The Rediff Special/ The Binori Town madrassah
Vanguard of the jihad

Yahya Durrani in Karachi

After Maulana Masood Azhar was released from Indian custody in exchange for the hostages aboard the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814, the Pakistani cleric chose to make his first public appearance at Karachi's Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town, one of the largest religious seminaries in Pakistan.

For him it was perhaps a sort of homecoming: the Binori Town seminary -- or madrassah -- was where the maulana had received his religious training.

Maulana Masood Azhar was relatively unknown in Pakistan until his incarceration without trial in an Indian jail made him something of a cause celebre among militant outfits supporting the uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir. And even now, after his recent rise to prominence, he remains a shadowy figure for most Pakistanis, one about whom little is known. But there is no such ignorance about his religious alma mater.

Situated in the heart of Karachi, the Binori Town madrassah is widely recognised as one of the most influential centres of hardline Deobandi Sunni Muslim ideology in the world. Along with a similar madrassah at Akora Khattak -- the largest seminary in Pakistan -- the Binori Town madrassah has imparted doctrinal training to the leading lights of the Taleban movement in Afghanistan, as well as to men like Maulana Azam Tariq, who heads the extremist Sunni Sipahe Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions) party, in Pakistan.

The sprawling mosque and madrassah complex, with its marble floors and red minaret, was established in the late 1950s by a religious scholar, Yusuf Binori, and has been run as a trust since his death. Today the centre also houses a large and well-organised library, classrooms, a hostel and cafeteria, as well as a small graveyard and its own tube well. It imparts religious education to some 3,500 students at one time, most of them drawn from Afghanistan and the Pushto-speaking areas of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. But there is also a liberal sprinkling of students from Africa, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The centre has thousands of smaller affiliated madrassahs, both within and outside Karachi, estimated to number in the hundreds within the city alone. In many cases, the Binori Town madrassah determines their day-to-day operations as well as their curriculum.

The centre is run on donations from sympathisers who send money from about 45 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Switzerland. "The funding we get is a blessing from Allah," says Mufti Jamil, a teacher at the madrassah.

"People give us money out of love for Islam. Even we do not really know how much money we get," he says.

The biggest feather in the Darul Uloom Islamia's cap is, of course, its ideological mentorship of the Taleban movement that now controls most of Afghanistan. A huge number of Taleban have studied here and the closeness between the centre and the hardline Islamic government in Kabul continues to this day.

"The Taleban treat us as state guests," says Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, another teacher at the Binori Town madrassah. "We are proud that we teach the Taleban and we always pray for their success since they have managed to implement strict Islamic laws."

But despite the number of guerrilla fighters that have passed through its corridors, the faculty at the madrassah is at pains to point out that the centre has no part in imparting military training or recruiting volunteers for jihad.

"We impart purely religious education in our schools, not military training," says Mufti Jamil, standing outside the main hall where children are busy memorising verses from the Quran. A government official in charge of the specific locality where the complex is situated concurs.

"The madrassah is definitely supportive of and sympathetic to Islamic jihad movements throughout the world, but its role is limited to preparing its students' minds rather than actual training or recruitment for fighting. The actual recruitment is done by groups like the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and the Sipahe Sahaba which send volunteers from here to Peshawar and Quetta. From there they are then taken to training camps in Afghanistan and beyond through the porous borders."

Nevertheless, the connection between the Binori Town madrassah -- and other such madrassahs -- and militant Islamic movements in areas like Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and even Bosnia, is strong.

Two of the Taleban's convalescent centres for wounded fighters are located close to the madrassah. And many students who study here burn with the desire to put their "learning into practice", as one student from the Philippines put it.

They are ready recruits for jihad wherever they may be needed and often visit warfronts during their years of study. The heroes of the young men who study here are their seniors, their colleagues who have actually participated in armed combat and those who return to regale them with stories of the battlefield.

Although the centre's faculty and administration itself is not overtly involved in the process, the notice boards in the premises are littered with invitations from the Taleban to join the jihad. The library is peppered with literature and posters from Taleban sources as well as those from the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, the Sipahe Sahaba and the Kashmir-based Harkat-ul-Ansar.

"If someone wants to become a mujahid [one who fights for Islam]," says a 22-year-old Afghan student who has already made three tours of duty to Afghanistan, "he can learn all he needs to learn about military training in the field. You just need a passion for jihad."

Fueling that passion for jihad as a way of life is, however, very much in the domain of the Binori Town madrassah. The centre follows a strict curriculum spread over about 10 years, with the youngest children joining the "university" at about six years of age.

"It is a thoroughly un-modern curriculum with only religious subjects being taught," says the government official who declined to be named. "It could easily date back a thousand years."

During that time the students are indoctrinated with the fundamental tenets of the Deobandi ideology which considers the Shia sect heretical and even looks down upon the relatively liberal Sunni sects such as the Barelvi Ahle Sunnat. The results of this indoctrination have been on display many a time in the past few years in Karachi when sectarian clashes have erupted outside the Binori Town mosque.

But the centre's religious and political clout is such that no government can directly move against it. "Part of the problem, of course, is the fact that, strictly speaking, the madrassah is a place of education," says the government official.

"It cannot be held responsible for what its students do in their individual capacities. But I can tell you that the police and the administration are scared of doing anything that could turn these religious hardliners against them," he says.