We present here three interviews of well-known Maulanas over the issues of Madrasas and allegations against them and on inter-communal harmony. The three Maulanas are
- Maulana Asrar ul-Haq Qasmi, a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, is the founder and director of the Delhi-based All-India Ta’limi-o Milli Foundation.
- Maulana Saeed ur-Rahman is the principal of the renowned Nadwat ul-’Ulama madrasa in Lucknow
- Maulana Sayyed Hamid ul-Hasan is the principal of the Jami’a Nazmia, Lucknow, a madrasa catering to the Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’a community
Maulana Asrar ul-Haq Qasmi, a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, is the founder and director of the Delhi-based All-India Ta’limi-o Milli Foundation, an organization working for Muslim educational advancement. He is also the Assistant General Secretary of the All-India Milli Council and a former General Secretary of the Jami’at ul-’Ulama-i Hind.
YS: What do you feel about the allegations being levelled today that madrasas are engaged in spreading hatred against other communities?
MAQ: Madrasas have had a long history in India, of almost a thousand years, and they are thus not a new phenomenon. They see themselves as preserving, transmitting and promoting the Islamic tradition. They also seek to instill in their students certain basic moral values. We believe, in accordance with the teachings of Islam, that God is the Lord of all the worlds and of all creatures. We also believe that God sent the Prophet Muhammad as the mercy for all. But we certainly do not teach our students to hate Hindus, for that would be going against the teachings of our faith. In fact, the Qur’an says that God does not stop you from befriending people of other faiths if they have not persecuted you on account of your faith. It also explicitly lays down that Muslims must not let the enmity of others lead them to swerve from the path of justice. On the other hand, the RSS and its allied organizations run scores of schools where they openly preach hatred for Muslims, Christians and others. Why is it that so few people talk about that and pick on the madrasas instead?
YS: If that is the case, then why do you think there is this organized campaign to defame the madrasas?
MAQ: As I see it, this campaign is motivated simply by political considerations, so that right-wing Hindutva groups can thereby gain the support of the Hindus by spreading baseless rumours about the madrasas. Let me give you a small example to show how successful they have been in poisoning the minds of ordinary Hindus. Some months ago a group of students from the Deoband madrasa were traveling in a train. They started a conversation with some Hindu co-passengers, who, when they came to know that they were from Deoband, made all sorts of wild allegations about the madrasa, based on hat they had been reading in the newspapers. The students then invited them to come with them to Deoband to see the madrasa for themselves. They, however, refused saying that they had heard that there was allegedly an underground chamber in the madrasa where Hindus are routinely killed! Of course there is no such thing in the madrasa, but see how ordinary people’s minds have been so terribly poisoned by Hindutva propaganda!
YS: What would you say about reports of some madrasas in India’s border areas being allegedly used by the Pakistani secret service agencies?
MAQ: There is no evidence to suggest that any of these madrasas is engaged in any sort of conspiracy against the Indian state. Not a single madrasa in India provides military training to its students. Now, there is much talk about madrasas in Rajasthan situated along the border with Pakistan being allegedly used as training grounds for militants. When I first heard of these reports, I met the chief minister and the governor of the state, and then I addressed a press conference. I told the journalists who had come there, almost all of whom were Hindus, that I was going to inspect the madrasas along the border and I invited them to come with me to see if they were really engaged in ‘anti-national’ activities, as was being alleged. I told them that if I saw a single such madrasa I would destroy it myself, with my own hands!After the press conference two journalists, both Hindus, one from the UNI and the other from the Hindu, came along with me to the Barmer district. We went unannounced, so that the journalists could be sure that nothing had been pre-arranged. After touring the madrasas, we found absolutely nothing incriminating at all. Then, one of the journalists asked me if he could address a gathering at a madrasa. He stood on the podium, tears streaming down his face, his hands folded, and said, ‘Please forgive me, I’ve been writing against madrasas all this while, but I had never been to a madrasa before. I’ve now seen for myself the contribution that you are making, with your meagre resources, for promoting education in this area’.
YS: There have been several reports of madrasa students and teachers being harassed by police or intelligence agencies in some parts of the country. What do you have to say about this?
