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Laila Bushra, right, with Sugata Bose

By Shajia Sarfraz, Ed. M Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education; SAI Student Coordinator

How and why has the number of madrassas increased in Pakistan since the 1980s? Can we track this growth with any degree of accuracy?  Do we need to go beyond the traditional understanding of the madrassa? What do the various Islamic institutions in Pakistan have in common amongst them? The South Asia Institute hosted Dr. Laila Bushra, SAI’s Babar Ali Fellow, as she discussed these questions in her talk on November 5 titled “Beyond the Madrassa: Investigating the Civic Infrastructure of Islamist Groups in an Urban Setting,” moderated by Professor Sugata Bose.

Over the last decade, the expansion in the number of madrassas (understood as the basic institution of Islamic education) in Pakistan has garnered a lot of attention in both academic and policy circles. These studies tend to treat madrassas as static and uniform entities whose only role has been that of training militant Islamists engaged in jihad. Bushra argued that the expansion in the number of madrassas is undeniable, but it is not possible to estimate their actual numbers with any degree of accuracy. Relatedly, existing studies do not do justice to the internal diversity of Islamic institutions of worship and instruction and their links to the surrounding environment. Madrassas in certain parts of Pakistan, especially Karachi and the northwestern regions, have certainly played an important role in the three-decade long jihad in Afghanistan and later Kashmir, but jihad is dependent more on state policies than madrassas. And the geographical scope and socio-economic role of madrassas in Pakistan goes far beyond jihad.

Based on her research in the city of Lahore, Bushra argued that madrassas vary in structure, size, terminology, and the kind of services they provide. They cover the entire spectrum of sectarian affiliations within Pakistani Muslims, and range from modest, ramshackle institutions in narrow streets and back alleys to multi-story, well-maintained and well-endowed structures with their own libraries, computer labs, and publishing houses in upscale neighborhoods. Several madrassas engage in commercial activities of their surrounding neighborhoods through bookstores, food stalls and memorabilia, and by mobilizing and recruiting the population.

In terms of terminology, these institutions call themselves ‘maktab,’masjid,’ ‘jamia,’ ‘madrassa,’ ‘darul ilm,’ and ‘darul quran’ and these titles cannot be deduced from the size or functions that any particular institution performs. Also, shrines and imambargahs share most of the features associated with the madrassas.

To address these issues of conceptualization and terminology, Bushra proposed the term ‘civic Islamist infrastructure’ to capture the entire range of religious institutions engaged in worship, education and instruction, and the provision of spiritual services and commercial merchandise. She discussed this infrastructure as a three-tiered pyramid- each tier defined by its physical size and resources, and the extent of its influence on the immediate and distant environments. In analyzing the expansion of this pyramid over time, Bushra made a distinction between the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’. Islamic refers to beliefs and practices of Muslims reflected in the historical institutions of the mosque, madrassa, shrine, and the imambargah. Islamist, on the other hand, refers to movements that emerged in nineteenth-century British India in response to the threat of westernization of state and society. These movements aimed to creating the ideal ‘Islamic’ society through the implementation of Islamic law or shariah. The question of the appropriate role of the madrassa and the shrine was central to the ideologies of these movements, and they have engaged with and reshaped the ‘Islamic’ landscape over the last one hundred and fifty years with varying degrees of success.

Since the 1980s, Islamist groups have collectively and dramatically increased their influence in Pakistan by taking advantage of available resources and opportunities provided by a number of local, regional, and international factors. In this process, their ability to penetrate the ‘Islamic’ has increased manifold. The historical Islamic structures survive, but in altered forms. And in its present form, each tier of the pyramid includes a combination of Islamic and Islamist institutions. The expansion of the civic Islamist infrastructure is a manifestation of the rising influence of various ‘Islamist’ groups and parties in Pakistan, but the changes are reflected in complex ways in different parts of the pyramid, which Bushra discussed by sharing photographs of the different institutions within each tier. Taken as a whole, the Islamist infrastructure has played a central role in bringing many Islamist ideas into the mainstream culture and discourse, and the long-term influence of this infrastructure is far more resilient than the waxing and waning fortunes of jihad.