What are the worries and problems confronting the pupils of an Islamic madrasa in Pakistan? And why are there madrasas at all? This short story essays a literary approach to a highly complex phenomenon.
Salik woke with a start in the middle of the night, disturbed by muffled noises. Sweat stood out on his brow. What had happened? Loud footsteps and very bright lights had suddenly taken over his hostel. He paid no attention to the howling dogs and rattling rickshaws. Fearful, but driven by curiosity, he peered through the crack of the door of his first-floor room. Beyond the parapet that ran along his corridor he saw soldiers conducting a raid. Like bloodhounds they slunk across the wide courtyard, which was framed by the entry gate, freshly-painted walls, new doors on the rooms, the colonnades, and the mosque.
Confused, Salik recalled the scenes around the Red Mosque of Jamia Hafsa, which had seared themselves on his young memory as an emblem of the Islamic resistance. But what was the reason for the military presence now?
Moments later the soldiers were already leading two of his comrades out of the corridors of the madrasa, which was one of the biggest in town: `Izzat, his Turkmen friend from three storeys up, where the older students lived, and Masood, a pupil on his floor.
Uneasy, Salik woke his four roommates, all of whom were his own age, and told them what he had just seen. Frantically, they racked their brains to try to work out why this had happened. `Abd al-Mustafa, a studious bookworm from a family of reputable merchants, speculated that they were being subjected to disciplinary measures. Like Jamia Hafsa, which had been razed to the ground by the Allies of the ‘war on terror’, their madrasa, too, was increasingly becoming the focus of public attention, he said. Back then the military had powerfully demonstrated that, if it wanted to, it could march into private educational establishments, too. So there was obviously growing unease about religious schools – and not just in Pakistan, which had the second-highest Muslim population in the world. Their madrasa alone had more than one thousand pupils and students! But who or what was there to discipline here, Salik wondered, after listening to `Abd al-Mustafa’s speculations. He couldn’t conceive of his madrasa as a terrorist stronghold.
After the ritual washing (wudu`) and the obligatory morning prayers, the five roommates said intercessions for their two comrades who had been arrested, then made their way to the nearby madrasa kitchen. Today, even the pupils who usually greedily devoured the meagre breakfast had difficulty swallowing their pieces of flatbread and watery yoghurt.
Soon, though, the teacher, Shah Nurani, clad in a grey salwar kameez, summoned them to class. His turban sat low on his forehead, his shoulders were covered by his traditional woollen scarf, and a few crumbs of bread from breakfast had got caught in his henna-coloured beard. The pupils sat cross-legged in front of him on straw mats typical of the region. The Koran stools (rihal) and low tables came from the carpenter’s workshop next door. The teacher launched straight into the lesson as if nothing had happened, continuing the section on syntactical questions from the previous class. Madrasas placed a great deal of importance on mastering the language. Grammatical and syntactical rules helped the children to understand both logic, which was so important in Islamic law, and also the Koran itself. Looking around at his pupils, Shah Nurani ascertained that they were very uneasy. What did syntax and logic have to do with the raid in the night? their faces were asking. Was the school involved in some kind of plot?
Try as he might, Salik could not concentrate on the subject matter. He was thinking instead about `Izzat – light-skinned, blond, gentle-faced `Izzat. Salik had often observed him during class, hidden in the shadow of the colonnade that fringed the inner courtyard. And then he had gazed long and deep into his eyes. `Izzat had enchanted him with verses by Abu Nuwas and `Umar Khayyam, whispered into his ear. In secret - nobody knew. Salik had shared his woes, too, and exchanged them for affection. Like so many others, `Izzat’s father, a mujahid, fell in the Cold War in Afghanistan – back then, between 1986 and 1994, when US AID spent fifty million dollars helping to develop textbooks for madrasas to encourage the jihad against the Soviets. Since that time, some of the madrasa’s pupils had found their way to Paradise from Kashmir and Bosnia as well.
After class, Salik found out that they were saying `Izzat had planned an attack on the military academy in the nearby prohibited zone, and that he had found an ally in Masood, one of those Afghan Pashtuns who had been exposed to the ‘war on terror’. But perhaps `Izzat just wanted to avenge himself on the desecrators who had caused him so much pain. Perhaps he didn’t have terrorist motives at all, or so Salik hoped.
