Muhammad Hashim appears much younger than he is. Wearing a light blue salwar kameez and a white skullcap, he looks boyishly innocent. Sporting a trimmed brown beard, he can speak only broken Urdu and converses mostly in Pashto, despite having lived in Karachi since his birth in 1989.

He, as well as his six brothers, received their education from Jamia Farooqia, a Deobandi seminary in Shah Faisal Colony, Karachi, where around 3,000 students are enrolled in courses ranging from the memorisation of the Quran to specialisation in Arabic literature and Islamic jurisprudence. After his graduation, Hashim decided to open a madrasa inside his house in Haider Chali, a mostly Pakhtun working-class neighbourhood in Karachi’s north-western Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (Site) area. The two-storey house was purchased in 1992 by his father, Haji Karim, originally a resident of the Swat valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Hashim shifted his family upstairs and turned the small bedrooms on the ground floor into classrooms. This is how Al-Karim Islamic Academy – named after Hashim’s father – came into being in 2007. The madrasa provides basic religious education to around 200 boys and girls who mostly live in nearby houses and streets, and pay a monthly fee of 150 rupees each. Being a teacher of the Quran, Hashim is known as Qari Hashim among his students and their families.

A small room that serves as the office of his madrasa has bare brick walls and cemented flooring. The only furniture in it is a tattered sofa and a small wooden table, a copy of the Quran placed on it. On the dusty afternoon of March 23, 2016, Hashim is sitting in this office, explaining how he does not have anything to do with his elder brother, 33-year-old Shakirullah. “He has a mind of his own,” Hashim says of Shakirullah, whose wife and children live upstairs along with the rest of Haji Karim’s family.

"We have never stopped the authorities from examining our premises or questioning our students and teachers. We have nothing to hide."

Shakirullah is on the run. Also known as Mufti Shakir or Mufti Shah, he is reported to be involved in terrorist activities. Al-Karim Islamic Academy is seen as his sanctuary. The police and the paramilitary rangers have repeatedly raided the place since 2014 for his capture. “He is not a mufti, but his friends call him mufti,” says Hashim. Shakirullah received the title while studying at Jamia Farooqia. “He was taking a two year course there in 2006 and 2007,” says Hashim. But Shakirullah dropped out before completing the course and, according to his younger brother, became “reserved and did not share much with the family about his activities”.

In the next few years, Shakirullah allegedly became a major facilitator of terrorism in Karachi. The data maintained by Karachi’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) shows him to be associated with the Swat chapter of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). He is also alleged to have provided suicide bombers to the anti-Shia militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Naeemullah, one of the suicide bombers Shakirullah is reported to have mentored, assassinated Superintendent of the Police (SP) Aslam Khan, known for carrying out deadly anti-Taliban operations in Karachi, on January 9, 2014.

Students of Al-Jamiatul Asaria during their lunch break | Ghulam Dastageer
Students of Al-Jamiatul Asaria during their lunch break | Ghulam Dastageer

Eight men who attacked a police picket in 2013 near a factory on 3rd Street in Site and injured a police official are known to have links with him, too. Syed Tahir Shah, an assistant sub-inspector at a Site area police station, says “we arrested three of the suspected attackers and they named Shakirullah as the provider of weapons and money to carry out the attack”.

A few months after the attack – on January 24, 2014 – a large contingent of the Sindh Rangers surrounded Al-Karim Islamic Academy at around 11:30 pm. They were looking for Shakirullah but he was not there. “None of us knew where he was,” says Hashim.

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Two days later, the rangers raided the seminary again and made Shakirullah’s other brother, Muhammad Akbar, call him. Shakirullah returned home immediately after receiving the call and was instantly arrested. A court in Karachi released him on bail in September 2014 and, according to Hashim, he “stayed with us for a week”. Since then, he has not seen his brother, Hashim says, speaking slowly.

Shakirullah left for some unknown destination and also took his younger brother, Muhammad Usman, with him. “We have not heard from the two since then,” says Hashim.

In the first week of October 2015, law enforcement agencies conducted a third raid on the seminary. Hashim heard his name being announced that day from a loudspeaker and stepped out of the madrasa. He saw a police contingent asking questions from the local residents. The police then probed him, inquiring about Shakirullah. Before calling off the raid, they took another brother, Muhammad Ahmed, into custody. A few weeks later, Ahmed was released but was rearrested soon in a fresh raid at their house.

Students at a madrasa in Site area, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Students at a madrasa in Site area, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Syed Imran Ali Shah was seven years old when his father was murdered. Another seven years later, in 1999, he managed to secure admission at Mercy Pak School – an Arab-funded orphanage-cum-madrasa on the outskirts of Peshawar – thanks to one of his relatives who once taught there.

Shah says there was nothing in the madrasa syllabus that preached jihad, yet he was so radicalised by the time he passed his matriculation exam in 2003, that he wanted to join a jihadi organisation. He blames his passion for jihad on a teacher at the Mercy Pak School who used to deliver regular sermons on the importance and the need for it.

After completing his matriculation, Shah met someone associated with jihad in Indian-administered Kashmir. He received guerilla training at a camp in Oghi area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Mansehra District. He claims he could not cope with the rigours of life in the camp and returned home after 35 days to his native village of Wadpagga, situated in the semi-rural periphery of Peshawar.

