As a 9-year-old boy, I knelt on the bare floor of the neighborhood madrasa (religious school) in Karachi, Pakistan, repeating the Koranic verse, "Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God."
Hafiz Gul-Mohamed, the Koran teacher, made each of the 13 boys in our class memorize the verse in its original Arabic. Some of us also memorized the translation in our own language, Urdu. "This is the word of God that defines the Muslim umma [community of believers]," he told us repeatedly. "It tells Muslims their mission in life." He himself bore the title hafiz (the memorizer) because he could recite all 114 chapters and 6,346 verses of the Koran.
Most students in Gul-Mohamed's class joined the madrasa to learn basic Islamic teachings and to be able to read the Koran. Only a handful of people in Pakistan spoke Arabic, but everyone wanted to learn to read the holy book. I completed my first reading of the Koran by age seven. I was enrolled part time at the madrasa to learn to read the Koran better and to understand the basic teachings of Islam.
Gul-Mohamed carried a cane, as all madrasa teachers do, but I don't recall him ever using it. He liked my curiosity about religion and had been angry with me only once: I had come to his class straight from my English-language school, dressed in the school's uniform -- white shirt, red tie, and beige trousers. "Today you have dressed like a farangi [European]. Tomorrow you will start thinking and behaving like one," he said. "And that will be the beginning of your journey to hell."
Hafiz Gul-Mohamed read no newspapers and did not listen to the radio. He owned few books. "You don't need too many books to learn Islam," he once explained to me when I brought him his evening meal. "There is the straight path, which is described in the Koran and one or two commentaries, and there are numerous paths to confusion. I have the books I need to keep me on the straight path." He had never seen a movie and advised me never to see one either. The only time he had allowed himself to be photographed was to obtain a passport for the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. Television was about to be introduced in Pakistan, and Gul-Mohamed found that prospect quite disturbing. One hadith (or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) describes "song and dance by women lacking in virtue" coming to every home as one of the signs of apocalypse. Television, Gul-Mohamed believed, would fulfill that prophecy, as it would bring moving images of singing and dancing women into every home.
The madrasa I attended, and its headmaster, opposed the West but in an apolitical way. He knew the communists were evil because they denied the existence of God. The West, however, was also immoral. Westerners drank alcohol and engaged in sex outside of marriage. Western women did not cover themselves. Western culture encouraged a mad race for making money. Song and dance, rather than prayer and meditation, characterized life in the West. Gul-Mohamed's solution was isolation. "The umma should keep away from the West and its ways."
But these were the 1960s. Although religion was important in the lives of Pakistanis, pursuit of material success rather than the search for religious knowledge determined students' career choices. Everyone in my madrasa class dropped out after learning the essential rituals. I remained a part-time student for almost six years but eventually needed to devote more time to regular studies that would take me through to college. Gul-Mohamed was disappointed that I did not seek a sanad (diploma) in theology, but he grudgingly understood why I might not want a degree in theology from a parallel education system: "You don't want to be a mullah like me, with little pay and no respect in the eyes of the rich and powerful."
And so it was for much of the four decades before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a period when policymakers were more interested in the thoughts of Western-educated Muslims responsible for energy policy in Arab countries than those of half-literate mullahs trained at obscure seminaries. But Taliban leaders, who had ruled Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, were the products of madrasas in Pakistan, and their role as protectors of al Qaeda terrorists has generated keen interest in their alma maters. A few weeks after September 11, I visited Darul Uloom Haqqania (Center of Righteous Knowledge), situated on the main highway between Islamabad and Peshawar, in the small town of Akora Khattak. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been a student at Haqqania, and the madrasa, with 2,500 students aged 5 to 21 from all over the world, has been called "the University of Jihad." The texture of life in the madrasa still has elements that represent a continuum not over decades but over centuries. But at Haqqania, I saw that the world of the madrasa had changed since I last bowed my head in front of Hafiz Gul-Mohamed.