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Welcome Introspection: Head of Jamia al-Azhar, links extremism with bad interpretations of Quran and Hadith, urges radical madrasa education reform at counter-terrorism meet in Mecca




By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

26 Feb 2015

Perhaps, one of the most gratifying news emanating from the Muslim world is the note of introspection from the head of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning, who has called for radical reforms in the Islamic education to contain the spread of religious extremism in the Muslim world. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb opined that ‘a historical misreading of the Qur’an had led to intolerant interpretations of Islam’. Therefore, he denounced terrorism as a product of extremist ideology linked to “bad interpretations” of the Qur’an and the hadith (Prophetic sayings).

This is, indeed, a welcome sign of introspection for reformation in the curriculums of Islamic seminaries and madrasas, exhorted by a top Muslim cleric. If the sheikh of al-Azhar speaks out against radicalism – as he often does – he represents the voices of the mainstream Muslims of the world, as he is the head of the largest centre of Sunni Muslims’ thoughts and teachings. These voices present a counter-narrative to the extremist thoughts and violent interpretations of Islam rooted in the curriculums of most Wahhabi or Wahhabi-influenced seminaries worldwide. However, it seems that undertaking effective reforms in Madrasas is going to be a very difficult task for the moderate Muslims. Because radical clerics controlling the Madrasas, all over the world, maintain staunch opposition to Madrasa reforms, considering any such effort an attempt to encroach upon their sphere of influence. Nevertheless, what moderate Islamic scholars can do in their Madrasas is provide more functional education by introducing secular subjects and stress universal values in the existing religious texts.

As the Shaikh of Al-Azhar linked extremism to “bad interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)," there is a pressing need to objectively analyse and overhaul the religious curriculums prepared and taught by the clerics. Various Qur’anic verses and prophetic traditions are misinterpreted in the Madrasas in an attempt to inculcate in the young students’ minds extremist, exclusivist, totalitarian and supremacist version of Islam. For this purpose, they brazenly misinterpret the Qur’anic verses and Hadith traditions talking about jihad, qital, khilafah, hakimiat-e-ilah (God’s rule over the earth) and most importantly ghlaba-e-Islam, supremacy of Islamic faith. Let me speak from my own experience. In my Sufi-oriented Indian Madrasa situated in the eastern UP, I was taught a Qur’anic verse: “And do not lose heart or feel grieved; and it is you who will be victorious, provided you maintain perfect faith” (3:139).

In explanation to this verse, I was taught by my teacher, a Sufi Qur’an exegete, that there was a specific context of this verse that cannot be given a general application. However, there is also a universal spiritual message given to Muslims in this verse. And that is: Muslims should not let spiritual weakness or inertia come near them and neither should they worry about what wrong has gone by. If they hold on to the path of faith, righteousness and love for all the creations of God, they will attain true success and victory in the Akhirah (life after death). I was also taught, in this verse, that strong personal relationship with Allah and an unflinching obedience to His Prophet (pbuh) are certain guarantees of a successful life. If Muslims persist with these qualities, they are bound to be successful and victorious ultimately. This is all I was taught in my Madrasa regarding this verse.

But I was utterly surprised when I knew of an interpretation of the above Qur’anic verse, quite strange, alien and unknown to me. This happened when I stepped out of my Madrasa zone and interacted with graduates of other Madrasas, later in my university life. They were indoctrinated with the belief that the verse implies that a true believer, wherever he lives and whosoever he may be, will always attain dominion (ghalba) on other communities. So, every Muslim should be in constant quest for establishing the ghalba-e-Islam or political dominion of his faith on the earth. In fact, such ‘bad interpretations of the Qur’anic verses’ as pointed out by the Sahikh of Al-Azhar, come from the ideologues of radical Islamism like Ibn Taimia, Ibn Abdul Wahhabi and Maulana Maududi whose Qur’anic interpretations, exegesis and volumes of Islamic literature are a part of the madrasa curriculums.     

Such a philosophy attributing centrality to the ghalba-e-Islam (political dominion of Islam) is not a recent phenomenon of the present-day radical Islamism. The Kharijites, infamous in Islamic history as a cause of Muslim civil war, took this position in the seventh century and espoused it as the basic tenet of Islam. Although the Kharijite doctrine was rejected by the mainstream Muslims, later generations of radical Islamists incorporated it in their literature and preached it in their educational centers and Madrasas. They argued in their books that it is a personal duty for all Muslims to wage the global offensive jihad to establish the hakimiyat-e-ilah (rule of God over the earth). In their view, this offensive jihad is no less a religious imperative than the other five pillars of Islam. All other fundamentals of Islam are meant for the military preparation for the very sort of Jihad. This has been clearly outlined in the books of Maulana Maududi, who is a source of inspiration for many of today’s madrasa students and graduates following his political strain of Islam.

Shaikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb’s urge for radical reform in Madrasa education is an indication that the arguments accusing the Madrasas of being breeding grounds for the jihadists cannot be rejected outright. It cannot be denied that misinterpretations of the Islamic beliefs and doctrines are going on in radicalized texts of the madrasas with a view to spreading extremist thoughts among Muslim youths. Most Madrasas have planted in the minds of their students obnoxious notions of hatred against every kafir (disbeliever) and mushrik (polytheist), an exclusivistic term that includes many Muslims too. It is such Madrasa graduates who are easily lured into believing that doing any harm to the infidels is their sacred duty.

It is common knowledge now that the extremist and obscurantist clergy of Taliban turned out to be the product of Pakistan's Deobandi, ahl-e-Hadeesi madrasas, though other madrasas too teach more or less the same texts. Obviously, madrasas taught them fundamentalist approaches to interpret Islamic scriptures. That’s why their graduates, instead of becoming advocates of peace and pluralism, turned into preachers of extremely intolerant orientations of religious hatred. Most Madrasas subscribe to the same radical strains of religious thought. Some of them openly preach radicalism and civil violence. According to a research, almost 80 percent of Pakistani Madrasas have text books justifying violent jihad. Pakistani experts opine that Madrasas in their country generate Jihadists, particularly to fight against the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir front.

Madrasas, in every part of the Muslim world, have been playing as breeding grounds for jihadists. In most parts of the Muslim world, a Wahhabi-oriented madrasa is the only Islamic seminary open to Muslim youths with impressionable minds. These young madrasa students are invariably indoctrinated and trained to preach their extreme form of religious hatred. From their curriculums, it appears that their prime objective is to wipe out the traditional spiritual Islam and replace it with an extremist, exclusivistic and obscurantist version of Islam. And this is being achieved through indoctrination of an ultra-rigid Wahhabi ideology into the minds of madrasa students.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.