Many similar stories have appeared in memoirs of jihadi fighters, academic analyses, research reports, and journalistic exposés. Beginning with the leaders and the cadre of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are known to have received education in Pakistani madrasas, a large number of suicide bombers and sectarian killers have proven links with madrasas. Just to cite one example, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost – a former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and reportedly one of the main leaders of the Pakistan-Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – is a graduate of Al-Jamiatul Asaria madrasa in Peshawar’s Chamkani area, acknowledges Umer Bin Abdul Aziz, the head of the madrasa.

Feroze Shah, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in Karachi’s District West, tells the Herald that his department has identified five madarasas in his jurisdiction that help militants procure money and other logistics to carry out acts of terrorism.

Al-Jamiatul Asaria, founded in 1977, is a large complex of buildings stretched over 10 acres of land. Half of its 535 male students and about 200 of its 530 female students are natives of neighbouring Afghanistan.

Law enforcement officials in different parts of the country verify that some madrasas do not just radicalise their students to wage jihad against their religious and sectarian opponents, but also provide financial resources and logistic support to known religious and sectarian assassins. Feroze Shah, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in Karachi’s District West, tells the Herald that his department has identified five madarasas in his jurisdiction that help militants procure money and other logistics to carry out acts of terrorism. 12 madrasas in Karachi’s District Central are alleged to be doing the same thing, says a Sindh home department report, seen by the Herald.

In Sindh, 46 madrasas were found in 2015 to be either institutionally linked with militant groups or were facilitating terrorist activities, according to the home department report. In the first three months of 2016, the number of madrasas with “leniency towards militants” has risen to 53. Out of these, 30 are in different parts of Karachi, 12 in Hyderabad, four in Larkana, six in Sukkur and one each in Ghotki and Sajawal.

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Some of these madrasas are considered so dangerous that the home department has requested the paramilitary rangers to send out heavily-armed mobile units in aid to the police to conduct raids inside them. These are located in such Karachi areas as Gulshan-e-Maymar, Surjani Town, Mominabad and Orangi Town — mostly in the north-west of the city.

In Punjab, the provincial authorities have found that 200 people, required to notify their movements to the police if and when they need to leave their place of residence – a provision under the Fourth Schedule of antiterrorism laws that restricts the movement of those allegedly linked to banned militant organisations — were working either as teachers or as the administrators of various madrasas in the province. “We have forced them to leave their jobs,” says a home department official in Lahore, seeking anonymity.

The Punjab government has also shut down three seminaries linked to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a militant organisation that India alleges was involved in a recent attack on its air force base in Pathankot. The closed down madrasas were located in Sialkot, Rawalpindi and Gujranwala — but the JeM headquarters, in a madrasa called Usman-o-Ali in Bahawalpur, remains functional.

A view of  one of the hostels of Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak | Ghulam Dastageer
A view of one of the hostels of Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak | Ghulam Dastageer

Jamia Manzoorul Islamia, a sprawling semicircular complex of multistorey classrooms and hostel blocks with a courtyard in the middle, is located in Lahore Cantonment’s Saddar area. A Pakhtun gunman greets the visitors as they enter the madrasa and directs them to an office block to the east of the imposing entrance. Some 1,000 students of different ages get free education here. About 700 of them come from places outside Lahore and get free boarding, lodging and meals.

Pir Saifullah Khalid, the madrasa’s founder administrator, came to Lahore from Islamabad and set up the madrasa in 1986. As a visitor hears chants of children reciting the Quran in a large hall, his nine-year-old son, Imdadullah, enters the room and whispers something in his father’s ear. “Shake hands with uncle and tell him your name in English and also tell him where you study if you want me to give you money,” he commands the boy. Imdadullah obliges. “He studies at a private English-medium school,” Khalid says proudly.

Jamia Manzoorul Islamia is one of the four madrasas in Lahore that the provincial CTD believes to have “militant leanings”. The other three are Jamia Madnia Jadeed on Raiwind Road, not very far from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s sprawling estate; Farooq-e-Azam, also in Lahore’s Cantonment area; and Mohammadia Masjid near Chauburji.

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“Prove it,” says Khalid when asked about his seminary’s links with militancy. In the last 12 months, he says, the law enforcement agencies have raided the madrasa three times, late in the night on each occasion. “We have never stopped the authorities from examining our premises or questioning our students and teachers. We have nothing to hide,” he says.

Raids are not restricted to madrasas which focus on providing religious education alone, as Jamia Manzoorul Islamia does. Far from being an average madrasa where students sit on prayer mats and pore over medieval texts, the modern-looking Jamia Qadria in Rahim Yar Khan was raided in January 2016. Equipped with computers and close-circuit cameras that keep a watch on every nook and cranny of its premises, the seminary appears to be more like a posh private school than a religious education institution. It does not offer religious courses alone — more than half of its students take board and university examinations under the government education system, pursuing their religious studies alongside.

Apart from large-scale operations, small contingents of law enforcement personnel visit madrasas in the region once or twice every month for updated information on the students and the teachers and to keep a watchful eye on the money coming in and going out.

