AP PHOTOS: Life in a madrassa as Afghanistan enters 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.

Sunshine streams through the windows of the Khatamul Anbiya madrassa, where a dozen young boys sit in a circle under the tutelage of their teacher, Ismatullah Mudaqiq.

The students are awake by 4:30 a.m. and start the day with prayers. They spend class time memorizing the Quran, chanting verses until the words are ingrained. At any moment, Mudaqiq might test them by asking that a verse be recited from memory.

Attention is turning to the future of education in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, with calls among urban educated Afghans and the international community for equal access to education for girls and women. The madrassas — Islamic religious schools for elementary and higher learning, attended only by boys — represent another segment of Afghan society, poorer and more conservative.

And they too are uncertain what the future will hold under the Taliban.

Most of the students hail from poor families. For them, madrassas are an important institution; it is sometimes the only way for their children to get an education, and the children are also sheltered, fed and clothed. At night they lie on thin mattresses, preferring the ground over rickety bunk-beds, until sleep comes. Like most institutions in Afghanistan, madrassas have struggled in the decline of the country’s economy, which has accelerated since the Taliban takeover on Oct. 15.

The Taliban — which means “students” — originally emerged in the 1990s in part from among the students of hard-line madrassas in neighboring Pakistan. Over the past two decades, madrassas in Afghanistan have steered clear of militant ideologies, under the eye of the U.S.-backed government fighting the Taliban. Now that government is gone.

Staff at Khatamul Anbiya were cautious when asked if they hoped for greater support from the new Taliban rulers.

“Regardless, with or without the Taliban, madrassas are very important,” explained Mudaqiq. “Without them, people will forget their religious sources … The madrassa should always be there no matter what government is present. It doesn’t matter the cost, it should be kept alive.”

Historically, the Afghan government has lacked the resources to provide education in rural areas, enabling madrassas to grow in influence. The madrassa system has been kept alive largely through community-driven efforts; most of its funding comes from private sources. But with financial shortfalls as a result of U.S. sanctions and freezes from international monetary institutions, public salaries have not been paid. Madrassas are not seeing the same funding they used to.

The young boys who grow up in the madrassa system can qualify to become religious scholars and experts. The schools usually teach a conservative interpretation of Islam and have been criticized for an overreliance on rote-learning over critical thinking.

But for some, the system is just a way to get basic education and stay fed.

Between religious study the young men convene in large seating areas for a meal of bread and hot tea. Before sunset, they play marbles until it’s prayer time — the last before nightfall.

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