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Sectarianism and curriculum

To prevent the youth from falling into the abyss of sectarianism and extreme religiosity, the curriculum needs to be reshaped

Sectarianism and curriculum
It might appear as a dream right now.

During the past seven decades, education in Pakistan has gradually moved from an effort to nurture liberal, responsible, and secular citizens to closing of minds. The focus is more on a self-righteous narrative of nationalistic and religious — or rather sectarian — hues. There is a tendency to produce robot-like professionals who may be adept at business administration, computers and information technology, engineering, law, or medicine, but are totally devoid of rational thinking and social understanding to play a positive role in society.

The result is that we have millions of students graduating every year and joining the workforce with a skewed sense of personal gains in this life and a relentless desire to secure a blissful hereafter.

To prevent the youth from falling into the abyss of sectarianism and extreme religiosity, the curriculum needs to be reshaped. There should be some courses or topics of sociology — compulsory for students of all fields of specialisation — to orient them about the study of beliefs and practices of other religions and sects. Our students need to learn that the organisational forms of religion have certain features common in almost all religions and sects. If we brush up our intellectual tools and analytical methods, we can have an objective insight into their working and the disciplines they follow.

Though it might appear as a dream at the moment, keeping in mind the increasing intolerance in society, we have to start somewhere to stop this decline into barbarism resulting from increasing religiosity. The curriculum should not only focus on objective investigation of scientific phenomena, but also apply similar investigation to have a grip of social constructs such as religions and sects.

There has been too much attention to quantitative research on the pattern of applied and physical sciences. Curriculum — especially at the tertiary level — lays extraordinary stress on numbers and digits, leaving hardly any room for qualitative understanding of social characteristics.

Here research does not mean that all students should conduct surveys, and opinion polls; the point is to inculcate some basic elements of research in young minds. The first and foremost is a high level of curiosity to seek knowledge in its myriad forms. Currently, knowledge is more or less sought and built in physical sciences but in social-science education in Pakistan, this is hardly the case. Mostly, knowledge is borrowed and accepted as it is given in the texts inherited, or the same texts are being reinterpreted over and over again.

The point is to develop an ability to question the texts, no matter wherever they come from.

The point is to develop an ability to question the texts, no matter wherever they come from.

The attempts of our state to impose nationalistic, religious, and — from General Zia onwards — a sectarian uniformity have deprived our youth of opportunities to become sympathetic observers of other belief systems and national aspirations. Encouraging diversity provides chances of participant observations; for example, by attending religious festivals of other denominations gives us a first-hand experience of others’ cultural human qualities. An absence of diverse cultural and religious exposure leaves our youth unable to analyse historical background of fellow human beings following other paths of living.

Ideally, each individual in society should have a sociological understanding of how religions and sects develop.

Of course, students need not study all aspects of every religion and sect, but at least they should be familiar with how persons act while in worship and while living out their stated convictions. Another point to be included in the curriculum is the changing role of religion especially in the public arena. Our younger generation should know how religions and sects behave politically and assume an economic dimension; how media — both print and electronic — have brought something that should be personal i.e. religion and sect into the public domain.

We need to promote global religious pluralism through curriculum and education, and minimise the chances of religious and sectarian conflicts. The nature of religious cults is such that it influences fundamental thinking skills. Though similar influences come from racial prejudice, gender superiority complex, and sexual discrimination, the cult and sect phenomena are much worse than any of the other identities.

The media and modern culture, especially in Pakistan and other Muslim majority countries, have taken up a strange shape that contradicts modernity itself. The media — electronic, print, and social — are projecting religious practices as the primary topics of interest, and hardly ever discuss or present any sociological research on religiosity and sectarianism.

If you look at the transformation of curriculum in western societies, you will notice that historically the study of religion has been central to the discipline of sociology. Curriculum developers have written extensively on the role and function of religion in human society. Today, the educationists in most Muslim countries have to perform a vital function in helping students — from elementary to tertiary levels — make sense of the rise of religious themes and influences. Those who are students now will soon be working in media, participating in politics, engaging in conflicts, and highlighting personal issues as universal truths.

The general public of tomorrow will come from today’s youth. They will be fighting for or against abortion, have strong opinions on matters such as sexuality and sexual orientation. Their irrational attitudes, behaviours, and opinions are already resulting in tragedies. Giving a sociological perspective will help them learn about how religions function for the individual and in society. Various social science departments in universities do conduct some research but it seldom filters out; in most cases any topic that is likely to generate disagreements is discouraged. Neutral topics such as smoking and narcotics are frequently chosen.

Curriculum should be able to provide a reliable and trusted path into a harmonious society. It should serve as a platform for making accessible to the students the findings and knowledge gained through sociological study of religion around the world. Since education has been devolved to the provinces, now it is up to the provincial governments to make sure that anyone cult, denomination, religion, or sect is not promoted with public money.

Those who want to know more about how other countries have tackled similar issues may read about a court case in the US, available on the internet; McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 US 203 (1948).

The court ruled that the practice of allowing religious instructors into the classroom during the school day violates the constitution by providing government assistance to facilitate the mission or sectarian groups. The court found that allowing religious instruction on school grounds, during the school day, “providing pupils for their religious classes through use of the State’s compulsory public school machinery”, unconstitutionally advances religion.

To some it may sound premature in Pakistan, but we will have to start somewhere sooner or later.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.


  • good piece yet two things need to mention. During Bhutto Period(1975) CII approved Shia Sunni Islamyat as separate boks so State adopted sectarianism. The demand for a separate Shia textbooks was first introduced by Tahfz e Shia board in 1948. So after 2nd amendment it was a vital step to spread sectarian seeds by the State itself. It was in continuation of 1969 tricky Noor Khan report written under the banner of Ideology of Pakistan.So Zia futher used it. it was just opposite what Sharief Commission had recommended. Since then Pakistani nationalism remain on back seat while religio-sectarian priorities sat on driving seats. rest is history
    Since 2009 education policy it is essential to publish books of ethics for non muslims . Since noor khan policy Pakistani non muslims were compelled to read Islamyat. Punjab in last 8 years published ethic books yet media should raise it why other provinces are still reluctant. it is important to include lessons regarding brilliant non muslim pak

    • Thanks Aamir Riaz for reading the article and pointing out the relevant facts that were missing from my article. As it was not a history piece I avoided many other pieces of information that would have made it lengthier. I totally agree and appreciate with what you have mentioned, your grip on history is commendable.

  • Dr. Naazir has pointed out to a problem that is a direct existential threat to us as a country. It is a National Security issue as well because a country rife with sectarianism is like a stack of gun powder waiting for a light. It is common knowledge that a country not at peace with itself cannot provide the opportunities where individual creative energies are brought to benefit the group.

    A brilliant article, full of information and critical insight, written extremely well. Thanks a lot.

    • Thanks Jami for highlighting the fact that it is an existential threat to the country, provided our policy makers realize it. Our national security has been compromised by propagating sectarianism, the bitter fruit is there for all of us to taste.

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