During the raid, over 20 armed police and intelligence agencies personnel barged into Jamia Qadria and closed down its main gate. They searched the premises thoroughly, says Jawadur Rahman, the madrasa’s vice principal. They examined hostel rooms, where students were taking a nap during the afternoon recess, and selected some students randomly and questioned about their antecedents and daily routines. “During the one-hour long search operation, the law enforcement personnel also went over the books in the library and examined the documents at the administration office,” says Rahman.

Since the early 2015 announcement of the National Action Plan (NAP) to eliminate terrorism, such raids have become a matter of routine, especially in the southern parts of Punjab. Apart from large-scale operations, small contingents of law enforcement personnel visit madrasas in the region once or twice every month for updated information on the students and the teachers and to keep a watchful eye on the money coming in and going out.

Qari Muhammad Tahseen, administrator of a Multan-based madrasa, claims intelligence personnel often visit the seminaries, looking for information on whether a madrasa is involved in sectarian violence and whether it is getting funding from abroad. More worrying for him than these queries is another official measure: phones of the administrators and senior teachers are being tapped these days, he claims.

Background interviews with police officials and madrasa administrators in Multan, Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan suggest that the official attitude towards madrasas has shifted from benign indifference in the past to intrusive watchfulness — after the killing of LeJ chief Malik Ishaq, in a reported encounter with the police in July 2015. Government officials feel that Deobandi sectarian elements and their supportive madrasas have been considerably weakened with his death, which the law enforcement departments are using as a helpful development to tighten the security and surveillance noose around madrasas.

A library at the Ahl-e-Hadith madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer
A library at the Ahl-e-Hadith madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer

“The government is probing all those madrasas that sectarian militants such as Ishaq and his affiliates used to visit,” says Hasan Ahmed Darkhwasti, the administrator of Jamia Abdullah bin Masood in Khanpur town of Rahim Yar Khan. His madrasa itself had hosted Ishaq on several occasions before his arrest and murder because, he claims, the intelligence agencies would advise Deobandi seminaries in the region to keep close contact with people like Ishaq.

Another murder in another part of the province – of Punjab’s home minister Shuja Khanzada at his Attock residence in 2015 – has also forced the government to start looking into the activities of madrasa students, teachers and administrators. Officials in Lahore say the crackdown against madrasas was launched after the militants linked with Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, claimed to have assassinated Khanzada through the logistic support allegedly provided by some seminaries.

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“We have raided 450-500 madrasas since then. Some raids were intelligence-based while others were random,” says a senior Lahore-based police official. He does not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak publicly on the subject. “We have checked their records, probed their links with militant groups and impounded whatever suspect material we found such as computers, weapons and hate literature,” he says.

Though the raids against madrasas have been discontinued in recent weeks due to the apprehension that those might be seen as being conducted to please the western donors, the official adds, “we continue to do surveillance and carry out intelligence-based action”.

In Karachi, raids are selective and targeted, and are carried out as part of the NAP implementation, officials say. Many madrasa administrators verify that they are regularly questioned about the numbers and the identities of their students as well as the names and the institutional affiliation of any guests that they ever have.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to a list compiled by the Special Branch of the provincial police, 76 madrasas have been put under highest official surveillance. Only two of these are in Peshawar.

Yet most of them see these measures as a routine exercise which is yielding no tangible results. “I do not know if any madrasa has been shut down in Karachi as a result of search operations,” says Maulana Umer Sadiq, a local leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam—Fazl (JUI-F), which runs many madrasas in the city’s District West. Abdul Kareem Bukhari, another madrasa administrator in the same district, is also not convinced that the operations are effective. “I can assure you that the police have not arrested a single person in District West,” he claims.

The government officials dismiss these claims as propaganda meant to portray that nothing sinister is going on inside the madrasas. They cite a recent home department report to claim that at least one person, Ismail Shah, was arrested from a madrasa inside Mustafa Masjid in Site area for possessing and distributing jihadi literature in the neighbourhood.

Another report, prepared last year by the same department, says around 167 madrasas have been forced to close down across Sindh for their suspected links with militancy and sectarianism. None of these sealed madrasas, however, happen to be in Karachi. The authorities also refuse to reveal the names, locations and sectarian identities of the sealed institutions.

The officials have compiled a detailed list of all the madrasas in the province and have geotagged a large number of them so that the coordinates of their location are precisely mapped in the government records and a photo or another visual of their premises is available in the official files. The following is a division-wise breakdown of the madrasas as per the list which puts the total number of madrasa students in the province at 517,695:

Division-wise breakdown of the madrasas
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In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to a list compiled by the special branch of the provincial police, 76 madrasas have been put under high-level official surveillance. Only two of these are in Peshawar. The highest number of madrasas under the strictest surveillance (18) is in Lakki Marwat; the second highest number (13) is in Dera Ismail Khan; and the third highest number (10) is in Bannu.

In Punjab, authorities claim they have geotagged all the 14,000 or so madrasas in the province, although a large number of them are not even registered with any government department. “We have collected complete data on the number of children enrolled in these madrasas. We also know how many foreign students are enrolled and in which madrasa,” says a Lahore-based official, who does not want to be named.

