|Madrassah in Afghanistan: Evolution and its Future|
|Written by Misbah Abdulbaqi|
[Religious schools or madrassahs, present in Afghanistan since 7th century, grew under different rulers and different environments, till the 20th century and have seen many ups and downs. In the initial period, madrassahs were mainly run on the model of such institutions in Central Asia. However, with the passage of time, influence from sub-continent, particularly Deobandi school of thought increased. This reached its peak during Taliban regime while witnessed decline in the current Karzai government. The west, in general, views the madrassahs as hatcheries of violence. However, people of Afghanistan consider these institutes as part of their history and identity. The need is to understand the role of madrassahs in true perspective and make efforts for reforms and modernization where needed. – Editors]
Religious education owes its sensitivity to its close relation with the very understanding of religion; its importance can hardly be ignored in conservative societies where it forms the basis of the value framework. In Afghanistan, however, the sphere of religious education has attained significant political and international dimensions in recent years, giving birth to two opposite views about religious educational institutions, or madrassahs. On one side is the traditional Afghan view that madrassahsshould continue to be established and maintained as before, and on the other is the ‘global’ perspective that religious schools are instrumental in spreading hate and intolerance. A third view has recently emerged from a section of Afghan society that might bridge the gulf between these two extremes: these Afghans do not deny the importance of religious schools but contend that, in their present mode, these institutions cannot produce graduates who can provide effective guidance and leadership to society to address its current problems.
With a view to enriching this ongoing debate, this article takes a brief look at the history of Afghan madrassahsand the role they played in Afghan society, tracing the relations of Afghan rulers and governments with these institutions up till the current regime. Previous efforts to reform the curriculum of madrassahsare analyzed. The current problems of madrassahsand the government’s response are briefly outlined. Finally, recommendations are presented for addressing the present problems of madrassahs, making them fit to play the important role they were meant to play in Afghan society, and thereby resolving the conflict of opinion between conservative and Western forces over what is to be done about the issues confronting the madrassah.
However, a period of protracted civil strife and wars with invading British forces followed Ahmad Shah Abdali’s creation of modern Afghanistan in 1747. On the surface, religious education continued as it had in earlier periods, but there was limited governmental attention or support to religious schools. Hardly any new schools were established, and research and scholastic activities continued only through the efforts of individual scholars. Afghans continued to obtain their education from these private centers of learning as they had before.
This was the situation when Syed Jamaluddin Afghani was born in 1838. Afghani was associated with the court of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan in 1857, and later with his son, Amir Sher Ali Khan, from 1863 to 1878. Afghani tried to bring about educational reforms but failed, initially because Afghanistan was embroiled in internal and external conflicts, and later because, after the wars subsided, some elements of Amir Sher Ali’s court alleged that Afghani had colluded with the traitors and dissidents, including the king’s brother, Sardar Muhammad Azam Khan, who had taken refuge in Iran after his defeat in the war. As the Amir appeared to be convinced of the allegations, Jamaluddin Afghani decided to go into exile in 1868. Before leaving, however, he met the Amir in Kabul and handed him a document describing his vision of reforms. The latter agreed to implement it (Ibid., 592–593).
Amir Sher Ali Khan introduced religious subjects in the contemporary education system but did not build new religious schools. The only religious institution to be established around this time was the madrassah at the mosque of Chob Foroshi, Kabul, during the period of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880–1901), which laid particular emphasis on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) (Ibid., 650). In general, religious education continued largely through individual scholarly efforts, as had become customary over the preceding century.
In 1920, during the regime of Amir Amanullah Khan (1919–1929), a primary school of jurisprudence called Darul ‘Ulum Arabi was established in Kabul. A few more madrassahswere set up during the reign of Nadir Shah (1929–1933), including Najmul Madaris in Jalalabad and Darul Huffaz Andkhoi in the city of Maimana.
A further increase in the number of madrassahs took place during Zahir Shah’s time. By then, these institutions were being overseen by a Ministry of Education. The most prominent included:
These institutions spread over Afghanistan, reaching 20 during the reign of Sardar Muhammad Dawood Khan (1973-78) (Kamgar 1992). Of these 20 madrassahs, 2 were situated in Balkh, 2 in Paktia, 3 in Faryab, 3 in Kabul, 2 in Kunduz, 2 in Kandahar, 3 in Nangarhar and 3 in Herat.
