Reshaping Religious Institutions: Studying the Impact of State Involvement and Regional Conflict on Pakistan’s Madrassahs

Editor's note:

Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs, Saleem H. Ali
(Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 350 pages.

Tabinda Khan
March 25, 2010

In recent years, madrassahs or Islamic seminaries in Pakistan have come under intense scrutiny for potential links to terrorism and violence. Saleem Ali’s Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs is a timely contribution to a controversial debate. The author challenges what he calls “propagandist negative accounts” that regard madrassahs as “incubators of violent extremism,” as well as “naively positive accounts” which defend madrassahs as a vital part of the Islamic tradition but ignore their relationship to violence. Instead, he calls for exploring a middle ground between criticism and naiveté; for appreciating that madrassahs are an essential part of the fabric of Muslim societies while also facing the reality that in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir, external interference in these institutions by state and non-state actors alike has changed their traditional operational style and function and has indeed involved some of them in violence.

The main task of the book is to test the causal relationship between madrassah education and violence through the use of multi-method field research and a comparison of two case studies: Ahmedpur East in Southern Punjab, a low-income rural area, and Islamabad, a high-income urban area. The former case is particularly notable because Ahmedpur is considered a hotbed of several (now banned) Islamist militant groups including the Sunni Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Harkat-ul-Ansar and the Shia Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan. Using GIS mapping, the author identifies associations between the demographic characteristics of areas, such as household income and literacy, and the density of madrassahs. He then ties these observations to data on sectarian violence obtained from law enforcement and intelligence agencies to uncover links between madrassahs and violence.

While the research design raises hopes that the book will provide a social scientific account of the links between madrassah education and violence, however, Islam and Education does not live up to its promised goal. First, the empirical data in the book is lopsided: the data on demographic characteristics and sectarian violence in Ahmedpur is detailed and informative whereas the data for Islamabad is merely gleaned from a content analysis of newspapers. Second, the book does not systematically analyze causal links between madrassah education, recruitment and career placement of students and conflict as it proposes to do. Apart from a few concrete examples for the case of Ahmedpur, the remaining analysis switches back and forth from an observation about a case to comments on secondary sources and finally to the author’s own policy prescriptions. The reader is ultimately left unsatisfied about causal links. Despite this failing, Islam and Education is still worth reading for several insightful observations.

To begin with, Ali argues that the most prevalent form of violence tied to madrassahs is not violence against foreign targets, but that between different sects of Muslims—the three main Sunni sects (Deobandis, Barelvis, and Ahl-e-Hadith) and the Shias. Of the 363 madrassahs in Ahmedpur, he finds that 80 percent of Deobandi, 70 percent of Shia, 25 percent of Barelvi and 14 percent of Ahl-e-Hadith madrassahs were involved in sectarian violence. Since Ahmedpur is considered a hotbed of sectarian violence, these numbers may be much higher than an average area in Pakistan, but the case still offers an informative window into the interaction between religion and politics at a micro level.

For instance, the author finds that the key explanatory variable for sectarian violence in Ahmedpur is class conflict. He notes that 96 percent of Ahmedpur’s population has less than five acres of land, whereas the official holding size for subsistence is 12.5 acres, and argues that sectarian groups have the most power in areas where feudal landowners monopolize political and economic power, or where the Shia landed gentry is dominant. Ali describes religio-political parties as vehicles through which peasants are able to challenge the traditional elite. He gives the example of the (assassinated) SSP leader Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a fiery preacher of humble origins known for helping the poor.

Additionally, Ali maintains that the state has involved madrassahs in regional conflicts and domestic politics. He recounts that after the Afghan jihad, militants returned to their villages in Ahmedpur and established madrassahs to earn a living. The local government cultivated them as leaders in order to use them to foil sectarian conflicts. Furthermore, in an interview, Hamid Gul, the former chief of the ISI, admits that the military gave logistical support to madrassahs that “appeared naturally” near Afghan refugee settlements to provide education. In the case of Islamabad, the state involvement is even more glaring since 90 percent of the madrassahs in Islamabad are located in green-belt or environmental conservation zones where regular infrastructure development is prohibited. Ali explains that during the Afghan war, the state gave concessions to madrassahs through informal land grants which were later regularized by General Zia under planning laws. This patronage far outweighed official financial support through the zakat fund, which constitutes a relatively small portion of the income of madrassahs.

Islam and Education may not satisfy readers who are expecting a social scientific analysis of madrassah education and violence. It certainly leaves plenty of food for thought, however. Perhaps the most unsettling fact is the state’s policy of involving madrassahs in regional conflicts and domestic politics, while granting them astonishing room for independent maneuver. According to the author’s estimates, the number of madrassahs in Pakistan has risen from 244 in 1956 to between 12,000 and 15,000 today, with an enrollment of 1.5 to 2 million students. In the two cases he studied, however, only thirty-nine out of 363 madrassahs were registered with the government in Ahmedpur and only thirty-two out of 117 were registered in Islamabad (even though 101 were located on state land). This dual policy of state patronage and state distance has continued to bedevil successive governments in Pakistan and is still a cause for alarm today.