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The way the Punjab government is moving towards the seminaries is causing a lot of discomfort among the madrasa administrators. “We are fine with the collection of information and any other queries, but the government officials must conduct those exercises in a decent way; they should not humiliate and harass the people in seminaries through unnecessarily aggressive actions,” says the administrator of a madrasa in Multan. “The law enforcement agencies mostly treat the teachers and students of the seminaries as criminals,” he claims.

Others complain the government treats madrasas as hatcheries of terrorism, even when there is only circumstantial evidence of it. “Intelligence agencies came to know that a man named Umar, who happened to be a close aide of LeJ’s deceased chief, was once a student at our madrasa. The officials came to us and started questioning us about him as if we are responsible for all the acts of all our former students,” says Azizur Rahman Darkhwasti, the administrator of Jamia Arabia Makhzanul Uloom, a prominent Deobandi madrasa in Rahim Yar Khan’s Khanpur town.

Young boys enter the Eid Gah mosque in Multan that serves as a madrasa between prayer hours | Kohi Marri
Young boys enter the Eid Gah mosque in Multan that serves as a madrasa between prayer hours | Kohi Marri

Mohsin Rahmani, a teacher at the same madrasa, recounts how the law enforcement personnel registered a case for promoting sectarian hatred against the administrator of a local seminary over the possession of a book of Deobandi beliefs which, he claims, did not incite any hatred towards anyone.

Administrators of madrasas in Rahim Yar Khan also like to cite the case of Shafiqur Rahman, a khateeb (scribe) at a local mosque, to claim that the cases against people linked to madrasas are being registered on whim. Rahman himself claims to have been victimised for publicly opposing a ban imposed by the district police officer on the collection of donation for madrasas. “The officer was so displeased that he booked me for violating the Punjab Sound Systems Regulation Act during the Friday prayers,” he says.

Shafiqur Rahman was able to secure an acquittal from a court but the police have still put his name in a list of people whose movements are governed by the Fourth Schedule, due to alleged links with terrorist organisations. “I have never attended any public meeting by any sectarian or extremist organisation,” Shafiqur Rahman says in his defence.

The intensity of government actions has forced some madrasas to take unprecedented precautionary measures. Jamia Qadria, for example, checks the personal belongings, mobile phones and hostel rooms of the students every month to ensure that they are not doing anything that may land their institution in trouble with the government. Three students were expelled a couple of months ago after badges supporting Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, an outlawed anti-Shia organisation, were found in their bags, says Vice Principal Jawadur Rahman.

Some senior law enforcement officials in Lahore believe that madrasas are not “directly involved in terrorism” and, therefore, must not be punished for the individual acts of their graduates.

Government officials in southern Punjab claim they have solid reasons to conduct raids. “Terrorists apprehended recently were once linked to certain madrasas. That is why the police are probing the seminaries they had been associated with,” says SP Irfan Samo in Rahim Yar Khan. He denies being harsh or selective, let alone personal, in these probes. “No specific sects or persons are our targets, and madrasas belonging to all sects and schools of thought are being treated equally.”

Many madrasa administrators protest that the official measures are aimed at nothing else but maligning the institutions of religious learning. “Midnight raids, sieges of madrasas and harassment [are meant to] please the Western countries,” says Mufti Attaur Rahman, principal of Jamiatul Madina, a madrasa in Bahawalpur. “Countless criminals and terrorists have studied at schools, colleges and universities but the government never raids their educational institutions. Why then does the government harass madrasas for the individual acts of their former associates?” he asks.

Some senior law enforcement officials in Lahore echo his concerns. They believe that madrasas are not “directly involved in terrorism” and, therefore, must not be punished for the individual acts of their graduates. Their argument: most suspects involved in acts of terrorism at home and abroad come from mainstream educational institutions and reputed Pakistani and foreign universities. “Should those universities and colleges also be shut down?” asks one senior police official.

He, therefore, opposes “stereotyping” madrasas as “breeding grounds of militancy and militants” and insists that “we, as society, have massively been radicalised over time”. This situation, he says, “cannot be reversed by demonising madrasas and their students alone”.

A mega class room at a madrasa |Ghulam Dastageer
A mega class room at a madrasa |Ghulam Dastageer

When Syed Imran Ali Shah received admission at Mercy Pak School 17 years ago, his family had no idea that the madrasa-cum-orphanage was affiliated with the Wahhabi/Salafi school of thought. His widowed mother was actually happy that he was to receive free education from a quality institution.

Coming from a traditionalist Sufi family, he started feeling like an alien in the madrasa as his education proceeded. “I was, perhaps, the only student who did not follow the madrasa’s Wahabbi ideology,” Shah tells the Herald. “Almost all the teachers of the orphanage were Wahabbis,” he says. And even though the curriculum of the madrasa did not have any ostensibly sectarian contents, he says, the students over the passage of time were so brainwashed that they would consider many beliefs and practices of people belonging to other sects as heresy.

His name, with Ali and Shah in it, is a popular name among the Shias and, therefore, earned him the reputation of being a Shia in the madrasa, even though he comes from a Sunni family. He remembers a scuffle with a fellow student over sectarian differences vis-à-vis religious personages.