MAQ: Yes, this has happened at several places, and many perfectly innocent people have been wrongly targeted. To give you an example, some time ago, a certain Maulana Atiq Asari, a teacher of ah Ahl-I-Hadith madrasa in Uttar Pradesh, was arrested. The newspapers created a big sensation, claiming that he was an agent of Osama bin Laden. As was later discovered, this was a totally concocted story. Apparently the teacher was arrested for something very different, for some problem in registering ownership of a plot of land. Later, the issue went to the High Court, and he was declared innocent. Meanwhile, his reputation had been totally damaged, with all these wild stories of his allegedly being a terrorist.I’ll give you another instance. Last year intelligence agents came to a village in Hapur to question a young madrasa student, suspecting him of being involved with the Kashmiri militant group Hizb ul-Mujahidin. The boy was arrested and branded as a terrorist, and it was even claimed that he had been involved in a bomb blast in Bhopal in 1986. But at that time he boy would have been only 13 years old. So, we issued a statement challenging this allegation, saying that the charge was extremely doubtful as the boy would have been too young to engage in such an act. We took the matter to the Bhopal High Court, which later declared him innocent. Now, when he as first arrested, the newspapers claimed that he was a dreaded terrorist, but when he was declared innocent no Hindi paper admitted that he was wrongly accused. No wonder then that many people who rely only on such newspapers for information think that madrasa students are all terrorists.
YS: How, then, can this campaign against the madrasas be countered?
MAQ: We must make use of the media to put forward our voices, and to explain to others what exactly the madrasas are all about. One way to do so, as I have suggested to my fellow ‘ulama, is that madrasas must seek to highlight before others the great role played by the ‘ulama in India’s freedom struggle. This is itself a long story, going back to the Shah Abdul Aziz’s fatwa of 1814 against the British, and then carrying on till 1947. All along, the majority of the Indian ‘ulama were strongly opposed to the British and took an active part in the freedom movement, even opposing the Partition of the country. But, today, how many people are aware of these facts? These must be brought to the notice of the wider public.
Also, I have suggested that madrasas must organize functions on the 15 of August every year, on Independence Day, to which they should invite the Hindus, Muslims and others of their localities, as well as government officials. They should arrange for speeches on communal harmony and tolerance and so on, and must also explain to the public what exactly they teach and their sources of income, so that in this way they can counter the misunderstandings that some people might have about them.
Madrasas should also play a leading role in setting up peace committees, comprising responsible people of their locality from all religious communities. These committees must seek to resolve all contentious issues and disputes through negotiation. Also, madrasas must engage in inter-faith dialogue work to promote peace, understanding and good social relations between people of different faiths.
YS: How do you think this agenda of inter-religious dialogue can be proofed?
MAQ: You don’t need to be a profound thinker or theologian to do this! By citing small examples you can make a very deep impact. You must convince people that our country can only survive and prosper if all of us live together in peace, and only if we accept the multi-religious character of our society. Let me give you an example, which I often cite when I talk or write about inter-faith harmony. Some years ago a Saudi plane collided with a Kazakh plane over the village of Charkhi Dadri in Haryana, causing the deaths of all the passengers, now, most of the passengers were Muslims, and there was not a single Muslim in the village. Yet, when I got there the next day I saw the whole village in deep mourning. The local Hindus made elaborate arrangements for providing food to the relatives of the deceased passengers who had gathered there. The village youth helped in lifting the corpses.
I also often refer to another similar incident, but this time the roles were reversed. A fire broke out during a school function at the village of Dabwali, killing several hundred people. Although no Muslims live in the village, at the time of the fire some Muslims had come to the local market to sell rice. When they heard about the fire they hurried to the scene to rescue the people who had been trapped. One of them, a certain Shamim, rushed into the fire seven times, each time rescuing one person. He suffered 75% burns and then died in hospital. Mind you, he must have known that none of those trapped in the fire were Muslims and yet he was willing to sacrifice his life for them. This is what I call the real India, the strength of our India, which people like the RSS-walas want to destroy.
Maulana Saeed ur-Rahman is the principal of the renowned Nadwat ul-’Ulama madrasa in Lucknow. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about allegations madrasas as well as the question of madrasa reforms.