He felt abandoned, and the next day he went to visit his father, an Ansari who, despite belonging to the weaver caste, claimed to be descended from the helpers (ansar) of the Prophet Mohammed in Medina. He had worked his way up to become a police officer’s personal driver. When Salik entered the house, three of his brothers and sisters rushed to embrace him in relief. His mother greeted him by putting an amulet (ta`wiz) around his neck. They listened attentively to Salik’s story.
He could tell from the threads of cigarette smoke hanging in the air that his father was at home. Salik went into the kitchen, where his father, a man in his mid-fifties, was in the midst of shaving in a pale mirror. Puffing on his cigarette, he declared that Salik would stay on at the madrasa! His studies would qualify him for the lower ranks in the military – the higher commissions only went to those fancy Oxbridge graduates, anyway. Salik’s eldest brother couldn’t be relied on: at the fee-paying state school he had gone off the rails and joined the drug scene, his father concluded morosely.
It was a blessing for him that Salik enjoyed free education – and, what was more, from teachers who in his opinion were morally beyond reproach. This bloody government was following quite different political aims, which they concealed behind pious words.
Salik was aware of the burden his father carried. Salik had three unmarried sisters, one of whom was already almost past marriageable age. Salik sensed that his father’s expectations towards his son appalled him, and made him irritable. His thoughts flew to `Izzat.
Eventually he trudged sullenly back to the madrasa. On the fringes of the colonnades he spotted Jalal al-Din, a teacher who gesticulated wildly, in the midst of a group of older boys. He caught words like justice (insaf) and oppression (zulm), mission (da`wah) and holy war (jihad), community (jama`at) and brigade (jaish). Jalal al-Din struck the little table with his clenched fist. When his fiery eyes spotted Salik, he fell silent. Not speaking was a form of communication, too, the boy thought. He became even more uneasy.
But shortly before evening prayer `Izzat strolled into the courtyard, in his habitual outfit, gesturing in that way he had which was peculiar to him. Surprised, pupils and teachers welcomed him, embraced him, thanked Allah for his blessing. Salik pushed his way through to him; his steps grew lighter, and he caught `Izzat’s pleasant smell on the air.
During the wudu` the two boys huddled together. `Izzat’s voice was obscured by the splashing of the water, but his quivering nostrils spoke of his outrage at the military, and he whispered to Salik that the government’s incursions were intolerable and had to be combated. Shocked, Salik raised his head. What was that supposed to mean?
Salik and `Izzat said the prayers shoulder to shoulder with the other pupils. During the communal meal that followed, rice and lentils on tin plates, `Izzat drew curious stares. What were they thinking? Salik asked himself, as he rolled a little ball of rice and lentils between his thumb, index and middle fingers. If they could read `Izzat’s thoughts, would they tremble as he did? Sleep did not come to Salik that night.
In the morning he went to class as usual. The red-bearded teacher Shah Nurani wiped his hands on his shawl and began the lesson with a story about his studies at the madrasa during the war in Afghanistan. The jihadists fell in this world, without pay, and as martyrs they had left behind orphans who today sat in the madrasas, he summarised pensively. Back then, he continued, his comrades had pressured him into fighting, but he had managed to return from the front in one piece. He wanted, he urged in conclusion, to fight with the pen and not the sword; and he held out his pen to his pupils.
Salik understood what the teacher wanted to tell them: that you could fight for a peaceable jihad, too. He looked over at the proud minaret. When you were that high up, you were closer to Allah, he thought. Already he felt a little better.
The next afternoon, underneath a tree in the garden outside the classroom, Salik saw Jalal al-Din and `Izzat huddled together with two other students, probably from another madrasa. The group quickly broke up when he called a greeting. Only `Izzat came over to Salik, with a friendly smile. Salik confided in him his curiosity and unease. Many insistent questions had come to mind the previous night. Salik wanted to know how long madrasas had actually existed. The imam of the nearby mosque would be able to answer that question, `Izzat assured him proudly, and took his young friend by the hand.