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The administrators everywhere claim they do not teach their students to hate other sects, but interviews with teachers and students amply prove that the madrasas play a key role in moulding the sectarian identities of their graduates. Most of them do not hesitate from pronouncing their sectarian beliefs publicly. Umer Bin Abdul Aziz, the administrator of an Ahl-e-Hadith madrasa in Peshawar, does not mince his words when he debunks many Barelvi beliefs even in his casual conversations. He also appears to be vehemently opposed to the beliefs of Shias.

In Barelvi madrasas, too, feelings towards the members of other sects are of distrust if not outright hostility. Muhammad Saad Junaidi, a 19-year-old student at Peshawar’s main Barelvi madrasa, Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah, does not deem it right to offer prayers led by an imam who belongs to another sect.

Syed Jawad Hadi, administrator of Jamiatus Shaheed Arif Hussain Lil-Maarif al-Islamia, acknowledges that the way the Shia madrasas implement Dars-e-Nizami curriculum is quite flawed. Precious little is taught about the lives of the first three Muslim caliphs in the Shia seminaries, he admits. “It’s not the right thing. Their services to Islam should also be taught about in the Shia madrasas.”

Some madrasa administrators still want everyone to believe that their educational institutions do not have any role in spreading sectarian sentiments and inciting religious violence.

Motivated by his cross-sectarian impulses, he gathered administrators of 40 madrasas of Peshawar at his seminary about a decade ago with three objectives in mind: to devise a uniform syllabus; to organise exchange visits for madrasa teachers; and to arrange similar exchange visits for madrasa students. The initiative could not bear fruit because the then provincial government – run by a coalition of six religious political parties – wanted to take credit for it while most of the madrasa administrators involved in it wanted to keep it free from politics, says Hadi.

Some madrasa administrators still want everyone to believe that their educational institutions do not have any role in spreading sectarian sentiments and inciting religious violence. Maulana Samiul Haq, the head of Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak that prides itself on being the alma mater of many prominent Afghan Taliban leaders, obfuscates the subject of sectarian violence by blaming it entirely on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as if Muslims never had any sectarian problems before that.

And he self-contradicts without blinking an eye. After claiming that no terrorists have ever had any links to any madrasa in Pakistan, Haq says Iran and Saudi Arabia generously fund madrasas in Pakistan to promote their respective sectarian agendas. The madrasas receiving these funds are either bastions of peace or they are the fountainheads of sectarian violence. They cannot be both at the same time.

A view of Jamia Naeemia madrasa, Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star
A view of Jamia Naeemia madrasa, Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star

Haq then argues that the madrasa curriculum does not discriminate between the books written by authors belonging to different sects — or even different schools of thought. “We are Hanafis, but none of the compilers of the six most authentic collections of hadith was a Hanafi. Still, we teach their books,” he says without explaining that in this case, he is referring to different schools of jurisprudence within Sunni Islam, rather than the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shias.

To confound things even further, he says the madrasa curriculum also includes the poetry of Imru al-Qais, a pre-Islamic Arab poet, without specifying that it is part of the syllabus meant only for specialisation in Arabic grammar and language — a higher qualification that only few madrasa students opt for.

Gaps like these are ubiquitous. When Hafiz Muhammad Ejaz, a senior administrator at Islamabad’s Jamia Salfia proudly shows the Herald that his madrasa has a book by the 12th Century rationalist Muslim philosopher Ibne Rushd (known as Averroes in the West) in its syllabus, he fails to hide the next entry — a book to negate the beliefs and practices of the Ahmadis.

Some insiders know these contradictions are too glaring to brush aside and are, therefore, unapologetic about their sectarian character. They see aqeedah – how and what people believe – as the basis for sects and madrasas. The madrasas, according to them, have a role in imparting the correct aqeedah to their affiliates. “We teach the students the aqeedah of every sect and tell them as to how and where that aqeedah is wrong so that we can then guide them to the right aqeedah,” says Umer bin Abdul Aziz of Jamiatul Asar in Peshawar.

What if the students then want to fight with those who have the wrong aqeedah? Instead of bringing people to the right aqeedah through violence, they should be convinced through argument, he responds. The long history of sectarian violence in Islam shows that sectarian schisms run deep and hardly ever yield to reconciliation through arguments. That there are so many sects in Islam only means that none of them has been able to clinch the argument in favour of its aqeedah.

The administrators everywhere claim they do not teach their students to hate other sects but interviews with teachers and students amply prove that the madrasas play a key role in moulding the sectarian identities of their graduates.

Another insider is even more candid about the role of madrasas, and their administrators and teachers in spreading sectarianism. “They are lying if they say they do not influence their students directly or indirectly,” says a Deobandi madrasa teacher in southern Punjab. “They are the reason why madrasa students dislike the beliefs and practices of people from other sects or schools of thought.”

And outsiders readily agree. Syed Kamran Ali Shah Qadri, the editor of a Peshawar-based religious monthly magazine Mazhab-i-Amn (which translates as “the religion of peace”), is a champion of interfaith harmony. He believes sectarian ideology is systematically instilled into the minds of the students who enter madrasas at a very tender and impressionable age.

