Islam and the Education System

The impact of Islam in Pakistan’s education system has varied over the years, reaching a peak during the rule of General Zia ul Haq (1978-88). Since 9/11, Pakistan’s education system, particularly its religious schools (or madrassas) and their alleged links with terrorist groups/organizations, have also been the subject of extensive international scrutiny and the focus of scholarly and policy attention.

Pakistan spends a mere 2 percent of its GDP on education. It is therefore not surprising that its education system is marked by deterioration reflected in poor enrollment,1 high dropout rates (almost 50%) and low literacy levels (57.7%) (Pakistan Economic Survey 2010-2011, Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Finance).

This deterioration is compounded by the divisive nature of Pakistan’s education system, primarily divided into public schools, private schools and madrassas (religious schools or seminaries). While the figures remain contested, according to official estimates there are almost 180,577 public schools, more than 74,693 schools in the private sector, and approximately 12, 599 madrassas (Pakistan Education Statistics 2008-09, Academy of Education Planning and Management, Ministry of Education). Other studies, such as a 2011 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on public education and madrassas puts madrassa numbers closer to 20,000 (USCIRF 2011 Report, p. 24).

Lack of resources particularly plague the public government run schools, responsible for providing education to the vast majority (almost 60%) of Pakistan’s school-going children (Annual Status of Education Report Pakistan, ASER, 2011, p. 11). Some of these schools lack not just school supplies but also basic facilities such as clean drinking water, toilets and electricity. The main language of instruction in public schools is Urdu (the national language) or other local provincial languages (such as Sindhi). The private school system, on the other hand, with its far superior quality of education, uses English as the language of instruction. Given the high fees associated with private education, these schools have traditionally been the main choice for the elite sections of the society. However, in the last decade private schools catering to lower middle class families have also sprung up and their numbers and enrollment have been growing rapidly, particularly in rural areas (Andrabi, Das and Khawaja, 2008, p. 329). Added to this are the approximately 20,000 madrassas, which offer free education, food and lodging, thus enhancing their appeal to families who otherwise cannot afford to provide any kind of education to their children. This parallel school system, with its different languages of instruction (English, Urdu and Arabic in madrassas) and varying quality levels and teaching methods, has contributed to an increasingly stratified society.

Government mandated curricula and textbooks, for both public and private schools, act as vehicles of religious indoctrination and are also a major source of concern. The national curriculum, which delineates topics to be covered by textbooks, is produced by the central Curriculum Wing of the Federal Ministry of Education based in Islamabad (Zaidi, 2011, p. 47).  The four provincial textbook boards are responsible for implementing the national curriculum, primarily through textbook production. However, the curriculum wing has the right to amend/reject in part or whole any textbook thereby ensuring that only a state mandated and approved version of social reality ends up being included in textbooks (Durrani and Dunne, 2010, p. 217). While “elite” private schools (such as those teaching British O-levels from grade 9) have the freedom to use alternative textbooks published by the Oxford University Press for English, science, math, etc., the content of “Islamiat” (Islamic Studies) and “Pakistan/Social Studies” textbooks (two subjects introduced in the curriculum in the 1970s) remains largely the same for both types of schools. Islamiat, made compulsory for all schools through Article 31 of the 1973 constitution, teaches a narrow interpretation of Islam that encourages religious intolerance and extremism through negative references to Pakistan’s minorities (religious and other). The subject of Pakistan/Social Studies, which teaches the history, geography and politics of Pakistan with an emphasis on Pakistan’s Islamic identity, portrays Hindus and India as enemies of Islam and distorts historical facts for ideological ends. Despite being a multi-ethnic state, both subjects deliberately ignore Pakistan’s “internal differences of ethnic identity” and  promote “homogeneity, solidarity, and unity” through religion (Islam) which is used “as the key boundary between the Muslim Pakistani ‘self’ and the antagonist non-Muslim ‘other’” (Durrani and Dunne, 2010, p. 215). Post 1979, religious indoctrination has not been restricted to these two subjects but has also permeated other subjects such as Urdu, English and history.

Equally worrisome are the alleged linkages between certain madrassas and terrorists groups/organizations, which have come to the fore particularly since 9/11. These madrassas have been linked to the radicalization of Pakistani youth through their provision of ideological (and other) training, which creates an “exclusionary and sectarian worldview” (Sustainable Development Policy Institute Report 2003, p. 1). However, contrary to popular belief, recent research shows that only between 2.7% to 6 % of Pakistani children attend madrassas, neither are madrassas the only source of religious indoctrination (see ASER Pakistan 2011 and Education Emergency Pakistan, Pakistan Education Task).2 There is a long history of political and state manipulation of the ideological space through education, particularly in public schools, where textbooks perpetuate and reinforce Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state concomitant with prejudice and hatred towards religious minorities. As a result, a culture of hate and violence has crept into Pakistan’s school system over the years and been perpetuated most notably since General Zia ul Haq’s Islamization drive post-1979.

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  • 1. According to ASER 2011, 32.3% of children age 5 are not enrolled in any school facility, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan, January 26, 2012, p.13. Pakistan also ranks second in the global ranking of out of school children (see Education Emergency Pakistan, Pakistan Education Task Force).
  • 2. Madrassa enrollment figures also remain contested. According to some studies madrassa enrollment accounts for only 1% of total enrollment (see Andrabi, Das, Khwaja, Zajnoc 2005, Fair 2008, and SPDC 2002-2003). According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan 2011, madrassa enrollment is 2.7% (p. 13). Recent reports suggest that the number is closer to 6% (Ministry of Education, Academy of Educational Planning and Management (AEPAM), Education Statistics 2008-09).