A group of students.

Religion / Pakistan

Story by Asim Muhammad Ameen, Rabia Bugti, Aria Nasimi and Rida E Zehra Zaidi

Madrassas play an important role in education in Pakistan, offering religious instruction, while also providing for basic education to millions of children. The madrassa system has come under attack by some Western critics for their association with extremists, and while these cases are rare and exceptional, they have brought strong pressure on Pakistan’s government to reform and control this school system, which until recently has operated largely independently. The government is now in the process of trying to formalize madrassa curricula and bring them under stronger government control. It is estimated that Pakistan has the largest concentration of madrassas in the world — although the Pakistani government does not have official numbers, as many madrassas remain unregistered.

In December 2019, the Global Reporting Program met students, teachers and administrators at a range of schools in and around Karachi, and observed a system of education in which students spend hours memorizing the Quran, while often also getting basic education in applicable skills. Our story begins with a rickshaw driver and his sons outside of the boys’ madrassa in Karachi.

A father driving his sons home from school in a rickshaw
Sumair Shah drives his sons home after picking them up from their madrassa in Karachi, on December 6, 2019. The madrassa his sons attend focuses on religious education. Shah supports the push for madrassa reforms, and hopes they will introduce subjects like math, science and English into the existing curriculum to create better opportunities for his sons once they graduate. (Photo by Peter Klein)
A father standing with his sons in front of a rickshaw
Sumair Shah with his sons (right to left) Sohaib, Qasim and Okasha, (ages 12, 8 and 11) who are dressed in their school uniforms near the entrance to their madrassa in Karachi. Sohaib says he wants to be an engineer, Qasim an army officer, and Okasha dreams of becoming a doctor. Their father says he is willing to work extra hours to help them fulfill their dreams. Sumair also has a daughter, Romaisa, who was six years-old when we visited in December 2019. At the time, Romaisa was not in school. (Photo by Peter Klein)
Two brothers waiting for their brother after school
Qasim and his brother Sohaib wait for their brother Okasha after school. The boys’ madrassa, Rozatul Fathiyya, is located in the oldest part of Karachi, the industrial and economic centre of Pakistan. This city of 16 million, located in Sindh province, may not ultimately adopt the government’s proposed madrassa reforms. Education is implemented at the provincial level and in the Sindh province, Education Minister Syed Sardar Shah is strongly opposed to the Single National Curriculum (SNC), which would formalize a uniform curriculum for all schools in Pakistan, including madrassas. In August, the Punjab province became the first to fully implement the SNC in public and private schools. (Photo by Asim Ameen)
A man driving his rickshaw near his home
Sumair Shah drives his rickshaw near his home in Karachi. Shah, 32, says he wanted to become a nurse practitioner, but because he only studied religious affairs in a madrassa, he says he did not have the background to pursue a medical education. While some progressive madrassas do teach a range of subjects, the current government wants to mandate that these religious schools offer a broad educational background, alongside Islamic studies. (Photo by Peter Klein)
A man at a desk looking at the camera
Pakistan Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training, Shafqat Mahmood, in his office in Islamabad on December 9, 2019. The politician says it is essential to reform madrassas, because all children deserve equal education opportunities. However, recent protests from clerics and seminary students have shown there is opposition in some circles to these changes. (Photo by Rabia Bugti)
Two people sitting facing the camera
Sumair Shah’s parents, Mateen (left) and Sabra (right), in their home in Karachi. They oppose the government’s plans to reform the madrassas, since they say it will change the social fabric of the country. (Photo by Rabia Bugti)
Boys playing marbles
Qasim (standing right) is known as a marble champion. He and his brother Sohaib play the popular game with classmates outside their madrassas, as they wait for their father to return from shuttling other children home in his rickshaw. (Photo by Peter Klein)
Students in a classroom
Across the city, students at Jamia Binoria Aalimiyah, a progressive madrassa in Pakistan, study subjects like English, Mandarin, science, math and history, in addition to their religious education. (Photo by Peter Klein)
An instructor speaking with a group of girls outside
Global Reporting Program instructor Muna Khan speaks with a group of girls, many of whom are students of the Jamia Binoria Almiyah madrassa. The girls are talking about their plans to become doctors and teachers. In Pakistan, while female enrollment in primary school has increased over the past decade, the numbers are still significantly lower than male enrollment. In 2018, 61.5 per cent of girls were enrolled in primary school compared to 73 per cent of boys. (Photo by Asim Ameen)
Students sitting down with many pairs of shoes in the foreground
Students at the Jamia Binoria Almiyah madrassa come from all over the country, as well as from throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Many of the students receive housing, food and even clothing from the school. (Photo by Peter Klein)
Students receiving an assignment
Students are assigned new verses from the Quran to memorize and recite inside Jamia Binoria Almiyah madrassa in Karachi. (Photo by Peter Klein)
A man sitting down looking to his right
Mufti Muhammad Naeem co-founded the Jamia Binoria Almiyah madrassa in 1979, and led its progressive reforms. He died in 2020, and his son Sheikh Noman Naeem — a graduate of the madrassa — is now the chancellor of the school. (Photo by Aria Nasimi)