A madrasa in mind
By Javed Anand
Oct 10, 2009
To those who might have concluded from media reports that Indian Muslims are not interested in the HRD ministry’s proposed bill to give madrasa students access to subjects like mathematics, science and maybe English, here’s some Breaking News: a significant section of Muslims, including maulanas and maulvi sahibs, are very keen. But the number of “Ayes” is difficult to assess because in this respect at least Muslims are more like Hindus than Christians: there is a great deal of decentralisation and there is no universally accepted hierarchy among the ulema even within the same sect.
We also have another problem on hand. Even in the ranks of the interested there are many who have serious issues with the draft bill — the Central Madrasa Board Bill 2008 — currently in circulation. This is because it does not adequately address legitimate concerns about autonomy, non-interference and corrupt babus.
Responding to strong objections raised by several delegates present at the October 3 all-party meeting in New Delhi, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal gave a categorical assurance that if the Muslims do not want it, there will be no central madrasa board. The assurance, paradoxically, has the pro-board maulanas really worried. Their fear is that for the lack of a well-conceived draft, what in principle is a most welcome idea might be prematurely buried. This column, however, is not concerned with offering advice on how to revise the draft. Rather, the intention is to address the objections of that section of the ulema who will continue to object no matter how satisfactory the revised bill.
Though they are not the only ones, in the forefront of the opposition to the idea of a board is the Darul-uloom Deoband, arguably India’s largest and most influential madrasa. Deoband’s objections were well encapsulated in the inaugural address of its rector, Maulana Marghub ur-Rahman, at a massive all-India meeting of the ulema convened in late 2008. For reasons of space, of the many anti-arguments, let’s deal with the two most important ones:
The conspiracy argument: The Government of India is trying to please its Western masters who have hatched a “sinister conspiracy” to dilute or destroy the Islamic character of madrasas through a variety of strategies. The “madrasa modernisation” call is but a part of this devious game-plan. Why should the Western powers, the US particularly, be targeting madrasas?
Because madrasas have historically been “a major hurdle in their expansionist and imperialist designs”.
Comment: Interesting! But then, what was Deoband doing when in the ’80s innumerable madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that proclaimed Deoband-lineage ganged up with “American imperialists” (in addition to Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq and the Saudi regime) to transform what would have been a legitimate war of national liberation against the occupying Soviet forces into a “Holy War” (Islamic Jihad?) against the Evil Empire? There is more to be said on the subject but leave that to another day.
The hypocrisy argument: The Sachar Committee reports that only 4 per cent Muslim children go to a madrasa for education, the remaining 96 per cent depend on secular education. Why doesn’t the government concentrate on the education of the 96 per cent instead of losing sleep over the future of 4 per cent?
Comment: Good point. How our secular UPA government responds to this is its business. But I for one have a serious Islamic objection to raise against this compartmentalised method of learning.
You might have heard of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, who converted to Islam and whose English translation of the Quran is considered to be among the most authentic by Muslims. In a 1924 public lecture in India, bemoaning all the damage the sub-continent’s ulema had done to Islam in Allah’s name, he recalled a tradition of Prophet Mohammed: “To acquire knowledge is the sacred duty of every Muslim (male) and Muslimah (female)”.
Reminding his Muslim audience that in Islam “all knowledge is sacred”, he added: “Islam teaches us that the man with the widest knowledge and experience of life is the man best qualified to expound religious truths to resolve the problems which arise among Muslims in connection with the practice of religion. I deny the right of men with limited knowledge and outlook to exclusive interpretation. I deny their conclusions and I also deny their premises”.
Lest you dismiss his words as the ranting of a neo-convert ignoramus, please recall that in the heydays of Islam, a Muslim from Baghdad, Bokhara, Cairo, Damascus, Samarkand and elsewhere learnt his theology in the same madrasa (educational institution, literally) where he was also taught science and mathematics, logic, philosophy and mysticism, music, literature and architecture.
You adore Imam Ghazali; consider his to be among the most respected names in the field of Islamic theology. But do you teach in your madarsas what Imam Ghazali did: “He who has never doubted is not a true believer”, or that every ayat (verse) of the Quran can be interpreted in 60,000 ways? Do you tell them ever that this highly learned Imam believed that Allah has prescribed two basic texts for the ummah: one, the Quran, the other is His “open book”, otherwise known as the Universe/ Cosmos. And that the Quran itself repeatedly asserts that to even begin to fathom Divine Intent, in addition to imaan (faith) you need aql (intellect) and ilm (reasoning).
A rounded education for the 4 per cent is critical, for it is they from whom the 96 per cent learn their Islam. Because of the compartmentalised, fragmented, insular and sectarian nature of his education, the Maulvi Sahib’s ignorance of the world he inhabits is tragic — and the Mr Muslim’s knowledge of Islam pathetic.
But of course, Muslims must be part of the battle against the neo-cons, the neo-colonialists, the uncritical Westophiles and the diehard Islamophobes. The good news is that there is a growing tribe of Muslim men and women who are engaged in this battle for hearts and minds and I can rattle off a long list of names. Sadly, or maybe not, almost all of them occupy distinguished positions in the top universities of the West. They are proud of their Islam which is different from yours and the West is listening with interest and respect. A pity not one of them will find a place in any madrasa or university in the Islamic world.
To end, more Breaking News: A fortnight ago, Saudi King Abdullah cut the ribbon opening the gates of a multi-billion dollar, co-educational, postgraduate university. A fatwa on Deoband’s website declares this to be strictly “unlawful”.
On October 8, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and head of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Mohammed Syed Tantawi, issued a fatwa against the niqab. (Ideally, says a Deoband fatwa, even a woman’s eyes should not be seen.) Strict instructions have been issued that no woman draped in a head-to-toe burqa will now be permitted to enter the university or any of its affiliated institutions. Al-Azhar, among the oldest madrasas in the Islamic world, is also “old-fashioned”: it seems to treat all knowledge as sacred.
The writer is co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’, and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy email@example.com
SourceL Indian Express, New Delhi