) societies, and one reaction to this is radicalism as witnessed in the case of certain madrasas in South Asia, most particularly in Pakistan.

Somewhat the same arguments are made by another Pakistani scholar, Tariq Rahman, who stresses that Pakistani madrasas (and the same could be said of madrasas elsewhere in South Asia) are not inherently militant. Anti-West radicalism in some Pakistani madrasas emanates essentially from contemporary international and local conflicts, Western economic, political, military and cultural domination and hegemony, and mounting income inequalities and poverty. It is also sustained by the Pakistani ruling establishment, including the Army, which has used many madrasas and ulema-organisations for its own anti-democratic political interests.

At the same time, Rahman points out that many madrasas teach what he describes as antiquated texts that tend to disengage their students from the contemporary world and encourage them to reject it. This is particularly the case with texts dealing with jurisprudence, philosophy and logic. Further, almost all madrasas are associated with one or the other Islamic sect, and each of these claims to be the sole true representative of Islam. Consequently, madrasas sustain and further promote intra-Muslim sectarian differences, which have, as in the case of Pakistan, also come to assume violent forms on occasion. Rahman suggests certain steps that might make a major difference in countering these tendencies: redistribution of wealth, a ban on armed religious groups, peace with India, excising Pakistani textbooks of menacing images of non-Muslims and of contents that promote hatred towards others and so on. All of which is, of course, very welcome but easier said than done.

Saleem Ali, yet another Pakistani scholar, discusses the class basis of madrasa education in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region. He sees the madrasa system as functioning as a counterweight to feudalism. Madrasas provide free education, boarding and lodging to vast numbers of children from poor families, neglected by the state and oppressed by powerful landlords. He points out that sectarian strife in the region, that sometimes takes violent forms, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, owes not just to propaganda against other sects taught in the madrasas, but also to active external patronizing of selected madrasas by foreign governments (Saudi Arabia, in the case of the Sunnis, and Iran, in the case of the Shias). It also has a crucial class dimension: a large number of local landlords belong to the Shia minority, while most small peasants and landless labourers, many of whose children study in madrasas, are Sunnis.

Following Rahman, Ali suggests ‘comprehensive land reforms’ in Pakistan to prevent peasants seeking refuge from feudal oppression in radical religious groups. This is, needless to say, obvious, but Ali’s optimism about ‘free market’ economics to bring this about is naïve, to say the least, and obviously quite unwarranted. His claim that ‘Such reforms can be undertaken through market mechanisms and instituted gradually to avoid capital flight’ strikes one as unduly optimistic. But his suggestion that the ulema of the madrasas could be encouraged to be exposed to alternative Islamic voices and to become involved in inter-sectarian and inter-religious dialogue is certainly welcome.

Much has been written about madrasa reforms in Pakistan, these efforts being half-heartedly instituted by the present government principally under American pressure. Christopher Candland critically examines these efforts, showing how these have met with resistance on the part of numerous ulema groups, who consider them as unjustified interference. Moreover, the few steps that have been sought to be made in this direction by the Pakistani state have been poorly designed and implemented in an extremely inefficient manner, and this applies even in the case of those few steps that several madrasas have welcomed.

Cadland points out that the issue of madrasa education in contemporary Pakistan must be discussed not in isolation, but in the wider context of the country’s political economy. The Pakistani state, he says, spends only a fraction of its revenues on education, investing heavily in the subsidising of elite education, while ignoring the masses. This is the principal cause of the pathetic conditions of education in the country. It is also a major source of the popularity of the madrasas, which provide free education, boarding and lodging to their students, most of whom come from poorer families.

Reforms in the madrasas, Cadland argues, cannot be imposed from the outside, as the Pakistani state and America, for instance, have sought to do. Rather, he suggests, the Pakistani state must work for this alongside the ulema, particularly those whom he terms as ‘moderately-minded’, through genuine dialogue. He rightly points out that the oft-heard claim that the lack of teaching computers, English and the natural sciences is a major cause of the ‘backwardness’ and ‘radicalism’ of the madrasas is fallacious. ‘Natural science education is not the guarantee of an enlightened mind’, he stresses. ‘Indeed’, he says, ‘many of those most committed to violence in the name of Islam were educated in the natural sciences’. The ‘real problem’ in the madrasas, he maintains, ‘is that their students do not learn how to relate with other communities in a culturally diverse country and a globally inter-dependent world’. Hence, he justifiably recommends, more important that the introduction of computers and natural sciences in the madrasas (which some advocates of madrasa reform never tire of presenting as their sole demand) is the need for their curriculum to reflect respect for human rights and tolerance of other religions and other interpretations of Islam.

The remainder of the book deals with madrasas in other South Asian countries. In her piece, Usha Sanyal looks at two leading madrasas of the Barelvi sect in India to examine the process of the shaping of a distinct Barelvi sectarian identity. She sees this in the context of competing claims by different Muslim sects to Islamic ‘authenticity’, as well as efforts on the part of madrasa managers to ‘modernise’ their curriculum in order to receive state recognition and funding. Similarly, Arshad Alam compares two leading Indian madrasas, one Barelvi and the other Deobandi, tracing the process of formation of distinct sectarian identities, each set against and identified by opposition to the other. He claims that these (and other) madrasas are more concerned with teaching what they see as ‘true’ Islam, defined against what they brand as ‘false’ claims to Islamicity made by other Muslim sects, than with the othering of Hindus and Christians. He argues that the debate is an internal one, which rarely exceeds the Muslim community. Although highly contentious, this claim does point to the oft-ignored fact that for many ulema the ‘other’ within is often perceived as even more menacing than the ‘other’ without.

Irfan Ahmad’s essay deals with the Jamaat-e Islami Hind, focusing essentially on the critique of traditional madrasa education as contained in the voluminous works of the Jamaat’s founder, Sayyed Abul Ala Maududi, one of the founders of contemporary Islamism. He points out that Maududi, not himself a madrasa-trained traditional Islamic scholar, was critical of most madrasas for their opposition to ijtihad or critical rethinking in the light of new experiences, their solid backing of taqlid or the rigid following of the opinions of established schools of jurisprudence and their reluctance to incorporate ‘modern’ subjects in their curricula, even though he believed that it would be fully ‘Islamic’ to do so, although after suitably ‘Islamising’ them.

Nita Kumar’s essay claims to discuss ‘gendered’ education in an Indian madrasa and in a Muslim home, but actually tells us very little at all. It lacks empirical depth, which it tries, albeit in vain, to make up for by incomprehensible theoretical discussion. Zakir Hussain’s piece, the only article on Bangladesh, examines the diverse ways, both negative as well as positive, in which madrasas, their students and the ulema are projected in certain selected Bangladeshi art films. It helps shift the focus of discussions about the madrasa education from the madrasas themselves to the question of how they are perceived by others.

Readers might find the book obsessively concerned with Pakistan, but that is probably because Pakistani madrasas have been the most talked-about in the context of debates on madrasas and extremism. Certain crucial issues have been left out of the discussion, most notably the efforts of some ulema groups (as in India) to counter terrorism (of different varieties, including by Muslims, non-Muslims and the state ), new experiments in madrasa education made by sections of the ulema, the lively internal discourse among the ulema about madrasa reforms and so on. Despite this, and given the fact that little serious work has been produced on the madrasas of South Asia despite their being so much in the news, this book is certainly a welcome development.