Along with these madrassahs, centers for Tahfeez-e-Qur’an or memorizing of the Holy Qur’an were also established, including:
The number of madrassahsincreased significantly during 1979-1990. This was the time of the jihad against the invading Soviet Union. The organizations involved in or supporting the resistance movement funded madrassahsboth inside Afghanistan and outside, wherever Afghan refugees were situated. The exact number of madrassahsestablished during this period is hard to determine, especially for those established by nongovernmental Muslim welfare organizations.
In the 1990s, the Taliban gradually became stronger in Afghanistan. They paid special attention to the establishment and regularization of madrassahs. Six madrassahswith hostel facilities were built in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat, Ghazni, and Mazar-i-Sharif, which the Taliban wanted to run on the Pakistani model where madrassahs are being run independent of government control under five autonomous boards representing different schools of thought. Other than these major six, hundreds of smaller institutions were also established and were registered with the Religious Education Department of the Ministry of Education. The Karzai government, which succeeded the Taliban, has not closed these madrassahsdown; nor, however, has it allowed them to operate like their counterpart institutions in Pakistan, as the Taliban had envisaged.
In the recent past, scholars who graduated from the Darul ‘Ulum Deoband and some other famous religious schools of India were sought after in Afghanistan. They became instrumental in spreading the influence of Indian Muslim institutions on religious education in Afghanistan. A small number of private madrassahsalso belonged to the Shi‘a sect; here, the students were taught by scholars who had graduated from Qum and Najaf.
The second kind of private madrassahswere fewer in number than the halaqat-e-daras. These were formal institutions that employed permanent teachers whose expenses were borne by the rich elders of society. Prominent among such institutions were the Madrassah Imam Fakhruddin Razi and Madrassah Abdur Rehman Jami in Herat; the Madrassah Fakhrul Madaris, run by a renowned religious and spiritual leader, Mian Gul Jan Agha, in the Tagab area of the province of Kapisa; Noorul Madris, run by Noorul Mashaikh Fazal Umar Mujaddedi in Ghazni, where the great scholars of Ghazni have taught Islamic studies; and the madrassahs of Hudkhel, Tarrakhel and Farza in Kabul.
These madrassahs operated completely outside the influence of the government. Their graduates generally associated themselves either with mosques, as Imams, or with Islamic teaching. They enjoyed great respect and influence among the general public. The government used their influence to settle religious disputes among the public and also offered them positions in the public sector madrassahs. Thus, many of the prominent teachers in the government-controlled religious schools were graduates of influential private madrassahs.
Occupations of Graduates of Public Madrassahs
The curricula of these schools, except for minor changes, were on the pattern of the Deobandi madrassahsin India.
Qualifying the twelfth grade enabled the students to attach themselves with one of the professions outlined below.
Judiciary and Auqaf Ministry
Ninety-six percent of Afghan laws were based on the Hanafi school of thought, while the rest were derived from other sources, including international laws. All the laws were in accordance with the spirit of Islam.
Some of the graduates of the public madrassahs served as judges by taking a few additional courses needed for the discharge of this duty. Only the most gifted of the students got this opportunity. When Kabul was ruled by the communist regime, however, all the graduates from these public madrassahswere not only considered eligible to serve as judges, but were also given precedence for administrative and other judicial jobs. They were also eligible for positions in the ministry of Hajj and Auqaf – the ministry that takes care of religious issues at the central level.
Many scholars who graduated from these schools were able to find employment in journalism. Some joined the magazine publication teams of the Auqaf Ministry while others made their mark working for private magazines.
Teaching and Research
The graduates also worked as teachers of Islamic Studies and Arabic in middle and high schools. Those who had interest in further study were admitted in the Faculty of Sharia, University of Kabul. The students were also sent abroad for education. During the early period of Zahir Shah’s rule, a certificate from these madrassahswas considered equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts degree. Therefore, graduates of public madrassahswere eligible to enter masters programs at the Jamia Al-Azhar.
