June 16, 2021
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'Unfair And Unsubstantiated'

The leading scholar and activist on the controversy and propaganda regarding madrasas and the need for reform.

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'Unfair And Unsubstantiated'

Asghar Ali Engineer is the director of the Mumbai-based Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society and the Institute for Islamic Studies. He has written extensively on Muslim issues and has been in the forefront of the struggle against fascism and inter-communal conflict in India. He spoke to Yoginder Sikand on madrasas in contemporary India.

Hindutva groups and sections of the government and the Indian press have started a massive campaign against the madrasas, branding them as centers of obscurantism and as breeding grounds for 'terrorists'. What do you have to say about this?

This propaganda against the madrasas in India is unfair and unsubstantiated. It is nothing short of motivated political propaganda. It is a calculated effort to seek to 'prove' that Muslims are 'terrorists' and that they are not faithful to India, so that the advocates of Hindutva can pose as saviours of the Hindus and grab their votes.

It is a complete travesty of truth to say that all or even most madrasas in India are centers of pro-Pakistani elements or agents of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). If there is any truth in the allegations against the madrasas, then why does not Advani publish a white paper on the subject? 95% or even more of the Indian madrasas have absolutely nothing to do with the ISI.

Most madrasas only impart basic education of Islam to children. How on earth can these children be agents of the ISI? As for the larger madrasas, these are basically centers of higher Islamic learning. One can differ with them on their syllabus and methods of teaching, but one cannot accuse them of engaging in any sort of political activity.

But, for instance, the Deoband madrasa, the largest in South Asia, does have a long history of political involvement.

That is true, but it is important to note that the vast majority of the Deobandi scholars were fierce opponents of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan. Instead, they strongly supported a united India. In the 1940s, the head of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, wrote extensively against the Pakistan movement.

In his book Muttahida Qaumiyat Aur Islam ('Composite Nationalism and Islam'), he argued that the Muslims and Hindus of India were one nation, and that religion alone could not be the basis of nationalism. Hence, he argued, Muslims must work along with Hindus, for a free, united India, where all communities would have equal rights.

Has there been any change in this political position of the madrasas after 1947?

I don't know of a single madrasa of higher learning in India which is pro-Pakistan. Some madrasas may indeed be critical of the policies of the Indian government on issues related to the Muslims, such as Muslim employment and representation or massacres of Muslims, but by no stretch of imagination are they pro-Pakistan or anti-India.

There might be a few small madrasas along the India-Nepal border, which, unknown to them, have been used by Pakistani agencies for their own purposes, but if this is at all the case these must be very small in number. In any case, how can you expect the young children who study in these madrasas to be employed as intelligence agents?

How do you see the question of reform in the madrasa system?

I have been critical of the dars-i-nizami, the syllabus which is used in most of the Indian madrasas. This syllabus is, in my view, outdated and needs to be revised. Madrasas still teach subjects like ancient Greek philosophy and Ptolemian astronomy, which they wrongly consider to be somehow part of the Islamic tradition. At a certain stage in history perhaps these subjects were useful, but are no longer so and so should be done away with.

I am not alone in saying this-many 'ulama hold the same position. In place of the old and outdated 'rational sciences' (ma'qulat), modern social and natural sciences and humanities should be taught, as well as comparative religions. In this way, the graduates of the madrasas would be better informed about the conditions of the modern world and hence would be in a better position to give their legal opinions (fatawa) on matters related to Islamic jurisprudence.

Christian seminaries are doing this today. Catholic priests are studying, besides their own religion, subjects like history, economics, sociology, political science and comparative religions, and so are better equipped to handle the challenges that modernity places before us all. In medieval times, leading Muslim 'ulama did likewise. Faced with the challenge of Greek philosophy, they mastered it, and medieval madrasas produced leading Muslim philosophers, scientists, logicians and mathematicians, who were also pious Muslims themselves.

So, there is no reason why the 'ulama of today shouldn't do the same, and learn modern subjects. Instead of blindly opposing the madrasas, I feel one should think of ways to creatively work with them for reform. After all, for many Muslims, especially the poor, madrasas serve a valuable function of providing free education and literacy.

Why do you think Indian madrasas today give so much stress to the intricacies of jurisprudence (fiqh), almost neglecting other subjects?

The reason for this is that Islam first spread among peoples who had had no well-developed tradition of law. The Arab tribes had no regular system of government. That is why the early Muslim scholars paid such close attention to developing a system of jurisprudence.

However, today, most traditional 'ulama insist on the need to blindly follow past jurisprudential precedent (taqlid), while ignoring what the many early 'ulama were so particular about -- the need to exercise independent judgment (ijtihad), based on a thorough understanding of the principles of fiqh ('usul-i-fiqh), which, unfortunately, are not much stressed in the madrasas today.

So, you have 'ulama today who would talk about the great rewards of using a tooth-brush (miswak), because the Prophet used it to clean his teeth, and would write entire books on the how long the tooth-brush should be and from which tree it should be made etc., while they ignore the fact that the world has moved on to the age of toothpaste.

Or, for that matter, many 'ulama will pen tracts on the amount of zakat (poor due) that should be paid on a camel or a goat, while they forget that pastoral societies are fast disappearing off the face of the earth. The point is that many traditional 'ulama, by remaining wedded to past jurisprudential precedent (taqlid), have ignored the need for ijtihad and for approaching the question of fiqh through a study of its basic legal principles ('usul).

But surely there are many 'ulama who stress the need today for ijtihad in order to come to terms with the demands of modernity?

Such 'ulama, in India at least, are few, and the vast majority still insist on the need for taqlid of the particular school of law (mazhab) to which they belong. Forget about ijtihad-i-mutlaq (allowing for ijtihad by choosing an opinion from among the existing mazhabs), many of them would not even allow for ijtihad-i-muqayyad (ijtihad within a particular mazhab).

I agree that there is no need for ijtihad as far as basic beliefs and ritual practices ('ibadat)are concerned, but surely in other matters, such as social relations (mu'amilat), Islam does allow for the exercise of ijtihad. Unfortunately, we are yet to see the emergence of 'ulama brave enough to talk of ijtihad in these matters, which is really the need of the hour today.

Instead of blind taqlid of the existing mazhabs I say there is no reason why there should be no new mazhabs and schools of thought attuned to today's conditions.

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