Education is all about opportunity, the opportunity to make something of your life, and in many cases to have choices that preceding generations did not have. Nowhere is this more true than in South Asia, where a large population, significant levels of poverty, and a variable government track record in delivering services make education all the more important.

So why is it that, given these conditions, many parents choose to send their children to madrasahs, Islamic schools, where some suggest the quality of education is narrower, employability weaker, and later opportunities in life more restricted? In what ways can the choice to send one’s children to a madrasah be a rational one?

Parents that select their children’s education are more likely to closely involve themselves in its delivery. Whether rational or not, those who choose madrasahs may be expressing their confidence in a madrasah education, rather than announcing a choice determined by necessity. Only by understanding more about the madrasah system and its alternatives—secular, government, and private—can we arrive at firm conclusions for effective public policymaking. In order to reach these conclusions, evidence is key. Unfortunately, the evidence base remains alarmingly weak, despite the strength of convictions that madrasah politics tend to generate.

Additionally, much of the debate depends on what type of Islamic school we are talking about. It is tempting to assume that all madrasahs are broadly similar: religious schools that prioritize a range of Islamic subjects while failing to offer broad-based curricula that include modern subjects, whether science, the social sciences, or contemporary languages. But the sheer range of madrasahs in South Asia suggests otherwise. To begin with, there are major differences between the majority of madrasahs, which are rural, primary institutions, and the minority, which are urban, often endowed with some financial resources and cover the range from primary to tertiary education.

The former institutions are largely about necessity. Educational choice in parts of rural South Asia can be extremely limited. In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, government schools often lack the national footprint that their governments seek. Given the pressures of population, competing demands on public sector finances, and the limited ability of states to ensure the effective delivery of public services in rural areas, government schools often fail to meet the mark. It is not uncommon to hear about schools that simply exist in name: a school building, budget, and salaries for teachers that translate into a building being used for other activities and incomes for teachers who do not teach. The first Pakistani National Education Census in 2006 found 12,737 of these so-called “ghost schools” out of a total of 164,579 across the country, for example.

As a result, the choice for many rural parents is between no government school at all or a madrasah that usually offers free (or nearly free) education. Regardless, one often encounters regions in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan where villagers choose to send a child to a madrasah over a local government school. For conservative parents, a religious education for one child, or more, is appealing—particularly given the subsequent opportunities those parents think their children are likely to get to make a living, whether as mullahs or as madrasah teachers. (This happens although jobs within the madrasah system are limited, perhaps explaining the growing number of primary schools set up by former madrasah students.)

Consequently, a number of parents send their children to madrasahs out of choice. Nowhere is this more visible than in the cities of South Asia. From Dhaka to Peshawar, middle-class parents choose to send children—or more often, one child, as Masooda Bano has found in her research—to madrasahs because they offer a respectable, religious education. But in these instances, the madrasahs in question are often financially well-off institutions and genuine centers of learning, though their politics usually remain well to the right of the spectrum.
A Rational Choice?
Why do parents choose a madrasah education? Three factors need to be evaluated. The first is employment. Critics of madrasahs are right to say that a madrasah education is not a great preparation for a full range of jobs in the future. The curriculum is often narrowly focused on religious subjects, although self-discipline, an important life skill, does potentially follow from the highly regulated and intense environment of an urban madrasah. A madrasah graduate is unlikely to be able to become a doctor, engineer, or a pilot. When competing with a good student from a government school, a madrasah graduate is unlikely to prevail. This is a concern, and one that analysts of madrasahs are right to raise.

Nevertheless, parental perspectives may differ. Unemployment is a huge problem across the developing world, and there is a worldwide deficit in decent jobs. In 2007, some 4.8 percent of men in South Asia were unemployed, according to the International Labour Organization. Illiterate people are particularly vulnerable, especially those that work in the agricultural sector, which is highly volatile and unpredictable.

Even with a decent education, the likelihood of getting a secure job is low—one reason why many young people still hanker after a government job. A madrasah graduate, even from a primary school (maktab) is likely to be literate, placing them ahead of illiterate peers in the employment market. Moreover, there is an apparent market—however limited—for madrasah teachers, and parents may believe that there is an opportunity for their children to earn a livelihood from teaching at one.

Nevertheless, it is debatable as to whether or not madrasahs prepare students for general employment. One indignant madrasah principal in Pakistan believes this was the wrong question. Students go to madrasahs, he argues, because they want to pursue careers linked to religion. As for those that did not, he added, a madrasah education still provides a good base for general employment by supplying literacy, basic skills, and self-discipline.

The second major issue is teacher motivation. In government schools, teacher motivation is a largely inadequate across the developing world. Detailed studies show that most teachers prefer to be posted exclusively to urban schools, that teaching is declining in status (and is increasingly seen as employment of last resort), and that teaching jobs serve as a crucial source of patronage. These factors can lead to a sense of insecurity, demotivating teachers and further reducing the quality of education provided. Teacher absenteeism is often as high as 50 percent, although studies differ as to how much of this is authorized (teachers can be expected, for example, to spend some of their time administering elections).

