New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 10 Aug 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Egypt and India: How the future of Islam works

Egyptian ulema surprised at Indian ulema’s obsession with beard and external appearance

How the future works

By Aijaz Ilmi, Aug 08, 2009

The impact of Al-Azhar University on the Egyptian way of life and Islam in general is a role model for most nations which have a sizable Muslim population. Since 971 AD this mosque and madrasa has expanded into a university with over thousands of students and numerous institutes of higher learning including medicine, engineering, IT and Mass media which contribute about 35 per cent of all education in Egypt. This respected seminary of Sunni Islamic thought and learning was started, ironically, under the Shi’a Fatimid dynasty. It follows a robust secular curriculum, and excels in modern sciences; its impact is profound and visible all over Cairo.

Ahmed Qadi, the professor of Urdu language and Abdel Kader Khatib, Dean of Arabic language and culture, and one mufti — all dressed in modern western clothing, like the students at the campus — explained that “the department of education controls the syllabus, including Islamic studies.” Foreign languages, including English, are expected too. Qadi went on to explain that unless one mastered the sciences one cannot contribute to the dynamic progress of civilization — and Islam extols the virtue of seeking all forms of knowledge. “We fought against the English language and got left behind, only in 1980s did we start catching up.”

Nasser, in 1961, ordered that Al-Azhar introduce scientific education. “We have over 60 courses besides Islamic studies now,” said the professor of Urdu; going on to say that he wanted to set up outreach centres, including in India.

My next question was about the dress code — beards and external appearance — and I was answered by a puzzled dean of Arabic studies: “most Egyptian Muslims dress modestly in modern western wear, after all. Even in the mosque.” I was baffled. I enquired about the clergy in India, that deride people for what they wear. The Dean pulled no punches. “We believe in inner cleanliness and purity of the mind, maybe in India external appearance and beards are important to your Ulema; in our mosques and schools what you wear is secondary. Cover your head, as most religions advise, and pray for all humanity.”

Women were everywhere on the campus. I asked the mufti why. “Islam makes no difference based on gender” he said, pointing out that Egypt has recently set aside about 12 per cent reservation for women in parliament. I kept silent when the mufti asked me about reservation for women in ours. In Egypt more women than men are employed in both the public and the private sector — except in defence and oil.

The concern for gender issues extends to other aspects of public policy and personal law. The Qazi who performs marriages works under the law ministry; every marriage has to be publicly announced, and written consent taken. (To marry a second time, a written consent from the first wife is mandatory, the mufti added.) Turns out over five million young people are finding it difficult to get married — because a house and a job is considered essential to get married. Hence the average age of those getting married has inched closer to 30 than 20 in the last decade alone.

How could this succeed? In India we have so many divisions among sects: Barelvis, Deobandis and so on. The Dean answered this firmly: “Better to be one follower in a billion Muslims, rather than one in a million of a sect. There is no space for cultism here.”

I walked over to the famous mosque. Unlike in India, the library within the mosque it had students reading different subjects, in a relaxed, easy manner. Girls in long skirts and jeans were praying in the same mosque.

It dawned upon me that in India the simplicity that following Islam should have is fast losing out to intolerance within our community. The clergy must unshackle us from the fetters of outward appearance, beard, and division by sects — and should, like the thought leaders in Egypt, focus only on modern education, to do justice to its followers.

The writer is chairman of the editorial board at the Kanpur-based Urdu newspaper ‘Daily Siyasat Jadid’

Source: Indian Express, New Delhi, 8 Aug 2009