Monday October 25, 2021

Reform and the madrassah

June 28, 2021

Pakistani ulema and their alma maters are facing an unprecedented challenge to their authority and prestige in society. As if the bombshell of the Mufti Abdul Aziz scandal was not enough, a number of explicit videos featuring well-known scholars from various denominations have emerged, putting the status of the guardians of our souls and sustainability of their institutions at stake.

Most religious scholars and religious organizations, it appears, want to get through this storm just by lying low and biding their time. Ulema must realise, though, that this is a very risky strategy, unsuitable for the scale of the crisis. It is an equally daunting challenge for the state as well. In deep embrace with the clergy, the state also wants to ward off the crisis by a few cosmetic actions here and there.

Incidents of physical and sexual abuse of children involving obscure mullahs, happening at smalltime madrassahs were easy to brush under the carpet. What makes these recent scandals so different is the profile of culprits. All of the scholars being undone by social media are religious celebrities who have enjoyed powerful positions in the orthodox hierarchy or the system of religious education.

Neither brazen denials nor deafening silence has helped in the case of a 70-year-old mufti, who is accused of blackmailing and sexually abusing one of his students at a leading madrassah in Lahore. His is an open and shut case since he has already admitted to his guilt in an effort to provide a convoluted explanation for his crime. Some of the other offenders may avoid legal problems through shameless denials, given our system of justice. However, these living dead cases may haunt the religious community more than cases that reach a logical conclusion.

The Mufti Aziz case is a case against the madrassah system itself. He was in charge of Wifaq Ul Madaris Al Arabia for district Lahore. The Wifaq is the largest federation of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan with which 23,000 Madaris are affiliated across the country. The Wifaq holds examinations and issues degrees for religious learning. Much of the abuse happened at the Wifaqal Madaras office of Mufti Aziz over a period of three years. The victim made videos two years ago after his complaints to the madrassah were ignored.

However, the video proof did not help the victim, even when he shared them with the powerful head of the Wifaq, Maulana Haneef Jalundhri. According to the video statement released by Mufti Aziz, Jalundhri forwarded these videos to Maulana Fazalur Raheem Ashrafi, head of the Jamia Ashrafia, a very large seminary in Lahore, for investigation. Maulana Ashrafi, "reposing full confidence in my chastity, rejected these videos," stated Mufti Aziz.

Mufti Aziz kept enjoying all his positions including that of a revered teacher of Holy text, in charge of the Wifaq in Lahore and deputy head of the JUI Lahore Chapter. Both the madrassah system and the system of justice moved only when the videos went viral on social media. At this stage, the Wifaq was hardly left with any option other than taking action against him. However, the Wifaq has not explained why it failed to take action earlier and what it is doing about problem of child abuse at madrassahs.

Another set of videos, of Allama Mazhar Hussain Najafi who runs a madrassah in Chiniot, is four months old. His madrassah too refused to take any action against him during this period, even when the victim complained to the police. Allama Sahib continued his holy work all along. Not to be left behind, our bearded rockstar Mufti Qavi has also joined the spectacle. In previous videos, he made a fool of himself at the hands of young women seeking fame. This time, the content is a lot more explicit – though he cannot be accused of abusing anyone. Mufti Sahib has stated that the person in the video is not him. Perhaps, it is his naughty doppelganger.

Despite reality exploding on their faces, the ulema and religious institutions are unwilling to see the larger pattern that everyone else can witness as clear as a full moon. There is no talk of institutional steps required to analyze the situation and devise mechanisms for child protection.

For this attitude, the ulema have come under attack not only from Westernised liberals who, according to many religious leaders, have found an opportunity to attack them. The more scathing attacks have been launched by popular Islamist scholars who are not linked to the madrassah system.

Scholars like Engineer Mohammad Ali Mirza, who enjoys a huge following on social media and Qari Hanif Dar, Abu Dhabi based Imam and Khateeb, have claimed in their videos that the problem of child abuse is rampant at most Pakistani madrassahs. They blame the madrassah system, its sub-culture and the curricula for the situation.

Madrassahs have been with us for centuries and they aren't going anywhere any time soon. Unfortunately, the siege mentality with which the current madrassah system was founded in the nineteenth century still persists. This anti-modern mindset is rooted in the fear of Western encroachment on the “citadels of Islam” and Muslim society as a whole.

Perhaps due to this protectionism, madrassahs are caught in a time warp, not only in what they teach but also how they teach it. Rather than reforming itself, the madrassah system has tried to suck mainstream education and the whole society into the same time warp. The secular ruling elite has willingly partnered with them due to a mix of opportunism and fear.

A case against ulema and madrassahs is essentially a case against the state itself. Protecting vulnerable children and providing them shelter and education is the responsibility of the state, which has been outsourced to madrassahs. It is due to state policies that madrassahs have increased exponentially in the last four decades. The state supports the madrassah system by recognizing their degrees at par with the mainstream education system, by providing material support directly and indirectly and by posting ulema to powerful state positions.

While embracing ulema, who have turned public funded welfare institutions into their family properties, the state shows no interest in the fate of the poor children who study at madrassahs with the aspiration to become alims themselves. No policy has been formulated to protect these children inside madrassahs. Not long ago, the state was either culpable or looked the other way when many madrassahs indoctrinated these children and used them as gun fodder for private jihad. When reforms were debated at last after 9/11, it was not for the benefit of millions of poor children but to protect the world's rich from real and imagined extremism at these madrassahs.

The madrassah system needs comprehensive reform – for which ulema are not ready. But, unfortunately, it cannot be pushed by the ruling elite either who, in the process of making instrumental use of religion, have become half mullahs themselves.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

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Twitter: @zaighamkhan