Afghanistan’s madrasa system under the Taliban
The country’s education system has changed significantly since August 2021. The Taliban have implemented major restrictions on female education, and have pledged to open more madrasas nationwide.
7 Nov 2023
Above image: Kunduz, Afghanistan, taken 18th Sept, 2021 | Credit: Oliver Weiken/dpa/Alamy Live News
In Afghanistan, the term 'madrasa', which originates from the Arabic for 'school', specifically denotes religious institutions. Historically, madrasas have played an important role in Afghanistan, particularly in educating children in poorer and more rural regions. In some districts, they also served as a place where children could be sheltered, fed and clothed. These establishments centred their teachings around Islamic studies, encompassing the Quran, Hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), Islamic law, and other religious subjects.
Before the Taliban's takeover, madrasas in Afghanistan were broadly classified into different categories, with only a number of them officially registered with the government. Traditional madrasas in Afghanistan, located in mosques or private homes and overseen by local religious figures, primarily focused on Islamic teachings. To standardise religious education and mitigate the risk of extremist views being spread, the former government of Afghanistan supported various state-sponsored madrasas, which often had superior resources due to affiliations with the Ministry of Hajj, Islamic Affairs and Endowment (MoHIA) and the Ministry of Education (MoE), leading to the registration of about 5,000 madrasas, with 250 in Kabul.
On the other hand, private madrasas, funded by individual patrons often located abroad, showcased a diverse curriculum blending religious and secular studies, though a lack of regulation led to the influence of specific Islamic interpretations like Salafism or Deobandism in some. Upon their takeover, the Taliban initiated a nationwide campaign targeting influential Salafists believed to have past affiliations with the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). This reportedly led to the closure of over three dozen Salafist mosques and seminaries across approximately 16 provinces.
The Taliban’s nationwide madrasa drive
Since the Taliban's takeover in 2021, the education sector in Afghanistan has undergone significant change, including the closure of girls’ secondary schools and the ban on university education for female students across the country – moves that have triggered global condemnation.
The Taliban have focused heavily on promoting religious education, however. In April 2022, Noorullah Mounir, head of the Taliban's Ministry of Education, announced plans to establish three to 10 new religious schools in all districts of the country. Mounir reportedly emphasised that “religious sciences should be further taught throughout Afghan society”, and called on Afghan school teachers to develop an “Islamic belief” in their students. In June of the same year, Afghan Witness (AW) reported the inauguration of several such madrasas nationwide.
Figure: Geolocation of Abdul Hai Habibi High School in Khost province, turned into a madrasa in May 2022 [33.338512, 69.917157].
On numerous occasions, images shared online showed how the Taliban had repurposed existing buildings and institutions into madrasas, including secondary schools, media outlets, and even teacher training academies. These madrasas included a TV station previously owned by the former governor of Balkh, Atta Muhammad Noor, converted in early June 2022, and in May of the same year, the conversion of a school in Khost province.
A complex classification system
The number of students enrolled in madrasas nationwide is 339,950, including 95,662 girls, according to figures provided by the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Education in August 2023. Two main categories distinguish madrasas in Afghanistan today: registered formal madrasas, which encompass both public and private institutions, and unregistered informal madrasas. Generally, registered madrasas adhere to the guidance provided by the MoE or MoHIA.
There are two types of formal madrasas: those adhering to a curriculum approved by the MoE and those registered with the MoE but without an approved curriculum. Formal madrasas adhere to a grade-based system, teaching up to the third grade in village madrasas. Other formal madrasas, as well as Darul-Hufaz (Institute for the study of Qur'an recitation), offer classes up to the 12th grade, and Darul-Uloom (Islamic University) extends up to the 14th grade. Privately registered Madrasas maintain a similar structure.
In July 2023, the MoE announced that a virtual meeting had taken place between the Minister of Education, ministry leadership, and provincial education directors to discuss the implementation of the revised administrative structure across the ministry. The agenda included plans to recruit individuals for 100,000 new teaching posts. While the exact details of the recruitment program are not available, the MoE's website published the first announcement regarding the employment of these new roles on July 10, 2023.
Local sources contacted by AW confirmed that the recruitment process had begun, with the first phase commencing with an exam in Kandahar province. This was announced by the Kandahar Government Media and Information Centre on August 20, 2023, with the centre announcing that 2,000 successful candidates would be chosen.
