It has been well over a decade now that PACT Radio / Mahad’ad-Dawa (MDI) started setting up media centres in madrassahs in the Pashto speaking border areas.
With some exceptions, the reaction to the location of media centres in madrassahs, veered between scepticism to downright hostility.
‘What has media got to do with madrassahs?’ one puzzled journalist inquired of the founder of MDI, in the course of a conference on the media centres and other madrassah matters, in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the spring of 2009.
‘How can madrassah students become acquainted with the media?’ was the question put to the founder and head of MDI in the Afghan Ministry of Education. ‘They are acquainted only with fiqh – Islamic jurisprudence,’ as if that disqualified madrassah students from becoming acquainted with anything else.
The list of sceptical comments goes on and on. Nor were these comments limited to what some might call the volatile Pashtoon border parts. At Cambridge University in England, where the head and founder of MDI was once Imam, he suggested to the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, an institute like MDI dedicated to higher and contextual learning of madrassah graduates, that he might be able to impart a media studies module to students of the College. ‘Madrassah students are not interested in the media,’ came the pointed refusal.
To all these comments and questions, to all this scepticism that there could be any correlation between media work and madrassahs, the founder of MDI has had one retort: ‘I learned my media trade in madrassah.’
It bears mentioning that the founder of MDI spent nearly fifteen years in madrassah, graduating from the undisputed centre of Islamic learning in South Asia – Darul Uloom Deoband in India – before embarking on a career in the media. So if media and madrassah are such incompatible entities, how did the founder of MDI manage to progress from madrassah to media, so much so that media modules have pride of place in his higher-learning institute for madrassah graduates – MDI?
Firstly, he made this progression by studying Hadith. The word Hadith literally means news stories from the Holy Prophet’s life. It occurred to him that the principles that guided the muhadditheen – those who collected and authenticated these news stories or reports from the life of the Holy Prophet – akhbar in Arabic – would be an ideal rule of thumb for good journalism.
Immediately, on graduating from madrassah, it seemed natural to him to embark on a career in the media.
He did his media apprenticeship with an Islamic scholar in Delhi. This Islamic scholar was bringing out a monthly journal in Urdu. Working with him taught the future founder of MDI to add another ingredient to news stories: the moral of the story.
The future founder of MDI found this added ingredient also to be in accordance with Quranic storytelling, where it is not the story itself that is of central importance, but the moral of the story (Quran, 12:111).
After several years working at the BBC, the future founder of MDI was given the opportunity – by the BBC – to start a new kind of media work. This was to set up a radio soap opera for Afghanistan. The resultant soap opera – New Home, New Life – has become the stuff of Afghan legend.
The founder of MDI has developed this radio drama into another media module that is taught in MDI: storytelling in a contemporary context. One call also call it storytelling with a moral: something, as we have seen, that is absolutely in consonance with the rich tradition of Islamic storytelling.
Along with Storytelling in a Contemporary Context, one of the modules that MDI teaches in its Journalism and Mass Communication department, is its flagship and most innovative course: Modern Journalism Based on Principles of Classical Islamic Scholarship – the adaptation of the principles of Hadith study to modern journalism.
Naysayers will continue to maintain that madrassah graduates have no place in the media. MDI will continue to believe that not only can madrassah graduates become journalists and modern storytellers. They can be the best of their breed.