There is no survey data on the motivation levels of madrasah teachers, but pay is often poorer than in government schools, although principals can make more. In some instances, madrasah teachers claim to work for bed and board only. But the local nature of many maktabs may increase accountability to local communities, leading to higher motivation levels. One study, funded by the Department of International Development, suggests that “the high level of accountability of non-formal ‘community’ schools to parents and the host communities is the single most important reason for their success.” This accountability may contribute to parental choice to send children to madrasahs.

The third factor is literacy. One of the biggest global challenges is illiteracy: some 781 million adults were estimated to be illiterate in 2007, according to UNESCO, and many live in South Asia. Parents appear to value education, and want their children to be educated, although the first priority tends to be ensuring shelter and enough to eat. The trend lines in South Asia are positive: a higher percentage of the population is becoming literate. But there is still much to be done to improve young people’s opportunities. Any assessment of madrasahs needs to explore their role in increasing literacy, and this appears to be a gap in the research that could usefully be filled. Even if madrasahs do little more than make thousands of young people who would not otherwise learn to read and write literate, that is an educational achievement.
A Limited Debate
The important issues of choice are largely neglected in the current debate on madrasahs. It is time to move the madrasah debate on from arguments about extremism to arguments about provision, and away from often generalized arguments about these religious schools to the particular. Do madrasahs equip students for employment? How can good quality education be delivered in developing countries, in particular when states fail to effectively deliver schooling?

One risk about the madrasah debate is that it focuses on the religious schools alone—and often one narrow subset of religious education—rather than educational provision in general. Proper qualitative and quantitative evidence about madrasahs remains elusive, although good research is beginning to appear.

Most comments on madrasahs focus on extremism. Critics assail madrasahs as places that foster extremist views, either due to narrow curricula or because those who run them are affiliated with militant or sectarian groups. Mandatory reform, they insist, is one necessary path forward.

Defenders push back: show us the money, they demand. Is there evidence that terrorists come from madrasahs more than government schools, and moreover, how much causal connection is there between education and violent extremism? William Dalrymple is not alone in arguing for better government education provision, rather than an exclusive focus on religious schools.

Despite this there is evidence that in some madrasahs a tolerant and inquisitive approach to life is not encouraged. And as scholar Vali Nasr has noted, the increasing number of both conservative and radical madrasahs in Pakistan since the 1980s has contributed to a more volatile political environment.

In countries like Pakistan, the public policy response has been a tightening of regulation. Religious schools have been required to register with the government, although a minority has protested these moves and has vigorously resisted such pressures. Debates regarding madrasah regulation and reform are not new, as they took place during colonial rule as well. These debates, however, focus on the supply side—rather than the demand side.

Few who talk about madrasahs listen to those from the madrasah system. Many rely on a few visits to form a view or subscribe to received and frequently recycled wisdom. As Yoginder Sikand has sadly observed, those within the madrasah system are often marginalized when it comes to public comment and debate about the madrasah system.

This is curious, in particular when set against the vigorous debate about school choice, reform and provision that flourishes in the United States, Europe, and Asia today. Conferences abound on how best to equip young people with appropriate skills, there are journals aplenty on educational management and curriculum reform, and governments invest heavily in research in an attempt to determine how effective different public policy interventions are in education.

This debate is informed by discussions on choice, quality, and access. All of these issues are important, yet relatively neglected when it comes to examination of madrasahs. If one compares the debate about school choice in the US or on academies in the UK with that on madrasahs, the relative poverty of the madrasah debate is quickly laid bare. Bibliographies on madrasahs have a disproportionate number of press articles on madrasahs rather than peer-reviewed, scholarly work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Madrasahs only became the subject of significant attention following the 9/11 attacks: the terrorism industry seized upon them, and journalists picked over the more salubrious examples of problem madrasahs—which do exist.
All About Choice
Education is not about one size fits all. Excellence can manifest itself at different ages. Some people will be lucky enough to be consistently brilliant, marked out for success from an early age. But many flourish at different moments in their lives, their promise only apparent in their 30s or 40s. We assume that madrasahs make the man: the reality is that education, while crucially important, is not the only measure of a life. Parents make choices for their children, and in South Asia they choose what they think will benefit their children and themselves, given the role of families in providing welfare in later life. In highly religious Muslim societies, choices are also made with regard to the religious benefit that some believe will derive from educational choice.

Some madrasahs will look backwards, persisting with narrow (and sometimes narrow-minded) curricula. Others are already looking forward, incorporating a wider range of subjects into their teaching and equipping their students with broad skills that will make them more employable in future. One should remember that, for many, religious education sits alongside general education—in other words, many children attend both government and religious schools.

Madrasahs will remain predominantly conservative institutions—not altogether different from religious schools in the United States and Europe. In some cases, reform will take place, whether inspired by competition from private-sector English-medium schools (as has been witnessed in Bangladesh) or by an energetic principal (as witnessed in Pakistan and India). Detailed studies by Yoginder Sikand and Robert Hefner have accurately characterized Islamic education as complex, evolving, and diverse.

More research on madrasahs is required, but there needs to be additional research that examines the students who go to them, the parents who choose them, and the teachers who work at madrasahs. This research cannot be done from the air-conditioned confines of a think-tank or university institute but needs to draw on field-based survey and focus-group research. And that entails listening to more religious and conservative elements in society, not just making assumptions about the choices they make and the realities of their institutions.