By JIM YARDLEY
On opposite sides of a dusty road, thousands of Muslim students in this remote farming town are preparing for very different futures. On one side, inside a traditional Islamic seminary, teenage boys in skullcaps are studying ancient texts to become imams. On the other, students are hunched before computers in college classrooms, learning to become doctors, pharmacists and engineers.
The distance between them is about 50 feet, but it could be five centuries. In the middle is a bearded Muslim cleric, Mullah Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, who has spent the past decade bridging the divide between traditional and modern education for Muslims. From his main campuses here in Akkalkuwa, he has built a network of religious schools, hospitals and colleges with more than 150,000 students across the country, and earned a reputation among India’s Muslim clerics as a reformer.
His success here led to his selection in January as vice chancellor, or rector, of India’s most prestigious and influential Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom, in the city of Deoband. Darul Uloom is known for its Orthodox rebukes of modernity, and the mullah is now in a struggle for its control.
Ordinarily, an internal dispute among Muslim clerics over an Islamic school, or madrasa, would attract limited attention in India. But Mullah Vastanvi has stirred a debate among Indian Muslims about the need for reform in Islamic society while tapping into the frustrations of those eager for religious leaders more attuned to the modern world.
“People are tired of the old ways,” said Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya, an Urdu-language Muslim newspaper. “People want development. People want growth. We need people like Vastanvi who can be a symbol of the fight to bring Muslims into the modern world.”
Founded in 1866, Darul Uloom has trained thousands of imams who, in turn, have founded madrasas throughout South Asia and Africa as part of the Deobandi Islamic Movement. Deobandis advocate a conservative form of Islam, and some Deobandi mosques in Pakistan and Afghanistan became radicalized in recent decades.
Many members of the Taliban call themselves Deobandis, even though the Indian leaders of Darul Uloom have strongly condemned them, rejected extremism and organized meetings of Islamic teachers to denounce terrorism. During India’s independence movement, Deobandis supported Gandhi and later rejected joining a partitioned Pakistan.
Today, Darul Uloom is better known in India for issuing so many provocative fatwas, or religious opinions, that it is often derided in the Indian news media as a “fatwa factory.” These opinions, often ignored by mainstream Indian Muslims, have included edicts against women wearing blue jeans; against women and men working together in offices; and against the practice of collecting interest on bank deposits.
Mullah Vastanvi had already proposed reviewing the fatwas when he became embroiled in controversy. In an interview in the Urdu press, later repeated in the English-language media, he was quoted as saying that Indian Muslims needed to focus on economic progress and move beyond the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which Hindus rampaged through Muslim areas, leaving about 1,000 people dead.
In media accounts, he was also quoted as condoning Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, who has long been accused of abetting the violence against Muslims. But the mullah said that his comments were misrepresented and that he had never given a “clean chit” to Mr. Modi.
“My statement was presented in a distorted manner,” Mullah Vastanvi said. “I do not say forget the past. I told the journalist that to my mind, today Muslims should move forward in education and business. If we stay fixated on the old things, how can we move forward?”
A media firestorm erupted, as rivals attacked Mullah Vastanvi in the Urdu press in what his allies regarded as a smear campaign. The mullah responded by offering his resignation but then received an unexpected outpouring of support: several media commentators argued in his favor and blamed the conflict on an internal struggle between his supporters and the powerful Madani family, which has long dominated Darul Uloom.
In late February, the school’s governing council appointed a committee to investigate the controversy and placed daily operations under a temporary rector until a final decision is made.
Meanwhile, many young Muslim clerics, including some from Darul Uloom, have since rallied behind Mullah Vastanvi as a symbol of reform.
“Most of the students are very happy with the appointment,” said Mohammad Asif, 22, a student at Darul Uloom. “Some powerful people did not like the progressive ideas of Mullah Vastanvi. They felt threatened by his taking over.
“He talks of good education, modern education. He is doing good things for the Muslim community.”
India has at least 161 million Muslims, the third largest number of any country, but Muslims remain a largely marginalized minority in a Hindu-majority nation, disadvantaged economically and educationally.
Education is regarded as a critical issue, though often ignored by many clerics. Darul Uloom offers courses in English and computers but the rest of the curriculum is drawn from the ancient Islamic texts. Only a small percentage of Muslim students attend madrasas in India, yet scholars say these theological schools exert broad influence on Muslim society.
Yoginder Sikand, a scholar who has written extensively about Indian madrasas, said Darul Uloom trained students in an ancient worldview, using centuries-old commentaries to teach the Koran or other texts, rather than more contemporary analyses that try to apply Islam to modern concerns. “The syllabus is not reflective of contemporary demands,” he said. “It doesn’t equip students with the knowledge of the contemporary world.”
Mullah Vastanvi is hardly a wild-eyed liberal. He was born in Gujarat, trained in a Deobandi madrasa and arrived in Akkalkuwa three decades ago, where he established a one-room religious school with six students using the same syllabus as Deoband. But as his school grew, populated by children from poor families, the mullah said he realized that students also needed a way to earn a living. He began including training for imams in tailoring and other skills.
But his biggest step came when he started a parallel system for so-called modern education, soliciting contributions from Muslim business leaders to build vocational institutes and, later, certified colleges of medicine, engineering and pharmacy. Many Muslim families struggle to afford mainstream Indian universities, which often demand large advance payments and tuition; in Akkalkuwa, advance payments are not required.
“If you want to move ahead in the world, you have to go where the world is moving,” Mullah Vastanvi said. “And education is critical for that.”
To some secular Muslims, the attention on madrasas is misplaced. Abusaleh Shariff, an economist and co-author of a major 2006 government report on Muslims in India, said resources, attention and energy should be focused on government schools where a majority of Muslim students attend class with Hindus and others.
“We don’t want ghettoism in education,” he argued. “We want secular education.”
But at Akkalkuwa, Mullah Vastanvi seems to be trying to find a balance between Islam and modern schooling.
“Vastanvi tells us this is the era of globalization and competition,” said Mohammad Farooque, a mechanical engineering student. “When you are here, he says try to do your best. Then you will progress.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
Source: New York Times