The maulana out to ‘reform’ Pakistani education

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If there is one thing of which there is no shortage in the Islamic Republic, our Fortress of Islam, it is Islamic or Quranic studies. We can complain about everything – lack of good healthcare, lack of good government schools, poverty, corruption, pure drinking water – but no one in his right mind can complain of a lack of Islamic studies. We are awash with them.

That these studies, reading the Quran by rote or studying it in translation, have not the slightest effect on our collective behaviour is of course a different matter. As upholders of ritual and the outward observance of the faith no one comes close to beating us. But in everyday life all this passion and zeal are kept to one side and each of us, according to ability and capacity, cuts what corners he/she can.

The patwari, the thanedar, the doctor, the consultant, the engineer, the politician, the mandarin, cheat according to their deserts. The great and good amongst us have offshore accounts and foreign properties. And they read lectures to us on probity and morality…and observe with fierce devotion the outward tenets of the faith.

That’s the way with us: render unto Allah what is Allah’s, and reserve the rest for Mammon, the god of gain (or rather the greedy pursuit of gain). This may not be secularism in theory but it is in practice – a neat division of the spiritual and material worlds. Your man of the cloth at his shop or trade, no trick is beyond him, from adulteration to over-pricing. But let the call to prayer sound and he will leave everything and roll out his prayer mat or head to the nearby mosque.

Nor is this a particularly gloomy society. We are cheerful about this hypocrisy and double-dealing, putting cheating down to the needs of this world and the meticulous observance of the faith to the necessities of the hereafter.

We inherited a good system of education from our erstwhile masters, the British – missionary schools, public schools on British lines like Aitchison and Lawrence College, and government schools for the vast majority where the standard of instruction and the quality of the teaching staff were high. Like what we’ve done with other institutions, we’ve done our best to run into the ground this inheritance, an endeavour in which to a large extent we have succeeded, the government-run education sector deprived of funds and attention and treated as a poor cousin to the system of private schools where those who can so afford prefer to send their children.

Some public utilities may not have been privatised but in all essential respects this is now a privatised society – health, education, even security, all privatised. The revenue system stood privatised a long time ago: you want anything done you have to grease palms and pay for it. The police force in all the provinces is also virtually privatised: from registration of cases to wanting an investigation carried out properly, you have to pay the proper tribute, which in other societies is called bribery. If armchair theorists who get so weepy about democracy think I exaggerate, let them enter a police station anywhere and try to test the limits of the criminal code. They will get an education they are not likely to forget in a hurry.

If their lordships will forgive my saying so, justice too has been largely privatised. Try to get a copy of a court order and you must pay the reader sitting right under the nose of the presiding judge. Leading lawyers’ fees are now beyond the reach of the common man. And to get justice from the superior judiciary you can’t do without reasonably ‘decent’ lawyers.

Members of the legal fraternity were already a power in the land. The lawyers’ movement transformed them into public nuisances and pugilistic champions, not above roughing up policemen and locking up judges in their chambers. Their services were never cheap before. Now they verge on the exorbitant. Thank you, My Lord Chaudhry.

As if the state of the republic was not enough of a merry-go-round, more outright fun than the Lucky Irani Circus, now comes on the stage a minister of state for education, sporting a very commanding beard, who seems to think that what ails the republic is not enough of Quranic studies. He may not have improved conditions in a single primary school in the federal capital – the extent of the federal education ministry’s remit post-18th Amendment – but every other day there comes an announcement from him that henceforth in all government-run schools the Quran will be taught with translation.

There are surahs of the Quran revealed in Makkah, other surahs later revealed in Medina. The minister says the Makkah surahs, which of course came earlier, will be taught in lower classes and the Medina surahs with their references to jihad, etc, in higher classes.

This is a laudable exercise and who can quarrel with it? But given the sufficiency if not superfluity of Islamic teaching throughout the broad stretches of the republic, isn’t this a case of an embarrassment of riches?

We have mosques in every nook and cranny of Pakistan where the Quran is taught. There are children of tender age called ‘hafiz’ – he who remembers – who are taught to commit the entire Quran to memory. We have Islamic Studies in our schools and Pakistan Studies which almost seem an adjunct of the former. We have college and university courses in higher education and, let us not forget, an entire madressah system, running parallel to the state education sector, where the core teaching is Islamiat and the study of the Quran.

We should be looking to have a single education system for the country, doing away with the multi-layered system we have at the present, one for the rich and privileged, the other for the luckless masses. We should be improving our syllabi and books. Our examination process is flawed, with cheating an integral part of it. Higher education is in a mess. The state of the sciences is abysmal. Our universities don’t produce world-class scholars. Genuine research is largely absent. Our PhDs are a joke. The minister of state should be applying his mind to these things. Instead, he does what Pakistanis are best at: wave the flag of Islam.

Islam and the Quran can do without this bit of populism. All the Islamic teaching we need is already there in our books. Luckily, the minister’s pious intentions, for all the practical effect they are likely to have, are confined to Islamabad. The provinces are their own masters when it comes to education. But this is as good an example as any of what is now our standard national practice: tackle not real problems but live on attractive slogans.

Pakistan’s problem is not the teaching of the Quran but abiding by its precepts and injunctions…beginning with the ruling classes. Mayfair property owners are all devoted students of the Quran in translation. How much of an effect this has had on their actions is for the nation to judge.

Tailpiece: I wrote in my last column that Barack Obama voted against the Iraq war resolution. A reader, Suren Sakhtankar, corrects me by pointing out that Obama became senator in 2004, a year after the Iraq invasion. My mistake…sorry.