Some madrassah graduates also entered government service after earning their bachelor’s degrees. Although this option enabled them to earn a livelihood through government service, it seriously curtailed their role as leaders of society. They could not criticize government policies as teachers in government-run madrassahs. They were controlled by the Ministry of Education, which had complete authority over the appointment and termination of teachers as well as financial matters of the madrassahs. The government also exercised control through its role in shaping the curriculum.
The situation of the graduates of halaqat-e-madaris was quite different, especially in terms of chances of employment. The main reason for this difference was that they were not trained to hold government positions and had no accomplished skills in reading and writing. They seldom attained the status in society that is reserved for a true ‘alim (religious scholar). However, due to the limited number of such graduates, this issue did not particularly disturb Afghan society.
Practically, these madrassahs disappeared in the aftermath of the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Madrassahs and Sectarianism
Another incident of sectarianism occurred when some people, especially in Badakhshan province, became associated with the Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought. Although they were few in numbers, their ill-advised strategies disturbed the peace to a considerable extent.
These were, however, minor incidents of sectarianism compared to the kind now being seen in Afghanistan. Millions of refugees have lived in Pakistan and Iran for years, several of whom obtained their education — and imbibed external influences — from the madrassahsthere. A clear example of the transfer of such influences to Afghanistan were the mass massacres conducted by the Taliban and the Shi‘as against each other in Bamyan and Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997 and the following years.
Incidents of Afghan sectarian violence have crossed the border into Pakistan as well. The BBC reported on its Urdu website that violent sectarian clashes had erupted between two rival groups in the Bara area of Khyber Agency in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. Both groups were led by religious leaders, one of whom was the famous Afghan, Pir Saifur Rahman, also known as Bara Pir. Dozens were killed. Later, both the groups scattered and their FM Radio channels were also closed down with the help of the local people.
Saif-ur-Rahman, now living near Lahore, is a cleric who only accepted his own interpretation of Islam; those who did not subscribe to his interpretation were automatically labeled as non-Muslims. Unfortunately, the number of such intolerant people is on the rise in Afghanistan.
The following table illustrates the distribution by province of public madrassahs and their students and teachers.
Source: Planning Department, Ministry of Education, Afghanistan.
We have earlier discussed that quite a large number of madrassahshave operated privately in Afghanistan. There is a dearth of reliable statistical data about them. According to estimates, such madrassahsare in the hundreds and include both Shi‘a and Sunni institutions. Shi‘a madrassahsare generally faring better in the current environment and many people believe that they are attracting support from Iran.
Curriculum of Madrassah
The First Curriculum
A regular curriculum for madrassahs was made for the first time in Afghanistan in 1930, introducing an 11-year educational program. A cursory look at the syllabi reveals considerable difficulties for entering students. The courses taught were rigorous and presumed that students were already initiated in reading and writing. The curriculum included Qira’at & Tajweed (Recitation of Holly Qur’an and its correct intonation) Tafseer (exegeses of the Holy Qur’an), Hadith (Sayings of the holy Prophet PBUH), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Usulul Fiqh( Principles of Jurisprudence), Nahw & Sarf (Arabic grammar), Aqeeda (Beliefs/creed), Arabic literature, logic, Urooz-wa-Qafia (Prosody), philosophy, Hikmat (reason), Usulul Hadith (principles of Hadith), Ilmul-Ma’ani (science of rhetoric), history and ‘Ilm-ul-Meeras (science of Islamic inheritance), besides modern subjects such as calligraphy, mathematics and Persian (Zahir and Ilmi 1960, 83–87).
Although the graduates of these madrassahsreceived good job offers, many held that their education did not equip them with the modern knowledge needed to survive in their time. Thus, Musa Shafiq, who was a graduate of Darul ‘Ulum Arabi, Kabul, and became the Prime Minister of Afghanistan in the final days of King Zahir Shah’s reign, discussed in his essay, “When I Came Out Of The Darkness Of Darul Ulum,” the negative impact on students of the general environment of madrassahs, particularly the curriculum and the teachers (Ibid., 87–90).
The 1954 Revision
In 1954, the curriculum was reviewed. It was decided that students who had already passed Class 6 from the mainstream modern schools would be eligible for admission to Class 5 of madrassahs. Weekly hours were stipulated hours for every subject. The core subjects in the curriculum were religious and included Nazera (reading of the Holy Qur’an), Tajweed, Tafseer, Hadith, Arabic grammar, logic, Aqeeda, ‘Ilmul-kalam (scholastic theology), Arabic literature, principles of Jurisprudence, Qira’at (recitation of the Holy Qur’an), philosophy, principles of Hadith, rhetoric, Tarikh –ul- Tashri (history of legislation in Islam)‘ Ilmul Munazara wal Jadal ( Science of dialogue and debate), astronomy and physics.
In addition, some modern subjects were also taught at different levels, such as calligraphy, mathematics, history, geography, petition writing and record-keeping, training of management, and financial affairs. Although the number of religious subjects increased in this curriculum and some modern subjects were also introduced, languages and contemporary science subjects were still excluded.
The Third Curriculum
The syllabi of the madrassahsunderwent a further change during Sardar Dawood Khan’s tenure. The duration of the program was reduced to seven years and students could be admitted to Class 6 in madrassahsafter passing the fifth grade at mainstream primary schools. After completing their education in the seminaries, the students were awarded a 12th grade certificate.
The core subjects remained religious and included Nazera, Tafseer, Hadith, Arabic grammar, Tajweed, Aqeeda and ‘Ilmul-kalam, logic, principles of Jurisprudence, Arabic literature, Principles of Qur’anic Commentary, principles of Hadith, science of rhetoric, philosophy and Hikmat (reason), and Ilmul Meeras (inheritance).
Besides these main subjects, Pashto, Persian, Arabic, English, mathematics, history, geography, science, psychology, and methodology of education were also introduced. This curriculum laid special emphasis on English and Arabic. This was the first time that science and psychology were taught at madrassahs.
While these changes certainly made the curriculum diverse by combining the old with the new, they also burdened the students, who found English particularly difficult. Owing to its difficulty, the program’s duration was soon increased to eight years. The eight-year program was enforced for a brief period, after which it was realized that even eight years was too short a duration to ensure successful completion of the diversified curriculum. Some madrassahsincreased the duration by two years while the others continued the old way. Consequently, some students graduated after 12 years of education and others after 14 years. This situation prevails even today.
Students who were taught according to the second and the third curriculum complained that they learned neither from the religious subjects and nor from the modern ones because of poor quality of teaching and a generally unsatisfactory educational environment. During the Taliban rule, however, the madrassahsby-passed such issues by copying the syllabi of the Deobandi schools of Pakistan, which did not generally give space to modern subjects.
The Current Curriculum
President Hamid Karzai introduced the fourth curriculum for madrassahsin 2004. According to it, students of madrassahsare taught the same subjects as children of mainstream schools until they reach the end of Class 3. From the fourth class onwards, they are taught the curriculum of madrassahs, which continue to include a mixture of religious and modern subjects. The religious subjects include Nazera, Deeniat (Islamic Studies), Tajweed, Fiqh, Aqeeda and ‘Ilmul-kalam, Arabic grammar, Islamic etiquettes, principles of Hadith, principles of jurisprudence, Hadith, logic, science of rhetoric, ‘Ilmul-meeras, Tarikh-ul-Tashri , Seeratun Nabi (the life of holy Prophet PBUH), Tafseer, Principles of Qur’anic Commentary, philosophy and reason, history of Islam, Arabic language and literature, Hikmatut Tashri (Wisdom behind legislation) and Qawaed Fiqhia (the Rules of Jurisprudence). The new curriculum for madrassahsalso includes modern subjects, such as Pashto, Persian, English, history, geography, mathematics, calligraphy, science, methodology of teaching, examination and evaluation, principles of speech, history of Afghanistan, management and administration, psychology, and sports.
Madrassahs and the Karzai Government
In today’s Afghanistan, it is pertinent to ask why the Karzai government is allowing the madrassahsto exist despite the heavy foreign military presence and the ruthless propaganda being conducted against them by the US and its allies. No doubt, one reason is that religious education cannot be denied in a religious society. In Afghanistan, however, some other factors are also responsible for the continued existence and propagation of religious madrassahs, which are identified below:
Such statements show that the Karzai government aims at self-reliance in madrassaheducation. A conclusion has been reached that Afghanistan needs religious educational institutions. Considering the needs and desires of the common people, a plan has been devised to restructure the existing government-controlled religious schools. After that, the government plans to establish 34 madrassahs, one in each province of the country. Subsequently, the government plans to establish a madrassahin each district. In the words of the Education Minister, “The government has a resolve to establish 34 madrassahs in all the provinces of Afghanistan with the cost of 30 million dollars. These madrassahs would be completed within one to five years time and will admit up to a 2000 students each and will have services of teachers from al-Azhar also” .
Another reason for the continued existence of madrassahsis that the Karzai government does not want to show its secular face to the public. Rather, it is trying to appear extra-sensitive to the protection of madrassahsand shrines. Understanding the potential political fallout of closing down the formerly Taliban-controlled madrassahs, the government has opted for complete neglect and indifference, which leaves the schools in dismal conditions while the government avoids offending public sentiment and other possible difficulties.
Sectarianism is emerging as the biggest problem for Afghan society. The current environment is particularly charged in this respect; many Sunni ‘ulema think that the Karzai government and its foreign supporters are encouraging the Shi‘a ‘ulema and madrassahsmore than their Sunni counterparts, because they consider the latter generally as sympathizers of the Taliban.
It is a fact that political and social developments in post-9/11 Afghan-istan have created many opportunities for Shi‘a ‘ulema, while, since the Taliban originated as a Sunni movement from Sunni madrassahs, the outlook for Sunni ‘ulema has not lately been as bright. In this changed situation, the number of private-sector Shi‘a madrassahsis on the rise and it is not matched by a similar rise in Sunni madrassahs. Among the clearest examples of this change is the Howza-e-‘Ilmia Khatim-an-Nabiyeen, one of the largest Shi‘a seminaries in Asia that has recently been established in Kabul and is being run by Shaykh Muhammad Asif Mohsini with open Iranian support . This religious educational institution is even bigger than the central Howza Elmiah Qom of Iran.
Under such circumstances, it is crucial that the ‘ulema of both sects avoid playing into the hands of imperialist powers. They need to realize that they will continue to live as neighbors even after the international players withdraw their forces from Afghanistan.
The issue of the curriculum is serious in case of the private madrassahs, where there is neither a uniform recognizable syllabus, nor any central authority charged with designing and implementing a syllabus. Even informal mechanisms for standardization are missing; no large central madrassah has been identified by the smaller madrassahsas an example to follow in traditions. This lack of regularization is particularly problematic for the new madrassahs. In the absence of local guidelines, the Sunni madrassahs operate on the model of Pakistani madrassahsof the Deobandi school of thought, while Shi‘a madrassahs look to Iranian institutions in their development of syllabi and curricula. Mainly, the administrators of these madrassahshave been educated in one of these countries.
The private religious seminaries face two main problems in their syllabi. Firstly, in Sunni madrassahs particularly, only traditional Islamic subjects are taught, neglecting modern subjects and ignoring national languages and reading and writing skills. The graduates are therefore ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world. Secondly, despite having ‘studied’ voluminous books, the students lack necessary skills and abilities and even fail to learn Arabic. They remain engrossed in verbiages/margins and footnotes of the books rather than their content.
In contrast to this, the formal madrassahshave witnessed a gradual evolution through attempts to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic education and modern Western education. However, the following problems continue to beset them:
The present syllabus is of a transitional nature and was implemented by the Karzai government to meet the immediate requirements of madrassahs. It appears that no help was taken from the educationists in designing this transitional syllabus. Neither targets have been set for the completion of the syllabus, nor is there a clear-cut methodology for teaching or for conducting examinations and evaluation. There are, furthermore, no plans to prepare students for rigorous research work mentioned in the syllabus.
There is little doubt that changes in curriculum become inevitable with the passage of time. But such changes, whenever made, should be based on solid reasons and should correspond with the requirements of society. Keeping the youth away from religious seminaries of neighboring countries is not a sufficient reason for the time, effort and financial resources that ought to go into reforming madrassahs. The real purpose of madrassahsis to provide leaders of human society. And for such a purpose, the syllabus should incorporate an understanding of Islam, based on the study of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, and an understanding of the requirements of the present time. A person who has religious education but no knowledge of contemporary problems cannot be a religious scholar or a jurist since a jurist (faqih) is a person who not only knows Islam but also understands its application to the issues prevalent in his time.
