MADRASSAS Madrassas-the word derives from Arabic and means schools-have always played an important role in providing education in Muslim societies Some of them have been operating in South Asia for decades and have educated hundreds of thousands of students Soon after he took over the reins of government in Pakistan, in 1977, however, President Zia ul-Haq began an Islamization program that created a highly supportive environment for the growth of madrassa education Not only did the state look with favor on the style of instruction the madrassas provided, it was prepared to fund them by using a significant part of the accumulated resources of the zakat fund The number of madrassas operating in the country during Zia’s 11-year (1977-1988) rule increased significantly The madrassas filled an important gap in areas such as the tribal districts of Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province where the state had not set up its own schoolsMadrassas in Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province acquired a new significance with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan Both the leadership in Pakistan that aided the Afghan mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet Union and the mujahideen themselves gave a religious aspect to their efforts In the minds of many Muslim communities all over the world, the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a jihad (holy war) against the infidel As such, Afghanistan attracted a large number of Muslim fundamentalists who fought alongside the mujahideen

This form of international support also influenced the type of education that was provided to the Afghan refugees in the camps in the northwestern parts of Pakistan A large number of madrassas were set up to educate the refugees from AfghanistanThe departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan did not end the involvement of the Pakistani madrassas in Afghan affairs The most vivid illustration of this was the appearance of taliban-an Arabic word meaning “students”-who were able to conquer most of the Afghan territory within a few months A large number of taliban, including their leader, Mullah Omar, were graduates of madrassas in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan The taliban success in Afghanistan further increased the power, prestige, and importance of the madrassas in Pakistan They were now significant not only as institutions that provided education but were of considerable political importance as wellThe 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States brought madrassas and the role they might have played in spreading deep animosity toward the United States to the world’s attention Washington put pressure on the government of Pervez Musharraf to reform the madrassas and bring them into the mainstream of the country’s education system In 2002, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based lobby group and think tank, published a report on the state of education in Pakistan It estimated that the madrassas had spread widely in the country and now accounted for one-third of the students attending primary schools

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission also focused on the role played by the madrassas in the growth of Islamic extremism in the Muslim world However, more careful and detailed analysis and surveys done by development institutions such as the World Bank estimated the proportion of students at a number considerably lower than previous estimates In 2005, the World Bank published a report indicating that only 07 percent of the students going to primary school were attending madrassas on a full-time basis

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