Madrassas are a fundamental component of Pakistan’s education system. A report by Provincial education authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (ex North-West Frontier Province) said there were 10,887 registered religious schools with an estimated two million students in 2010, up from 201 in 1947.
About 85 per cent of these schools cater to students from Sunni sects while the rest serve Shias. What is more, only 25 per cent of the religious schools have sought registration. In addition, most of the almost 4,000 male and 900 female teachers in the province are graduates of religious schools.
“Most of these teachers are unable to teach properly. They don’t have modern education. The government wants to support them financially and technically but they don’t want” that, said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak.
The government wants to integrate religious education with formal education and bridge the gulf between the two systems, but madrassa officials see it as government interference.
“About 99 per cent of the students belong to poor families who could not afford the cost of modern or government-run schools and opted to get themselves enrolled in religious schools where no fee is charged," Babak said.
“Religious schools are very good because they teach you the true meaning of Islam. But religious schools must teach modern education, such as computer, mathematics, English etc.," said Muhammad Asif, a teacher at the Uma Hatul Momineen Madrassa. He noted that most students at these schools illiterate.
Madrassas have been accused of promoting terrorism, providing an extremist education, and serving as recruiting grounds for radical groups. On several occasions, the United States has called on Pakistani authorities to control these institutions and add modern subjects.
The heads of religious schools vehemently deny charges they are producing militants. “More than 4,500 students study in our school," said Maulana Samiul Haq, chancellor of Darul Uloom Haqqania, the biggest religious seminary in Pakistan. "All of them are peaceful and apolitical. They had taken part in the fight against Mujahedeen leaders just to safeguard Afghanistan against the bitterly divided and corrupt Mujahedeen government in Kabul."
Minister Babak insisted that under the proposed plan to modernise education traditional subjects would remain, like Nazirah-e- Qur‘an (Qur‘an recitation), Tahfeez-ul-Qur‘an (Qur‘an memorisation), Tajweed (correct pronunciation), darse-e-nizami (the standard syllabus of a religious seminary), tafseer (Qur‘anic analysis and interpretation), hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and Fiqah (Islamic jurisprudence).
However, programmes would also include Arabic literature, Urdu, English, science, math, computers and information-technology, as well as vocational training.