Over the years, I have read considerable material by and about the madrasas and have visited several dozens of them across India and abroad. Although charges about Indian madrasas being involved in training terrorists are unfounded, the allegation that, generally speaking, they teach, preach and foment obscurantist and ultra-reactionary beliefs in the garb of Islam certainly cannot be dismissed easily. Nor can the assertion that, under certain circumstances, such beliefs can indeed lead to extremism and even violence, as the case of Pakistan illustrates, be ignored. Likewise, the argument that such beliefs, projected by the mullahs as normative and binding, constitute a major hurdle to Muslim progress and that they play a vital role in keeping Muslims shackled under the sway of a class of self-serving, patriarchal narrow-minded clerics, largely ignorant of the demands of the contemporary world, has to be recognized as legitimate.
Based on my reading of madrasa-related literature and personal observations, I must state that certain views widely-shared among the ulema regarding such matters as women’s rights and relations with non-Muslims are simply unacceptable in any civilized society and constitute a major challenge to Muslim advancement and to efforts to promote decent relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Reformist Muslims might argue that these views represent a complete distortion of ‘true’ Islam, that they are based largely on fake stories wrongly attributed to the Prophet or patriarchal inventions of the fuqaha, specialists of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, but the mullahs have a ready answer to shut them up: In accordance with a report that they attribute to the Prophet, it is they, so they insist, who are the ‘heirs of the prophets’ (waris-e anbiya), and, hence, entitled to speak on Islam. The madrasas that they run are, as they put it, ‘the fortresses of the faith’ (deen ke qile). Hence, they pompously insist, they have the sole right to arbitrate on Islamic affairs. This they do through their pronouncements and a steady stream of fatwas, which, although technically only opinions, are taken as gospel Islamic truth by their unthinking followers.
Probably the largest traditional madrasa in the entire world, the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband styles itself as the Umm ul-Madaris or ‘The Mother of the Madrasas’, having birthed several thousand madrasas associated with the Deobandi school of thought across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and in various countries home to sizeable South Asian Muslim communities.
Recently, the Deoband madrasa created a storm when it issued a fatwa declaring it unlawful for Muslim women to work outside the home, in places where men and women work together and where they have to talk to men ‘frankly and without the veil’. Surfing the Internet to learn more about Deobandi pronouncements on women, I chanced upon the website of the Dar ul-Ifta, the ‘House of Fatwas’ of the Deoband madrasa, a special section of the website is devoted to fatwas about women’s issues.
A random search of the almost 90 fatwas listed in this section reveals some blood-curdling ‘gems’ of Deobandi ‘wisdom’—fatwas that Muslim women must fully veil themselves, including their faces, in front of non-mahram males (men they could, in theory, possibly marry); that they must strictly observe purdah even in front of other women; that they cannot travel in a car driven by a non-mahram driver; that they cannot drive cars themselves; that, because they have ‘been prohibited from speaking loudly, read out something in melody and talk softly’ in front of males, their voices, too, must be veiled or covered and hence they cannot work as radio announcers; and that family planning is ‘unlawful in Islam.’
Faced with mounting protests from Muslim women against the torrent of anti-women fatwas they have been churning out over the years, the mullahs of Deoband have the temerity to insist in their defence that (their peculiar version of) Islam not just guarantees women’s rights but even stands for the best and most perfect form of gender justice. If imprisoning women in their homes, grudgingly permitting them to step out only under very severe conditions, compelling them to spend their entire lives simply manufacturing children, forcing them to veil from head and face to toe, ‘veiling’ even their voices and thereby totally silencing them—in short, reducing them to invisiblised, servile, repressed and hyper-sexualised beings—is Deobandi-style ‘Islamic justice’, is it any wonder if hardly any educated Muslim women take the Deobandi mullahs seriously? That non-Muslims, in general, are forced to think that Islam stands for raw, untamed patriarchy and male chauvinism? That increasing numbers of Muslims now consider the mullahs are a heavy burden on Muslim society and the major cause for their backwardness? That a whole new class of Muslim women believe that they need to study and interpret Islam from a distinctive feminist perspective, cleansing it from the deep-rooted patriarchal, indeed misogynist, tradition of mullah scholarship?
It is vital for Muslims concerned about their faith and its image and also about their co-religionists and their ability to function in the modern world to take the mullahs by their horns and immerse themselves in the discursive battle to promote more meaningful, humane and just understandings of Islam. There is simply no other way.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore