In an upscale neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, the gates of a preschool open up to a front lawn with slides and pet cages. Each object in the garden has a piece of white paper affixed to it with its name in bold, large type, presumably so kids can expand their vocabulary at playtimes. But the cards aren't in English or Urdu, Pakistan's official languages. They're in Arabic. And the school's aim isn't just to educate kids — it's to raise them to be good Muslims.
Educational institutions like this preschool, the Hidayah Montessori Preschool, are at the forefront of a new trend among the wealthy in Pakistan: integrating Islamic instruction with private education. In recent years, a slew of schools have opened up that offer a conventional education along with the opportunity to learn Arabic and memorize the Quran. Some schools go beyond just education in scripture, promising an all-encompassing Islamic environment. These schools aim to instill values and morals in their students while delivering an education swathed in religiosity. They are changing the notion of a traditional Islamic education, which is often construed as simply rote learning the Quran. And they're responding to a demand from parents, conservative and rich Muslims who have rediscovered their faith as adults and want a religious education for their children.
But the social anxieties underpinning this trend indicate how faith is increasingly a crucial part of the Pakistani identity, and is manifesting itself in an exclusive, even insular form of education. These schools are based on the premise that the elite will bring moral change in society, that their graduates will shape the future. Religious school entrepreneurs now hold sway over morals and values being instilled in kids, and decide what kind of Muslim child can even gain admission to a private Islamic school. They are, in a sense, cashing in on conservatism in society.
At first glance, the idea of private Islamic schools seems unnecessary in a country like Pakistan, where the official religion is Islam. Teaching Islamic studies is compulsory at the school, college, and university level, and Islamic practices are an integral part of public, educational, and private life. Despite this, creators of religious schools consider private schools to be secular, because Islam is only one subject of many at these schools, and does not frame the curriculum as a whole.
In Pakistan, primary and secondary education is largely split between public schools, private schools, and seminaries. In the early years of Pakistan's history, children attended either public schools or schools run by religious denominations. Catholic missionary schools, as well as schools run by Zoroastrian educationists, were coveted for their focus on academics, discipline, and morality.
But the decline in the quality of public schools, and the nationalization of missionary schools in the 1970s, as well as the government allowing the establishment of for-profit educational ventures, led to the creation of private schools. These schools offered English-language education to the middle- and upper-middle class. While Catholic and Zoroastrian-run schools are still highly valued, private schools have grown into a veritable industry.
There are several brand-name "chains" of schools. One chain, The City School, is reportedly planning an IPO. There are private schools in every nook and cranny of Pakistan's urban cities. While public schools are badly resourced and teach a state-issued, antiquated curriculum, private schools follow an independent, expansive curriculum at the cost of high fees. They offer the Cambridge education system or teach the government-issued curriculum for students sitting for state-run exams at the ninth- and 10th-grade levels.
But standards at private schools vary wildly, and they're often accused of charging steep fees. Even students at top-tier schools have to take on expensive additional tutoring. The usual indicator of a successful school is exam results, which is why schools focus on academic achievements.
On the other hand, the popular model of Islamic education — madrassahs, seminaries that focus on the memorization of the Quran — are beset with criticism on their rote-learning methods, and allegations ranging from the abuse of children to fostering radicalization. They're also largely shunned by the elite, who prefer to send their kids to private schools over seminaries.
Religious school entrepreneurs believe that they are responding to a crisis in education — in private education as well as in conventional Islamic instruction.
"I really think the madrassahs have failed," says Asif Imam, the founder of Hidayah. "It's just rote learning, they don't really understand the Quran and Sunnah. Their [students] behavior doesn't match what they've been taught."
Enter a new breed of private Islamic schools. They combine elements from existing private schools and Catholic education: exclusivity, high fees, and inculcating ideas of virtue. "In the old Catholic schools, there was moral education, and that went away with secularization," Imam says. They're driven by a desire to recreate a much-vaunted "golden age" of Islam when Islamic scholars and innovators thrived. Private Islamic schools have popped up across major Pakistani cities: In Karachi, there's Reflections, The Intellect School, and Fajr Academy, among others; in Lahore, there's the School for Contemporary and Islamic Learning.
These schools aren't emerging in a vacuum, or solely because private schools are dogged with complaints. They are a manifestation of a social shift taking place in Pakistan as a growing section of upper-middle-class Pakistanis rediscovers their Islamic faith. These are young professionals and homemakers who have adopted a deeply conservative and devout practice of Sunni Islam, and see themselves as trying to revive the Islamic faith. Their idea of Islam is shaped by Quranic instruction and education in how the Prophet Muhammad and his followers lived their lives.
This religious revival of sorts is led by female scholars and influential clerics who have thousands of followers. Adults take religious classes with these scholars at institutes and study the Quran and how religion intersects with their lives. Their values are ultra conservative — even hardline — but without invoking militant rhetoric. They've forged a subculture — they network with people with a similar religious path, background, and social class, they socialize and pray together. They've fostered everything from boutiques catering to the elite to youth clubs, and now schools. They don't have a monastic existence; they believe that Islam can guide every aspect of their modern lives, from how they shop and eat to where they study.
Umair Javed, a columnist for the Dawn newspaper and a sociologist based at the London School of Economics, says these schools capture the anxiety that Pakistan's upper-middle-class has faced in recent years about what it means to be a Muslim in modern society.
"There's an identity crisis. The state-sanctioned version of nationalism is vague and you keep reaching out to Islam to form your identity," Javed says. "The 'Muslim-ness' is by default programmed into the vast majority of the country. Secondly, you don't want to give up on the material comforts you've worked very hard for in the previous generation for. You want to consolidate those gains and resolve this cultural dilemma of being a Muslim in the 21st century. The idea that you can do both in this very convenient package of a school for your children is a very potent idea. Going to a good school where you can get an education and engage with the [Quranic] text is also the marker of being a good Muslim."
For parents who are undertaking a religious journey, education for their children seems like the next logical step — they want their children to also get an Islamic education early in life, and at the same standard as that of any top private school.
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