But the madrasa representatives avoid making public the unpalatable aspects of madrasa education, says Dr Niaz Muhammad, a researcher at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, who has carried out textual analysis of madrasa books. “No one should claim that their statements about the madrasa curriculum have nothing to do with sectarianism or other forms of religious militancy to match the reality,” he says.

Even outside Pakistan, religious education remains mostly sectarian — most obviously in places such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, one internationally renowned institution of religious learning, Cairo’s historic Al-Azhar University, has focused on developing critical faculties among its graduates rather than cramming them with controversial histories and even more controversial interpretations of religious texts. “I did not find any sectarian bias in the curriculum at Al-Azhar where people from 114 different nationalities and belonging to different sects study together,” says Khalid Raza, who is pursuing a degree there after graduating from a Barelvi madrasa in Peshawar.

Girls read Islamic texts in a madrasa in Malir, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Girls read Islamic texts in a madrasa in Malir, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

“A narrow lane, lined on either side with overflowing open drains and strewn with garbage, winds through rundown unpainted barrack-like houses with broken windows and walls festooned with posters of rival political parties,” wrote Yoginder Sikand, a leading Indian author on Islam, in an essay, titled Lost Legacy of South Asia’s Leading Centre of Islamic Learning. “Goats sniff through piles of vegetable peels and rotting fruit. Ahead, an enormous mound of bricks and mud squats like a crumbling pyramid. A thin slice of wall peeks out from the rubble. The serpentine roots of a peepul tree grow out of what was once a delicately-carved dome. This was once the grand Firangi Mahal,” he wrote.

Firangi Mahal (foreigner’s palace) — “or whatever is left of it — is located [in Lucknow] off a busy road constantly clogged with slow-moving traffic,” Sikand noted. Originally the residence of a European visitor to India, it was handed over to the family of two religious scholars in the 17th century by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The scholars turned it into an institute of religious learning, thereby starting a long line of distinguished men of religion known as the ulema of Firangi Mahal who have played an important role in various social and political movements of the Muslims in India, including the Khilafat Movement in the 1920s and the movement for independence from the British in later decades.

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The ulema of Firangi Mahal were closely associated with the Mughal Empire and were instrumental in introducing the 11th Century Muslim religious curriculum, known as Dars-e-Nizami, to the Indian subcontinent — and subsequently to Pakistan and India. The story goes something like this: when the East India Company purchased the right to collect revenue in the Mughal provinces of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar from Emperor Shah Alam, one of the clauses in the purchase agreement was that the British company will not change the legal and administrative systems in those provinces. Obliged by the need to train judges and administrators to run those systems – mostly operating under Hanafi Muslim laws – the company needed to devise a curriculum for the schools that it wanted to set up for its prospective employees in the provinces it was to run. Mullah Nizamuddin, a scion of the Firangi Mahal family, had devised an education curriculum around the same time, which, according to Sikand, “combined Sufi treatises, Islamic texts as well as books on the ‘rational’ sciences such as geography, logic, medicine, philosophy, literature and mathematics.”

Post-1947, Dars-e-Nizami has experienced substantial changes mostly because of sectarian reasons. “The Barelvis and Deobandis have retained only 25 to 30 per cent of the original Dars-e-Nizami,” Dr Niaz Muhammad tells the Herald.

This syllabus was an adapted version of the original Dars-e-Nizami devised by Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi – known as Nizam al-Mulk – for the higher education institutions he set up as the prime minister of the Seljuk Sultans, about six centuries earlier. These institutions were called Nizamiyyah after him and their curriculum was consequently known as Dars-e-Nizamiyyah or Dars-e-Nizami.

In Mullah Nizamuddin’s Dars-e-Nizami syllabus, the Quran and Hadith were only marginally studied; the former via two commentaries, the latter through one abridgement, says Barbara D Metcalf, the author of Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860-1900. This Dars-e-Nizami became the core syllabus for all Islamic – mostly Sunni – madrasas that were later opened in different parts of British India, staring with what was then known as the United Provinces (UP) in places such as Deoband (in 1867) and in Raebareli (in 1904). These two places have subsequently become respectively synonymous with Deobandi and Barelvi sub-sects of the Sunni Islam in the Indian subcontinent. One of Mullah Nizamuddin’s own successors, Maulana Abdul Bari, who “played a leading role in India’s struggle for independence”, as Sikand tells us, also set up Madrasa Nazmia in Lucknow in 1913.

A student at Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak | Ghulam Dastageer
A student at Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak | Ghulam Dastageer

Post-1947, Dars-e-Nizami has experienced substantial changes mostly because of sectarian reasons. “The Barelvis and Deobandis have retained only 25 to 30 per cent of the original Dars-e-Nizami,” Dr Niaz Muhammad tells the Herald. However, “madrasas linked to the Shia and Ahl-e-Hadith sects as well as those linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami political party have almost entirely replaced Dars-e-Nizami with curricula of their own.”

Muhammad notes that the most important change to have taken place in Dars-e-Nizami is that it has shifted away from imparting the knowledge of ma’aqulat (rational sciences) to rote learning and interpretation of manqlat (received religious texts). This is because the main purpose of the current curriculum is to train religious teachers and prayer leaders, he says.

That shift also explains why a madrasa administrator in Lahore is not enthusiastic about adding any non-religious subjects to the curriculum. “What is the use of these subjects for children being trained in religious education?” asks Pir Saifullah Khalid of Jamiatul Manzoor.

