As a 9-year-old boy, I knelt on the bare floor of the neighborhood madrasa (religious school) in Karachi, Pakistan, repeating the Koranic verse, “Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God.”
Hafiz Gul-Mohamed, the Koran teacher, made each of the 13 boys in our class memorize the verse in its original Arabic. Some of us also memorized the translation in our own language, Urdu. “This is the word of God that defines the Muslim umma [community of believers],” he told us repeatedly. “It tells Muslims their mission in life.” He himself bore the title hafiz (the memorizer) because he could recite all 114 chapters and 6,346 verses of the Koran.
The madrasa I attended, and its headmaster, opposed the West but in an apolitical way. He knew the communists were evil because they denied the existence of God. The West, however, was also immoral. Westerners drank alcohol and engaged in sex outside of marriage. Western women did not cover themselves. Western culture encouraged a mad race for making money. Song and dance, rather than prayer and meditation, characterized life in the West. Gul-Mohamed’s solution was isolation. “The umma should keep away from the West and its ways.”But these were the 1960s. Although religion was important in the lives of Pakistanis, pursuit of material success rather than the search for religious knowledge determined students’ career choices.
And so it was for much of the four decades before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001... A few weeks after September 11, I visited Darul Uloom Haqqania. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been a student at Haqqania, and the madrasa, with 2,500 students aged 5 to 21 from all over the world, has been called “the University of Jihad.” The texture of life in the madrasa still has elements that represent a continuum not over decades but over centuries. But at Haqqania, I saw that the world of the madrasa had changed since I last bowed my head in front of Hafiz Gul-Mohamed.
In a basement room with plasterless walls adorned by a clock inscribed with “God is Great” in Arabic, 9-year-old Mohammed Tahir rocked back and forth and recited the same verse of the Koran that had been instilled into my memory at the same age: “Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God.” But when I asked him to explain how he understands the passage, Tahir’s interpretation was quite different from the quietist version taught to me. “The Muslim community of believers is the best in the eyes of God, and we must make it the same in the eyes of men by force,” he said. “We must fight the unbelievers and that includes those who carry Muslim names but have adopted the ways of unbelievers. When I grow up I intend to carry out jihad in every possible way.” Tahir does not believe that al Qaeda is responsible for September 11 because his teachers have told him that the attacks were a conspiracy by Jews against the Taliban. He also considers Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden great Muslims, “for challenging the might of the unbelievers.”
Maulana Samiul Haq, headmaster of the Haqqania madrasa, is a firebrand orator who led anti-U.S. demonstrations soon after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. When I asked if he thought it appropriate to involve his 5- and 6-year-old charges in political demonstrations, Haq remarked, “No one is too young to do the right thing.” Later, he added, “Young minds are not for thinking. We catch them for the madrasas when they are young, and by the time they are old enough to think, they know what to think.” Students and teachers carried militant Islamic ideology from one madrasa to another. On one of the walls of the madrasa of my youth, someone had written the hadith “Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China.” Across the road from the madrasa at Haqqania, some of Tahir’s classmates have written a different hadith: “Paradise lies under the shade of swords.”
Tahir’s teacher carries a cane and can often be brutal. One madrasa in Pakistan has resorted to the practice of chaining students to pillars until they memorize the day’s lesson. But compared with life in a squalid refugee camp, the harshness of the madrasa probably is a blessing.
Muslim states are now calling upon Western governments to support madrasa reform through financial aid. The proposed recipe for reform is to add contemporary subjects alongside the traditional religious sciences in madrasa curriculum. But madrasas will probably survive these reform efforts, just as they survived the introduction of Western education during colonial rule. Can learning science and math, for example, change the worldview shaped by a theology of conformity? I asked Tahir if he is interested in learning math. He said, “In hadith there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”
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