Harking Back: The free schools and the rise of ‘holy men’ to power

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 9, 2017

Recently I went to look for the prayer leader at Gulberg Main Market’s mosque, only to be told that he was in his ‘hujra’ at the ‘madrassa’ next door. What I saw there amazed me and got me thinking.

In the long rooms, on two storeys, were hundreds of boys squatting on floor mats reciting the holy book. Most of them live upstairs in a dormitory. They are fed, clothed and housed by the ‘madrassa’. The man saw my surprised face and reassured me: “Worry not, they are also very good at mathematics, write beautifully on the ‘takhti’, and we also have computer classes”. Probably my alarmed look had scared him. But that was not the case, for as a four-year-old I started my literary career sitting on mother earth under a tree writing a ‘takhti’ near Jauharabad. It was a contrast to England from where we came to Thal. My father surely had been bitten by the pioneering bug to work to make Pakistan a success, hence he joined the Thal Development Authority as a Director.

Nearby in the middle of a barren desert the very first house of this newly-found town was being built. So we were the first inhabitants of Jauharabad. To be honest we enjoyed the searing hot outdoors. It is quite another matter that I and my elder brother threw a brick piece at a mullah in the head for thrashing our sister. My father, probably, did not approve of this violent act – he probably smiled - and instead sent us off to a Murree convent in response. Early mass at four in the morning was punishment enough. So to Lahore we came back to our ancestral home, our amazing grandmother, her fantastic food and heard wild stories about our heritage. For quite a few centuries Lahore has been our family’s city.

But the sight I saw at Gulberg’s ‘madrassa’ is what over the years everyone sees all over the country, what to speak of the entire subcontinent. Of recent I have been studying the rise of ‘formal’ education over the last 200 years, and it did not come as a surprise the pattern followed. Over time it seems exactly the same everywhere. The developed world managed to break free of the hold of their church, while the Muslim world has yet to break free from the hold of the ‘mullah’. There is nothing evil about a ‘madrassa’, it is that they simply refuse to grow out of an ancient curricula that has little relevance to the world outside. The reason is not only illiterate teachers. It has more to do with the lucrative economic interest. In my view religion is just the glossy cover.


This stubbornness is quite the opposite of what our Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) wished that his followers move with the times and respect the people of the lands in which they choose to live. Such a similar stubbornness is what the churches of England and Europe had degenerated into and their blind followers set off on crusades. This happened almost 1,400 years after the death of Jesus.

Most of us imagine that a good ‘modern’ education should be non-communal, liberal in essence, and rational where all facts should be verifiable. But this is not the reality today. To be honest it never was, not anywhere. In my research of major educational institutions of the world, it is interesting to see the church being the harbinger of almost every educational endeavour in Britain and Europe. The same is true of the USA, for when its first university, Harvard University, was set up in 1638 its benefactor, a Master’s graduate from Cambridge University in England, purchased a plot of land and named it Cambridge. Then he set up a church, and from then onward it was a reasonably secular effort, though the church does come in because of its understandable cultural imagery.

In England all educational institutions emerged from the church. For that matter the Church of England is the largest property owner in Britain, with Cambridge University a close second. For that matter the school I went to in Lahore, the St. Anthony’s High School, was a very Irish Catholic affair. But then with the coming of the first central model school in Amritsar, Punjab was introduced to what was seen as ‘secular’ education. It was to serve a colonial purpose. The second one in Lahore was certainly secular, though they had a mosque, a temple and a small ‘gurdwara’ in them each. But that is not how education grew in Punjab, especially in Lahore.

To understand the starting point of our ‘modern’ educational system it would be sensible to read Dr G.W. Leitner’s classic ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab’, compiled after considerable research in 1881 by this great man, the founder of the Government College, Lahore, the Punjab University and the Oriental College. This genius and the world’s greatest ever linguist has written a number of books, including ‘Introduction to a Philosophical Grammar of Arabic’ and ‘Understanding the Koran’. Not surprisingly two years ago in the Punjab Assembly the ‘genius’ scholar Rana Sanaullah roared in a debate against renaming Katchery Road as Leitner Road: “What would this foreigner know about education or Islam?” Leitner was to go on to set up the famous Working Islamic Research Centre near London from his life savings.

The rise of religious schools of learning in our subcontinent are thousands of years old, and their foundations lie in the emergence of Brahmins when the Kshatria rulers of our land decided to specialise in ruling their people, extracting taxes and making war. Legislation was left to the Veda-teaching priests, who preferred to consolidate their social standing by introducing castes. To be honest a similar process took root after the creation of Pakistan, and more so the death of Jinnah. The mullah had fiercely opposed Pakistan, but once created they set off to consolidate their social position. Today they own huge properties, what to speak of expensive four-wheelers with armed guards. They are part of the ruling elite. On the other side of the divide the Brahmin-led movement has slowly, but very surely, grabbed power. A ‘saffron-draped yogi’ is the UP chief minister. Their cow ban is not what the first Veda professed, for it suggests that marriage be celebrated by slaughtering a cow. Once the caste system was in place this was reversed by the third Veda.

When the British annexed Lahore in 1849, the Walled City had formal schools for boys and girls, with the highest literacy rate in the subcontinent. The Muslims had their ‘madrassas’, the Hindus had their ‘paatshalas’ and the Sikhs had their ‘gurmukhi chaatsalas’. These are schools invariably attached to places of worship. Dr Leitner classified the followers of the three major religions of Punjab in an interesting manner. For him Muslim men and women were unequal all following rituals, Sikh men and women being equal without any rituals, and Hindu men being essentially unequal among themselves with individual complex rituals.

Since the days of Leitner, and more so since 1947, education has seen decreasing investment by the State, less than one per cent in real terms. The result has been an exploitative private sector bursting through. The ‘madrassa’ has flourished replacing the State. Today almost 90% of students go to ‘madrassas’ because they are free. What they learn we all know. Mr Jinnah was a dreamer, a lost soul, who wanted 20% of national resources devoted to educating the poor. The ‘mullah’ eventually got the better of him. He had warned: “If this does not happen the State will collapse.” I wonder what he meant?


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