Dr Amir Tauseen, an expert on Dars-e-Nizami curriculum who heads a federal government institution in Islamabad – Pakistan Madrasa Education Board – points out that the commentaries on the compilations of Hadith differ in the syllabus of madrasas belonging to different sects and are major contributors to sectarianism. “Courses related to sectarian subjects have been introduced as part of the teaching of hadith,” he says.

Dr Tahir Mehmood, the principal of Jamia Salfia in Islamabad’s H-8 Sector, talks about some other changes which, he says, have been necessitated by the changing times. “The original Dars-e-Nizami included the learning of Greek philosophy,” he says, “but the age we are living in is not the age of philosophy”. Most madrasas, therefore, “teach Greek philosophy only with the help of a 20-page summary”. The focus, he says, “has shifted to computer science” which has now become an integral part of the instruction at many madrasas across Pakistan.

There have been multiple attempts to change – if not reform – the madrasa education system in recent times. For instance, the teaching of some non-religious subjects – such as mathematics, Urdu, Pakistan Studies – was introduced in the 1980s, when the government was generously supporting madrasas financially. The introduction of those subjects allowed madrasa graduates to sit for the examinations conducted by the government boards and universities. Other administrative changes around that time helped thousands of madrasa graduates to get bachelors and masters degrees in subjects such as Arabic and Islamic Studies by passing matriculation and intermediate examinations in some compulsory subjects such as English and Pakistan Studies. Most of those students later became Arabic and Islamic Studies teachers at thousands of government schools when these two subjects were declared compulsory during the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq.

Students work at Jamia Naeemia ‘s computer lab, Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star
Students work at Jamia Naeemia ‘s computer lab, Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star

Madrasa administrators remember General Ziaul Haq as their greatest benefactor who, according to Pir Saifullah Khalid, “used to finance madrasas with public money.” That channel dried after the Zia era came to an end in a plane crash. “We then had to turn to charitable donors at home and abroad for funds to meet our expenditure,” he tells the Herald. “How else you expect us to finance our expenditure?”

Khalid does not favour any restrictions on the flow of money to the madrasas because that money, according to him, is being used for “educating poor children”.

Officials in the federal government have a different viewpoint. Many madrasas are getting money from abroad and not all of it is being used to impart education, they say. Out of more than 250 madrasas closed down across Pakistan in recent months, according to an intelligence official, around 100 were sealed on the charges of receiving foreign funds from dubious sources. The action, he says, was taken on the basis of intelligence reports. The number of madrasas getting foreign funding of suspect nature may turn out to be much higher if a proper audit of it is done in all those madrasas receiving money from abroad, he adds. According to an unofficial count by Mufti Abdul Qavi, a Multan-based Sunni religious scholar, the number of such madrasas is 280.

Khalid insists the madrasas cannot ask the donors about the source of their money. “We are ready to give our accounts for audit, but will not disclose the source of funds. Why should we do that if the donors don’t want to be named?”

The government appears resolute about doing just that. “All the madrasas receiving foreign funding have been put under strict government surveillance,” says Qavi, highlighting the government’s intentions.

Students at Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah, a Barelvi madrasa in Peshawar
Students at Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah, a Barelvi madrasa in Peshawar

In a big hall inside the vast campus of Jamia Faridia –one of the largest seminaries in Pakistan – three neatly turned out teachers are taking three separate classes, each comprising 12 to 15 students. Dressed in white cotton salwar kameez, each teacher is providing lessons on memorising the Quran. After spending three hours in classes of religious instruction, says Muhammad Ahmed, a senior student of the seminary, the students will spend an hour learning worldly subjects such as English, science, mathematics and Pakistan Studies.

In a small room, a little while later, some 12 students start taking lessons in basic science and geography. “If you go into space and look towards the planet earth, it will appear blue to you; the blue colour indicates the presence of water on earth,” Muhammad Ayub, a young teacher, is telling the students, many of whom come from Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Before July 2007, about 3,000 students were enrolled at Jamia Faridia. Many of its students then joined the administrators of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in an armed revolt against the state. The seminary subsequently remained closed for more than a year and was allowed to reopen only after intense negotiations between the government and its administrators. One of the main official conditions for reopening the seminary was that it should reduce its enrollment. Letting a madrasa in the heart of the federal capital have a huge student body will always run the risk that those studying there become unruly – as they did during the bloodied debacle at Lal Masjid – and create a law and order situation, as the authorities feared.

Letting a madrasa in the heart of the federal capital have a huge student body will always run the risk that those studying there become unruly – as they did during the bloodied debacle at Lal Masjid – and create a law and order situation.

“There are only 1,300 students in Jamia Faridia now,” says Ahmed. The madrasa is also under strict government surveillance.

Another madrasa in the same city is under absolutely no official regulation, let alone surveillance. “There is no contact with the government,” says Dr Tahir Mehmood, principal of Jamia-e-Salfia, the largest Ahl-e-Hadith seminary in Islamabad.

