In Pakistan, These Schools are Putting Morality Back into the Curriculum

A new model of private education in Pakistan is integrating Islamic teaching with modern educational methods. With it, however, come questions of access, insularity, and necessity.

Fellows 2017

By Saba Imtiaz

July 07, 2017

Also published by Pacific Standard

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.

Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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.

These religious schools aim to incorporate Islam at every level of education, from classroom instruction to playtime to homework practices. They offer the Cambridge system of education and teach everything from English to history and mathematics but also offer Quranic education and interpretation as well as Arabic so that students can understand and learn from religious texts. The core of these schools is conservative Islamic education, and that is evident in the curriculum and the student base. Science at Fajr Academy, for example, is taught with Quranic scripture, rooted in creationism.

At Fajr Academy, religion is intertwined in every aspect of the school day. The founder, Asim Ismail, was originally inspired to find out how children were educated at the time of the "best generation" of Islam, which, as he puts it, was the era of the Prophet Muhammad's initial followers. Early on, he enlisted the help of a Tunisian scholar; together they scoured old texts and Ismail toured Islamic schools abroad to see their best practices. As a result, his school is formed on a basis of conservative thought and a mix of teaching methods.

On campus, there's a petting zoo with birds and rabbits, so kids can learn to care for animals. Children sit on the ground in classrooms like scholars in older times. The school takes on creative elements borrowed from foreign cultures: mathematics is taught using an abacus, homework is delivered as computer games. There's even an indoor swimming pool. Class sizes are deliberately kept limited to 15 kids, and boys and girls are segregated midway through primary school. There are exercises on treating domestic cleaners—a fixture of every upper-middle-class household—as equals, and field trips to five-star hotels.

On a weekday at Fajr Academy, kids eat their snacks in their classrooms during morning recess. In an alcove, a kid gets a private lesson from a cleric on Quranic diction. A group of young girls say hello in Arabic. I reply in conversational Arabic, but they look befuddled. I realize its because they're taught formal Arabic. A librarian showing me around the school explains, "They're waiting for you to say 'Alhamdulillah'" (Arabic for "praise be to God").

The goal of these schools is to create pious, practicing Muslims in letter and spirit. Entrepreneurs define their ideal students as being honest, intelligent, and curious, who can disseminate Islam through their knowledge of Arabic and the Quran. Instilling morality is central to this. Reflections, a school in Karachi, publicizes that its core values are that it's not for profit and that it is committed to the Shariah and "highest standard in academics and sports, emphasis on Islamic morals and conduct." The Intellect School, another venture in Karachi founded in 2007, says on its website, "Students must remember that they are expected to behave responsibly in and out of the school and to consider themselves as representatives of Islam and The Intellect School at all times."

At Fajr Academy, the idea of an extended immersive Islamic environment begins at home—with mothers. One of the prerequisites to qualify for admission is that mothers have to be well-versed in Islam—a mandate even Quranic seminaries don't have. "Every mother has to do a full Islamic course from a place of her choosing, at least a one-and-a-half, two-year full-time Islamic course," Ismail explains. There are about a hundred mothers of students at Fajr who are currently undertaking Islamic studies. "If you don't make a commitment to this, and you haven't done this before, then there is no chance."

Islamic education is largely a male-dominated field in Pakistan, but women are central to private Islamic schools in their roles as teachers and homemakers. Hidayah's day-to-day management is led by a woman, and many of the teachers at Fajr and other Islamic schools are female. Javed notes that one of the principals of an Islamic school in Lahore used to head a private school chain's branch.

Fajr makes parents—particularly a mother—responsible for creating an Islamic environment at home. For one, television viewing is monitored and students are expected to report back to the school on their home environments. Parents are hauled in every weekend for workshops. "Otherwise what happens is garbage in, garbage out," Ismail says, crediting the school's Islamic environment with "transforming families."

While the schools have lofty goals of molding young Muslim minds, they are not entirely altruistic ventures. Even though their founders are counting on a trickle-down effect from the elite to society at large, these schools are largely limited to people who can pay hundreds of dollars in school fees. They use the for-profit practices of private schools, and have a competitive fee structure. The total amount required just at the time for of admission at The Intellect School, including school fees, runs up to $1,000. Monthly fees run into hundreds of dollars—Fajr charges nearly $200 each month.

Ismail admits that Fajr is not a "solution for the masses," and he is currently designing a curriculum that he plans to license to other schools and market to Muslim countries. He's also toying with the idea of creating a different school with larger classroom sizes and a lower fee structure, but with the same curriculum.

But these schools aren't open for all wealthy, conservative Muslims. They have to be a certain kind of conservative—assumedly Muslims who follow specific strains of Sunni Islam. While Pakistan is a majority Sunni state, there are several Sunni sects, as well as the Shia sect and its offshoots. When I ask Ismail if students from other Islamic denominations can be admitted, he says parents are asked about what sect they follow at the time of admission. "We have a space in our heart," he says, "but it's not that big." That space wouldn't extend, he says, to kids whose parents "visit graveyards and shrines"—a hint at adherents of the Sunni Barelvi sect, as well as people who might not hold a rigid interpretation of Islam.

"Would a Shia kid be allowed admission?" I ask.

He asks to go off the record.

This is a marked difference from regular private schools, which do not discriminate against students of different religious minorities or sects. It is instead startlingly similar to how seminaries and mosques in Pakistan are delineated by sect and sub-sect, and a parallel to the deep religious divides in society. This insular approach to education means that students are only exposed to a certain school of religious thought. In a country where religious minorities and adherents of Islamic sects are routinely threatened and targeted by militants, and subject to conspiracies and propaganda, young Pakistanis would benefit from diversity in the classroom, not exclusion.

Not everyone believes in excluding potential students. "Some people say they bring non-Islamic influences, [and] they have a point," says Hidayah's Imam, speaking about children who might not come from ultra religious families. "But then they're left out."

Fajr, for example, wants its students to be creative and free thinkers, and to be at par with their peers at any other private school in Pakistan. And by looking at the resources available—the range of school trips, the abacuses, small classroom sizes, and gleaming lab equipment—that appears to be an attainable goal. But it's an exclusive bubble within a bubble, for a certain kind of rich Pakistani, and a certain kind of Muslim. The definition of who that might be is left to educational entrepreneurs and school principals to decide—and it makes one wonder what these students learn about their peers from other religious backgrounds, and how they'll deal with them once they graduate.

There is no clear direction for Islamic schools. Much like private schools before it, Islamic education also seems to be quickly growing into a mini industry of sorts—and is facing similar challenges. When I first visited Fajr Academy in 2015, the school was based out of a house. It's since moved into a bigger location, with a purpose-built laboratory and swimming pool; the student base has increased from a little over a hundred to 190. The number of schools is on the rise, though no exact data is available given that there's no central authority on private Islamic schools. There's also no set definition of what it means to be an "Islamic school"—is it a school offering Quranic instruction, or classes in memorization of the Quran, or in-depth Islamic education. But since the trend seems to be on the upswing, Ismail laughingly predicts that private school chains will also start offering Quranic instruction soon.

For now, private Islamic schools are decidedly in an experimental stage. Ismail and Imam note that they are open to making changes in their curriculum and approaches, and how they imagine their schools going forward. But these schools aren't just building a new education system, or making money—they're shaping the religious identity and thoughts and morals of the next generation of the elite. That is a powerful, potent proposition.