In the mosque, where they arrived a few minutes later, the imam explained that madrasas originated in the year 1067, in the Nizamiyya in Baghdad. The sciences taught there were intended to provide qualifications for administrative officials and judges. A science of disputation (`ilm al-khilaf) had also developed, and at the time it quickly became an indispensible part of legal training. However, whether it encouraged peaceable coexistence or was intended rather for acquiring the opponent’s argumentative weapons was a question the imam was unable to answer.
They came back in time for evening prayers. Salik’s head was buzzing with questions. He cast himself down to pray.
He needed to clarify things. After some hesitation he ventured to seek out the head of the madrasa, Maulana Rizwi. Dressed in a black sherwani, when Salik entered the principal was poring over exam papers sent to him by the madrasa organisation. He sipped a glass of fresh pomegranate juice; the room was filled with the humming of the computer. He stroked his long grey beard with his right hand: his tired eyes had already seen many holy places. He contemplated Salik’s questioning eyes, and answered that unfortunately `ilm al-khilaf had not succeeded in establishing itself. Very early on, the Nizamiyya was misused as a bulwark against the emergent Shiites and also against mu`tazilite ‘heresies’. The computer fell silent. Power cut! Salik understood: madrasas served other purposes, too, as well as simply being purveyors of education.
The next day, as he continued his quest, he bumped into a pupil from another madrasa nearby, who teased him, calling him ‘parrot of Paradise’. But why? He reached up and touched his green turban, and thought of the Da`wat-e Islami, its powerful missionary movement in the struggle for Muslim souls. One of the pupils tried to impress on him the view that traditional ways of life led people astray. Pilgrimages to holy sites (ziyarat) were corrupt innovations (bida`) that were just as despicable as intercessions for the dead (shafa`at). Salik broke out in a sweat: he certainly did not want to be branded a heretic (murtadd). But how was he supposed to know what was right?
He ran off as fast as he could. When he finally arrived breathless at his hostel he went up to his room and told his friend, the bookworm, what had happened to him. Denouncing people for apostasy (takfir) was nothing new, `Abd al-Mustafa answered dryly, as one could read for example in Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1327). There had long been passionate debates on the merits of simply imitating tradition (taqlid) versus independent reasoning (ijtihad). His eyes sparkled as he explained further. For us the Prophet is alive and omnipresent, he said. But for those who followed the tradition of the madrasa of Deoband near Delhi (founded in 1867), the Beloved of God died a natural death, and that was that. Salik was overwhelmed. What was he supposed to do now with this information?
Pondering this, he left the room. He began to walk faster when he spotted Maulana Rizwi, who was just locking up his office. He wanted to know whether Salik had been happy with his answer. Agitated, the boy told him about his disconcerting encounter with the pupils from the other madrasa. The principal laid his kindly hand on Salik’s shoulder. He spoke of the inner-Muslim conflicts that had grown increasingly violent since the 1980s, fuelled by the blasphemy law of 1986. The teacher sighed. Confrontations took place on occasions such as the ceremonies to mark the death of a Sufi (`urs), Shiite processions during the month of Muharram (ta`ziya), or the birthday of the beloved Prophet (milad al-nabi), peace be upon him. Salik hummed and hawed for a while before he finally managed to ask whether `ilm al-khilaf could have prevented these conflicts. Maulana stroked the boy’s hair paternally and commented that he was an inquisitive student.
The sun was going down, streaking the sky with colour. A few boys were still playing with a shuttlecock in the madrasa park. The muezzin called to evening prayer. Up there birds were flying to their nests, while down below people hastened to the mosque.
The next day, after class, Salik was surprised to hear `Izzat’s voice near the office of the principal, Maulana Rizwi. He peered cautiously into the room, and saw that Jalal al-Din was there, too. Salik was warmly welcomed; `Izzat gave him an encouraging look.
The Maulana recalled the Muqaddima of the medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who subdivided the sciences into the transmitted (naqliyyah) and the rational (‘aqliyyah), sacred (diniyyah) and profane (dunyawiyyah). Traditional sciences, he elaborated, owed their existence to divinely-inspired law, as it could be derived from the Koran and the Prophetic tradition: ancillary disciplines such as grammar and syntax also came under this heading. By contrast, rational sciences such as logic, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, mathematics and metaphysics were based on traditions from other, non-Islamic world-views.