During a speech on August 15, 2023, the Taliban’s acting Minister of Education, Mawlawi Habibullah Agha, stated that there are 19,000 schools and 15,000 madrasas across Afghanistan, with Jihadi madrasas operational across the country. These Jihadi madrasas are the newly established religious schools aimed at teaching students about Islamic Jihad as interpreted by the Taliban. The group views Jihad as a military and political fight against those the Taliban consider Islam's enemies. In 2021, Al-Qaida stated that the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan is proof that "the Way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory."
The Taliban's efforts to control private madrasas
One of the reasons that the Taliban are keen to bring private madrasas under their control is due to their association with groups or individuals that they perceive as posing an ideological or security threat. For instance, the Taliban is wary of ISKP’s influence on private madrasas, which they believe could be used as spaces to ideologically indoctrinate and recruit students. Interestingly, research suggests that ISKP utilised university campuses and Sharia faculties more for their recruitment compared to madrasas.
The Taliban are aiming to expand the number of madrasas in the country, while also introducing Jihadi madrasas. These Jihadi madrasas maintain a separate curriculum and operate independently from other registered private or public madrasas under the Deputy Minister's Office of Islamic Education. The ministry seeks to bring all madrasas, both registered and unregistered, under the control of the MoE, including those registered with MoHIA.
In Afghanistan, madrasas primarily focus on religious studies, which encompass the Quran, Hadith, Islamic law, and other religious subjects. Rural madrasas, where formal schooling is not possible, also teach other subjects such as mathematics, science, physics, geography, and languages, including Arabic, Pashto, and Dari/Farsi. In these madrasas, the subjects taught are similar to those covered in grades one to three in formal schools. However, since the Taliban's takeover, an increased emphasis has been placed on the group’s interpretation of Islamic teachings, with subjects such as Jihad gaining prominence. The Taliban’s MoE approves the curriculum, which is designed to align with the Taliban's religious and ideological beliefs.
The Taliban directly influence public madrasas, typically employing teachers and administrative staff through the MoE. The Deputy Minister's Office of Islamic Education provides them with guidance on subjects and teaching methods. However, private Madrasas, which previously operated with significant autonomy, may soon also lose their independence, according to local sources AW recently spoke to from Balkh, Samangan, Jawzjan, and Kabul provinces. These sources included a mosque Imam, university professors, journalists, civil society members and an employee from the education department. They confirmed that the Taliban have reportedly recruited teachers and administrative staff for private madrasas, a decision that not all institutions have welcomed. Local sources in Jawzjan, Samangan and Balkh provinces confirmed to AW investigators that the Taliban are currently attempting to persuade private madrasas opposing the recruitment process by offering financial incentives and have issued a warning – if they do not accept the teachers introduced by the Taliban, the MoE will not attest to their students’ graduation diplomas and documents. AW is not able to independently verify these claims.
Female education and the future of the Taliban’s educational policies
The Taliban's approach to female education has been a subject of global condemnation since the group’s return to power in August 2021. In March 2022, after months of assurances, the Taliban leadership announced the reopening of high schools for all students, only to backtrack on the decision on the day of reopening, stating that girls’ secondary schools beyond grade six would remain closed indefinitely until a policy was formed in accordance with “Sharia law and Afghan tradition".
In June 2023, the Taliban also attempted to control education provided by international organisations, ordering all such organisations to cease their educational activities within a month and transition classes to local groups. This directive was allegedly circulated via a WhatsApp voice note from a senior Taliban education official in Kabul. While initially targeting international organisations, the message hinted at a potential future cessation of activities by national NGOs if they did not adhere to unspecified rules.
This move was seen as another significant setback, particularly for women and girls in Afghanistan, who feared being further distanced from educational opportunities. Aid agencies, including UNICEF, expressed deep concern over the directive, stating that it threatened the education of over 500,000 children, including more than 300,000 girls, by potentially depriving them of quality learning opportunities.
A school girl in Kabul, 2022 | Afghan Witness
The Taliban’s restrictions on women's freedom of movement and enforcement of strict dress codes have also posed significant barriers to female students and staff in higher education – in some instances, female students hoping to study abroad have been denied boarding at Kabul International Airport. With secondary and higher education off-limits, and studying abroad not an option for many, girls in Afghanistan have increasingly turned to madrasas as a last resort to pursue some form of education.
The Taliban’s educational policies, particularly the emphasis on religious and ideological education, are likely to have long-term implications for Afghanistan’s socio-economic development. Experts have warned that the exclusion of girls from secondary education and university could significantly impact the country's progress, exacerbating existing inequalities and limiting opportunities for half of the population. Some have warned that the Taliban's policies could potentially lead to a ‘brain drain’ in the long term, as many professionals and young people seeking a more comprehensive education attempt to leave the country.