Inside the Madrasas

Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan

by Saleem H. Ali
Paper presented at the US Institute of Peace, June 24, 2005

Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India

by Yoginder Sikand
New Delhi: Penguin India, 400 pp., RS395.00

1.

Shortly before four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, blew themselves up in the London Underground on July 7, I traveled along the Indus River to Akora Khattack in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the religious schools called madrasas.

Many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were trained at this institution. If its teachings have been blamed for inspiring the brutal, ultra-conservative incarnation of Islamic law that that regime presided over, there is no sign that the Haqqania is ashamed of its former pupils: instead, the madrasa’s director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, still proudly boasts that whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, he would simply close down the madrasa and send his students off to fight. In many ways, then, Akora Khattack represents everything that US policymakers most fear and dislike in this region, a bastion of religious, intellectual, and sometimes—in the form of the Taliban—military resistance to Pax Americana and all it represents.

A dust storm was blowing as we crossed the Indus just below the massive ramparts of the fortress of Attock, once the great bulwark protecting India against incursions from Afghanistan. The road was lined with poplars. In the distance towered the jagged dragons’ backs of the blue Margalla Hills; a graveyard lay to one side, its green grave flags fluttering in the breeze. A few kilometers beyond the river stood a ramshackle line of buildings, all built in a crude modern concrete version of Mughal architecture. Washing was hanging up to dry from the roofs and verandas of the dormitory blocks, and in the main courtyard students were bustling around. All were male, all wore turbans, and all were heavily bearded.

Maulana Sami proved, however, to be an unexpectedly dapper and cheery figure for a man supposed to be such an icon of anti-Western hatred. He wore a blue frock coat of vaguely Dickensian cut, and his neatly trimmed beard was raffishly dyed with henna. He had a craggy face, a large outcrop of nose, and the corners of his eyes were contoured with laughter lines. I was ushered into his office and introduced to his two-year-old granddaughter, who was playing happily with a yellow helium balloon. I remarked that there did not seem to be much evidence of the Haqqania suffering from the crackdown on centers of radicalism promised by President Musharraf. Sami’s face lit up:

“That is for American consumption only,” he laughed cheerfully. “It is only statements to the newspapers. Nothing has happened.”

“So,” I asked, “you are not finding the atmosphere difficult at the moment?”

“We are in a good, strong position,” replied Sami. “Bush has woken the entire Islamic world. We are grateful to him.”

Sami smiled broadly: “Our job now is propagating Islamic ideology. We give free education, free clothes and books. We even give free accommodation. We are the only people giving the poor education.”

Sami…


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