Pakistan's government is all set to implement a uniform education system across the country, which critics fear could increase Islamization of schools and universities.
The first phase of the implementation involves primary school students in the first through fifth grades. The plan mandates the students to read the entire Quran with translation, learn Islamic prayers and memorize a number of hadith (words, actions and approval of the Prophet Muhammad).
It also stipulates that every school and college must employ a pair of certified Hafiz (a person who has memorized the Quran) and Qari (a Quran reciter) to teach these subjects.
Critics believe that the move will increase the influence of Islamic clerics, sharpen sectarian fault lines and greatly damage the social fabric.
Urdu, English and social studies have been heavily Islamized, Abdul Hameed Nayyar, an Islamabad-based academic, told DW. He added that students will also study the Quran's 30 chapters and a translation of the entire book at a later stage, besides the book on Islamic studies.
Nayyar said critical thinking was a basic tenet of modern knowledge but the government seemed to be promoting ideas that are antithetical to this through the syllabus.
Kowtowing to Islamic forces
Since Pakistan's creation in 1947, there has been an alliance between the state and Islamic conservatives.
Though Islamization creeped in gradually during the 1950s and '60s, it picked up pace in the 1970s before intensifying in the '80s, under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul Haq.
Haq launched a vigorous drive to change the liberal nature of the constitution. He also introduced Islamic laws, Islamized the educational curriculums, opened up thousands of religious seminaries across the country, inducted Islamists into judiciary, bureaucracy and the army and created institutions headed by Islamic clerics to oversee the affairs of the government.
Since his death in 1988, almost all governments have tried to appease the religious forces through Islamization.
The current government, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, has also been accused of kowtowing to the Islamic establishment.
'Madrassification' of schools
In 2018, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party promised to introduce a uniform education system.
Many hoped that the new curriculum would emphasize science, arts, literature and other contemporary subjects.
But, in 2019, Khan's government unveiled its plan, which focused heavily on Islamized syllabus. Implementation has been delayed during the coronavirus pandemic, but is expected to begin this year.
Books for primary school students have already been published, with Islamized content featuring heavily in textbooks for English, Urdu, social studies, and other subjects.
In the next phase, the government intends to introduce the new Islam-heavy syllabus for middle school students and possibly for high school students in the 11th and 12th grades.
Rubina Saigol, a Lahore-based educationist, told DW that the "madrassification" of public schools would have serious ramifications.
"The syllabus is likely to produce students with an Islamic conservative global outlook, who would view women as subservient souls who do not deserve freedom and independence," Saigol said.
Over 30% more Islamic content
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist based in Islamabad, told DW that the new syllabus could inflict damage upon Pakistan's education system in a manner never seen before.
"The systemic changes hidden in it go far deeper than the ones conceived and executed by General Zia's extremist regime," Hoodbhoy said. A deep analysis of the syllabus shows that "it will impose more rote learning of religious materials on ordinary schools than even madrassas," he added.
Some have already challenged the proposed changes in the nation's highest court.
Peter Jacob, a Lahore-based human rights activist, told DW that about 30-40% of the content in compulsory subjects was religious in nature.
"Many people have approached the court because it is against the constitution," Jacob said. He added that members of minority communities do not believe that such text should be in compulsory subjects.
'We should learn from Bangladesh'
It is not just liberal academics or minorities' groups that are voicing concern about the Islamization of the school syllabus. Even some government allies have also expressed reservations.
Kishwar Zehra, a parliamentarian of Muttehida Qaumi Movement, which is part of Khan's ruling coalition, strongly opposes the Islamization.
"We should learn from Bangladesh, which is promoting secular values," Zehra told DW, asserting that the current drive to further Islamize the syllabus is aimed at appeasing the Islamic right-wing forces.
Instead of increasing religious content, Zehra said, the government should incorporate the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she believes Pakistani students desperately need to know.
The government, however, has so far dismissed the criticism.
Muhammad Bashir Khan, a parliamentarian from the ruling party, said the Islamization of the syllabus is was the right step.
"Pakistan is an ideological Islamic state and we need religious education," he said. "I feel that even now our syllabus is not completely Islamized and we need to do more Islamization of the syllabus, teaching more religious content for the moral and ideological training of our citizens."
The Islamization of curricula has not been limited to schools. Recently, the government in Punjab province has also made teaching of the Quran with translation mandatory for all university students.
According to the provincial government, students will not be awarded degrees if they do not study the Quran.