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Inside the Madrassahs

Islamic religious schools are more complex and diverse than usually reported, says the UVM professor who has conducted the first wide-ranging study of Pakistani madrassahs

By Jeff Wakefield Article published October 19, 2004

Simple Madrassah
Pakistani religious schools range from impoverished rural schools like this one to elaborate urban centers. They also vary widely in ideology. (Photo: Saleem Ali)

It’s conventional wisdom in much of the United States and Europe that Pakistan’s network of Islamic seminaries, or madrassahs, double as terrorist training camps that breed hate for the west.

A Frontline documentary titled “Saudi Time Bomb,” which aired in the months following Sept. 11, helped popularize the view that Saudi-financed madrassahs, serving the poorest strata of Pakistani society, traffic in an extreme form of Islam that manufactures suicide bombers and hijackers, providing them with both motive and justification for their acts. Other media accounts following the PBS documentary have cemented the connection between the Pakistani madrassahs and Islamic terror.

While the story has an appealing logic, it is vastly oversimplified, if not plain wrong, and may be responsible for misguided public policy in Pakistan, says Saleem Ali, an assistant professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who is using a $35,000 grant from the U.S. Institute for Peace to conduct the first wide-ranging scientific study of Pakistan’s madrassahs.

“Are the madrassahs breeding grounds for hate? There has been no analysis, no empirical study, at all to prove or disprove that,” says Ali, a native of Pakistan who is the principal investigator of the study, which employed a field research team headed by Syed Tauqir Hussain Shah, a former civil servant in Pakistan who has studied madrassahs in the past.

Jihadists a small minority
Ali, his colleague in Pakistan and their team have spent much of the year looking closely at more than 300 madrassahs in two areas: Islamabad, the country’s largest city, and the Ahmedpur East subdistrict in the province of Punjab, a rural area known for sectarian violence. The research team used a mixture of innovative and traditional techniques to reach their conclusions: GIS technology that laid geographically distributed data about income, crop production, acts of violence, and other information over a map of the madrassahs in the study area; interviews with teachers and clerics at each of the 300 schools in the study; and interviews with Pakistani government officials and leading clerics in the country.

Ali spent much of the summer in Pakistan visiting madrassahs and conducting interviews with opinion leaders of various kinds. The study’s preliminary findings include:

  • Most contemporary madrassahs are funded by local landlords and businessmen and through charitable drives at mosques. While Saudi financiers played a major role 30 years ago during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union — the Taliban were educated in a Pakistani madrassahs around that time — there is little or no Saudi funding today, except from “alumni” who have found lucrative blue-collar jobs in the Persian Gulf states.
  • In only a small minority of “jihadi madrassahs” — less than 10 percent of the total — do political issues intertwine with the curriculum. These schools, many of which developed during the Afghan-Soviet war, deserve special attention but should not set overall government policy toward the madrassahs.
  • Traditional madrassahs that provide generally apolitical Koranic education account for a vast majority of the religious schools in Pakistan. Most of these institutions provide a social service to their communities by providing free child-care facilities and modest meals for their students.
  • While there appears to be a strong correlation between madrassahs and income in rural areas, which consistently serve the poorest and most abject families, there was no such connection in the urban madrassahs of Islamabad, where wealthy families often send their children for a discipline-oriented traditional education.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, there is no connection between the madrassahs and international terrorism, with the exception of the “jihadi madrassahs.” There is a connection, however, between the madrassahs and acts of sectarian violence, especially between Shias and Sunnis in Southern Punjab.
  • Anti-Western sentiments, laced with vitriol, are common in sermons delivered by clergy in the mosques attached to the madrassahs. But moderating inflammatory clergy is a separate issue, say the researchers, by no means confined to the madrassahs.
Reforms in question
According to Ali, the findings are a clear warning signal for policy makers in Pakistan, who embarked on a wide-ranging effort to reform the madrassahs in 2003, under intense pressure from the West.

The five-year, billion-dollar reform effort, designed to bring secular subjects like math, reading, science, and computer study to the madrassahs, and to put them under the purview of the country’s education ministry, is also being supported indirectly by USAID, which has its own $100 million program to bolster non-religious schools in Pakistan, presumably to provide parents with an alternative to madrassah schooling.

Given his research findings, the reform effort may be attacking a non-existent problem and creating ill will in the process.

“This is a clear demand issue,” says Ali. “At the end of the day, people are saying we don’t want to be doctors and pilots” — jobs a more traditional curriculum is designed to produce — “we want to be theologians.” In the secular West that “might seem like the Middle Ages, but no one is being forced to enroll in a madrassahs. They want to do this.”

Furthermore, the reform initiative is leading to enormous resentment, says Ali.

“There’s general discontent over the imperial attitudes of Western societies. People are asking, ‘Why do we have to measure up to Western standards in order to be considered acceptable?’”

While they’re worrying about reforming the madrassahs, which educate only about two percent of Pakistan’s school children, public officials may be taking their eye off the real problem, Ali says. The madrassahs are graduating a much larger cohort of theologians than the economy can absorb, which could lead to a disgruntled population that would be vulnerable to terrorist recruiters. Resources might be better spent developing institutions with a theological base — Islamic hospitals and NGOs, for instance — as has been done in the Christian West, says Ali, where “madrassahs graduates could feel comfortable working in a theological setting.”

Ali, a conflict-resolution specialist who has advocated using environmental themes, which can be less ideologically fraught than other types of problems, to bring opposing parties to the negotiating table in the Mideast and elsewhere, has ambitions for the madrassahs work above and beyond the information it will bring to policy-makers.

“Westerners generally think the madrassahs are terrorist factories,” he says. “Muslims, on the other hand, think the West is out to colonize them again. If this work enables people to say, ‘Yes, we have some problems with the madrassahs, but the solutions need to be more targeted,’ that can be an entry point for building trust between the East and the West.”

Ali plans to publish the madrassah research findings in book form next spring. The Website for the project is