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Islam and Sectarianism ( 26 Jul 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Madrasas: Islamic or Sectarian?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

26 July 2021

Instead Of Trying To Falsify Each Other, They Should Accept A Diversity Of Views

Main Points:

•        Sectarian divisions run deep within madrasas.

•        It is reflected in hadith lessons, books and even legal arrangements.

•        Common Muslims need to rethink if they want to keep funding such sectarian agendas.


Talk to any Alim about madrasas and its contribution to Muslim life and he will tell you how fundamental the role of this institution has been. For them, madrasas exist to maintain the continuity of Islamic tradition; without them the light of Islam will very nearly be extinguished. Such pious proclamations often hide the fact that what the Ulama mean by Islam is itself a matter of contestation. Most Ulama are aligned to one school of thought or another and their invocation of Islam should rather be seen as the propaganda of a particular Maslak within Islam.

Normally this should not be a problem: all religions have within them various interpretative schools through which they appropriate the sacred. Diversity is therefore an inbuilt feature of many religions. But this diversity takes on a different connotation in Islam, especially in the South Asian variety. Here the internal polemics are so sharp that one maslak does not believe in the truthfulness of another; rather they all claim to be the only true interpretation of Islam. When the Ulama speak of Islamic identity, they in fact have this maslaki identity in mind.

Madrasas are institutions established by the Ulama for the reproduction of their worldview. It follows therefore that these institutions, while claiming to speak for Islam, end up reproducing this sectarian worldview. Almost all madrasas in India (barring some state funded ones) are established by private donations and as such reflect the worldview of its founders. If the founder is a Deobandi, the madrasa would reflect that worldview through its teaching and allied pedagogical practices. If the founder is a Barelwi, the madrasa would exist to trounce the ideology of the Deobandis. God forbid if the founder is an Ahle Hadis, then the madrasa would rubbish the claims of the both the Deobandis and the Barelwis. The historian George Makdisi perhaps rightly claims that madrasas have been sectarian right from the very beginning: al-Azhar was established by the Fatimids for the express purpose of transmitting Shia ideology.

In the Indian context, madrasas adopt various strategies to do so. For example, it can be through a discussion on Ilm e Ghaib (knowledge of the unseen). The Barelwis teach their students that Prophet Muhammad knew beforehand who would go to heaven and who would go to hell. This becomes proof that from the beginning to the end, the Prophet had knowledge of everything. But in the same breath, the teacher will also tell his students that in opposition to this ‘truth’, the Deobandis believe that the Prophet did not possess this special power. The same discussion within a Deobandi madrasa, however, will lead to different results. There, students will learn that Ilm e Ghaib is possessed by God alone and at times this knowledge was given to the Prophet only for some time. The teacher would repudiate the Barelwi belief as nonsense.

Not just the formal curriculum, but also the popular books for ‘self-study’ which are used in madrasas end up reproducing a deeply sectarian worldview. For example, within Barelwi madrasas, two of the most popular books are Zalzala (Earthquake) and Dawat e Insaf (Invitation to Justice). The author of both these books is Arshadul Qadri (1925-2002), a graduate of a prominent Barelwi madrasa. Tariq Rahman informs us that both these books are not just popular in India but also in Pakistan. These texts are written like a writ (Istigaza), in which Qadri appeals to Muslims of the subcontinent to judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong. These books plainly state that the Deobandis are not ‘true’ Muslims since they ‘disrespect’ the Prophet. Through reading texts such as these, students in Barelwi madrasas learn that Deobandis are the ‘real’ enemy of Muslims and Islam. It is common refrain within Barelwi madrasas that ‘since the Deobandis appear pious and committed to Islamic precepts, they are even more dangerous, as one cannot fault them on the basic tenets of Islam’.

On the other hand, within Deobandi madrasas, it is said with firm conviction that the Barelwis are too Hindu to be called Muslims because they commit shirk by praying at shrines. Both Deobandis and Barelwis cite a hadith, according to which Prophet Muhammad had foretold that the most important danger to Islam would come from a community who would act as Muslims and be steadfast in prayers, but in reality, would spread confusion and sow discord. Barelwis generally identify this community as the present day Deobandis whereas the latter think that the community in question are the Barelwis.  

Such deep sectarian divisions are not just a matter of pedagogical rhetoric but so significant that madrasas write this down even in their bye-laws. Consider the apex Barelwi madrasa in North India, Ashrafiya Misbahul Ulum. Its’ Dastur (Constitution), has a section called non-changeable laws (Ghair Mutabaddil Usul) which clearly states that ‘members of this madrasa, from a humble sweeper to the manager (Nazim e Ala), should all be the followers of Ahl e Sunnat wa Jamaat’ (Barelwis). It further mentions that ‘if for any reason this madrasa falls into the hands of a non-Sunni, then any Sunni (Barelwi) from anywhere in India will have the right to move court in order to bring back the madrasa into the hands of Sunnis once again’.

Moreover, the working committee of this madrasa takes the following pledge: I am a true Sunni Muslim and I believe in every word of Hussam al Haramain. Now, Hussam al Haramain is a polemical text written in 1906 by Ahmad Riza Khan, the Barelwi ideologue. It is basically a collection of fatwas against what it calls the ‘Deobandis’ and ‘Wahhabis’. It was in this work that Ahmad Riza had pronounced the fatwa of Kufr on some of the Ulama of Deoband and by extension anyone associated with the Deoband madrasa. It needs to be underlined that generally, a Muslim is expected to take oath on the Quran, but here the pledge is taken on a text which is deeply sectarian and divisive. This only tells us the level of internalization of sectarian identity within these madrasas.

Should madrasas then be called Islamic or should it be called sectarian institutions? Or are we to believe that Islam can only be understood and experienced through a Maslak? The common Muslim, who funds these madrasas may not be aware that his resources are being utilised to further a sectarian ideology. Isn’t it time that madrasas become ecumenical? Instead of rubbishing each other, why not start thinking that there are many ways through which Islam can be understood and appreciated?


Arshad Alam is a columnist with  


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