Jalal al-Din cleared his throat nervously. Maulana Rizwi continued. The difference between the two traditions of knowledge lay principally in the source on which they were based, i.e. divine (Islamic) knowledge, or knowledge inspired by man. Salik scratched his as-yet-uncut beard and glanced up, eyebrows raised, at `Izzat, who was himself trying to catch Jalal al-Din’s eye. Did that mean, Salik blurted out in surprise, that the madrasa next door taught only traditional sciences? `Izzat’s riposte met with great approval from Jalal al-Din: Knowledge was based solely on the traditional sciences! Once again, Salik was baffled by these entirely opposing explanations.
His gaze shifting to the public medical practice that was part of the madrasa next door, the Maulana went on to say that these rational sciences had established themselves during the period of empire-building. Elated, he slid his prayer beads across his wrinkled fingers. It took more than the Koran alone to convince millions of Hindus, he said. For far-reaching processes of cultural integration the ‘aqliyyat, the rational sciences, were required. Jalal al-Din, however, hurried to take his leave. `Izzat followed him, leaving a disappointed Salik behind.
Maulana Rizwi straightened his waistband under his knee-length shirt and continued. So to a certain extent, he said, the same books were studied in all three of the great Muslim empires – the Ottoman, the Persian and the Mughal: primarily, works of philosophy, scholasticism and mathematics. For a moment Salik lowered his eyes and thought of `Izzat. The Maulana gave a discreet little cough. Salik should prepare well for the exams, he said. The main focus was not on the texts of well-known recorders of tradition from the early days: rather, commentaries and glosses had repeatedly been added to these canonical texts. These secondary texts facilitated speedy access to the central idea and discussed the typical issues of specific times and places. Salik was too confused to be able to follow what the teacher was saying. He said his goodbyes and left the room.
Outside in the courtyard he came across `Izzat, who anxiously exhorted Salik not to meet so often with Maulana Rizwi. Caught up in his avalanche of words, Salik was no longer able to tell him about the wonderful treasures the Maulana had described to him of the scholarly tradition of Iran and Central Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All Salik managed to mumble was that the Maulana wanted to restore the madrasa to its former glory. Did he want to play into the hands of Pervez Musharraf, who had launched a campaign against the madrasas at the USA’s insistence? growled `Izzat crossly. Then he turned on his heels and walked off. Salik’s head was swimming. What on earth was wrong with `Izzat?
The next morning, Salik’s lessons consisted of a lecture on Aristotelian logic with reference to the al-Mirqat al-mizaniyyah by Fadl-e Imam Khairabadi (d. 1244/1828) – a summary of al-Risala al-shamsiyya fi al-qawa`id al-mantiqiyya and Tahdhib fi `ilm al-mantiq, thirteenth-century textbooks on logic and (philosophical) theology. `Izzat was there as well. The pupils listened carefully; the lesson was not intended as an exchange of views. Salik fidgeted uneasily on his mat. Finally, he interrupted the sermon to ask whether the recent raid had been a response to the inter-denominational riots? He received the terse reply that there were differences between the kinds of logic used in the madrasas, and that the government had a logic of its own. Despite `Izzat’s angry gaze, Salik’s curiosity demanded more answers.
Fraught with tension, immediately after the lesson he hurried to Maulana Rizwi again. He knocked, opened the door, and, coming straight to the point, asked whether there had been comparable developments in the madrasas after the fourteenth century, and what the situation was like today. The old man looked down at him with the pride of a father observing his growing son, and told Salik about dars-e nizami. This did not originate in the Nizamiyya in Baghdad, but with Mullah Nizam al-Din of Lucknow (d. 1748). The Mullah had compiled this syllabus against a background of political upheaval, when new groups with a patriotic focus appeared on the scene and not only promoted their own beliefs but also pushed through centralised tax systems and standardised their own languages. In short, they created their own areas of government, and for this they needed an appropriate system of education.
