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Central Asia: Madrasahs Lead Religious Teaching Revival (Part 4)

In Central Asia, as in much of the Muslim world, religious education is carried out in institutions known as madrasahs. Those institutions can be on a university-size scale, as in some of the ancient but still functioning madrasahs in Bukhara, or in premises as small as a village schoolroom. Today, after decades of decline under communism or due to war in Afghanistan, madrasahs throughout the region are reviving as a central part of Muslim life. RFE/RL correspondent Sultan Sarwar reports in this last part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia.

Prague, 9 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In a madrasah in Ghazni, southeastern Afghanistan, a turbaned and bearded teacher sits on the floor of a bare classroom, surrounded by a half-circle of young men aged 16 to 21.

The teacher is Movlavi Haji Mohammad, a local cleric who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. At this moment, he is teaching a class in the "Hadith," that is the collection of sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad. The Hadith and the Koran make up the Sunna, the base of Islamic law.

Movlavi Mohammad chooses a boy to read a passage in Arabic and corrects his mistakes. Then the teacher reads the text in Pashto:

"Rafi bin Khudaig narrates that when Prophet Mohammed came to Medina, he found people there artificially inseminating date palms, and you know Medina was a place of date palms, gardens, and wide agriculture.

"While referring to the artificial insemination, the Prophet --Peace Be Upon Him -- asked the people, ‘why are you doing that? ‘

"‘This has been our custom for a long time,’ the people answered.

"‘It may be better if you leave them without artificially inseminating them,’ Prophet Muhammad said."

The teacher interprets the passage’s meaning. He says the Prophet was only giving a personal opinion to the farmers and never claimed people should follow his guidance on nonspiritual questions. That left the final decision for the farmers to make based on their own best judgment.

The scene in Movlavi Mohammad’s classroom repeats across Central Asia, where madrasahs provide religious education to thousands of students. The students range from early school-age to university-age, and some will go on to become clerics and religious scholars in their own turn.

The scene is also timeless, reproducing many of the details seen in Persian miniatures dating to the Middle Ages. One such miniature shows a classroom inside a mosque complex. There is a small garden with a pool of water. The students and teachers study together and prepare together for prayer.

Historians say the madrasah system was once widely established in the region from Naishapur in Khorasan, to Balkh and Bukhara in Central Asia. Today it remains widespread in Afghanistan and is progressively returning to many of the Central Asian states, with the exception of Turkmenistan. There the government has actively discouraged madrasahs as part of its efforts to control Islam.

Madrasah studies traditionally focus on religious law, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, classic logic, literature, and interpretation of the Koran. Some also teach mathematics and the discoveries of the classic Muslim astronomers.
In recent years, some Central Asian states have also encouraged madrasahs to broaden their curriculum to include studies of modern sciences and to offer some educational opportunities for girls.

In recent years, some Central Asian states have also encouraged madrasahs to broaden their curriculum to include studies of modern sciences and to offer some educational opportunities for girls.

Dr. Abdul Hakim Juzjani, professor of law at Tashkent Islamic University, says the madrasah system produced some of the greatest scholars of Islam’s golden age of science (the 8th to 16th centuries on the Western calendar).

"Very famous scholars of theological law, history, grammar, literature, Arabic language and practical science, like Abu Raihan Beruni, Avicenna, Abusahl Masihi, and hundreds others belong to the region. They were very famous in the Islamic world, and some of them are well-known by international standards -- like Abu Musa al-Khwarazmi, the founder of algebra," Juzjani says.

But if the madrasahs once fostered scientific as well as religious studies, over time they gradually became more exclusively focused on theology.

Dr Abdul Salaam Azimi, a former president of Kabul University, explains to RFE/RL: "The interpretation which says that the practical sciences, like chemistry, physics, and algebra, do not belong in religious teachings prevailed. The scholars believed that they were not obliged to study [the practical sciences] any more, and that the only [necessary] knowledge is religious knowledge."

He adds that some scholars event went to the extreme of arguing that if God cures all diseases, there is no need for medicine.

Other factors – including foreign invasion and domination -- also contributed to the madrasahs' decline as centers of broad learning. Professor Juzjani says they included civil wars and the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. A renaissance in the 14th to 16th centuries was followed by Russian colonization of much of Central Asia and, finally, the marginalization of religious institutions under communism.

"National and religious institutions sustained big blows and losses during the expeditions of Russia into the region and following the creation of the Bolshevik state," Juzjani says. "Large [collections chronicling] achievements in the arts and science were looted, books were closely monitored, the people who had books with red or yellow pages [religious books] used to be taken to court, or sent to exile in Siberia or, if the book was about religious doctrine the owner used to face even harder punishments."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both governments in the region and Da'wah groups (private Islamic charitable organizations) elsewhere in the Muslim world provided money for restoring and reopening madrasahs. That created a competition for influence in which regional governments said foreign groups were seeking to spread fundamentalist Islam to the region. Most governments have since taken over, or put tight restrictions on, all madrasahs on their territory.

The tight restrictions reflect some governments’ view that madrasahs can become centers of extremism should their directors hold radical views. In Uzbekistan, some directors have been removed from their posts. Madrasahs have also been barred from receiving funding from states like Saudi Arabia, which are perceived as promoting a fundamentalist form of Islam potentially threatening to the status quo.

In Uzbekistan, Tashkent limits religious school graduates to competing for positions as imams in state-controlled mosques. Their studies are not considered adequate to enter the state’s civil bureaucracy, in contrast to graduates of the secular state education system’s Islamic University of Tashkent.

By contrast, in Afghanistan some madrasahs are not controlled by the government and are funded by local charities. Their graduates can become imams, judges in the national legal system, which is based on Shari'a law, or teachers in religious schools.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service stringer Jawad Omiad contributed to this report.)

See also:

Part 1: Central Asia Returns To Muslim Roots

Part 2: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam

Part 3: Radical Islamists Challenge Governments Efforts At Control