Madrassa graduates and labour market mismatches -by Murtaza Haider

The proliferation of madrassa education in Pakistan has contributed to labour market mismatches. According to the Pakistan government’s own statistics in 2008 alone twice as many students were enrolled in the 12,500 madrassas than in the 124-odd universities.

Given the curriculum taught in madrassas, most graduates are ill-equipped for gainful employment in a knowledge-based economy. Such graduates, frustrated by their limited or non-existent employment prospects, have often gravitated towards militancy and extremism.

Madrassas in Pakistan flourished under late General Ziaul Haq who used Islamisation of the state and the society to prolong his rule. Whereas the population increased by 29 per cent during 1972 and 1981, the number of graduates from religious schools in Pakistan increased by 195 per cent during the same period. This resulted in an oversupply of graduates from religious schools who had limited employment prospects.

The military and civil governments that followed the Zia regime also did little to address the dramatic increase in the number of madrassas and the students enrolled in such institutions. The number of madrassas jumped from 2,800 in 1988 to 9,900 in 2002. The Deobandi madrassas saw the largest increase during that period reaching a total of 7,000 institutions. In fact, the increase in the number of Deobandi madrassas was higher than the number of all other madrassas combined.

Professor Jamal Malik, who holds the Islamic Studies chair at Erfurt University in Germany, was amongst the first to undertake a systematic study of “colonialisation of Islam” where he focussed on how religious education was transformed under late General Zia. In 1987, Professor Malik highlighted the labour market mismatch for the thousands of madrassa graduates whose religious training was out-of-step with the skills needed to be employed in the civilian workforce.

The madrassa graduates were initially disadvantaged in the competitive labour markets because their asnaad (diplomas) were not recognised by those outside the religious establishment. The fix was however provided by the Zia regime in 1982 when the University Grants Commission decreed that madrassa diplomas were equivalent to an MA in Arabic or Islamic Studies.

Despite the equivalency for academic credentials, the madrassa graduates did not experience any meaningful increase in their employability in the urban employment markets where the services sector had emerged as the major provider of employment. The Zia regime tried to generate employment for the unemployed religious graduates by introducing Arabic and other religious subjects in the school curricula. However, the supply of religious graduates far exceeded the demand resulting in a large number of disgruntled and frustrated madrassa graduates whose numbers continued to swell in the decades following the Zia regime.

According to Professor Malik, the armed forces tried to offer reprieve to the burgeoning number of unemployed madrassa graduates. Under General Zia, the army took out advertisements in madrassa publications, such as Al-Haq (Akora Khattak), encouraging graduates to join the forces as soldiers or in other capacities.

Professor Malik’s study exposed the systematic spatial and socio-economic trends instrumental in the backgrounds of madrassa students. Most graduates of the Deobandi madrassas came from rural and economically deprived parts of Balochistan and (formally) NWFP. On the other hand, most students in Barelvi madrassas were of middle or lower middle class background belonging to semi-urban parts of Punjab. And whereas the growth of the Deobandi madrassas outpaced the rest, the madrassas operated by Barelvis, Ahle-Hadiths, and Jamat-i-Islami also experienced resurgence under the Zia regime.

The Deobandi madrassas, which grew at a faster rate in the Pashtun areas, were also more radical and closely linked with the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. The Deobandi madrassas have continued to become even more radicalised over the years. In a recent study of religious institutions in AhmedpurSharqi (East), S. H. Ali found that 80 per cent of the 166 Deobandi madrassas were involved in sectarian activities compared to only 25 per cent of the 166 Barelvi madrassas.* At the same time, seven out of 10 Shia madrassas were found to be involved in sectarian activities.

Deobandis were not the only ones who were mobilised to serve in militias fighting the Soviet Army and its allies in Afghanistan. Barelvis and others, including Shias, were also coopted in the great game. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah was mobilised to convince Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to join Deobandis and others in the fight against the Soviets. In early nineties, the then Hezbollah Chief, Sheikh Abbas Al-Musawi, showed up in Pakistan where he met with not just the madrassa students, but also addressed students enrolled in universities in Peshawar.

The battle-hardened graduates of madrassas, who had served in Afghanistan, returned initially to a hero’s welcome during mid- to late-80s. Given their persistent lack of employable skills required in the services sector and despite their marshal prowess earned in Afghanistan, the madrassa graduates continued to face the same dim employment prospects.

Professor Jamal Malik sensed the hazards latent in an oversupply of religious youth who were armed and laureates of guerrilla warfare. As early as in 1987, he ominously warned that the large number of madrassa graduates in the future would result in “a very high probability that the Government will be faced with an enormous problem in the next five to ten years to come.”

By mid-90s, as per Professor Malik’ stark warnings, the Taliban (lead by the graduates of mostly Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan) and their allies had marched out of Pakistan in all different directions. Years later, the same madrassa graduates returned to Pakistan to start an armed struggle against the State, which has resulted in the violent death of over 37,000 Pakistanis and at the same time has destabilised the state and the society.

While Professor Malik had warned against the threats posed by an army of unemployed madrassa graduates much before others, there was however no shortage of warnings by other notables against creating such militias. In October 1996, when the Taliban were busy taking control of Afghanistan in a violent struggle against other Afghans, Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, warned the world about the folly of jumping in bed with the Taliban. He wrote: “Whatever its political future, the Taleban is likely to swell the ranks of Afghan war alumni waging international terrorism.”

Later in May 1999, Ahmed Shah Masood also warned Pakistan and the rest of what to expect from the Taliban once they were done with Afghanistan. Masood knew well of the Taliban’s motives who wanted to “impose their version of Islam in Afghanistan, and then export it elsewhere.” He was prophetic in his assessment of the inherent risks of a complete takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, which he shared with the Sydney Morning Herald: “If we don’t resist they will go on to Uzbekistan or Pakistan. They can’t keep still.”

The challenge remains as to how one can integrate madrassa graduates in the workforce, thus preventing them from joining extremist organisations. The madrassa reforms, which advocate introducing English, math and science in the madrassa curricula, have largely been ineffective and ill-conceived. Such reforms fail to appreciate the self-selection bias inherent in madrassa enrolments. Those who are more likely to fail in English, math and science subjects end up in madrassas. Revising the curriculum by adding these subjects will lead to higher failure rates, which would further add to frustration of madrassa students.

Instead of teaching English or math, I would recommend vocational training for all madrassa students. Despite the economic hardship, Pakistan boasts a growing, albeit struggling at times, middle class that sustains the demand for new homes, cars, and motorcycles. Pakistan needs electricians, plumbers, motor mechanics and other similar craftsmen who can demand a decent wage in the current market place. Furthermore, with some technical experience gained in Pakistan, the madrassa graduates can search for similar work in the Middle East where they can earn higher wages for their skills, which will also include some fluency in Arabic.

Without any vocational training for madrassa graduates we will only compound our security concerns in Pakistan.

Source: S. H. Ali. Pakistani Madressahs and rural underdevelopment in Madressahs in South Asia: teaching terror? Edited by Jamal Malik. Routledge 2008.pp. 94.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at


Source: DAWN



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