This inconsistency is about to change if officials at the federal interior ministry are to be believed. The ministry is in the process of devising a surveillance regime for all the madrasas in the country, aimed at centralising all the relevant data and getting regular updates on any changes at any of the madrasas in Pakistan. The system being put in place will require the management of madrasas to submit instant reports “about every development in their seminaries,” as one official in Islamabad puts it. If and when, for instance, a student or a teacher migrates from one seminary to another, both the seminaries will have to report this development to the interior ministry.

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“The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) has been tasked to develop software for this system,” the official says. The surveillance mechanism envisions the setting up of a server at the interior ministry’s headquarters in Islamabad to house the central database; every madrasa will be linked to this database through a computer terminal provided by the ministry which will also carry out on-site inspections through intelligence agencies and the local police to verify and cross-check the information being received from individual madrasas, the official tells the Herald without wanting to be named.

One of the main hurdles the planned system is facing is the reluctance among the madrasa administrators to agree to it. The government remains adamant that they have to. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was unequivocal when he told the representatives of madrasa administrators in a meeting in Islamabad on January 17, 2016, that they have no option but to accept a strict monitoring and surveillance system.

Parleys between the government and the office-bearers of Ittehad Tanzeemul Madaris – an umbrella organisation of all the five madrasa associations in the country (representing four sects – Deobandi, Salafi, Barelvi, Shia (and a political party, Jamaat-e-Islami) – have been going on for months. “During the last six months, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and Interior Minister Khan have had multiple meetings with the madrasa representatives,” says a senior office-bearer of Wifaqul Madaris al-Arabia (an association of Deobandi madrasas). “In every meeting, we were told to cooperate with the government,” he says.

A teacher taking class in Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer
A teacher taking class in Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer

The decision to bring madrasas under strict vigilance was taken at the highest official level “after it became apparent that most of the terrorist attacks during the last three years could be traced back to madrasas,” says a senior interior ministry official.

As a first step to implement a surveillance system, the interior ministry started a registering process three months ago. In a related measure, the provincial governments were told to perform the geographical mapping of all the madrasas within their jurisdiction. The process of geotagging has been completed in Punjab and is at a very advanced stage in Sindh but it has not even started in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

The main objectives of the government drive are: a) to get all the madrasas registered by the middle of this year; b) to convince the madrasa managements to carry out all their financial transaction through banks; and c) to convince madrasas to get their accounts audited through government authorised auditors.

The progress on all three counts has been slow. The representatives of madrasa associations cite “practical obstacles in the way of implementation” of the official demands, says an official of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (Nacta), a recently constituted government body. While the money-related requirements have been rejected out of hand by madrasa administrators, the registration process has also been bogged down mainly due to the differences between the madrasa associations and their affiliates.

“The government has been able to register only around 8,000 madrasas out of the 33,000 known to exist across Pakistan,” says a senior government official in Islamabad. And this is in spite of the fact that the registration process has been going on since the London bombing carried out by men of Pakistani origin in 2006, who had attended madrasas in Pakistan. The task was originally assigned to the federal ministry of religious affairs which, according to interior ministry officials, was more interested in appeasing the madrasa managements than in registering them. The assignment has now been given to the interior ministry which has enlisted the help of provincial home departments to do it.

Lunch at the Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer
Lunch at the Jamia Junaidiyah Ghafooriyah madrasa, Peshawar | Ghulam Dastageer

The other factor hampering the registration process is more protracted. Many madrasa administrators see the representatives of their associations to have surrendered their autonomy to the government. “We have reports that a large number of madrasas have revolted against their respective associations, accusing them of agreeing to an intrusive inspection and surveillance regime,” says a senior government official in Islamabad. “More than 40 per cent of the madrasas just refused” when the associations distributed a seven-page registration form among their affiliates. The madrasas in revolt, according to the official, mostly belong to the Deobandi sect.

A related problem is a long-standing demand by the madrasa associations that their examinations and degrees enjoy the same status as that accorded to the examinations and degrees of the government boards and universities. For years, the madrasa representatives have been putting forward this demand as a precondition to allowing the registration process to go ahead. In recent months, however, the government has reversed the situation by insisting that the madrasa examinations and degrees will get the official recognition only if the registration process is completed without delay, says an interior ministry official. The two sides, however, are yet to arrive at an agreement on the issue.

The government is complementing its negotiations with the representatives of madrasa associations through other efforts to register madrasas: religious ministry officials are talking to the managements of those madrasas which are not affiliated to any of the five associations so that they register themselves with the Pakistan Madrasa Education Board (PMEB). “There are 5,000 such madrasas throughout Pakistan,” says the board’s chairman, Dr Aamir Tauseen. Out of these, he says, “1,500 madrasas have agreed to affiliate themselves with the board.” Those ready for affiliation belong to the Deobandi sect.

PMEB was set up in 2001 through an ordinance with the objective of modernising the madrasa curriculum. It was also supposed to oversee the functioning of five madrasa associations. The board, however, has faded into the background for several reasons, not the least because it has been functioning with next to no money for the last 10 years.

That clearly explains that the government’s efforts for regulating madrasas lack consistency. Once the current furor over the links between religious and sectarian terrorism and the madrasas subside, will the government pursue the issue with the same vigour as it is exhibiting now? The question is moot.

Opening photo: Students at a madrasa in Multan | Kohi Marri