YS. What do you have to say about the current propaganda against madrasas as allegedly being ‘dens of terror”?
MSR. This propaganda is completely baseless. The gates of the madrasas are open to all, and anyone can come at any time to see for himself what we are engaged in. Even if the most hardcore Hindutva leaders, who have been demanding that all madrasas in the country be forcibly closed down, were to visit us, our doors would be open for them. Let them come and see exactly what we are doing, instead of issuing baseless stateÃ‚Âments against us. The madrasas are an open book, and we do not have any hidden activities whatsoever. All that we do is to teach religion to our children. But today powerful groups in the West, in order to promote global American hegemony, have started a vicious propaganda against Islam, Muslims and the madrasas, and unfortunately some people in India, too, are toeing this line.
YS: But what would you say about certain madrasas in Pakistan, espeÃ‚Âcially along the Afghan border, that are said to be involved in terrorist activities?
MSR: The social, historical and political context in Pakistan is very different from that in India, and hence one cannot compare the functioning of madrasas in the two countries. In any case, not all, or even most, Pakistani madrasas have been involved in militant activities. Then, one must see the involveÃ‚Âment of some Pakistani madrasas in militancy as also a reaction to American aggression in neighbouring Afghanistan. As I see it, the people of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and adjacent parts of Afghanistan have a long hisÃ‚Âtorical tradition of internecine tribal warfare, and so it is not the madrasa system as such, but, rather, the historical and culÃ‚Âtural traditions of the people of that area and a complex set of specific political factors, that are responsible for militancy taking root in some madrasas there.
YS: How do you feel the propaganda against madrasas should be combatÃ‚Âed?
MSR: All this has to be done within the confines of the law, using constructive, not destructive, means. The best way to do this is by our own practical example, by producing students of high calibre who can contribute to the community as well as the country as a whole. Madrasas should regularly invite non-Muslims to visit them and freely interact with their teachers and students. In that way, by seeing things for themselves, othÃ‚Âers can learn what are our activities really are. We would even welcome suggestions from them as to how to improve our functioning. We have organised a few such meetings, but I agree we need to do more.
Madrasas can also reach out to people of other faiths through literature. For instance, the Nadwa brings out a journal called Saccha Rabiin Hindi and Fragrance of the East in English, and sends free copies of these to several non-Muslims, including government officials, journalists and social activists, so that they are kept aware of what madrasas are actually all about and of their activities. In this way we are also trying to present before them a balanced perspective on Islam.
YS: Many critics of the madrasa system feel that today’s conditions demand a radical overhaul of their syllabus. What do you feel about this?
MSR: One of the principal aims of the founders of the Nadwa was to reform the traditional madrasa syllabus. They envisaged a new curriculum that would combine the best of the tradiÃ‚Âtional and modern systems of education. The madrasa sylÃ‚Âlabus, you must remember, has never been static, and has always evolved according to changing conditions. Today, when the world is changing so rapidly, we feel that change in the sylÃ‚Âlabus and structure of the madrasa system, too, is imperative. But the sort of change that we want is such that the basic aim of the madrasa training students who are well versed in the Qur’an and the Islamic sciences is preserved and is not diluted in any way.
As we at the Nadwa see it, in order for madrasa students to play an effective role in society they must be well aware of the changing world around them, and that is why we also teach a range of modern subjects as well, including English, Hindi, science, history, geography and so on. This is also necessary for the students as future ‘ulama in order for them to be able to express Islam in terms intelligible to people today. We encourage our students to keep abreast with the developments in the wider world, for which we arrange for several newspapers, in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and English, to be kept in our library. We organise weekly meetings for students, where they discuss contemporary world affairs and other such topics. We have recently started two new departments of computers and journalism, so that our graduates can play a more socially engaged and enlightened role as community and religious leaders. We have also introduced a one-year course in comparative religions for graduates of our madrasa. Since we live in a plural society we all should know at least something about the religious beliefs and practices of our fellow countrymen. This is also important in order to promote inter-faith dialogue and to correct misunderstandings that others might have about Islam. We would encourage other madrasas to follow our example in this regard and revise their curriculum on similar lines.