Madrassahsin Afghanistan are faced with a host of other problems as well. The following are some of the main issues that the madrassahscontinue to encounter:
Quality of Education: Like other educational institutions, the madrassahshave failed to provide quality education to their students. Complaints about poor quality of education existed even during the reigns of King Zahir Shah and Sardar Dawood, when the madrassahshad far better teachers and relatively ample resources. Now, when the lack of facilities is compounded by perpetual warfare, the challenge has worsened.
Lack of Infrastructure and Resources: According to the Ministry of Education, only 4 or 5 formal madrassahshave their own campuses, out of a total of 275. Most of the madrassahsare housed in mosques and private homes, which are not suitable for teaching and learning purposes. The madrassahsalso lack proper classrooms, libraries, textbooks and hostels. The students and teachers blame the government for this depressing situation. According to a report of Pajhwok News Agency on September 6, 2005, the administrators of these formal madrassahsare unsatisfied with the Ministry of Education because of its lack of interest in them. The report suggests that the ministry ignores these madrassahsbecause of apprehension that it may be accused of supporting the Taliban and the Al Qaeda movement. Alhaj Sher Hassan, the administrator of a Darul ‘Ulum in the Chak area of Maidan Wardak, is quoted in the report as saying that although his institution falls under the purview of the Ministry of Education, the government has not provided any assistance to it since the fall of the Taliban. The Deputy Head of the province’s Education Department explains that the ministry does not provide funds to the madrassahsbecause it lacks resources itself; there is little money to buy books for the seminaries and the only solution is to seek the help of the wealthy and influential of the community.
The report states that the same situation prevails in other provinces as well. Thus, Razia Naseri, the administrator of Madrassah Ayesha in Kabul, complains that her madrassah, which was set up during the final years of the Najeebullah government in the campus of Jamhooriat High School, and was the first such institution for women, is not being facilitated. Instead, the government wants its building to be vacated.
The head of Religious Education in the Ministry of Education agrees that these problems exist. However, according to him, the ministry cannot help the situation because of the unwillingness of donors to support the madrassahs. The Islamic countries too do not want to antagonize the global powers and therefore refrain from supporting madrassahs. He also says that the ministry has not requested international nongovernmental organizations for financial support because such requests would certainly be turned down .
Lack of Security: The madrassahsalso suffer because of poor security and the volatile law and order situation of Afghanistan. The Allied Forces target madrassahson suspicions that they support the resistance movement. Students are beaten up and questioned. Fearing that the Allied Forces might declare them supporters of the resistance, neither the Afghan government nor the local influentials support the madrassahs.
Administrative Issues: The madrassahsin Afghanistan do not work under an organized, integrated system. For formal seminaries, the government has established a Religious Education Directorate, but there is neither an administrative structure, nor any board to support, coordinate and supervise private-sector madrassahs.
Modern versus Traditional: There is a wide gulf between the religious seminaries and modern schools. The students of formal religious seminaries study some modern subjects but their counterparts in the informal private madrassahs are confined to traditional Islamic subjects. The lack of modern education seriously hinders their job prospects, especially in comparison to students of modern schools. If the situation continues unchanged, it will further aggravate this divide.
Religious education is a demand of Afghan society . Failure to recognize this demand on the part of the authorities is only going to bring further chaos to Afghanistan. The continuous neglect of the madrassahsand the resultant gap between them and the modern schools does not augur well for the country. To stem this worsening trend, the following measures are suggested:
This observation is based on a study of ground realities and interviews conducted by the author with Afghan intellectuals like Ameenullah Mutasssem from the Faculty of Sharia, Herat University; Dr. Ismael Labeeb Balkhi, a prominent ‘alim of Mazar-i-Sharif; Abdulwahid Jaheed from the Department of Islamic Studies, Kabul University of Education; and Mawlana Sakhidad Fayez, Director of Madrassah Abdullah Ibn Massod of Kabul.