The next day, clutching the curriculum in his hands, Salik came across Jalal al-Din. He asked him why the madrasa education had such a bad reputation in the media, and what could be done about it. Jalal al-Din waved him away and sent him to the madrasa library. The librarian there gave him a book in which it was written that, as a result of the colonial invasions and the introduction of new education systems in the second half of the nineteenth century, madrasas had, at that time, almost completely ceased to be the general educational establishments.
The so-called civilising mission of the colonial rulers was intended to spread ‘global ethics’, he read. Anyone who didn’t submit to it ended up being excluded. Ever since, madrasas had been referred to as dini madaris (religious schools). He remembered Ibn Khaldun’s separation of diniyyah and dunyawiyyah. It was really complicated, Salik observed, and scratched his head thoughtfully.
Shortly afterwards `Abd al-Mustafa entered the library with a bundle of books. At least the thirty thousand or so madrasas in the country provided a large part of the population with knowledge, he said casually, as if reading Salik’s thoughts. That way they compensated for the missing or overpriced state schools, and offered education to many people, not just the penniless, in the spirit of Islamic compassion. Behind `Abd al-Mustafa, `Izzat too entered the room. He picked the book Clash of Civilizations off a shelf, and declared firmly that it was scarcely possible for the numerous schools of thought that had developed since the colonial era to be reconciled with each other. Their rivalries could only be overcome through true Islam.
Meanwhile, troubled by what was going on in the madrasa, Maulana Rizwi had called a teachers’ conference. Salik was to serve as tea boy.
Surrounded by his assembled colleagues, the Maulana gazed at the madrasa’s monthly booklet, which lay before him, fresh from the printer, ready for the month of fasting. Income from voluntary alms-giving (sadaqa, khairat), both from the neighbourhood and from the merchant networks, was stagnating, he said. However, they would soon be able to rely on high obligatory alms donations (zakat) from the numerous workers returning from the Gulf region. And since 1980 the religious schools had been receiving zakat via the state. The assignment of these additional finances could, in fact, constitute up to about a third of their annual income.
On hearing this, Salik thought with reverence of the splendid madrasa building, but with revulsion of the monotony of their daily meals. His mind turned to Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. It was still a long way off, but the thought alone was enough to scent all over the town the blood of the freshly-skinned hides the madrasa pupils would collect from the roadside. Then they would be allowed to eat plenty of meat again. His stomach growled.
Now a teacher was complaining that in Muslim countries the nationalisation of Islamic foundations (waqf) was to blame for the economic plight of the madrasas. True, the `ulama, the Islamic scholars, had joined forces as a result. But they had not managed to make sustainable reforms to their education system. Their disagreements had been too great, and these were increasingly expressed in the teaching and in class, sometimes encouraged by religious-political parties that recruited their members from the madrasas.
Maulana Rizwi coughed approvingly and stroked his tired face with his right hand. He started, however, when a colleague remarked that madrasas were embedded in their environment; that they took in the majority of the drop-outs, those who would never otherwise stand a chance in society. The mosques attached to the madrasas – of which there were, after all, about a million in Pakistan – were important centres of mobilisation.
Salik was rudely awakened from his culinary dreams. Had he really just heard that? Only last week he had once again, in the sermon (khutbah), heard a preacher calling for political agitation and denunciation, for declaring Muslims with divergent opinions infidels. As a result, religion classes and the Friday sermon were the subject of fierce dispute. His teachers were obviously fighting about it too – and on different fronts, thought Salik, with a queasy feeling in his stomach.
Global modernisation was trying to enforce a universal code, and in so doing was provoking the religious resistance of local forces, said the red-bearded teacher, making his presence felt. One side’s proposals aimed to extend the hegemony of the state. The others insisted on cultural and political independence. Numerous madrasas were fighting against the state, or were competing with each other for scarce resources.
In response, Maulana Rizwi rose to intervene. His voice was stern. In the years since its foundation, his madrasa had developed into an exemplary educational institution, and he would do everything in his power to keep it that way. Young people needed progressive education and perspectives. He rubbed his tired eyes, hidden beneath his bushy eyebrows, and added with conviction that civilisation and reform (islah) could not, however, deliver a reformed syllabus by themselves. The teaching too must change!