Maulana Sayyed Hamid ul-Hasan is the principal of the Jami’a Nazmia, Lucknow, a madrasa catering to the Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’a community. He is one of the leading Shi’a ulama of India, having been educated at Najaf Ashraf under the well-known Shi’a mujtahid, Ayatollah Agha Khui.
YS: What do you have to say about the current propaganda against the madrasas as ‘dens of terror”?
MSH: The madrasa system, as such, is devoted simply to the preservation and promotion of the Islamic tradition. There has been no radical change in the madrasa syllabus in India for decades, if not centuries. So how and why is it that suddenly people have started branding the madrasas as ‘dens of terror? If at all there was any truth in these allegations then how come no one made such allegations ten years ago or before?
YS: Shi’a-Sunni conflicts are still acute in several places, including Lucknow. How can this be solved?
MSH: As I see it, the ‘ulama, both Shi’a as well as Sunni, ought to be in the forefront of efforts to
improve Shi’a-Sunni relations, by promoting serious and peaceful dialogue so that we can understand each other. I strongly feel the need for unity and understanding between followers of the different groups among the Muslims, but I regret to say that the ulama in general have not made any major moves in this regard so far they seem too scared or reluctant to come out of their narrow confines. Now, here at the Jami’a Nazmia, we have tried to reach out to the Sunni ‘ulama, by inviting some of them to come and meet with us and discuss various issues, and I must say that we have registered some success in this regard, although not as much as we would have wished.
YS: How have madrasas responded to the demands being voiced from several quarters for the ‘modernisation’ of their curriculum? In particular, how have they reacted to government offers of financial assistance in return for including modern subjects in their syllabus?
MSH: I cannot speak for other madrasas, but as for the Jami’a Nazmia, we are now teaching both religious as well as modern subjects. We follow the syllabus prescribed by the government-run Allahabad Madrasa Board, which includes both types of subjects. We teach all the modern subjects taught in the regular school system till the sixth grade level. The Board pays for the salaries of some of our teachers. We do not feel that this leaves us open to government interference we at least have not experienced this. Now, as far modernisation is concerned, we have a policy of encouraging our students to simultaneously enrol in regular universities. Almost all the students of our madrasa at the final level have done or are doing a graduation course from Lucknow University, mostly in the Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Islamic Studies Departments. Some of our graduates are now teaching at the Aligarh Muslim University, and others are even working in Islamic centres abroad, including Sweden, Norway and America. Some ‘ulama may think that teaching modern subjects would negatively impact on the faith of the students or trap them in the snares of the world, but I must say that this fear is completely misplaced. Unlike in several other madrasas, we actively encourage our students to regularly read newspapers and magazines so that they know what is happening in the world around them. If they remain ignorant of the world and of contemporary issues, how can they provide proper leadership to the community?
YS: It is often argued that in their teaching of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) madrasas generally focus on issues that are of little contemporary relevance. What do you have to say about this?
MSH: At the Jami’a Nazmia we do use traditional books of fiqh so that the students get a good grounding in traditional methods of dealing with various issues, learning how the ‘ulama of the past interpreted and understood the shari’ah. But we also teach books on modern issues, mostly written by modern Iranian ‘ulama and mujtahids. In the Ja’fari school of fiqh which we follow, the doors of ijtihad have never been closed, and so we insist on the continuing necessity of ijtihad, performed by a qualified mujtahid. Our students are also encouraged to read books written by modern ‘ulama scholars such as ‘Ali Shari’ati and Allama Murtaza Muttahari and so on in order to understand how Islam can be understood and expressed in modern terms. We don’t stick just to old books, as many people wrongly imagine.
YS: What role do you think madrasas and their ‘ulama should play in promoting inter-faith dialogue?
MSH: I feel that religious leaders of all communities have a vital role to play in this regard, particularly since relations between Hindus and Muslims are so strained in our country today. We in India have a purpose and use for every sort of rubbish, but we neglect our most precious resource religion and use it, for the most part, for destructive, instead of constructive, purposes. Now, India is not like Pakistan or Iran, where almost all people follow one religion. We have so many religions here, so we must actively seek to understand our own religions in such a way as to promote inter-communal amity. It is the duty of religious leaders to take a lead in promoting inter-faith dialogue. As for myself, I try in my own small way to do this when I address gatherings.
