Life in a Madrasah as Afghanistan enters a new era
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – In a school in a remote corner of the Afghan capital, a cacophony of children’s voices recite Islam’s holiest book.
The sun is streaming through the windows of the Khatamul Anbiya madrasa, where a dozen young boys sit in a circle under the tutelage of their teacher, Ismatullah Mudaqiq.
Students are awakened at 4.30am and start the day with prayers. They spend time in class memorizing the Quran, chanting verses until the words are rooted. At any time, Mudaqiq can test them by requesting that a verse be recited from memory.
Attention is turning to the future of education in Afghanistan under the Taliban, with calls among educated urban Afghans and the international community for equal access to education for girls and women. Madrasas – Islamic religious schools for primary and higher education, attended only by boys – represent another, poorer and more conservative segment of Afghan society.
And they too do not know what the future holds for them under the Taliban.
Most of the students come from poor families. For them, madrasas are an important institution; sometimes this is the only way for their children to get an education, and the children are also housed, fed and clothed. At night, they lie on thin mattresses, preferring the floor to rickety bunk beds, until sleep comes. Like most Afghan institutions, madrasas are grappling with the country’s declining economy, which has accelerated since the Taliban took control on October 15.
The Taliban – which means “students” – originally appeared in the 1990s partly among students in the hard madrasas of neighboring Pakistan. For the past two decades, madrasas in Afghanistan have eschewed militant ideologies, under the watchful eye of the US-backed government fighting the Taliban. Now this government is gone.
Khatamul Anbiya staff were cautious when asked if they expected more support from the new Taliban leadership.
“It doesn’t matter, with or without the Taliban, the madrasas are very important,” Mudaqiq said. “Without them, people will forget their religious sources… The madrasa should always be there, regardless of the government present. No matter the cost, it must be kept alive.
Historically, the Afghan government has lacked the resources to provide education in rural areas, allowing madrasas to gain influence. The madrasa system has been kept alive largely through community efforts; most of its funding comes from private sources. But with the financial deficits due to US sanctions and the freezing of international monetary institutions, public wages have not been paid. Madrasas no longer benefit from the same funding as before.
Young boys who grow up in the madrasah system can qualify to become scholars and religious experts. Schools generally teach a conservative interpretation of Islam and have been criticized for their over reliance on rote learning rather than critical thinking.
But for some, the system is just a way to get basic education and food.
Between religious studies, young men gather in large seating areas for a meal of bread and hot tea. Before sunset, they play marbles until prayer time, the last before nightfall.