STUDYING Arabic language will soon become compulsory in every school in Pakistan from Grade 1 to Grade 5. Thereafter he or she shall learn Arabic grammar from Grade 6 to Grade 12. The political class and the Muslim clergy are pushing it with little or no consultations with students and teachers.
A bill was unanimously passed by the Senate on February 1, and once passed by the National Assembly, it would become law, to be enforced across the country.
The intelligentsia is fretting, pointing at the serious consequences – academic, social and political – but there is no response from the Imran Khan Government. It found in Senator Javed Abbasi of the PML-N, a convenient Opposition member to push the Compulsory Teaching of Arabic Language Bill, 2020.
Part of a movement opposing the government, the PML-N has, however, not reacted to its member’s bill, indicating its agreement with the government. Raza Rabbani, the only member who opposed the bill belongs to the other major opposition party, the PPP. There seems subdued support to the bill.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said the government “categorically supported” the bill. He stressed that according to Article 31 of the Constitution, “Measures should be taken to spend our lives according to the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” Learning Arabic was crucial to “become a good Muslim […] and understand God’s message”.
Presuming this bill will eventually become a law when passed by the National Assembly, the Khan Government would be enforcing something that had not been tried by even the government of Ziaul Haq, known and harshly criticized for ‘Islamizing’ Pakistan during the 1980s.
Critics say it is part of the move to get close to Turkey and the Arab world with which academic and cultural links are being strengthened. The learning of Turkish language is also being promoted through online classes by the Maarif Foundation that operates 27 campuses in Pakistan with 13,000 students enrolled.
The Islamist groups have expectedly supported the move. Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri said, “Arabic is the language of the heavens” and that learning Arabic could help in understanding the Holy Quran.
Those critical of the move argue that the Arabic language in the scriptures is classical and is not in present-day use in any Arabic country.
Learning classical Persian or Arabic cannot help a Pakistani “order a meal” in Iran or the Gulf nations, Dr Tariq Rehman writes in The News on Sunday (February 14, 2021).
Once made compulsory, Arabic, going by the way students learn in Pakistan, will be crammed, enough to pass the subject, and little else. Critics dispute that this would mean adding burden of learning a fresh language that is not easy to learn on students in a country where science and mathematics learning is weak and does not allow high standing in the global job market.
There is also a ‘nationalist’ argument about learning one’s own languages – Punjabi, Sindhi and Pushto – and the indigenous culture that they have helped evolve.
Physicist and scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy in Dawn (February 13, 2021) points out that the rich Arab nations are themselves pitching for English language education and are hosting campus of renowned Western universities.
It will not generate jobs for Pakistanis, either at home or in the Arab countries. Hoodbhoy argues that jobs in the Gulf nations go to those with specialised knowledge, with “zero familiarity” with Arabic. The entire job market in the GCC is geared to modern education, technology and commerce.
“Graduates from Pakistani madressahs seeking to understand the Holy Quran spend their lives trying to master classical Arabic. And yet they have zero job prospects in the Middle East. Present enrolment in Arabic language courses and university degree programmes is therefore very low, Hoodbhoy writes.
Debunking minister Khan’s assertion that “You cannot understand the message of Allah, if you do not know Arabic,” Hoodbhoy asks: “If true, that massively downgrades most Muslims living on this planet. The entire Muslim population of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Iran, or Turkey cannot be made to understand or speak Arabic. And what of those long dead Muslims who tried hard to follow, the teachings of Islam but never learned — nor tried to learn — the Arabic language?”
On likely impact on the Pakistani society, Dr Tariq Rehman points to the conditions in schools that will have “people who will regard the way of dressing up, speaking, behaving and worldview of many of our students, alien and offensive.”
“Will the room for a lifestyle which is not dictated by conservative values decrease? Ask yourself and give an honest answer. I am sure a number of female students and young faculty will feel insecure under the frowning gaze of the quasi-clerical Arabic teachers on the campus,” Rehman cautions.
Hoodbhoy lambasts “those sitting in Pakistan’s Senate — with just a single exception — who forgot that they are Pakistanis first and that Pakistan was made for Pakistanis. Rather than behave as snivelling cultural orphans seeking shelter in a rich uncle’s house, they need to take pride in the diversity and strength of the myriad local cultures and languages that make this land and its people.”