Recently, in the month of Muharrum, I addressed a ten-day majlis specifically on the issue of jihad, in which several non-Muslims, including the Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, participated. I stressed the true meaning of jihad, which is striving in the path of God. Jihad does not mean killing innocent people, as is wrongly supposed. I quoted the Qur’an, which says that if a non-Muslim comes to you and seeks shelter, it is your duty to protect him. You should convey God’s message to him and then send him to a safe place. The Qur’an also says that Muslims should struggle for the rights of all persecuted people, not just of Muslims alone. I gave the example of Hatim Tai’s daughter. When, after a battle, she was arrested and brought before the Prophet, she told him that her father, who had died before the Prophet had declared his prophethood, used to help the poor and distressed, although, of course, he was not a Muslim. This so touched the Prophet that he ordered that she be immediately released. Then again, I quoted the story of the Christian priests of Najran, who came to Medina to debate with the Prophet. If the Prophet had ordered all non-Muslims to be killed, I asked, how come the Christian delegation came to Medina? The Christians debated with the Prophet on various religious matters, but in the end did not accept Islam, and they returned home safe and sound. If Islam really insisted on killing all non-Muslims how and why did the Prophet allow them to return?
In the majlis sessions I insisted that the greatest power in the world is love, not brute physical power. I commented that although religions have their doctrinal differences, their basic message is one and the same that is, there must be no bloodshed of innocents in the name of religion. If at all this happens, you can be sure that the person who such an act is not really religious. I made much the same argument in another meeting I recently addressed, at the Christian College in Lucknow, at a conference on religion and terrorism. I feel that religious leaders must go out and address such mixed gatherings so that the message gets across to a wider audience. We can’t afford to stay cocooned in our madrasas and temples any more, hoping that the world will change on its own.
As I see it, the greatest barrier to inter-faith dialogue is ignorance of each other, which then leads to hatred and misunderstandings. I recently suggested at a meeting held to discuss the communal problem that the government and the mass media must play a pro-active role in promoting mutual understanding between different religious communities. When a religious festival of a certain community is being celebrated, I suggested, television and radio companies must invite leaders from all religious groups and get them to say a few words on the occasion, after, of course, passing this through a censorship board to weed out anything objectionable. We have the National Integration Council which should be doing this sort of work, but actually it’s proved to be worse than useless some sahib on the Council gets a fancy car with a red light on it and the only thing he does is say a few seemingly comforting words after people have been massacred in a riot.
YS: Are any efforts being made in the madrasas themselves to encourage their students to play a role in promoting inter-communal harmony?
MSH: There don’t seem to be any organised efforts as such, but some individual madrasa teachers do play a role in such activities in their own personal capacity, and this naturally impacts on their students. I feel that we must train our students so that they learn how to interact with people of other faiths not simply for the sake of telling them about Islam, but also so that they can work together for a better and more peaceful society. I feel that dialogue is important for its own sake to clear up misunderstandings that people have about each other and their religions, and it should not be motivated by any hidden missionary agenda. So, when I interact with people of other faiths I don’t do so with the intention of converting them or denigrating their religion. Rather, I interact with them in order to learn from them, to look at, their good points. After all, everyone has the choice to follow the religion of his own choice. That’s his own business and his affairs are with God.
I feel that we need to study other religions, because this will go a long way in promoting inter-communal harmony. Thus, when I say that I have studied some of the Hindu scriptures, and on the basis of that have come to the conclusion that Hinduism does stress moral values, I can come closer to my Hindu friends. But if I say that such values are found only in ‘ Islam, not only am I wrong, but I would also provoke hatred and conflict. So, I feel that there is a crucial need for us to study comparative religions, but this should be for the sake of promoting better relations with others, and not for refuting people of other faiths or creating conflicts with them. It is only through decent behaviour and good morals (ikhlaq) and not through heated debates (munazara) that we can actually resolve our differences. When you study other faiths you must first cleanse your mind of preconceived notions, or else you will not really learn anything at all.