Salik saw that Jalal al-Din was visibly indignant. What on earth was wrong with him?, Salik asked himself – but blocked the possible answer out of his head.
Access to the job market was a big problem for young graduates, the Maulana continued. In addition, there was a growing Salafist ideology that expressed itself in the styles of beard and clothing of the Gulf returnees. And now, with the help of their hard-earned capital from the years of work in the Gulf, these returning emigrants were carving out a place for themselves in those branches of industry that had hitherto been occupied by other social groups. He viewed the escalating clashes between Sunnis and Shiites as evidence of this. It was common knowledge that these attacks were fuelled by foreign masterminds.
By now, Maulana Rizwi was bright red in the face. The matter was complicated, he declared accusingly, by laymen who were leading these resistance movements and using the theological arguments of respected Islamic scholars to justify their actions. Often, criminals too were able to work their way up, and while this was not welcomed by the madrasas, it was sometimes tolerated – because they helped to pay the bills.
Jalal al-Din had already visibly broken out in a sweat when the Maulana quoted from an English book. Yes, even traditional loyalty structures like family, tribes, and networks of scholarly tradition could be undermined, he said. And more than that: if the state failed in its role as guarantor of freedom, prosperity and justice, these criminals could justify the attacks on religious grounds – as if they were in a position to claim to be the sole representatives of Islam. And for this they also made use of innocent madrasa pupils! This cannot be tolerated, the Maulana said, his voice breaking as he straightened his turban.
Returning to his room, Salik shared his confused impressions with his comrades. It was a restless night. Several times Salik went to the door and looked out because he thought he heard a noise. Suddenly, in the darkness of the night, he spotted a few fleeting shapes. Wrapped in shawls, caps pulled down low, they hurried across the courtyard and out into the street. Salik thought he recognised the gestures of a young man who was hastily waving people on. Another shadow reminded him of Jalal al-Din. No sooner was the courtyard was empty again than he heard the noise of engines outside, in front of the madrasa, quickly mingling with the sound of dogs howling and the rattle of passing rickshaws.
The next morning, `Izzat was missing from the courtyard. Instead, Salik’s uneasy gaze fell on `Abd al-Mustafa, who was agitatedly holding a newspaper item under his nose. There had been another attack on a military base – many people had died. Salik’s heart plummeted into his boots. `Abd al-Mustafa’s attempted to cheer him up with the thought that Salik himself preferred to go to the library rather than hang around with people like `Izzat, but it wasn’t much help.
And so the next day he was all the more relieved when his bleary eyes caught sight of `Izzat in the madrasa. They only exchanged a brief glance; `Izzat appeared to be deep in thought. A moment later the senior clerk called Salik over. He had received a letter from his father. Salik quickly opened the letter and read it. He rejoiced to read the first few lines, but as he read on he grew increasingly upset.
Overcome with despondency and alone with his burden, Salik wandered around aimlessly. It was only towards evening, shortly before prayers, that `Izzat found him and enquired why he was in such a state. He cared, he said, even if they were worlds apart. Salik held out the letter. His father had written that his eldest daughter had finally received a proposal of marriage, and he was very keen to marry her off now, as fast as possible. `Izzat responded with a raise of his chin. The problem, Salik went on, was that the party who had made the proposal was demanding a very, very high dowry. Probably because of her advanced age. He, Salik, had another four years to study before he would be able to help his father. By then his sister would no longer be marriageable, and the other sisters …
`Izzat dried Salik’s tears, clasped him close and whispered in his ear: There are all sorts of ways of getting your hands on a lot of money quickly. Speechless, Salik stared at `Izzat. A touch of hope flickered in his sorrowful eyes.
Salik went up to his room and stretched out on his bed. He ignored his comrades’ voices and fixed his eyes on the ceiling, which couldn’t set him any boundaries. He stared through it, out into emptiness. Images of his father, his sister, of Maulana Rizwi and his dream of a madrasa went round in circles in his head. What remained was his father’s hopeless face – his father, who didn’t know which way to turn. His dreams dissolved into tears.
He crept out into the darkness, up to the third floor, and knocked on `Izzat’s door …